Elina Hirvonen, a Finnish writer and filmmaker visited Budapest on the occasion of the publication of her second novel in Hungarian. We talked to her about Africa, motherhood, and the link between suffering and strength.
Hirvonen’s first novel Että Hän Muistaisi Saman (When I Forgot) was first published in Finland in 2005; the English translation came out in 2007 (Portobello Books; American edition: Tin House Books, 2009). When I Forgot takes place in Finland at the time of September 11, 2001, and is narrated by a young Finnish woman, Anna, and her tortured but extremely close relationship with her brother Joona, who is mentally ill, as well as her therapeutic love relationship with Ian, an American writer and guest lecturer whose father became mentally crippled in the Vietnam War. The scene of Hirvonen’s second novel Kauimpana kuolemasta (Furthest from Death, 2010) is Africa and it is narrated by Paul, a disillusioned and recently divorced Finnish aid worker, and Esther, a strong and well-educated African woman. We talked to Elina in Budapest on the occasion of the publication of her second novel in Hungarian—the first translation into any language—and the screening of her beautiful documentary Paradise: Three Journeys in This World, which tells the story of a Malian illegal immigrant to Spain; that of his family who live in a Malian village that will be swallowed by the desert in a few decades; and some harrowing survival stories of aborted attempts to escape from Africa to Europe. Hirvonen’s novels and her film are all characterized by the same unmistakable style that is this Finnish writer’s brand: an extremely evocative, strongly empathic and lyrical portrayal of individual characters and fates, whether African or European.
Some of your new novel takes place in Finland, but most of it in Africa. You betray an intimate knowledge of the continent that certainly goes beyond that of a tourist or a regular reader of news. How and why did you become attracted to this continent?
This has many reasons. I’ve been interested in Africa ever since I was a child. My first inspiration was when I was seven years old. I saw a documentary on Ethiopean children starving, and I had a very strong feeling that I could be one of them. This was a real existential crisis for me, and I remember how I was preaching to my best friend that it is only an accident we are born in Finland; I was probably a very annoying child. I decided to work as a nurse in Africa when I grew up, so I borrowed a book from a library and started studying Swahili by myself. Then later on as a journalist I was very much upset by the way Africa was represented in the news in Finland and other European countries. Africa figured in the news only when something terrible happened, the prevailing one-sided view was that all Africa is about is crisis, war and famine, which is of course partly true but it is not the whole truth. The first seeds for my second novel, Furthest from Death, were planted when I worked as a journalist in Zambia, Tanzania and Eritrea in 2001, and I met a young Zambian woman who was very impressive. She was twenty-something, only a few years older than me, had a very poor background but was incredibly intelligent. She was almost my age but she already had to look after orphan girls and had a lot of responsibility when I was only looking after myself. One evening we went to a bar and she started crying and told me that she used to have a British boyfriend, and just some weeks before we met her boyfriend had been heavily beaten up and taken to a London hospital. His family hated her because they thought she was partly responsible for what had happened to their son. She couldn’t afford travelling and couldn’t leave the little girls, so she had to continue her life in Zambia while her boyfriend was in coma somewhere else. I was very much in love with my boyfriend (who is my husband now), so it was very touching to hear about a relationship ending because of a gap between possibilities.
I started writing the novel in 2007. I was just thinking of going back to Zambia for research when my husband, who applied to a post in Vietnam, was eventually sent to Zambia instead for two years, and that’s where I wrote most of the book. In the beginning I thought I would just sit down and write, but very soon it became clear that I could not just write but had to contribute to the society also. I met so many talented and active people who wanted to develop the country but had no network to support them, so I wanted to be part of the society and ended up volunteering for Zambian film industry and for a shelter for street children. Both of these had a huge impact on the book, because in the film industry I met many young Zambians who had amazing stories about their lives in the villages, and then in the shelter I met a girl who gave the inspiration for Bessie and Susan and to whom the book is dedicated. Her name was Susan, she was fourteen and had been at the shelter for a couple of months. When she was seven she lost her parents. She grew up in a small village, a family of relatives adopted her, and the man forced her to be his young wife. She ran away and ended up on the streets, and life on the streets is very harsh for a girl. She was constantly abused for many years, and then the lady running the shelter found her at a police station where she was beaten up by the police, her face was so swollen it couldn’t be recognized. When I met her she was the cutest little girl, she loved reading Winnie-the-Pooh and playing with cats, and it was amazing how she was a normal child after what she had been through. Then a couple of months after being in the first safe place in her life, she died of an illness. This broke me; it was so unfair that she died just when her life could have become better in a place where she was loved and protected. All the stories I heard and all the people I met went under my skin, and that is how Bessie and Susan were created. I had to create an alternative destiny for her.
Furthest from Death is alternatively narrated by a Finnish man, Paul, and an African woman, Esther. Most of the black women in your book are victims of sexual abuse to various degrees, and the aggressors are always men, mostly white but also black. One of the key scenes of the novel is when Paul and his wife Johanna witness a black girl being taken away by two men, a black and a white one, and this is the point when their marriage begins to fall apart. The scene often comes up as Paul tries to interpret it and as sadness at his wife’s loss gives way to guilt, mingled with the guilt he feels for his son, Mark. Did the suffering of African women change the way you view the problems of European women?
Not necessarily so. What I wanted to avoid—even though I wrote so much about abuse—was the stereotypical portrayal of African women as sufferers, and that is why the figure of Esther was so important, because she is incredibly intelligent and strong, and also that of her mother, who is a very supportive village woman. But what I wanted most was to write about the universal issue of the link between suffering and strength, for African women and for human beings in general; the ability to find something beautiful in life and to find connections to other people in spite of the incredible suffering. This is something that Paul and Esther share, even though their worlds are completely different, but they go through similar emotional problems.
Yes, when reading your novel one feels as if you were calling attention to the incredible suffering of Africans on the one hand (you write about the country’s indebtedness to foreign creditors, the abominable state of health care and schooling as well as the disillusionment if not cynicism of aid workers) and comparing it to the relatively carefree life of Europeans; yet the micro-traumas of the home and the great traumas of present-day Africa in Furthest from Death, or those of 9/11 or mental illness in When I Forgot, run parallel. As if relationships were doomed from the beginning, as if abuse was a necessary component of human relationships. The world of the two novels is very different, yet they are very much united by common motifs, common concerns and the same lyrical tone.
Yes, when I wrote the second one I felt it was a completely different novel, but when I finished I thought the two novels were very similar. I didn’t know until I finished the second one that I actually repeated the same things.
In both of your novels, most relationships are based on abuse, misunderstanding and mismatch, but there are two types of relationship that stand out from the rest. One is what we could call ’parallel lives’ that are almost mystically interwoven—Esther and Bessie, Joona and Anna—and the other is therapeutic relationships in which people help each other to relive and thus overcome childhood traumas—Ian and Anna in the first novel; and Paul and Susan in the second novel (Paul, the disillusioned aid worker starts to take care of a little abused African girl, Bessie’s daughter and Esther’s stepdaughter, and through her, he hopes to repair his relationship with Mark, his son in Finland who has grown up to be a skinhead who beats Africans).
Yes, it seems this is something I have to deal with for some reason. For me, more important than portraying the suffering of African women was to portray the link between suffering and strength both for Western and for African people; the common humanity more than the gap between them. I was a bit concerned when I noticed that almost all the African men in my book were somehow abusive and twisted. I didn’t like that, so I invented the figure of Esther’s village teacher who was supportive and wanted the girls to be educated, and a male friend of Esther’s who looked after her when she went to the capital to study. My main concern was to avoid any stereotypical portrayal of Africans because there is so much of that. There is great responsibility in writing about cultures that you don’t belong to, especially if it is a culture where power relations are involved and that we don’t know much about, because we don’t learn African history at school and rarely see African films with multiple African voices. I wanted to create human characters who cannot be explained as Africans or Finns but as human beings.
You are expecting a baby as we are talking. There is a lot of discussion of motherhood in both books, and this topic seems to be surrounded by anxiety. In the beginning motherhood is a quasi-animal condition, with the mother and the baby in a symbiotic relationship; then it is mainly a source of pain as mothers stand around helpless when their child is abused or abuses someone else. As if parents, even if they are initially full of innocence, energy and expectations, and even if they fervently wish to be good parents, were helpless against their fate and had to repeat the mistakes of the previous generations over and over. On the other hand, you portray children who are helpless against the devotion they feel towards their parents, you show the relation of children to parents as an incredibly strong bond in spite of all the evil that their parents actively or unwillingly cause to them. You portray parents who put an unbearable burden on their children.
That is how I feel about the biological family. When I wrote my first book I didn’t want to have children ever, but when I finished the second book I became pregnant. I still do feel that in many ways the nuclear family is an impossible concept and very tragic, and the only way to deal with this with my own children is to be aware of it. Power relations between parents and children are so huge; it is a weird concept that these helpless little beings have to live with adults who are all broken and twisted, and when we look after them we somehow manage to break them. We must accept this, we can’t avoid it, we just have to live with the fact that there is no way to be perfect parents. So it annoys me that in Finland now there are so many hypocritical people who see themselves as supermoms and morally condemn everybody who doesn’t do things exactly as they do. I don’t think I am cynical, I am only realistic. The nature of not only family but also human relationships in general is that they are a combination of incredible pain and love and the cycle of trying to overcome the pain and creating your own family which is not your biological family. This is also a big theme in the next novel I am now writing. It is a problem for me to justify having children, bringing innocent people into the world.
In both novels, there is a seamless continuity of narrative, whether you describe a relatively placid or a terribly violent scene, whether the scene is rural Africa or urban Finland. There is a melancholic detachment in your style, which is even more pronounced in the second novel.
I think that the style of the second one is richer, more visual, there is more beauty in it. In both novels the style is linked to the world of the novel and the experience of writing. The first one is simpler and more minimalistic, and the second one—maybe also because of my film studies—is more visual. Furthest from Death was difficult to write because the destinies are so heavy, so it was important for me to find a style that is more visually rich and also more musical. I listened to a lot of jazz while I wrote it. As for literary influences, I was thinking a lot about Virginia Woolf when I wrote the first one, and when I wrote the second I was reading a lot of poetry, and was influenced by it.
How are your books received in Finland and abroad?
In Finland there are people who love them deeply and praise them and some who don’t understand them at all, especially the second one. This has to do with the style—some people couldn’t understand who was talking, so they quit reading it. The reviews have been very good mostly, but many people complained it was too difficult. But this is part of being a writer that you do not write for everybody. As for the translations, this is the first one to come out (the next ones will be Danish, Dutch and Chinese), so I haven’t seen reviews in other countries. The reviews on When I Forgot depended on the country—in Estonia and Hungary people were interested in the history, the father going to war and how the next generations experience the war, in the US and the UK it was more about 9/11, in the UK readers were also very interested in the topic of mental illness, and in Germany there were some critics who thought the book was too heavy and too dark. It was interesting to see how differently people reacted, and that once the book is finished it lives its own life whatever I think of it. It was nice that there were some reactions I didn’t expect at all.
You are not only a novelist, but a TV show host, a journalist, a filmmaker and editor of a magazine—how can you pack so many things in your life?
I just focus on one thing at a time. I don’t work for the TV any more. Right now I am making a fiction film for children about stuffed animals who are running the world, so it is not dark like my other books.
Tags: Elina Hirvonen