Denmark and The New North Atlantic – Narratives and Memories in a Former Empire presents a critical interdisciplinary study of a region marked by Danish imperialism and today affected by a renewed interest in the Arctic: the North Atlantic (i.e., coastal Norway, Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands).
Edited by Kirsten Thisted and Ann-Sofie Gremaud, this two-volume book investigates how geopolitical and climatic changes reshape power dynamics and relationships in the North Atlantic. Throughout the book, historians, ethnographers, culture and communication scholars, literary theorists, and art historians from universities in Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Denmark, and Norway interrogate past narratives, emerging discourses and current relations in the nations of the North Atlantic.
The first section of the book offers a broad overview of the author’s assessment and help contextualise the following analyses. After briefly explaining that the North Atlantic is a porous and situated concept, Thisted and Gremaud highlight the influence of the past over the present and (perceived) future of the region. Indeed, political and emotional relations set during the Danish Empire seem deeply entrenched. While the emergence of the Arctic on the international scene contributes to their renegotiation, they appear to continue affecting current dynamics. Thisted and Gremaud further argue that these past relations and influences, often charged with racism, sexism and discrimination, are often overlooked. With this research, the authors thus hope to expose and reflect on these narratives and to participate in enabling a move forward.
Having set out the book’s objective, the second section synthesises the history of the Danish Empire in the North Atlantic and the development of distinct nations in the region. By replacing the national narratives of Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands in light of their relationship with the Danish Empire, the authors question – or at least nuance – the dominant narratives, allowing us to better comprehend current discourses and dynamics.
Following these rather general sections, the subsequent parts of the book draw on politics, ideology, art, literature, ecology and gender tropes to study the evolving narratives of the North Atlantic region. By recalling former power relations and past constructions, the different sections contextualise and question present developments and discourses in the nations of the North Atlantic, at regional, national, and global levels. Similar research questions are applied to the different nations, highlighting common features in the North Atlantic and interrogating political, social and cultural asymmetries. Section 3 thus analyses geographical perceptions and definitions of the North Atlantic, underlining how these are situated. Section 4 investigates the shaping of collective identities by assessing narratives of purity and authenticity and is directly complemented by Section 5, which questions gendered discourses and practices, by focusing on narratives of impurity or hybridity. Section 6 reflects on representations of the past as definers of an idealised future and Section 7, focused on political considerations and the use of natural resources, plays a concluding role by summarising that past dynamics and hierarchies continue to shape the present.
A few characteristics make this publication especially valuable. First, throughout the book, the authors use historical and local examples, especially artistic productions, to feed their analyses. These numerous inputs of local narratives make the reflections particularly relevant, founded and meaningful. It is very pleasant to read an academic work with such a diverse array of examples. While the different sections of the book tackle various subjects, the systematic use of local narratives connect them and make the book a coherent production.
Secondly, the application of a post-colonial lens to the narratives of the North Atlantic countries, and not only of Greenland, is a sensible and pertinent choice that also connects the different sections. As a matter of fact, Icelandic narratives are rarely analysed in light of the country’s colonial history, yet the authors here show how necessary it is to do so. By highlighting the countries’ shared colonial past and its influence on the post-colonial present; and by applying the same interrogations to Greenlandic, Icelandic, and Faroese narratives, the authors recognise and overcome the asymmetric hierarchies set by Danish imperialism.
Thirdly, the authors often take the time to clarify the academic concepts they use, even though most of them have been created and defined by other scholars. This explanatory process allows the reader to truly understand the book’s theoretical framework and the authors’ vision behind their analyses. As such, it adds to the meaningfulness of the book and underlines the authors’ desire to produce intelligible research.
On the other hand, the discussion around coastal Norway could have gained in being better incorporated to overall reflection. While Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands are almost always integrated into the analyses, coastal Norway only appears sporadically. Although it is explained that the North Atlantic has porous borders, it would have been interesting to consider narratives from coastal Norway more often, especially as many themes would have been applicable and relevant to that region.
Furthermore, Section 3 and its effort to analyse past and present geographical perceptions of the North Atlantic is underwhelming. Indeed, part of the development seems too conceptualised, thereby missing to represent felt geographies. While most of the book’s analysis is robust and backed by well-grounded arguments and examples, Section 3’s focus on the “Blues” – an emerging field of research which considers the ocean as an integral part of modern geography – as a means of analysing the North Atlantic’s relationship with its environment feels blurry and unfinished. Nevertheless, the themes approached in this section were interesting, and it will be important to follow up on the emergence of the “Blues” as an academic field in the coming years.
In sum, this book covers a very wide spectrum of notions and effectively manages to give the reader a general understanding of the North Atlantic’s current dynamics, hierarchies and discourses internally, regionally and globally. By constantly using local and concrete examples, the authors generally avoid developing a theoretical analysis with little meaning outside of the academic sphere. By adopting an interdisciplinary perspective, the authors pinpoint the pervasiveness of the imperialist project in the North Atlantic nations. Finally, by highlighting the lasting effects of the asymmetrical power relations set out by the Danish Empire in the region, the authors successfully bring attention to deeply entrenched issues while avoiding any deterministic projections and recognising the agency of its inhabitants.