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April 16, 2024

Why I spent my summer reading female authors

By RUTH MARIE LANDRY | October 13, 2016

A Room of One’s Own

But perhaps the most influential to my actual reading list was that I wanted to read about how other women handled life transitions. I’m a senior in college with no plans to go to grad school, meaning that, for the first time I can remember, I will very soon not be enrolled in school.

So even though the only requirement for my reading list was that the book was written by a woman, I unintentionally built my reading list with a few extra qualifications in mind: books by women and about women, yes, but also preferably set in the 21st century and about young, well educated women who are new to the job market — which is to say, books about women similar to me.

I don’t doubt that books with more varied subject matter could have been useful to me and could have quelled my fears about adulthood, but I also didn’t really mind my narrow focus, if only for a summer.

I found my first book, This Should Be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle, while browsing. Its cover is a colorful watercolor with handwritten lettering. It looked childish, and I nearly put it back on the shelf.

It was a good thing I didn’t. As it turns out, Helle Helle, although basically unknown in the United States, is a literary star in Denmark, where she has apparently spent the past twenty-odd years writing nine novels to both critical and popular acclaim. Her fan base is big enough that, when I posted an odd tweet rhetorically asking the internet why This Should Be Written in the Present Tense is Helle’s only book that has been translated into English, several Danish literature students responded almost immediately, equally frustrated.

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense is a short, understated novel. It follows Dorte, who should be in class at Copenhagen University but instead spends her time staring out of her window, thinking about her ex-boyfriends, wandering around a nearby train station and not writing.

Dorte tells her story in short, declarative sentences that ignore dramatic scenes like abortion and sex to focus on which fruit she buys from the grocery that afternoon. Whole seasons pass in the same sentence that Dorte stirs a pot. One evening she comes home from the library and tells us, “I painted my nails and decided I needed a new look and a new way of thinking and walking.”

As the title implies, the novel is written entirely in the past tense, despite alternating between two different moments in Dorte’s life — her relationship with her ex-boyfriend Per and her aimlessness after their breakup — with very few clues as to how much time has passes between these two storylines. It seems as though the events of her relationship have led her to the depressive state she is in, and Dorte is slow to let us catch up. She would rather not speak about it, write about it or remember it at all, it seems.

Her voice seems muted and suppressed, in part because she rarely expresses emotions, and when she does it is usually only to say that her feelings are inexpressible. She looks out of a window into the rain and hears a nightingale and thinks to herself, “It was all too much. I would never be able to share it with anyone, ever.” These words would seem melodramatic from another narrator, but Dorte has already proved how hard it is for her to disclose personal feelings. Instead we feel the same ache she does, an almost physical yearning to be able to communicate.

Ever restless, Dorte suffers from insomnia. When she is unable to locate its causes, she turns to the library for help, thinking that she’ll find a few self-help books. But she also notes that, “I had a feeling I needed help in other areas as well, but I didn’t know which When I covered my ears with my hands there was a rushing noise inside me that sounded like a whole shoreline. It wasn’t worrying in itself. But I had this little flutter under my breastbone, it felt like homesickness.”

It was only in retrospect that I was able to realize that maybe my project of reading female authors was also in part to get “help in other areas” that I couldn’t identify either.

There are problems that can be solved with self-help books, that can be medicated, that you should turn to professionals for help with. But part of me wanted to tell Dorte to turn back to the library, to fiction, for cures to her more ambiguous ailments, for her heartbreak and her fear.

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle, translated by Martin Aitken, was published by Soft Skull Press in January.


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