Danish author Naja Marie Aidt on loss, grieving, and her latest memoir
In early 2015, Danish author Naja Marie Aidt lost her son, Carl, to a tragic accident when he fell out of a fifth-story window at his home in Copenhagen, Denmark. “I could hardly write,” Ms. Aidt recalls. “I could hardly live.” A child’s death, she notes, is ‘not natural’, especially for the parent, who is left to cope with a betrayal of expectation and the capsizing of the accepted order of life.
What was a moment of devastating finality for Ms. Aidt, however, also revealed itself as the beginning of a journey of introspective discovery. Carl’s death, in fact, pushed Ms. Aidt to navigate her horrific grief and the impact of loss on time itself. The result, a memoir entitled When Death Takes Something from You Give it Back, is a fragmented exploration of the deep chasm left by the loss of a loved one and a forceful vindication of life itself.
With When Death Takes Something newly translated into English by the formidable Denise Newman, Denmark In New York caught up with Naja Marie Aidt to discuss the literary process behind her work and her take on the intersection between literature and tragedy.
Denmark In New York: Naja Marie Aidt, thank you for sitting down with us. Your memoir When Death Takes Something from You Give it Back tackles a very heavy and personal theme. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you came to write it?
Naja Marie Aidt: In 2015, I lost my son, Carl, in a horrific accident. He was only 25 years old. Nine month later I very slowly started writing the book. It is a book that tries to find a language for something so hard, so painful, that words don’t seem to cover or describe the condition of total shock, grief, and pain. In a way, it is a book written from the end of the world, a state of mind were nothing seems possible or familiar anymore. How to describe the loss of sense of time and meaning? How to survive losing a child? My hope is that I have written a book about loss, but also about love and life, that can somehow mirror other people’s grief, or give them some sort of an account from the darkness that can help them cope and heal.
Your memoir recounts a tale of personal and emotional struggle. Can you tell us about the writing process behind the work?
Naja Marie Aidt: Well, I am a writer and that’s what I do. I write. I try to understand life by writing. I only understand life by writing about it. I knew that writing this book was the only thing I could do. It would be impossible for me to write another book so there was, in a way, no choice. I was held captive in something that I didn’t understand and I had no tools to help me understand. How can you understand death? That is one question. But how can you understand that your child is no longer in this world? It took me years to really understand and sometimes I still don’t get it.
My writing process was nothing like any other writing process I have ever experienced. I could hardly write, I could hardly live. I would write down a few words here and a short sentence there. I would give up and then suddenly a short poem would appear in the middle of the night. It took me quite a while to find the literary form. No form seemed enough. The book ended up very fragmented but there is this red thread that rolls through this almost circular form: the very detailed description from the moment we got that horrible phone call until Carl was declared braindead in the hospital two days later. This description comes in small doses, always repeating a few lines from the last section, trying to show how posttraumatic stress works. In between this text there are poems, excerpts from my diaries from when Carl was a child, his own writing, quotations from other writers writing about grief and loss, essays, prose, and a lot more. This form made it possible to show both how time all of a sudden was chaotic and not linear, but also how shattered the mind and body are after a sudden loss. I did include other writers to create some sort of a ‘sorrow choir’ — I reached out to literature, and literature helped me. That’s what I love about literature. There are always books out there that can speak to what you are experiencing in life and help you understand and grow. In this special way, the French poet Stephane Mallarmé, who lost his young son in 1879, became my “friend.” His fragmented poems about his loss helped me believe in what I was writing myself: that maybe the only way a writer can write after being almost destroyed by the loss of a child is through fragments.
Did the memoir have an impact on your personal life after publishing?
Naja Marie Aidt: I was living in NYC so I was away from the press when the book was published in Denmark in 2017. That helped me tremendously, I think. I also made very strict rules for what I wanted to accept: only a few interviews, no television, in order to protect myself and my family. The book became a bestseller in Denmark and has been, or will be, translated into thirteen languages so far. Personally, I had a breakdown after the book was published. There was no more I could do for my son, I thought. I went into therapy in Brooklyn and slowly recovered more and more over the years. What has been amazingly touching for me is all the readers who have sent me emails and letters about their own stories, their own traumatic losses, telling me how much the book has meant to them. Some of them I am still in contact with. We are never alone, not even in our darkest moments. All of us will experience loss in our lifetime and eventually we will lose ourselves to death. It is as natural as life itself. Losing a child is reverse, it is not natural, but death is something we need to hold together. We need to be there for each other, not turn away from the pain. No one can walk alone when grieving.
Death, and particularly the loss of a child, is not an easy topic to address. How do you expect your work will be received in the US?
Naja Marie Aidt: Well, I hope it will find many readers! I hope Americans will find some comfort in it like readers have done in other countries, and maybe start discussing the taboo that death and sorrow in many ways still is in the western world. We need to talk about what’s difficult. We need to help each other cope.
Translations can sometimes affect the tone of a book. Do you feel the tone from the original Danish is preserved in the English translation?
Naja Marie Aidt: Denise Newman, who translated the book into English, did a wonderful job. We worked very closely together since English is my beloved second language after living in the United States for eleven years. She is a poet herself and has an exceptional ability to work with language and translation. I am more than happy for the English translation! Recently, I did a book tour in the United States, reading from the book, and it felt just as right and precise as reading from it in Danish. So, yes, the tone is definitely preserved in the English translation and I am very grateful for that.