Interview with Marta Breen
Interview with the Women in Battle writer.
Regarding the Portuguese edition of Kvinner i kamp: 150 år med frihet, likhet, søsterskap, we intrerviewed writer Marta Breen.
Nuno Pereira de Sousa: Are you surprised when some people say that liberation, equality, and women’s rights are not a nowadays concern in the called Western World? What do you say to people who take these rights for granted?
Marta Breen: Yes, I find it surprisingly naïve to believe that we have achieved full equality to day. It is also important to remember that previous victories are not carved in stone, and hard-won rights can be lost again. Unfortunately, this is what seem to be happening in some parts of the world right now, so we can´t just lean back and relax.
NPS: What are your major concerns nowadays about those subjects in Norway and in Europe?
MB: At the moment, we are experiencing setbacks in developments in the field of gender equality, even in countries that have previously been known to be more progressive. Turkey, Poland and Hungary are some examples. In many European countries, right-wing populist parties have had great support in recent years, and these are actively working against gay rights and feminism. Many of these authoritarian patriarch leaders also work hard to increase opposition to kindergartens and gender research, and they want to maintain more traditional gender roles. Women in Poland have now lost their right to have a safe abortion. And in some countries the government wants to pull out of the Istanbul-convention, which has been a very important tool to fight violence against women. We find this very concerning.
NPS: When the Margaret Atwood’s book The Handmais’s Tale first came out, it was considered a non-believable fantasy. Do you believe some of the things it depicted can easily happen nowadays in the Western World?
MB: Yes, I believe that Margaret Atwood’s book is quite relevant today, unfortunately. In my latest book “How to be a feminist” (Cappelen Damm, 2019) I write about a political demonstration in 2019, when a group of Norwegian feminists gathered in Oslo centrum, wearing red robes and white hoods like the maids from Atwood’s novel. The reason the activists marched in these costumes was to protest against the Conservative government’s proposed tightening of the abortion law. Since 1978, Norway has had a liberal abortion law allowing the woman to decide for herself if she wants to terminate her pregnancy until the twelfth week. Today’s government, however, has repeatedly put the abortion law on the table during negotiations with the country’s Christian party, who would like to rewrite the entire law and change this right. However, since they have no majority, they are instead trying to introduce rules that make the abortion process difficult in various ways. Luckily they have not succeeded. The most frightening thing about “The Handmaid’s Tale” was not the torture, the rape and the evil, but the many flashbacks to the time the patriarchs were tightening their grip. Because it depicts a time very similar to ours. The women in the story didn’t lose their rights overnight, it happened in small drips. A new rule here, a new rule there. A ban here, a ban there. People shook their heads, barely able to believe what they were hearing; perhaps not taking it it too seriously because – “They can’t possibly mean that? Seriously?” – before continuing with their daily lives as best they could, under the increasingly stringent conditions. Some felt that Norwegian feminists had gone too far by wearing costumes from “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Really, isn’t Norway one of the top countries when it comes to equality? Yes, we are. And we will continue to be. We go on demonstrations to show that we are vigilant; that we are aware of what’s going on. We demonstrate to avoid standing there afterwards asking ourselves: “How could this happen, right in front of our eyes?” We demonstrate because we can. And we demonstrate on behalf of those who no longer can. We need to recognize the backlash and misogyny hidden in this praise for “strengthening the nuclear family and traditional values.” It is more important than ever that feminists stand together across national borders.
NPS: Are you surprised by the international success of all your books? On your lectures abroad, how did you handle with so many realities regarding equality and women’s rights?
MB: Yes, it was surprising and wonderful to experience that the book became an international hit. I have learned so much the last couple of years, both about the situation of women’s rights in other countries, and about how people in other countries regards us Scandinavians. When I give lectures abroad, I often focuses on the specific heroines from the country I am visiting. For an example, when I was speaking in an English school I talked a lot about the British suffragettes, when I visited a German school, I told them the story of Clara Zetkin and in Russia I focused on Alexandra Kollontai. After these speeches, the audience often have a lot of questions about how gender politics works in Norway and they talk about their own situation, so we learn a lot from each other.
NPS: Is the term “feminism” dangerous nowadays?
MB: The term “feminism” should not be considered dangerous in itself, because it is simply the name for the fight against gender discrimination. As a feminist, you do not want a person’s gender to limit their freedom or their opportunities in this world. It is as simple as that. But of course, this movement can be a powerful force. I believe feminism actually could be called history’s most successful revolution. Few movements have created major changes in society in such a short time. Just over a hundred years ago, women had neither the right to education, to work, to divorce nor to vote in political elections. All this was reserved for men. Historically, feminism has been about modernization. The women’s movement has been constantly working to adapt old and work out new norms, traditions and ways of thinking to modern times and modern people. Some will always fight when traditions are broken, but they usually lose in the long run. The world is rolling forward, slowly but surely.
NPS: If you believe fighting for women’s right must be a continue struggling, why do you think there are feminism waves? Do people forget about it between the different waves?
MB: A lot of women work with these issues all the time, whether there is a “feminist wave” going on or not. I believe that these waves occur when the rest of the society is ready to listen. Sometime we hit the spirit of the times, and then things start to move.
NPS: Do you think the International Women Day lost its political significance to become more similar to a Valentine’s Day?
MB: As a Norwegian feminist, I’m used to March 8th being seen as a day to commemorate political struggle. The Norwegian papers are all week full of articles about gender and equality. Women in their thousands march through the streets to highlight current issues and to celebrate victories that have already been won. The contrast to all this was enormous when I visited countries where Women’s Day is treated like a combination of Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day. In many places, March 8 is seen as an opportunity to give the woman in your life a box of chocolates, a bunch of flowers or maybe a pink postcard with a small declaration of love written on it. “Thanks for all you’ve done this year,” for example. Personally, I’d be quite annoyed if a man gave me heart-shaped chocolates on Women’s Day But in general, it´s my impression that the International Women Day has become more relevant. More and more people are opening their eyes this dangerous development and people have started protesting in the streets all over the world. In recent years, millions of women have taken part in demonstrations against Donald Trump’s attitudes to women, and record-breaking numbers of women have gone on strike in countries like Spain, Chile and Argentina.
NPS: Do you think gender roles are an important issue nowadays in Western World? If so, how that can be changed?
MB: Yes, I believe that the strict gender roles still are a problem all around the world. Traditional gender roles are a major obstacle to worldwide development. In many poor countries, women are quite simply a badly utilized resource. But it is also an important issue in the Western World. We know that both women and men are happier when the gender role patterns are softened. In the Nordic regions we have come a long way: Modern fathers do their share of everything from diaper changing and cooking, to parenting and cleaning the house – and they are our allies in the fight against sexism. Nevertheless, historically it has been difficult for many men to associate themselves with the word “feminist.” This could be because they associate being “feminine” with being weak (as it has been throughout most of our cultural history) and as a result choose to distance themselves from the movement. Boys still grow up fearing they will be seen as “feminine” or “girlish” because of femininity’s associations with weakness. “Gay” is still the most commonly used insult in the schoolyard. And in many countries the idea of the invincible macho man is still very much alive – you know, like the political leader riding bare-chested on horseback while bragging about fighting a tiger… There’s much more work to be done. It’s particularly difficult to break away from gender roles. What’s more important is that we feminists are aware of this in our own communities. Because if we want a more flexible female ideal, then we also need to support a more flexible male ideal. This requires the men in our lives to feel confident we won’t laugh at them, dismiss them, or be turned off if they show their emotions or weaknesses. And of course, we must also support the political work for gender equality which addresses men’s problems. We must continue to fight for the expansion of gender roles, because unfortunately, there are strong forces pulling in the opposite direction.
NPS: Are you familiar with the Portuguese policy and day-by-day living regarding equality and women’s rights? If so, how do you compare it with Norway?
MB: Unfortunately, I am not updated on the details of the equality situation in Portugal. But I know that Norway is known to have a very progressive politics when it comes to gender equality, for an example when it comes to participation in the labour market. In 2019, the rate of women’s participation in the labour market was only 5 percent lower than that of men and women’s participation has played a key role in our economic growth. One of the reasons for this is that our government-subsidised kindergartens and publicly funded parental leave for both mothers and fathers, have made it easier to combine work with family life.
NPS: You have several books together with the illustrator Jenny Jordahl. How did the writer/illustrator relationship evolve through the years?
MB: We believe that it is a big advantage to have a similar sense of humour. We almost always immediately know what parts of a story we are most drawn to, and how we want to tell it. Our process of work is very smooth and conflict free. And we give each other a lot of space: we trust each other’s decisions.
NPS: If you had to described Jenny with only one word, what word would it be?
MB: I would describe Jenny as “warm”. She shows enthusiasm for other people and makes them feel comfortable.
We also asked Jenny Jordahl to describe Marta Breen in only one word.
Jenny Jordahl: I think “Sharp”. She makes the smartest and funniest observations I know.
NPS: What were the major differences between writing comics and your non-comics books?
MB: The main difference is the collaboration-part of it. When I write my other books, I am very much alone in the process and everything goes a bit slower. When I make books with Jenny, we often work quite fast and have more fun. I need to do both.
NPS: Some publishers think comics is just a way of approaching a subject lightly and that this way even younger readers can read them. Do you think this book deals with the topics in a too lightly mood?
MB: No, I believe that we need all kinds of books on topics like this: Academic books, analytical ones, funny books and books for children. In my opinion, our books have a good balance between the comical parts and the more serious side.
NPS: Why did you decide to do a comic book, instead of another non-comics one and what advantages do you think this medium can bring to the subject?
MB: I have written a number of different kinds of books earlier, also non-illustrated books about feminism. But I really like to write comics, especially if the theme is a bit serious. I believe that this form makes it easier for the reader to learn, and easier to get engaged in the story. I´ve always read a lot of graphic novels, both by Nordic writers and of course the big international successes like Maus and Perspepolis. I wanted to make comics like these myself, but I absolutely cannot draw. I´m hopeless. So, when I was in the process of making a feminist guidebook for young adults in 2015, I initiated a comic-contest for female illustrators, and that was how Jenny came along.
NPS: The Portuguese edition of Kvinner i kamp: 150 år med frihet, likhet, søsterskap had NORLA – Norwegian Literature Abroad support. In your opinion, what other measures should Norway do to promote Norwegian Literature in other countries?
MB: NORLA works in many different ways, both with financial support, but they also work to promote Norwegian authors abroad, they make events, invite international press and much more. So, we are very lucky to have such an organization. Since we were chosen as the Guest of honour in Frankfurt last year, the literature scene in Norway have been strongly focused on export.
NPS: As we are sure it occurred in many other countries, your book is the only Norwegian comics book published in recent years in Portugal. This fact is a surprise to you?
MB: The comic book community in Norway is not very large, but we do have a few international names such as Jason and Steffen Kverneland. Maybe they are released in Portugal? They have both been an inspiration for the rest of us. We are also very fond of the Swedish comic book author Liv Strömquist.
NPS: A (also) a comics writer, do you feel any responsibility of being a kind of the Norwegian ambassador of Norwegian comics abroad in these countries that do not publish Norwegian comics?
MB: It would have been lovely if our book could open some doors for other Norwegian comic book authors abroad. There is actually quite a few good female authors at the Norwegian scene at the moment, like Nora Dåsnes, Malin Falch and Anja Dahle Øverbye.
NPS: If this book would be produced 10 years from now, what chapter would you like not to have to write regarding the 2020-2029 decade?
MB: We believe that the #metoo have been an essential movement and eye-opener all around the world, we hope that this particular form of discrimination against women will become much less widespread in the years to come.
© Photo Marta Breen: Åsmund Holien Mo | © Photo Jenny Jordahl: Guri Pfeiffer