I first heard the name Emilie Demant Hatt during the dark winter of 2001, when I was traveling up in the north of Scandinavia. A Norwegian writer friend Laila Stien told me the captivating story of Johan Turi and the mysterious woman artist from Denmark who had appeared in his life and helped him turn his oral storytelling into a book. In Tromsø soon afterwards, I met the Sami journalist John Gustavsen who’d once written a play about Turi and Demant Hatt’s meeting. I began to realize that she was not only an artist and ethnographer, but a writer herself. Two months after I first heard Demant Hatt’s name I sat for several afternoons in the stacks of Helsinki University’s beautiful old library reading the 1913 Danish version of With the Lapps in the High Mountains, as the snow fell heavily outside.
I was entranced.
As a writer, translator, and traveler myself and as someone always curious about artist-writers, and women artists in general, I knew immediately that Demant Hatt was worth getting to know. Who was she? Where did she come from? How did she get to Lapland? And, perhaps most importantly, was she as good an artist as she was a writer?
The following summer, in 2003, I made my way to the small city of Skive in Denmark to look at the paintings of Demant Hatt’s that were stored there. I discovered a catalog of her work that also offered a biographical survey of her life, as well as short essays on Johan Turi and Gudmund Hatt. Not all her paintings (many were early canvases) were exciting—but some were very striking. By coincidence and to my good fortune, a long-lost manuscript by Demant Hatt about her adolescent romance with the composer Carl Nielsen had been published in 2002, with an introduction by its discoverer, John Fellow.
I remember reading Foraarsbølger [Spring Waves] on the train from Skive to Kastrup airport and back to Seattle. It was hard to tear myself away from Denmark.
The next step was to write to the Nordic Museum in Stockholm, to see if I could view Demant Hatt’s Lapland paintings, which had been in storage there since 1953, as part of her donation to the museum’s Sami collection. These fifty-odd canvases, most painted in Demant Hatt’s sixties, took me completely by surprise with their strong composition and vibrant colors. It was obvious that while many of the paintings in Skive were good, these were on another order entirely. It was on this visit to Stockholm, in late winter of 2004, that I also discovered, in the Nordic Museum Archives, Emilie’s papers, journals, photographs, letters, including Johan Turi’s letters to her.
Writing my own travel book about Lapland (The Palace of the Snow Queen), I’d included something of the story of Emilie Demant Hatt and Johan Turi, and while working on that project I’d deciding to translate her book so that others could have the pleasure of discovering With the Lapps in the High Mountains for themselves. In addition to the translation I continued to seek out, on several more visits to Sweden and Denmark, her papers and those of others around her, transcribing and translating a variety of letters, documents, and other primary records. I wanted to understand—and to provide—a context for Demant Hatt’s travels in Lapland. Were there many tourists in Lapland then? How did she transform herself from tourist to insider––or did she? What was the social milieu she came out of and what was the ethnological world she entered?
I was particularly curious, as time wore on, about her relationship with Johan Turi—not so much from the conventional standpoint of wondering about a possible romance––but about their collaboration on his book, Muittalus sámiid birra. As someone who’d been a publisher and editor, I’ve always had a particular interest in how books come into existence and how much labor goes into creating a book with only a single name on the cover. I thought it especially important to look at the construction of Turi’s book in light of the fact that the centenary of its publication was fast approaching.
My research into Demant Hatt’s life, in archives and libraries in Sweden and Denmark, was greatly aided by the fact that she’d been a bit of a packrat. She had a sense of history and confidence (sorely tried at times) about the value of her artistic and ethnographic work. She’d kept everything from small journals detailing expenses on travels in Lapland, to drafts of lectures, to letters, to newspaper clippings. Even letters and papers regarding issues that were difficult––such as some of her correspondence with Turi––she’d kept and eventually donated to various archives. I found that, while sometimes disorganized, there were rich lodes of material by and about Demant Hatt. No guide existed to any of this material, yet as I gradually documented and pored through the sources, I found they helped me to understand how she’d shaped her life and work.
My translation of With the Lapps in the High Mountains is scheduled to come out with the University of Wisconsin Press in spring, 2013, with an introduction by me and a foreword by Hugh Beach, author of A Year in Lapland. Meanwhile I continue on with different projects connected with Emilie Demant Hatt: a novel based on her early life and relationship with Carl Nielsen; a nonfiction book about her time in Sápmi and her ethnographic and artistic career; and one or two future exhibits about her life and work. I’ve even translated a delightful short story she wrote about the canary, Yellow––for Emilie Demant Hatt was partial to all animals, not just reindeer.
With the Lapps in the High Mountains offers abundant material for the anthropologist looking at gender, the voice of “the other,” and collaborative ethnography. It’s also a narrative that’s a fine travel yarn, highly enjoyable as a reading experience for its humor, insight, and visual descriptions of an extreme climate and severe but beautiful landscape. I envy the reader who approaches it for the first time.