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Culture
Northern Profiles

A finder of unknown talents

On paper, Lars-Pele Berthelsen was a surprising winner of the West Nordic Council’s award for young-adult fiction in 2012. But, for those familiar with his life experiences, the recognition was inevitable
Culture
A portrait of the man as an author and artist

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Like so many writers, Lars-Pele Berthelsen’s path to becoming an author was not a direct one. Before debuting at an age of 62, Berthelsen worked as a teacher and studied theology, eventually returning to his hometown of Qeqertarsuaq, Greenland, to become a vicar. There, he also served in the local government and even got himself elected as mayor.

All the while literature remained a faithful companion on his path, even if writing for others was something he humbly left to others.

“To be able to call myself a writer was something I never dared to dream of,” says Berthelsen. “Literature was never far away though. I worked in my father’s printing house starting in my early teens, and later on I wrote poems.”

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It is perhaps his decades of living, and thinking about stories, rather than writing them, that made the difference. For when he finally did decide to sit down and write for others, he penned a work that, in 2012, made him the first of his countrymen to win the biennial West Nordic Council Children and Youth Literature Prize.

“For a new author – as this is my first and still only work – it was very exciting just to hear that I got nominated,” says Berthelsen. “And then winning made me feel very honoured. Attending the award ceremony in Reykjavik with the other nominees was great. You can’t help but feel a bit proud being the first author from your country to win such a wonderful award.”

His book, The Story of Kaasali (Kaassalimik oqaluttuaq, in its original Greenlandic) is set in northern Greenland, and addresses the familiar theme of how traditional society collides with the increasing influence of outside cultures.

Berthelsen himself has floated between cultures. He was born in Qeqertarsuaq, on Disko Island, off the country’s western coast, but when he turned nine his family moved to Nuuk, the capital city. There he went to school, started a family and enjoyed spending his time in the Greenlandic outback, which has always remained close to his heart.

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He now lives in Qasigiannguit, on Greenland’s western coast, where he decided to take up residence so that he and his wife could be close to some of their many grandchildren. And Berthelsen is quick highlight the role family had in his emergence as an author.

“I have always been a story-teller. I tell bedtime stories to my children and grandchildren and I have always tried to incorporate stories in to my teaching,” he says.

But while it was family that made him a great at telling stories, it was a chance encounter with nature that planted the seed for him to write The Story of Kaassali.

“I was out hunting with my eldest son on his first seal hunt,” he recalls. “We saw one, and my son stood at the front of the boat and took aim. But as he was about to shoot, an enormous orca broke the water and snatched the seal away. My son, who was understandably frightened turned to me and demanded that we return home. So we turned around and headed back, and as we sailed past the cape where our ancestors had their summer residences my mind wandered off in my head I started narrating the story of Kaassali, his wife and his three children.”

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That his first and only book should be inspired by nature is fitting for man for whom outdoor activities have always played an important role. And it is that active lifestyle that made the discovery, in 2010, that he was suffering from sclerosis all the more terrible.

“I was an athlete, a skier, a hiker, and I would often go on hikes that could go up to 100 kilometres. But one day after a long run I stood up from my bed and immediately fell to the floor. I tried to stand again, but fell back down. The sclerosis had started to eat me up from the inside.”

Sclerosis is a degenerative disorder, and the pain is a times excruciating enough to make even the vicar curse.

“To be hit by the worst form of the sclerosis means that every day your body is going through hell,” he says. “I’m sorry to have to put it that way, but I can’t find any other word to describe the pain and suffering.”

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His life has changed dramatically since contracting the illness, but for resilient people like Berthelsen life always finds a way.

“Many months after becoming completely housebound, my wonderful Danish neighbour came to my door with big parcel filled with paints and brushes. She asked me to paint some of the beautiful sights I had seen while travelling through Greenland,” says Berthelsen.

It was Bertelsen’s first experience with the brush, and, he readily admits that he has uncovered a new talent.

“I was quite shocked to find out that I wasn’t half bad, and that it was me that was producing these paintings. After that I started spending my days painted and writing the only thing that occupied my mind – The Story of Kaassali.”

This article is a part of our Northern Profiles series. Join us each Monday as we profile an Arctic personality, past or present.