18 years old Danish-Palestinian Yahya Hassan caused a stir and received death threats because of his powerful poetry collection, which sold in 100.000 copies, criticizing the hypocrisy of the welfare state, his family and Muslims in Denmark.
Everyone knows that the teenage years can be turbulent, emotional and painful. Many of us have dabbled with tormented poems and had serious clashes with our families: But rarely does angry young men come with the talent of Danish-Palestinian Yahya Hassan.
In this interview Yahya Hassan talks about his poetry, born out of rage, grief, joy, humor and a love of words: “I am driven by an interest in writing. Too me, writing is a quiet room outside the problems of life. Wherever I go I always have the words with me.”
Yahya Hassan (b. 1995) is a Danish poet of Palestinian background. His book ‘Yahya Hassan’ (2013) is the best selling debut poetry collection in Danish history, selling more than a 100.000 copies within just a few months, but Hassan’s commercial success is reaching far beyond Denmark’s population of 5.5 million and looks set to conquer the rest of the world. The German publishing house Ullstein published a German translation of his book in time for the Leipzig Book Fair 2014, which sold 9,000 copies in the first week, an exceptional run for poetry. Along with the success though comes a shadow. Because of his critique of personal experiences with the Muslim and immigrant community, Hassan received threats and was attacked by an Islamist. Today Hassan lives under the constant surveillance and protection of the Danish state.
The poetry collection ‘Yahya Hassan’ has been described as “almost Walt Whitman-like” and has started a heavy debate in Denmark because of its negative description of Hassan’s Islamic upbringing. The son of Muslim Palestinian immigrants, Yahya Hassan grew up in a ghetto, in a religious environment, where abuse and crime was part of every day life. Hassan was removed from home and placed at an institution aged just 13.
While Yahya Hassan is angry about many things he has experienced during his own upbringing he also explains in this interview that he feels right wing extremists are similar to Islamist extremists: “Both sides take society as hostage.” Hassan does not want his book to be labelled and states that it is not the books fault how other people choose to use it: “My poems are about many things. They are my way of taking action against things I am dissatisfied with” he says: “If I could control how people received my book, I’d want it to be with joy, understanding and dialogue.”
In this interview the young poet also explains how he began to write, starting with rap music but finding it too restrictive. The rules, rap-attitude and values just wasn’t him, he says. In the literary world Hassan feels he can be himself, learn something, and that he has something to say: “Being a criminal does not exclude you from literary activities, just like having a good job in finance does not exclude you from committing fraud.”
Yahya Hassan explains some of his views of immigration, social context, war traumas, and how he has been interested in finding the root of the problems and dealing with questions of personal responsibility. The book is a result of many of these thoughts: “I don’t need to participate in the debate, but I am glad that people are thinking about things. It is healthy to ask questions,” he says.
Yahya Hassan’s poems were translated by Kuku & Al Agami, authorised by Gyldendal.
Yahya Hassan was interviewed by Marc-Christoph Wagner
Filmed by Klaus Elmer
Edited by Kamilla Bruus
Produced by Marc-Christoph Wagner
Copyright: Louisiana Channel, produced by Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2014.
Supported by Nordea-fonden