Mara Lee’s Monstrous Demand

How is love complicit in the creation of racial hierarchies? The Swedish author and scholar offers a valuable lesson.

Mara Lee, Loving Others, Othering Love. On a Few Tropes and Emotions that Shape the Image of the Stranger, Praun & Guermouche, 2022.

When people ask me why I moved to Sweden, I usually answer “love.” This is typically met with a knowing glance, but occasionally elicits a startling response. Of which, the most egregious (i.e. the most explicitly racist, sexist, and xenophobic) came courtesy of a driving instructor who exclaimed to the students present, most of whom were teenage boys, “See? Now they’re taking our women!”

Loving Others, Othering Love. On a Few Tropes and Emotions that Shape the Image of the Stranger
Mara Lee, Praun & Guermouche, 2022

Such knotting together of love, migration, and race is the subject of Swedish author Mara Lee’s new book Loving Others, Othering Love: On a Few Tropes and Emotions that Shape the Image of the Stranger, an expanded English translation of her critically acclaimed Främlingsfigurer, published last year by Albert Bonniers Förlag. Asking whether “racism can illuminate certain aspects of love and intimacy,” this multi-modal lyric essay looks at how certain literary figurations and tropes, such as that of the vulnerable migrant woman, are complicit in the creation of racial hierarchies.

More specifically, for Lee – who is a professor of art, art theory, and art history at Konstfack University of Arts and a guest professor at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm – love and racism are connected in two major ways: via rescue narratives (in which a white protagonist saves a racialised minority, usually a woman) and the extraction of emotional labour from racialised migrants (usually women from the Global South who, it is believed, are by nature caring and loving). In a series of surprising critical and poetic moves, Lee reframes love not as the antithesis of hate, as is commonly supposed, but, following American legal scholar Janine Young Kim, as a “racial emotion” like grief, anger, fear, and disgust that is crucial to the construction of race and, furthermore, to the naturalisation of inequality inherent to capitalist exploitation. 

The book’s intersectional analysis of the overlapping and conflicting affective dynamics of race, gender, and class – as well as those of nation and age – in Bharati Mukherjee’s novel Jasmine (1989) and The Mare by Mary Gaitskill (2015), for example, opens onto complex questions surrounding debt, gratitude, and agency that unsettle sedimented ideas about who has the right not only to certain emotions, but to act on them as well. Similar questions also come to the fore, albeit more disturbingly, in ‘Monstrum’, an extended dialogue with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), in which the monster becomes legible as being both a “member of the Mongolian race,” and a creature who “classifies emotions and relationships as issues of justice.” What is most horrifying, Lee concludes, is not the monster’s inhumanity, but its demands for love as a human right. This ‘monstrous’ – because, in the poem’s telling, impossible – demand rhymes with Lee’s insistence throughout the book that racism is not a matter of individual ethics or morals, but is rather structurally and historically conditioned.

If this latter point seems peculiar to the Swedish context, then that is because it is. As Lee notes in her prefatory remarks, despite its being in English, Loving Others, Othering Love is primarily addressed to Swedish readers (though not necessarily white ones). Or at least, that its arguments assume a reader whose cultural frame is Scandinavian. To those already versed in the “American Ideas” that it incorporates, she writes, some of the book’s claims may seem outlandish, unnecessary, or foolish – perhaps all three. Indeed, for Americans, like me, certain aspects of Lee’s discourse may feel self-evident at times, as in the extensively footnoted essay ‘Beloved Stranger’, which patiently explains that “while race is a social construct, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the consequences aren’t real.” 

That Swedish readers would need this spelled out for them in the year 2022 is distressing enough. Although, as someone of South Asian descent who has been exposed to a decade or so of racist disavowal and microaggression, I ought hardly be surprised. Especially when considering the still prevailing attitude of “Swedish exceptionalism,” a contradictory posture of both naïve self-righteousness and enlightened disengagement that constrains the national discussion on race – and to which Lee attends at length. Her found poem ‘Public Transit: A Swedish Poem’, comprising accounts of racist violence reported in the Swedish media, is just one harrowing example of what is repressed beneath this collective silence.

Yet compared to recent lyric essays dealing with similar questions such as Wendy Trevino’s charged sonnet cycle ‘Brazilian Is Not a Race’ (2016) and Fred Moten’s dazzling work of “holy looking” All That Beauty (2019) – both of which were written and published in the US – Lee’s approach is more pedagogical; her language is more measured, at times even faltering. This is particularly the case in ‘Under’, the book’s fourth and final section, which features ‘Notes on Black and Blue’, a study of the Old Norse vocabulary for describing ‘strangers,’ as well as a sequence based on the Korean myth of Princess Bari, which concludes with the fraught lines: “her / worthless / encryption of / the black.” 

In ‘Darkness, Mon Amour’, Lee writes: “You keep picking up your pen, thinking that next time the cut will be so razor-sharp, clean, perfect, nothing can go wrong. But it gets worse.” Here, the transformation of love into violence that is characteristic of racial feeling becomes a self-inflicted trauma which the author is compelled to repeat. The consequence of such repetition is a kind of political death, an ontological void. For as she writes later in the poem, “she says neither / save me nor don’t save me / because / there / is nothing to save.” However, as painful and as conflictual as this space may be, it is not purely negative; it can be dwelled within and recast: “No place was better than this,” she writes. For Lee, “race might be where affective binary oppositions collapse.” In her work, it is also an abyss of unbearable invention and impossible demand. “This place –  / write about it again.” 

Note: Loving Others, Othering Love is the subject of a Higher Seminar on creative writing today, 19 October, 16:30–19:00 at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm. A Swedish translation of the review will follow.

Mara Lee is professor of art, art theory, and art history at Konstfack University of Arts, Crafts and Design, and guest professor at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm. She is also is a translator and an author of several novels and volumes of poetry.