Kerstin Thorvall was an illustrator and an author who was active during the second half of the 1900s. She reinvigorated Swedish children’s and youth literature, she crossed the boundary into the autobiographical genre, and she was a contentious polemicist and writer of causerie-style submissions for the daily and the weekly press.
Kerstin Thorvall was born in Eskilstuna in 1925. Her mother, Thora Thorvall, was a qualified junior-school teacher and her father, Åke Thorvall, worked as an assistant teacher. Her parents’ marriage was hardly a happy one, in part due to the bipolar disease with which Kerstin Thorvall’s father had been diagnosed at the age of 17. This bipolarity led to intermittent stays in mental health facilities and other institutions. Kerstin Thorvall’s mother in turn had been deeply influenced by her religious upbringing which contrasted sharply with her father’s more demonstrative sexual nature. Kerstin Thorvall regularly returned to her childhood and her relationship with her parents – particularly her mother – in her literature. With reference to her mother’s deeply-held religious convictions, Kerstin Thorvall depicted her as conservative, strict, prudish, and judgemental. Indeed, the trauma of her father’s death when he was 47 is something Kerstin Thorvall continuously refers to in her writings.
Kerstin Thorvall’s great talent for drawing had already become apparent when she was young. After gaining her school-leaving certificate from Uppsala högre elementarläroverk för kvinnor (advanced school for women) Kerstin Thorvall then enrolled on a fashion-illustrator’s course at the Anders Beckman school in the mid-1940s. This served as the start of a successful career as an illustrator and freelance fashion-illustrator – later causerie-article writer and columnist – for publications such as VeckoRevyn and Damernas Värld. Amongst other things she illustrated several books by Astrid Lindgren, the first of which was Kalle Blomkvist och Rasmus, published in 1953. This set off a long-term friendship between the two women and Kerstin Thorvall came to consider Astrid Lindgren as her second mother.
Kerstin Thorvall made her literary debut as a children’s and youth writer with her 1957 book Förstå mig, which she co-wrote with Gustav Jonsson, a psychologist (also known as Skå-Gustav). Kerstin Thorvall’s 1959 book Boken till dig and her 1965 work Andra boken till dig reinvigorated the girls’ book genre. Kerstin Thorvall’s children’s books, such as the ones about Gunnar from 1967, 1968, and 1970, intentionally contravened the didactic direction of traditional children’s literature and established an approach which effectively nullified the distance between adult and child. In contrast to the fairytale-like qualities of older children’s literature Kerstin Thorvall’s critically-acclaimed children’s books were fundamentally remarkable for the everyday realism of their aesthetics. In terms of the contents, the focus often lay on problems and difficulties which children experienced in confronting the adult world as well as those encountered through other children. Kerstin Thorvall’s books, such as the 1969 Vart ska du gå? and Vart ska du gå? Vet inte, from 1975, she played a role in creating the new youth novels which emerged during the 1970s.
Kerstin Thorvall moved on from children’s and youth literature by the mid-1970s in order to become established as a writer of literature for adults. Just as she had done in her children’s and youth books, she once again founded her work on her own experiences. The majority of her works are auto-biographical in basis and this auto-biographical element is expressed to a greater or lesser degree. However, this transformation of authorial identity, which occurred when she was 52, was far from pain-free. In a change from her celebrated position as children’s and youth writer Kerstin Thorvall engendered a lot of criticism, not least due to the fact that her books were considered to be altogether too private, outspoken, and self-revelatory in nature.
Kerstin Thorvall’s breakthrough book as a writer of literature for adults came through the release of Det mest förbjudna in 1976. In this book she thoroughly – through fiction – confronted her authoritarian, strictly religious, and sexually-uptight mother whilst also confronting the then taboo subjects of women’s and mothers’ roles, particularly female sexuality. The lead character, Anna, leads a debauched life of adultery and multiple sexual relationships with different men. When Det mest förbjudna was published it garnered major criticism on the cultural pages in the press. The stories – even within the framework of the feminist women’s movement of the 1970s in which women like Kerstin Thorvall were encouraged to write about their own lives – were still seen as altogether too private in nature and lacking in both general appeal and in political relevance. Despite, and to some degree precisely because of, the criticism and label of scandal which was applied to Kerstin Thorvall’s writings Det mest förbjudna was nevertheless a commercial success. Today it is often held up as an example of the so-called women’s confessional literature of the 1970s.
Although Kerstin Thorvall was highly productive throughout the late 1970s and the entire 1980s it was not until 1993 that she properly received literary recognition for her work with the release of the first volume within the Signe trilogy. Up until that point she had allowed herself to publish within a variety of genres. She had written and published polemical works, causerie-style articles, poetry collections, all of which had generated mixed reviews. The Signe trilogy was, however, a much more ambitious literary project. As in Det mest förbjudna and her 1977 book Oskuldens minut it was nonetheless once again her own life story which appeared in a more or less fictitious form. The first volume, entitled När man skjuter arbetare, published in 1993, was based on her parents’ marriage. In 1994 Kerstin Thorvall was awarded the prestigious Moa prize for the book. In the second volume, published in 1995 and called I skuggan av oron, Kerstin Thorvall, as many times before, returned to the issues of mothering and her relationship with her own mother following the tragic death of her father. She turned the focus on her own role as mother in the third and final volume, Från Signe till Alberte, published in 1998, and poured out her experience of raising three sons.
Kerstin Thorvall gained increasing attention and recognition with age. In addition to the aforementioned Moa prize she was awarded numerous other prizes, including the Ivar Lo-Johansson personal prize. Kerstin Thorvall could still provoke, however, as evidenced by her publication entitled Jag minns alla mina älskare och hur de brukade ta på mig, from 2000. Her life has remained a source of fascination even after her death in 2010. A comprehensive biography of Kerstin Thorvall was released in 2013, written by Beata Arnborg, an author and cultural journalist. In 2016 Sveriges Television aired a freestyle reworking of Det mest förbjudna as a three-parter, directed by Tova Magnusson-Norling. Just as had happened on the book’s release, the TV-series generated a lot of discussion.
Kerstin Thorvall’s final book, published in 2003 as she approached her eightieth year, presented a critical survey of the provision of care for the elderly and how the elderly were viewed in Sweden of the 2000s. Thus it can be said to define how Kerstin Thorvall’s writing contrasted her experience of injustice on both a personal and more general level.
Kerstin Thorvall died in Stockholm in 2010.