In this edited interview, Gwen Ansell speaks to Jenny Wrangborg, poet and former chair of the Swedish Association of Working-class Writers, about why workers need to write their own stories.
Gwen Ansell: Tell us about the Swedish Association of Working-class Writers.
Jenny Wrangborg: The Swedish Association of Working-class Writers aims to encourage and inspire authorship based on work and class experiences. It was formed in 1990 by a few authors from the north of Sweden. It’s since grown to about 400 members: established authors, aspiring writers and readers interested in the genre.
We bring together writers and readers interested in literature about working conditions and society from an underdog perspective. We run writing courses, reading nights, meetings with guest authors, and the magazine KLASS. We also publish our own anthologies and participate in book fairs and other public events. We have an annual scholarship for a promising writer who hasn’t yet been published.
We hope to help new authors both reach an audience and develop the Swedish tradition of working class literature because we know these stories are important. I started writing, feeling my reality as a cook was invisible. Here in Sweden, the prevailing narrative is that we no longer live in a class society: everything is largely equal. But that’s a bizarre assumption when you work in a trade where it’s always someone else deciding if and when you can go to the toilet, how fast you can work, and so on.
Sometimes when you read magazines, you get the feeling that you’re the last worker. They discuss how hard it is to be wealthy; how much taxes the upper class must pay, and how hard it is to find good employees. Reading a newspaper is like living in a parallel reality, where the solution to all society’s problems seems to be worsening the conditions of those of us who live and work at the bottom.
When I was touring the labour movement last autumn talking about my last book (which deals with the conditions of people working at checkouts, shops and warehouses) I repeatedly heard from workers that their friends don’t believe them when they describe their conditions: ‘It can’t be that bad in Sweden.’ The image of the well-regulated Swedish labour market no longer matches reality. But instead of changing the picture as conditions worsen, we’re told we’re exaggerating.
If we don’t put words to our experiences, they exist only as occupational injuries to our backs and small headlines about fatal accidents and poverty rates.
Literature can tell a different story to the one we see on the news and during political campaigns. And it can do this eye-to-eye with the reader, without the often locked-in positions of political parties. Showing our reality is important because it’s hard to change a reality when people don’t believe it exists or can be changed.
GA: What’s the impact of this worker writing?
JW: I don’t think it’s possible to say that literature by itself can change something. But together with the political struggle, I believe literature can inspire us to understand things about us and our society. That can lead to real change if it’s channelled into political action. I’ve had people contact me after reading my books, saying that’s inspired them to join the union and do something about their situation at work. That action is the important one.
GA: Please tell us about how your writing fits into the story of your life.
JW: I started writing at 14, and I’ve always written about things that move me, like class injustices. So when I started working in a kitchen it was natural to describe what happened at work too. But it took a long time before I identified as a writer: years after my first book was released. I’d done hundreds of public readings and sold thousands of books. I think it’s important to say that our experiences from our workplaces are valuable, we do important work and we know best how to run them. Being introduced as a writer says something different about your experiences from being introduced as a cook, and up until a year ago – when I no longer had time to work full time in a kitchen, I preferred to be called ‘Jenny Wrangborg, poet and cook’.
GA: And how does the story of your writing fit with the story of your activism?
JW: I’ve been a political activist since I was 16, and was active in my trade union on different levels all the time I was working full time in kitchens. Since then, I’ve continued being part of the movement: through my literature, as chairwoman of the Swedish Association of Working-class Writers, and through union work in periods when I’ve been working in kitchens. Most of my readings are for the political movement. The purpose of my writing is not only to describe reality but also to change it, so being part of struggles is very important to me.
GA: If South African trade unionists wanted to create ways for union members to be writers, what have you learnt from your experience that might be useful?
JW: I believe it’s important for the labour movement to work with cultural projects. Writing is an effective way of getting people to think about their own situation, so literature isn’t just for the reader but also for the one who writes. The Swedish author Henrik Johansson writes in the Guide to Rewriting Class (on writing about class experiences) that writing about your everyday life or background gets you into the habit of putting words together about employment, salary, unemployment and norms. You can take this skill back into your workplace or organisation.
Writing makes you grow. You write down diffuse feelings and thoughts, understand what’s going on, what doesn’t feel right and what’s unfair. When you read it to others, you can see common problems and find common solutions, recognising others in yourself. Based on this, you can create a context to fight for your interests, change your working conditions and tackle other political issues.
Today people often describe everything from unemployment to poor working conditions as individual problems. It’s the story of capitalism that everyone can choose the life they want to live, and that’s why it’s also your own fault if you’re unemployed, have poor pay and insecure working conditions. Working class literature breaks this perspective, portraying collective problems and collective solutions.
For me, writing The Kitchen became an eye-opener. By writing about what was close – the time clock, the boss and colleagues – I also discovered everything else: the system, exhaustion, solidarity and opportunities for change.
Initiating writing projects can strengthen a labour movement. It doesn’t need to be difficult: a good start might be getting authors who already write about these issues to hold a workshop at a regular union meetings; to use poems to open a meeting, and so on. The important thing is to make everyone see that their experience is important and worth being turned into literature. In the Swedish labour movement, [the equivalent of about a] rand of each membership fee annually goes towards cultural projects, which means a lot.
by Jenny Wrangborg
We seldom talked about the differences
Between us and the owner
Between us and the guests
Between us and those higher up
Nor did anyone else, certainly not the boss
She would not have seen the inequality even if someone
Told her it was there
Her privilege of not noticing
Became our swear words
Behind her back
Wrangborg has published two major collections of poetry and contributed to many anthologies. She was chair of the Swedish Association of Working-class Writers from 2015 to 2017, and has just overseen the production of a play based on her 15 years working in kitchens.