Bestseller bound to break boundaries

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Zeshan Shakar grew up in Oslo’s Stovner district and wrote a book about it that’s been winning rave reviews. Now his revealing story about two boys caught between their immigrant parents’ hopes and limitations, compounded by their own choices in the Norwegian capital, is about to be translated into English and just may strike a chord internationally.

Zeshan Shakar was born in Oslo in 1982 and grew up in a Muslim family in the eastern Oslo district of Stovner. His highly acclaimed novel based on the experience is due to be published internationally in English next year. PHOTO: Gyldendal Forlag

“You can find a Stovner in all cities all over the world,” said Agnes Moxnes, culture commentator for Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). She has little doubt that readers far beyond Norway will find Shakar’s book relevant and learn from it, just like Norwegian readers have since it was published by major publishing firm Gyldendal last year. It highlights the challenges of integration, from new angles.

The novel that reflects Shakar’s own experiences was quickly awarded one of Norway’s top literary prizes, the Tarjei Vesaas Debutant’s Prize. Some reviewers were so amazed by it that they found it hard to believe it was Shakar’s first book. “When you can hardly find a single thing to criticize in a debut novel, you can only speculate which pseudonym the author has written under earlier,” wrote Fartein Horgar in Trondheim newspaper Adresseavisen.

Literary critics in the capital have been gushing praise as well. “This may well be (last) autumn’s most important book,” wrote Erle Marie Sørheim in national newspaper Dagbladet, awarding it all six out of six points possible. Anne Merethe Prinos wrote in Aftenposten that the now-36-year-old Zeshan Shakar’s debut was “both important and successful (from a literary standpoint),” adding that it hits the reader like “a well-placed punch in the nose.”

It’s called simply Tante Ulrikkes vei (Aunt Ulrikke’s Way), after a street in Stovner. It’s an area at the end of one of Oslo’s metro lines, featuring large apartment houses and located between two major highways in and out of the city. One critic noted how the book’s exchanges between Jamal’s unfiltered monologues and Mo’s written accounts of daily events “drive the reader deeper and deeper into the apartment blocks and life in Stovner.”

Shakar’s book, which translates to “Aunt Ulrikke’s Way,” has been a bestseller in Norway over the past year. ILLUSTRATION: Gyldendal Forlag

Shakar himself has noted how amazed he’s been over how little average Norwegians know about life in their own cities’ immigrant communities. Born in Oslo in 1982, Shakar says he grew up “in a home without bookcases,” but he “defied the odds,” was educated as a political scientist and also studied economics at the Nowegian Business School BI. He’s worked in various state ministries and directorates, most recently at City Hall in Oslo as a special adviser on education issues. In his book, one of the two boys from Stovner does well while the other falls by the wayside. It was important for him to write a story to which especially young men in Stovner could relate.

It’s fully possible to defy the odds, he told NRK, but it demands “lots of self-discipline and hard work if you grow up in an environment where you don’t have many others heading in the same direction. You have to do a lot of the work yourself,” especially, for example, if immigrant parents aren’t able to help with school work. “They should at least ask about your school days,” Shakar said. “It’s not necessarily help with lessons that’s needed, but just parents’ interest and engagement. Then you show your kids that school is important, and you care how they’re doing.”

Shakar also wanted to address integration issues. “I am very Norwegian,” the Oslo native told the professional journal Fagbladet last year, “at the same time I’ll never be completely Norwegian.” It’s a situation immigrants and expatriates often find themselves in, all over the world, and perhaps especially in Stovner.

After selling 90,000 copies in Norway, a lot in a country of just 5 million, the  rights to Shakar’s book have been sold for sale in the British market, where it’s expected to be launched next fall. The book is also inspiring a TV series to be directed by the award-winning Iram Haq, who’s also developing its script. It’s likely to be just as full of local slang as the book.

Shakar told NRK on Tuesday that he’s surprise but gratified by the success of his book, especially that it will be translated into English for release abroad. “Of all the crazy upturns this book has given, that’s the biggest,” he told NRK. “It’s something else to be published in the big world outside.”

He thinks his book takes up universal aspects about growing up, “problems that aren’t especially confined to Norway but that most of Europe is struggling with, things like ‘us vs. them, identity and multi-culturalism. I hope the book can spark some recognition also in other countries.”

Shakar admits his book won’t be easy to translate, given all its slang and words that aren’t found in Norwegian dictionaries. “That will be exciting,” he told NRK, “and I expect there will be lots of emails back and forth (with the translator).” He’s most nervous about the prospect of English-speaking relatives reading it: “I have a quite conservstive uncle, and I hope he doesn’t read it.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund