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Do you remember when you first learned how to read? That transformative light bulb moment when you recognized the letters and could sound out the words intelligibly? When the words that emerged from your tiny lips represented something you understood? When the sequence of words taught you something new or transported you to another place? And how about when you learned how to write? Your little fingers grasping a pencil and forming letters? It felt like magic!

Or, at least, it did to me.

I was never a sporty kid. I was also a bit shy and never quite felt part of “the gang.” So, when I learned to read at five, a whole new universe opened for me. So much so that I preferred to escape in a book rather than play outside at recess with my classmates. The local library became my second home, and I checked out at least a dozen books at a time. Judy Blume was my favorite author. As a teenager, I devoured magazines and read the New York Times every day, discovering new people, places, and things. My imagination ran wild, and I began writing poems, short stories, and eventually a novel or two or three or four!

The ability to read and write made this all possible. It’s probably a skill that all of us in this room are very fortunate—and privileged—to take for granted. However, literacy challenges persist around the globe. For example, the pandemic disrupted education and learning opportunities for many, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized groups. Seven hundred sixty-three million adults and young people still lack basic literacy skills. Two-thirds of them are women.

Kofi Annan, Former Secretary-General of the United Nations (1997-2006), once said:

“Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty, and a building block of development, an essential complement to investments in roads, dams, clinics and factories. Literacy is a platform for democratization, and a vehicle for the promotion of cultural and national identity. Especially for girls and women, it is an agent of family health and nutrition. For everyone, everywhere, literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right.... Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential.”

Annan gave this speech on International Literacy Day in 1997. Still, the number I shared with you shows that we still have a long way to go in achieving the global commitment of ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities by 2030, as stated in the Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4) of the United Nations.

This year’s International Literacy Day theme, “Promoting literacy for a world in transition: Building the foundation for sustainable and peaceful societies,” highlights literacy’s importance in addressing the challenges of our rapidly changing world, such as climate change, digital transformation, health crises, and social inequalities.

Here are some other interesting facts. The literacy rate of a country is the percentage of people aged 15 who can read and write. Many of us in this room are foreigners who moved to Sweden and learned to read, write, and speak the language, giving us invaluable advantages professionally and personally in this society. Literacy is a priority in Sweden, which boasts a 99% literacy rate. However, two of our Nordic neighbors, Finland and Norway, have achieved 100%, so we can still improve 😊! With the immigration and integration challenges facing Sweden, Swedish-language literacy is more important than ever to foster inclusion and open the doors of opportunity for newcomers.

It should be noted that European countries have the highest literacy rates, while sub-Saharan Africa (Niger 19%) and the Middle East (Afghanistan 38%) have the lowest literacy rates. Poverty, lack of access to education, and cultural norms prioritizing traditional practices over formal education contribute to this disparity. Educational systems are also underfunded and understaffed, leading to a shortage of qualified teachers and limited resources for students. Countries facing political instability and conflict hinder their ability to provide education for their citizens. Low literacy rates have significant global ramifications in addition to social and economic consequences, hampering a country's progress and restricting individuals’ ability to access better-paying jobs, participate fully in society, and make informed decisions about their health and well-being.

Literacy is often thought of in its most simplistic sense—the ability to read and write. But literacy is so much more than that. It also involves understanding, analyzing, using, and engaging with information. These are critical skills in the age of increasing economic competition, dwindling resources, climate change, and rapidly evolving technology such as AI.

The benefits of literacy cannot be overstated. It lifts individuals out of poverty and enriches their lives. It creates opportunities for people to develop skills to help them provide for themselves and their families. Literacy also improves the development of the wider community, facilitates employment, and allows the wider economy and society to thrive. It encourages free speech and protects democracy. Moreover, it reduces infant mortality rates and directly affects an individual’s physical and mental health.

Perhaps most relevant to the IWIB community, being literate empowers women and girls, breaking the cycle of illiteracy and improving self-esteem, enabling them to become economically productive and independent. A mother’s reading level is the highest predictor of their child’s future academic success, outweighing family or neighborhood income factors. Women’s literacy is a counterpoint to the socio-economic challenges that might otherwise curb academic potential.

I want to finish by reiterating that LITERACY IS A FUNDAMENTAL HUMAN RIGHT. It empowers individuals, communities, and societies to achieve their goals and aspirations. Furthermore, literacy cannot be taken away from you; it can be improved but never removed. Literacy is our unique superpower!

· Please share your memories of learning how to read and/or what literacy means to you.

· What are some challenges to literacy in the age of smartphones and technology?

· Please share your thoughts about what we can do individually and as a society to

promote literacy.

Four years ago, I sat in our cottage in the Stockholm archipelago, reflecting on the fact my daughter, Yasmine, would be going away to college in New York. It felt bittersweet, but I was grateful she and I had such a close relationship. I then began thinking about mother-daughter relationships in general. I was very attached to my mother, and we spoke almost daily—even when I moved to Stockholm. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn't all perfect; we had our misunderstandings. Likewise, Yasmine and I often bickered, especially during those fraught teen years. Still, our love and special bond were never in doubt. But what about those complicated—even dysfunctional—mother/daughter relationships?

An idea began to form in my mind about just such a dynamic—a single mother who is late to maturity and her precocious eighteen-year-old daughter. As the characters of Linn and Zoë Holmgren began to take shape, I wanted to infuse some familiar elements. I placed them on a fictional Swedish island similar to mine and added a dose of Norse mythology to thicken the plot. Finally, I turned inward and wrote about something else close to home: an interracial relationship between Swedish Linn and a charismatic Haitian American she meets after a one-night stand at a music festival. A significant part of the narrative would center on the experiences of their bi-racial Swedish/American/Haitian daughter, Zoë.

To write as authentically as possible about Zoë’s perspective, I had lengthy conversations with Yasmine—asking her everything from choosing Zoë’s name to Gen Z slang. I completed a large portion of the first draft during the early months of the pandemic. However, the brutal murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, rattled my already fragile psyche. A long-overdue racial reckoning took root in the United States and spread worldwide. Sweden was not immune. Demonstrations in solidarity with Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement occurred at Sergels Torg, a large public square in central Stockholm. Discussions about racism, discrimination, racial profiling, police brutality, and microaggressions came to the fore.

From my own experience as a Black woman who has lived in both the United States and Sweden, I have faced less blatant prejudice here. Nevertheless, I’ve also brushed aside uncomfortable incidents to keep the peace and preserve my mental health. However, my daughter bravely penned an Instagram post detailing her experiences with racial ignorance and unconscious bias in Sweden. Her account and the amplification of indignities faced by people of color introduced a sense of urgency to something I had been tip-toeing around. Namely, Zoë’s feeling of racial otherness; her search for identity and acceptance. In the wake of an inexplicable tragedy and a world coming apart at the seams, I saw the emotional honesty that had eluded me.

Writing Sommaren på Nornö enabled me to confront issues I had wrestled with for years. Given my personal background, I wanted to feature an underrepresented voice in Swedish fiction and portray that world through her specific lens. I also wanted to explore the universal theme of feeling like an outsider in a society that encourages conformity. The updated English edition, A Norn in Bloom, taught me to be fearless and to focus on what I wanted to convey rather than what was comfortable. Although I created the characters and circumstances, it sometimes felt as though Linn and Zoë were real and driving the action forward. Luckily, I'm not done with them yet. Stay tuned!

I’m so excited for the July 18th release of A Norn in Bloom, the English-language edition of my 2021 Swedish novel, Sommaren på Nornö.

The book was originally written in English and skillfully translated into Swedish by the talented Hanna Svensson. However, my dream has always been to publish the novel in my native language. Furthermore, many English-speaking readers have been asking for access to this story, so I’m thrilled it has finally come to fruition.

But what did it take for me to get here? Like much of my writing journey, this process was filled with challenges.

I was so happy and grateful for the response Sommaren på Nornö received from Swedish readers. If you got the book and what I was trying to convey, you really got it--as my daughter loves to say :). I queried a handful of literary agents in the United States but received no offers of representation. However, one agent suggested I switch from third-person to first-person POV. Initially, I tried this as an experiment but discovered I preferred how Linn and Zoë’s voices and emotions leaped off the page, establishing a deeper level of intimacy and relatability. Although this agent passed on the book, she gave me helpful feedback!

Rather than continue the time-consuming task of querying more agents, I decided to focus my energy on writing the sequel to Sommaren på Nornö, which took about a year of intense work. I submitted the manuscript to the same publisher in late 2022 but have no news regarding a publication date. Without concrete plans, I felt like I was in author limbo; the waiting game made me insecure, second-guessing myself, my abilities, and my career. This cloud of self-doubt negatively impacted my mindset and I felt anxious internally and blocked creatively.

Luckily, one author who I admire and follow on Instagram, Camille Pagán, is also a master certified coach whose mission is to help aspiring and established authors reach their goals. I needed to reset my frame of mind, so I signed up for Camille’s 10-week session. Aside from plenty of insightful advice and actionable tips, I came in contact with a wonderful community of writers when I desperately needed a safe space to confide my concerns.

Camille made me realize that one of my happiest experiences was when I self-published Lagging Indicators. I enjoyed being in control of my destiny and working collaboratively with an indie book advisor. Wanting to recapture the joy I had once felt in writing, creating, and publishing, I invested in editorial and self-publishing expertise to achieve the best English-language version of A Norn in Bloom I could. This decision has rekindled my passion for the writing life and reaffirmed my faith in the complicated profession I’ve chosen. As I've stated in the past, writing can get very lonely and we writers are at the mercy of gatekeepers, critics, etc. Reclaiming my agency has given me clarity about the type of career I would like to have--motivating me to become a bolder, braver writer.

Many thanks to everyone who has gotten me to this point. I hope you will enjoy A Norn in Bloom. Available in print and e-book from July 18th!

All photos by Stefan Anderson

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