07. 05. 2011. 08:15

"I wanted to tear those stereotypes apart"

An interview with Sofi Oksanen

"Eating disorders and the Soviet Union—maybe they seem like very different subjects, and first I was hesitating how it would work. But then I thought this was a way to get very different readers." - An interview with Finnish writer Sofi Oksanen.

Born in 1977, Sofi Oksanen is one of the most popular writers in Finland. Her mother emigrated to Finland from Estonia in the 70s, and she was raised up as a Finnish child. Her play entitled Purge (2007) was a great theatrical success. She expanded it into a novel which became a bestseller in Finland and was translated into almost thirty languages. Sofi Oksanen struggled with eating disorders, and she tries to come to terms with this personal problem as well as with Estonia's recent past in her novel Stalin's Cows (2003).

You said in an interview that when you visited the United States on the occasion of the English publication of
Purge, many people were incredulous that a man should be hiding in a wardrobe like Hans in your novel. Why did Americans find this impossible?

This was a typical reaction. In Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia or Poland nobody was wondering, but Americans considered that this was not possible, that this kind of thing was intolerable for a man. In the US I also met some readers whose family is from Armenia, Kazakhstan or Eastern European countries, and they didn’t ask that question, but someone who has never had any experience with dictatorship or genocide is likely to ask it.

It has been very interesting to see different reactions in different countries, because they tell more about the country then I could ever get from travel guides. For example, Irish readers very much identified with the Estonians because of their own past—occupation, starvation, and the revival of an almost forgotten language. It was the same with Icelandic people. Language was very crucial for Estonian national identity because during the Russification it was hard to keep the language alive.

And how was Purge received in Western European countries?

I don’t know most of the languages, so it is very hard for me to follow. But my experience with Eastern European journalists is that with them you don’t have to start from scratch, whereas Western Europeans have no idea, for example, what censorship means, you just have to explain it to them. Even for many Finnish people it was a huge surprise that letters going from Finland to Soviet Estonia were censored or that there were microphones in apartments and tapped phone calls. It was mind-blowing to them that these were the living conditions just next door. Those are things that many Western Europeans have to open up to. But the reception varied from country to country, depending on their experience with totalitarianism; for example you don’t have to explain censorship to Spanish people because of the Franco past.

When I was a child it was very complicated to communicate with Estonian relatives who were living in Soviet Estonia. We couldn’t just pick up the phone and have a conversation, and letters were written in a way that the relatives should guess the meaning, but the person in between shouldn’t understand. These things gave me a different background from Finnish children.

Writers usually write a novel first, and then adapt it to the stage. With Purge, it was the other way round.

Yes, but if I write a novel I work on it for such a long time that I don’t want to write a play out of it... I was commissioned by the Finnish National Theatre to write Purge. When I started to work on it I didn’t know yet what the story would be about, but I knew it would be somehow about the resistance in Estonia and about sexual torture. I read a lot of studies on the victims of dictatorship and of sexual torture, and it turned out that the victims try to avoid looking people in the eye. So I was excited by how to show on stage what we do not see. Also, since theatre is a collective art form, I thought it might be a good idea to show traumatic experiences—that is, something very private—on stage. Then when we had rehearsals at the Finnish National Theatre I realized there were some things I couldn’t solve on the stage. There is, for example, the figure of Ingel who doesn’t show up on stage. So I was trying to find some kind of solution to make her speak. I started to write a monologue, and then I noticed it was not a monologue anymore; I was writing a novel. And I thought I should perhaps explore these themes more, because I am a big fan of all kinds of details.

Did it take you a long time to find a language in which you can speak about these unspeakable tragedies?

Language is such a sensitive tool, it reacts to every era. I had to find a language for Aliide’s generation, which is the generation of my grandparents, and Zara’s, which is my generation or a little bit older. I was trying to imagine what kind of expressions my grandparents’ generation would use for extremely humiliating experiences. I couldn’t imagine they could say anything very directly. It was very challenging for me that my characters are Estonian, but I am writing in Finnish. The Finnish language is much more direct; expressions that the Finnish would use would be rude in Estonia. One big difference is that in Finnish they don’t use any kind of formal address, unlike in Estonian or in Russian.

Did you ever try to write in Estonian?

I never learnt Estonian at school, nor did my parents force me to speak it at home, so I just learnt it by ear, and I can only write in Finnish. But my readers say that the influence of the Estonian language is clearly felt in my texts.

Purge was a great success in Finland. How was it received in Estonia?

When the book came out in Estonia it was the first translation, it came quite quickly after the Finnish edition, and the reception wasn’t enormous. But when translations in other countries started to come out, Estonians were surprised. Nobody knows anything about Estonia, so they are not used to other people, foreigners, saying anything about Estonia. Of course there were people who were not happy about it and considered it a negative campaign, because it says some less than glorious things about Estonians.

It was very similar to the reaction to the works of the Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki. There was a period when Finnish people—who are now very proud of him—were saying that they couldn’t travel abroad anymore after his movies because people thought all the Finnish people were like characters in Kaurismäki’s movies.  This might have something to do with the fact that Estonia and Finland are both very young countries and care a lot about what others say about them.

And how do these two nations see each other?

In Finland the stereotype is that Estonian women are prostitutes and Estonian men are criminals. So it would perhaps be more appropriate to write about very positive and honest characters, but I wanted to tear those stereotypes apart. It is of course not possible to deny them, but you can show where they come from.

Estonian authors don’t write much about the recent past. There is a huge pile of memoirs, and Estonian poetry is very strong, and, funnily enough, it is more political than the novels. But there are few authors who write about the recent past, it is not a hot topic yet.

Many young people are not interested in their past, but your books—especially Stalin’s Cows—have been very successful with young readers as well.

People of my age in Finland didn’t follow up what was happening in Russia. They hardly remember the Soviet Union any more. But if you don’t know their past, you can’t understand what’s happening in Russia and many other countries now. I represent the generation that was at school when the Soviet Union was still existing, so we learnt about the history of the Soviet Union. But young people nowadays don’t have any kind of understanding of that history at all, and they don’t even care. So I thought, eating disorders and the Soviet Union—maybe they seem like very different subjects, and first I was hesitating how it would work. But then I thought this was a way to get very different readers, since older people are interested in politics but not in eating disorders, whereas young people are interested in eating disorders but not the Soviet Union. But if they are in the same book, they must read both. In that sense it did work, because for that book I have a lot of readers with a huge age variation: the oldest are in their 90s, the youngest are teenagers.

When Estonia became independent and everybody was very happy about it, nobody thought we might actually have problems some day. Now there are a lot of misunderstandings, so it is very important to talk about these matters hoping there will be some kind of understanding between Eastern and Western European countries, and to get Western Europeans to understand why Eastern European countries might have a totally different reaction to some questions—like for example the energy question—than they might have.

In Finland a lot of Finnish people ask me why Estonians don’t investigate their own past. This false image is due to the fact that there is not too much translated Estonian literature, especially nonfiction, in Finland, because Finnish publishers are not interested in them. So I thought this was a good moment to present some Estonian new generation researchers to the Finnish audience, and I edited an essay collection entitled Kaiken takana oli pelko (Fear Behind Us All) about the recent history of Estonia. And it was a good moment, but when the book came out we got demonstrators from Russia—the Russian party United Russia made a press release at the time when the book came out, so they couldn’t even have read the book, yet they said that the book was pure Russophobia, even though we had Russian-speaking writers in the collection as well.

When you start to write, do you immediately think in that broken time structure that is typical of your novels?

In the beginning I don’t even know what the story will be about. I am an associative writer and just write whatever comes. Maybe if I had more patience to concentrate on background research, then I would write totally different stories, but I don’t plan very much ahead. I just write the first version, then I see what my plot is, and it is only then that I start to work on the structure.

Márton Benedek

Tags: Sofi Oksanen