My Mum's a Gorilla - So What?

Posted on 12th March 2015 at 11:33 by SELTA Web Editor

SELTA member and award winning translator Fiona Graham has reviewed 'Apstjärna' by Frida Nilsson, one of the authors who spoke at SELTA's children's literature workshop last autumn. Fiona, who says she can't understand why Nilsson's works haven't yet been snapped up by an English-language publisher, has also translated a chapter of the book to give readers a taster. 

My Mum's a Gorilla - So What?

Apstjärnan Swedish front cover

This is the unusual premise (and the title in the French and Italian editions) of Frida Nilsson’s humorous and moving tale for young readers, Apstjärnan (The Ape Star).
       Nine-year-old Jonna is starved of affection in her spartan orphanage. She dreams of being adopted, but her ideal adoptive mother is most definitely not the female gorilla who turns up at the home one autumn day. Gorilla is fat and hairy, has appalling dress sense, and drives a rusting wreck.  Worse still, one of Jonna’s friends whispers that she eats children!
       On arrival at Gorilla’s one-room home, which backs onto a scrapyard on a deserted industrial estate, Jonna thinks only of escape. When Gorilla heats up water for a bath, the terrified girl imagines she’s about to be turned into stew.  And even when this fear has receded, she remains determined to keep Gorilla at arm’s length. She is embarrassed by Gorilla's uncouth appearance and blithe unawareness of social convention. Jonna’s resistance continues until she hurts herself learning how to cycle, and finds comfort in Gorilla’s warm, protective arms. For the first time in her short life, she has a real mother.
       Jonna and Gorilla make an unbeatable team when it comes to selling junk at inflated prices, though Gorilla's ultimate dream is to become a bookseller. The two acquire an ancient caravan, practise driving, and shock the locals on an outing to a restaurant. But new trouble is on its way. The chairman of the local council, the evil Tord Fjordmark, is determined to force Gorilla out of her home so the authority can build a lucrative swimming complex on her land. He threatens to remove Jonna, blackmails Gorilla into signing away her home, then sends Jonna back to the orphanage anyway.
       Yet all is not lost. Despite her initial fears of abandonment, Jonna realises Gorilla is waiting for her not far away. Thanks to the ‘ape star’ of the title, the two are reunited, and they go on to lead a happy itinerant life together in which the caravan becomes Gorilla's and Jonna's travelling bookshop.
       This is an absorbing, touching and funny book. Jonna is a clear-sighted, sometimes painfully honest narrator who sees straight through selfish, mean or pretentious adults. Frida Nilsson writes with an irreverent, sometimes surreal humour which will delight six-to-nine-year-olds - and their parents. The tale of Jonna and Gorilla is highly entertaining - but it also raises important questions about how much store we set by outward appearance, and what really matters in our relationships with others.
       The theme of feeling like an outsider, and being treated like one, recurs throughout The Ape Star and other books by Frida Nilsson, including Jag, Dante och miljonerna (Me, Dante and the Millions), in which a disgraced bank manager is befriended by Dante, a rat living on a rubbish tip; and Jagger, Jagger, which revolves around the friendship between a boy bullied by his peers and Jagger, a stray dog. 
       Frida Nilsson’s books are popular in Sweden and have been widely translated. The Ape Star has been published in France, Germany, South Korea, Russia, Denmark, Poland and Italy. It was nominated for the prestigious German Jugendliteraturpreis (Youth Literature Prize) in 2011.Apstjärnan Italian front cover
       In 2013 Frida Nilsson was shortlisted for the French Prix Tam-Tam ‘J’aime Lire’, and in 2014  she was awarded the Swedish Astrid Lindgren Prize. The jury described her as ‘a down-to-earth author who writes about important issues that loom large in a child’s world, using concentrated, lively language, and with plentiful humour, intense seriousness and great sensitivity to what it is to feel different.'
       The Ape Star has all these qualities, and it’s high time for children in the UK to be able to enjoy the adventures of Jonna and Gorilla.

Frida Nilsson’s Apstjärnan (140 pages) was first published by Natur och Kultur in 2005. The 2012 edition is illustrated by Lotta Geffenblad.

The excerpt below, in which Gorilla gives nine-year-old Jonna a driving lesson and the pair act up in a local restaurant, is my own translation.

Dining Out

 ‘Sharp bend to the left in three seconds! Three, two, one - now!
     I swerved, and Gorilla spun the old barber’s chair I was sitting on to the left. ‘Eeeeeeeeech!’ she squealed, imitating the screech of skidding tyres. She had uprooted the steering wheel from the Volvo so I could use it to practise my driving. To the right of the barber’s chair was a golf club that had seen better days, planted in the mud. It was supposed to be the gear lever, and just behind it was an umbrella, which served as the handbrake.
     ‘Brilliant!’ said Gorilla. ‘And now there’s a gradual bend to your right.’
     I steered to the right.
     Apstjärnan German front cover‘Vrrrooommm!’ went Gorilla. ‘Don’t forget to honk your horn every time you go round a bend - that’ll keep you safe if there’s anyone blocking your way. Now put your foot down once you’re on your way out of the bend.’
     I sounded the horn and put my right foot down, pushing the scrubbing brush into the mud. ‘Toot-tooooot! Spot on,’ Gorilla praised me. ‘And remember – if the traffic lights are on red, only keep driving if you’re going at a decent speed. Okay, handbrake turn in three seconds. One! Two! Three! Now!
     I yanked at the umbrella. Gorilla spun the chair one hundred and eighty degrees. ‘That’s the ticket,’ she said. ‘You’re learning fast – you’ll soon be able to drive a real car. But now it’s time for tea.’
     It was Saturday. We'd been having driving lessons every day for nearly a week now, and my arms were really tired from holding the heavy steering wheel. I was already longing to be allowed to drive for real, but Gorilla wanted to do everything by the book. Until I was a fully trained driver, it was safer for her to drive the Volvo, she said.
     A little later tea was ready. Gorilla came to the table with the hot frying pan. ‘Here you are,’ she said, putting its contents on our plates. Then she gave a little flourish with one hand. ‘Bon appétit, Madame!’
     I eyed my plate, and swallowed.
     ‘Ummm …’ I said, ‘it’d be really nice if we could eat something other than fried eggs for once, Gorilla. If you wouldn’t mind terribly.’
     Gorilla looked crestfallen.
     ‘I don’t mean I don't like them,’ I put in quickly, ‘it’s just that we’ve been eating fried egg sandwiches every day since I got here. So they’re starting to get a bit boring.’
     Gorilla nodded. ‘Of course they are,’ she said. ‘That just didn’t occur to me. It’s because I only had myself to cook for, for all those years ...’
     She shook her head. Then she grabbed my fried egg and flung it into the slops bucket. ‘Little poppet,’ she said, ‘you must have fried egg coming out of your ears every time you sneeze. Never will another egg darken my door!’ 
     Catching sight of the egg that was still lying on her own plate, she picked it up resolutely, and threw it over her shoulder. Ker-ploof! The egg landed in a welly. I had to laugh.
     ‘There we are,’ said Gorilla. ‘My sincerest apologies, Madame. So what shall we have for tea now, then?’
     I shrugged my shoulders. ‘What would you like to have?’
     Gorilla’s face lit up. ‘We could go to a restaurant, couldn’t we? Yes, that’s it! We’ll go into town and have a Saturday night slap-up meal, right now! Right this very minute!
     So that’s what we did. But first we smartened ourselves up. I dug an old brush out of the cupboard and stood for a long time in front of the mirror on the chimney-breast.Frida Nilsson, photo by Mia Carlsson
     Gorilla pottered about, pondering what to order. ‘Fillet steak is tasty,’ she said. ‘Really good grub. Or plaice with remoulade sauce. Yum, yum!’
     I was having serious difficulties with the tangles in my hair. ‘It’s impossible to get rid of all these,’ I said. ‘But my hair looks all right.’
     Gorilla nodded. She fetched a man’s suit jacket in grey that was hanging on a nail next to the door. It still had nearly all its buttons. Then she wiped the mud off my wellies.
     ‘No-one can complain now,’ she said, thrusting out her chest. I looked at her. She was beautiful. Big and strong and beautiful, like a freshly polished tractor.
     The last thing I put on was the houndstooth cap. ‘I’m ready,’ I said, and felt butterflies in my tummy.
     ‘I’m ready too,’ said Gorilla. ‘So now you and I are going out to dine in style.’
     The abandoned industrial estate was silent and empty. Street lights cast a yellow glow over the road, and the shadows were lengthening. Gorilla didn’t drive so fast this time. Pointing out things on the right and the left, she told me about the places we were passing.
     ‘Pärson’s Mechanical Repair Shop’, read a fancy old neon sign that wasn’t lit up any more. ‘That used to be a workshop back in the day,’ she said. ‘You used to be able to get anything fixed there so it’d be running smoothly again. He had a dachshund, did Pärson. When the people from the local authority came round, it used to bite them in the leg. Pärson refused to sell for a long time.’ Her face clouded. ‘But then they got him. I think they made up some story that his place was full of mould. He would have had to have it cleaned up, and that would have cost him hundreds of thousands of kronor, which he didn’t have. So then he had to sell up anyway.’
     She sighed, but then she got a second wind and pointed out something else.
‘And that’s where the sausage factory used to be. When they didn’t want to sell, Tord Fjordmark and his lot bought a new sausage factory on the other side of town. After that, it didn’t take long for them to push the poor blighters here out of business, and, well … then it all went the same way. They sold up.’
     She drove on in silence. The round yellow signposts with their red lettering were everywhere; it was an uncanny sight.
     ‘Stop a moment,’ I said.
     Gorilla braked. Pressing my nose up against the car window, I read one of the signs aloud: ‘Coming soon - the biggest Aqua Centre in northern Europe - thanks to your local council!‘
     In the middle of the sign was a hand giving a cheery thumbs-up. Under it I read the following words: Your dynamic local council.
     Gorilla snorted. ‘Thanks a bundle for that. Nice of you to boast about being dynamic, when you’ve got people over a barrel.’
     She drove on, her face like thunder. ‘But they’re not going to get me. I don’t scare easily. Aqua Centre? Ha! Not on your nelly!’
     I felt a small pang of fear in my tummy again. I could see Tord’s ghastly grin before me again. What would happen if he managed to get his hands on the scrapyard after all? Where would we go then?
     I shook off the thought. No Panic on the Titanic, I thought, leaning back in the seat. As long as we had each other, nothing could go too badly wrong. We cruised in and out of the yellow glow of the street lights.
     We parked in the square in the town centre. I felt as though I was bubbling inside. I’d never set foot in a restaurant in my whole life. The shops were all shut and dark now, and there weren’t many people out of doors. We strolled along, making the moment last longer.
     But after a little while we stopped in front of a green door with a glass pane on which the words ‘The Lane’ were written.
     ‘Here it is,’ said Gorilla. The doorbell tinkled when we went in.
     It smelt so good inside that my mouth began to water. Guitar music tinkled out of the ceiling loudspeaker. Here are there, people were eating and having a nice time. On the walls were paintings of ships and Spanish ladies in dresses covered in polka dots. Gorilla hung her jacket over the back of a chair.
     ‘A table for two?’ she asked, gesturing like a waiter. I took off my jacket and put the cap on the chair next to me.
     Soon a man with a moustache came over and handed each of us a burgundy-coloured menu. ‘Good evening, ladies,’ he said politely. ’Here are your menus.’
     Gorilla gave me a wink. ‘Choose whatever you like,’ she said. ‘And have a pudding as well.’
     Pizzas was the first section of the menu, followed by lots of different kinds of pasta with different flavours.
     ‘What does “à la carte” mean?’ I asked.
     Gorilla drew herself up. ‘That’s the really top-notch stuff,’ she said.
     I picked my way haltingly through the tricky words:

Filet mignon
Fillet of pork
Shish kebab
Minute steak
Hungarian mixed grill
Chicken à la king
West coast salad

     ‘They’ve got such a lot,’ I said, ‘and it all sounds nice.’
     Gorilla beamed contentedly. She took a toothpick out of the holder on the table and nibbled it. ‘I’m having filet mignon,’ she said. ‘That’s the best.’
     I thought it over for a bit longer. ‘Chicken à la king,’ I said, closing the menu. ‘And a bottle of pop.’
     I had no idea what ‘à la king’ meant, but I liked chicken. We’d had stewing hen in white sauce a few times at Tansy House.
     ‘À la king’ meant yummy. There were mushrooms in the sauce. I tried to put on my best table manners and take my time, but it was hard. The chicken was just too delicious. Gorilla had the same problem.  She put her knife and fork down from time to time. ‘No,’ she mumbled, her mouth full, ‘we shouldn’t gobble our dinners down, it’s not good for the stomach.’
     ‘This is the most scrumptious thing I’ve ever eaten,’ I said. ‘Is yours too?’
     Gorilla nodded and tried to smile without letting the potato wedge in her mouth fall out. ‘Yes, you bet. We’re living the life of Riley now. Business is running smoothly, and this fillet of beef is melting in my mouth like butter. We don’t have a care in the world.’
     The waiter came to show two new guests to their table. One was a woman with blonde curls and long pink nails, the other was her husband. The husband was fat. He was wearing braces, and had ultra-short hair that looked rather prickly on his domed head.
     ‘Good evening,’ said Gorilla politely, raising her glass to toast them. I felt proud when she was so charming.
     The man attempted a smile, but the woman cut him short. ‘Don’t talk to her,’ she said under her breath. ‘One word to a drunk, and you can't get rid of them all evening.’
     Gorilla gulped and went back to her potato wedges. I popped a mushroom in my mouth, but all of a sudden it was harder to swallow. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the couple watching us. ‘That poor girl,’ the woman hissed. ‘It must be against the law to have children living with that sort of person. Look, the child doesn’t even have  proper shoes.’
     Gorilla began to get nervous and clumsy. Her fork clattered to the floor. ‘Whoops-a-daisy!’ she cried, giving the people at the other table an embarrassed smile. Swiftly, she picked up the fork and wiped it on her trousers. Then she carried on eating.
     Apstjärnan Swedish front coverThe woman looked as though a stink bomb had just exploded under her nose. ‘Did you see that?’ she hissed at the man, tugging at his arm. ‘How can they even let her in here? They’ll be laughing on the other side of their faces when it turns out she can’t pay. Ugh, this is putting me off my food.’
     ‘All right, all right,’ muttered her husband. ‘Just try not to pay her any attention.’
     But the woman took hold of her handbag and fished out a hundred-krona banknote. ‘You’ve got to do something when a child’s welfare is at stake,’ she said. And she turned to Gorilla with a tight-lipped smile. ‘Excuse me. Here’s something for you to put towards new shoes for the girl.’
     Gorilla gaped at the hundred-krona note, dumbfounded.
     ‘But don’t you dare spend the money on drink, mind!’ said the woman severely. ‘It’s meant for a deserving purpose, you know.’
     My cheeks were burning.  It felt as though everyone in the restaurant was staring at us. I wanted to run away. I felt as if I was going to throw up my dinner – yet all that Gorilla could do was stare at the banknote.
     But then she began to breathe heavily. Her stomach rose and fell, faster and faster, as though she couldn’t catch her breath.
     ‘Put your cap on,’ she grunted.
     I looked at her in surprise. ‘What?’
     ‘Haven’t I told you to put your cap on at mealtimes?!’ she bellowed.
     ‘Noooh….’ I said, but Gorilla cut me off.
     ‘YES, I HAVE! I’ve told you dozens of times if I’ve told you once, and it’s about time that you paid attention and did as I say!’
     Shocked, the woman retracted the hundred-krona note. I put my cap on.
     ‘That’s more like it,’ muttered Gorilla. ‘I want to see a cap on your head at mealtimes!’
     I recognised her tone of voice. The woman and her husband were utterly flabbergasted. They could only gawp at us.
     ‘Don’t you go putting on airs and graces with me!’ Gorilla went on. ‘Eat with your fork! Only snooty toffs use knives!’
     ‘I’m sorry,’ I said, concealing a smile in my napkin.
     ‘Stop that right now! Kids shouldn’t be fussing about with serviettes! I always had to wipe my face on my sleeve when I was little, and it hasn’t done me any harm!’
     Picking up a potato wedge with her fingers, she stuffed it in her mouth. Laughter was bubbling up through my throat. I had to turn aside and pretend to cough. I wasn’t ready to put on an act at such short notice.
     By the time I’d stopped laughing, there were tears in my eyes.
     ‘Sorry,’ I squeaked. ‘I forgot.’
    ‘Yes, well, you just keep forgetting, don’t you!’ boomed Gorilla, spluttering out the remains of her potato wedge. ‘Now get those elbows of yours on the table. You’re my kid, and you’ve got to learn to be like me!’
     I leaned as far as I could over the table and planted my elbows on it.
     ‘That’s what I like to see,’ said Gorilla. She was about to put a foot up on the table next to me when the moustachioed waiter gave her a cross look in passing. She lowered her leg. ‘Yeah,’ she mumbled. ‘You can … you can rock your chair backwards and forwards, too. And I’m going to cure you of all those nasty clean habits you picked up at the orphanage - even if I have to roll you in muck myself! – Now it’s time for afters. And there’ll be a brandy for you, my girl!’
     She turned to the couple, who were sitting there as though paralysed. ‘Can I offer you a peach melba?’ she asked. ‘And have a chat about life?’
     They didn’t reply. The woman shot up out of her chair, and the man tried to get out some story or other about their parking time being nearly up. A few seconds later, they had disappeared from the restaurant.
     Gorilla winked at me. ‘Time for pud now!’ she said.

I was silent in the car on the way home. During the time I’d spent at the scrapyard, I’d forgotten what people thought of Gorilla if they didn’t know what she was really like. It felt like forever since I’d seen her for the first time and shuddered at her naff trousers and her awful grin.
     Gorilla was different from everyone else. She never turned up her nose at anyone, and she never raised her voice without good cause. She was herself, and I no longer wanted her to change. Others could change if they had a problem with that.
     Gorilla gave me a sideways look. ‘Is there something bothering you?’ she asked.
     I shook my head. ‘No,’ I said.
     Maybe I should have been more bothered. But I didn’t care two hoots about that woman or her hundred-krona note any more. I was pretty sure she must be a thousand times more bothered than I was – after all, their outing to the restaurant had turned into a fiasco.
     ‘People are just the way they are,’ I said.
     Gorilla burst into roars of laughter. ‘I couldn’t have put it better myself!’ she boomed, stepping on the accelerator. ‘Oh, what a clever-clogs you are, little poppet of mine!’