Amatka by Karin Tidbeck has been on my radar for a while. When I read Nino Cipri’s review of it yesterday, I decided to pick the book up and was delighted to find that Amatka is available in audio.1
I went into Amatka knowing very little about the premise beyond John Chu’s tweet referencing the book and the fact that the narrative plays with language. Nino’s review also piqued my interest in reading Amatka as a queer narrative:
Amatka’s story feels queer to me on multiple levels, beyond the simple and obvious one: Vanja falls in love with her roommate, Nina, and decides to stay in Amatka after finishing her assignment to be with her. Her love for Nina informs the story, but there’s a more subtle queerness that I’m still struggling to articulate.
So here I am, doing my best to articulate that queerness, because I saw it shining as brightly as the sun through the narrative and had Thoughts about it. Spoilers ahead.
Marking as a collective construction of society
Amatka and its sister colonies exist only because they are willed to exist: the gloop that forms almost everything in Amatka can only retain its shape when it’s constantly reminded of its shape. These reminders are not just verbal, but also physical: each item must be marked in black letters with its identity. Metaphor and creativity with labels are not tolerated. For example, books may only be titled with About followed by their subject, or an otherwise literal and descriptive name.
Marking is strictly enforced. When Vanja so much as lets her naming become rote, pencil-pencil-pencil washing together so that the syllables merge and shift to become cilpen-cilpen-cilpen, the rigidity of the gloop’s form begins to slip, and Vanja is punished for her transgression.
In a conversation with my Clarion West class, Ken Liu described one strategy for making a story resonate emotionally: literalize a metaphor. In his short story “Crystal,” for example, a real, physical crystal is the literalized manifestation of the narrator’s relationship with his grandmother.
I read marking in Amatka as a literalized metaphor for the collective effort of constructing a society. Amatka is rife with rules and regulations, as symbolized by the paperwork that Vanja has to file, but it is the marking that creates the foundation of society in the colonies.
Of course, it’s easy to imagine a pencil only being able to keep its form as a pencil when given that name. But, when the metaphor here is extended, I also read it as a comment on sexuality and gender: cisheteronormativity is created through the constant reminders that such constructs exist and are real. Despite the fact that Amatka does not appear to marginalize Vanja and Nina’s same-gender relationship, the climate of the colony and the narrative still suggest a comment on heterosexuality to me: everything is done for the good of the commune; individuals police each other for the greater good. So, too, are our sexualities, our performance of gender, policed in the broader context of our society, even if there are pockets of it that feel safe.
The concept of harmony in Amatka, of conformity for the survival of the colonies, further read to me as a parallel to the experience of being closeted for many queer people: we ignore our truths to uphold our obligations to society, to protect ourselves from the consequences of deviating from the norm. It’s not uncommon to see leaders and politicians condemn queer people as heralding the downfall of society in our world; refusing to conform to the rules and regulations in Amatka and its sister colonies literally threatens the survival and existence of this carefully constructed society. Vanja’s initial horror over seeing the gloop in its raw form further reflects marking as a metaphor for social construction: without our rules and labels, we as humans have to confront the senselessness of reality, the fact that things are not as bound and demarcated as we believe them to be.
It also becomes clear to both Vanja and the reader as the story goes on that naming holds the power not only to create a society, but also to restrict it. Here, too, the parallels to constructing cisheteronormativity jump out at me: every time a gender binary is reinforced by people insisting that there are only two genders, every time someone insists on calling a trans person by a gender they’re not, these names reinforce that people are only meant to have one shape—the shape that society agrees is the “correct” shape.
To me, “queerness” as distinct from various identity terms like gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and nonbinary is an action that transgresses the rigidity enforced by cisheterosexism. Cisheterosexism insists that there is only one correct way to exist: you must be one gender, the one assigned to you at birth, and you must be sexually and romantically attracted to only one gender, the other of the two genders that cisheterosexism recognizes as valid.
Vanja’s discovery of her ability to transform gloop from one shape to another, and her realization that her words have power, is thus a queer act to me. It is the moment when she realizes that the constructs placed on her by the colonies is just that—a construct. She loses her fear of the undelineated gloop and begins to see it as a source of potential. If the gloop can take a different form, then she can, too: there are other ways to live than what has been imposed by the colonies.
This discovery parallels the experiences that I and many other queer people have had. As much as labels can be used to restrict, they can also be used to recognize and create: when I discovered the term “nonbinary,” I realized that I was not the only one who felt this way about gender, and I found a validity that grounded and consolidated the vagueness of my feelings into something more concrete and coherent. There are ways to exist outside of the confines of the one narrative provided by the status quo, ways that validate fluidity and crossing categories.
Art as creative resistance
A key part of Amatka’s exploration of language is the concept of language—and art created with language—as resistance. I don’t think it’s an accident that the leader of the separatist colony is a poet, Berols’ Anna, who shows particular aptitude for language:
Vanja put the book down and opened About Plant House 3. The text was difficult to read at first. Every sentence had been whittled down until only the absolutely necessary words remained. Every one of those words was precise; it could have been lifted out of the text and hold enough meaning in itself. In Berols’ Anna’s poetry, all things became completely and self-evidently solid. The world gained consistency in the life cycle of plants, the sound of a rake in the soil. Breathing became easier.
—Amatka, pg. 44
Language not only makes the world concrete, as evidenced by the marking of objects, but also our experiences, as evidenced by the way Vanja’s understanding of the world becomes more consistent through Anna’s words. On a fundamental level, we use art to process our experiences and share them with others.
But we also use art to create different ways of being and understanding:
Vanja drew the book out and opened it. Poetry, on what looked like good paper, handwritten in faded blue ink:
we speak of new worlds
we speak of new lives
we speak to give ourselves
“What does she mean, to become?”
Ulla looked Vanja up and down, as if she was examining her. “I might tell you sometime,” she said eventually.
—Amatka, pg. 46
I also don’t think it’s an accident that one of the pivotal scenes in Amatka is Vanja discovering Evgen being forced to cull library books so that the good paper can be reused by the committee. Vanja later realizes that the good paper used to print concrete descriptions of the increasingly more fragile Amatka came from those culled books. Among the first to go in any authoritarian regime are the artists and intellectuals: our histories of art and resistance are erased, literally in Amatka’s case, and papered over with official narratives of what we’re supposed to believe.
It is therefore vital and inseparable from the narrative of Amatka that the ultimate punishment is forced aphasia:
“Why is she so important, Harri?”
“I’m not at liberty to tell you that. Only that it’s very, very important that she doesn’t speak.”
—Amatka, pgs. 208–209
Speaking is an act of creation, literalized in Amatka, but also reflected in our own world: with speech, Vanja and others like her can create alternate realities and ways of living that reject the reality imposed by those in power. With art, these realities can be expanded and memorialized. Imagination is forbidden in Amatka as a threat to the status quo, and art can be the greatest embodiment of imagination and the greatest challenge to the status quo.
Words matter. Our work matters.
Give up or give in
“Give up or give in,” Nina whispered. “I gave in. I gave myself to the world.”
—Amatka, pg. 213
“Will you give yourself to the world?”
Anna’s voice crashed into Vanja’s body like a wave, making her gasp for breath. That’s what Vanja was supposed to do. Vanja said it, that she gave herself, that she surrendered, everything she was. A string of syllables dribbled out of her mouth, flat and nonsensical.
Berols’ Anna watched Vanja in silence, her hair floating around her like a living thing. After a moment, she grunted. “A person creates the word. Gives in to the world, and becomes the word.” It sounds like a sigh. “You have no words. You have been separated.”
Separated from her words. The world was built on a new language, and she would not be part of it, only an observer, a watcher.
Berols’ Anna turned her head and gazed out on the chaos. “When all of this has become, you will remain; the people like you will remain, all of you, as you are, separate. But we will carry you.” She stroked Vanja’s cheek. “We will always carry you, little herald.”
An observer, a watcher, but beloved. Nina would be with her; Anna would be with her.
—Amatka, pgs. 214–215
The penultimate scene of Amatka holds a power that I don’t know if I can articulate. It’s a scene that defies a single reading and feels complicated in a way that doesn’t allow me to unpack it as easily as other parts of the narrative.
If I read this scene as an extension of the themes of constructing and resisting cisheteronormativity, I see it as a reassurance. Nina’s initial line seems like a simplistic binary: the choices appear to be to live a closeted life and give up, or to be out as one’s true self and give in to the world.
But the reality is never as simple a dualism. Anna recognizes that Vanja can neither give up nor give in. She is, to me, our brethren who are forced to remain in the closet, and our elders who have often been the first to resist, yet are so often forgotten when we forge new paths.
Vanja, however, is not left behind: she has been separated, and she may not be able to participate as fully as the others, but she will be carried, still supported by the ones who see her and love her. This, to me, is a third option: an acknowledgement of people’s limitations, whether enforced by society as represented by Vanja’s forced aphasia, or out of their own reasons. We still see you. We are still here with you, supporting you even if you can only watch.
I don’t intend for this commentary to be an authoritative interpretation of Amatka, or even an accurate interpretation. There is so much to explore and comment on, whether it’s disability in the colonies or a more in-depth review of the worldbuilding. All I’m really offering here is my own reading of Amatka and an attempt at articulating how it resonated with me as a queer narrative, one of discovery not only in the fictional world, but that reflects the discovery and journey that many of us make when moving from accepting the status quo of a cisheteronormative society to carving our own way. Amatka is a quiet, understated read that will linger with me for a while yet.
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1. Kirsten Potter is a fantastic narrator. Often, audiobook narrators will either be too monotone for my taste or have too much of a lulling bedtime story feel to their performance; Potter, however, captures the mood of Amatka well and underscores each character’s personality with subtle variations in voice. ↩