Johanna Sinisalo interviewed by Cristian Tamas

Johanna Sinisalo’s Interview :

“Mitä tapahtuu todella?” (What is really happening?)

Interview for EUROPA SF by Cristian Tamas

Motto : “Sun kukoistukses kuorestaan kerrankin puhkeaa.” (“Maame”/Our Land : “Your splendour from its shell one day will bloom”)

Cristian Tamas : Mitä sinulle kuuluu? (How are you?) Why don’t you have fairytales about dragons, why do you tell stories about “salmon snakes” (Lohikäärme) ?

Johanna Sinisalo : Kiitos hyvää (I’m fine, thank you). Actually we do not tell stories about salmon snakes, that’s just a case of homonymia. There are two theories about the origin of the name. In the other one, it is perhaps derived from the ancient Swedish word for a dragon, “flogdraki” or “a flying snake”, and in another theory they say that in the earlier versions of Finnish language the mythical beast was called with the name “louhikäärme” which can be translated roughly “rocky cave snake”. In both cases the word has just been changing along the times to resemble the word for “salmon”, ”lohi”.


Cristian Tamas
: Johanna Sinisalo seems to have emerged, along with Leena Krohn and Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, as a central figure in the ‘‘Finnish Weird’’, which like many such movements may be a coincidence, a plot, or even, as Sinisalo herself said in her introduction to last year’s Finnish Weird anthology, simply a ‘‘brand.’’ In any case, it seems to carry with it a celebratory feeling of having just rediscovered the possibilities of nonrealistic fiction, even as some of its major works come with pretty grim premises.” – Gary K.Wolfe ; Please comment !

Johanna Sinisalo : Finnish Weird is basically a term invented for commercial uses, based on the fact that most of the Finnish Weird writers do not want to be pigeonholed as fantasy or sf or horror writers. Words like “nonrealistic” or “speculative fiction” are relatively strange to the wider audiences, so we came up with this kind of definition that could perhaps be compared to the commercial term “Nordic Noir”. Analogically, the Scandinavian crime writers have not “rediscovered the possibilities of crime fiction”, but the term Nordic Noir tells the reader that those books are a part of a certain literary tradition (and in many cases it is also considered as a sign of high quality).

Cristian Tamas : Isn’it weird that the oldest (beginning of the 13th century) known document in any Finnic language, the Birch Bark Letter no.292 is written in Cyrillic alphabet in the Karelian dialect of the archaic Finnish (or Finnic language) and it was found in 1957 by a Soviet expedition led by Artemiy Artsikhovsky in the Nerevsky excavation on the left coast side of Novgorod, Russia ? Is this an avant-la-lettre sample of Finnish Weird ?

Johanna Sinisalo: It is an interesting document. As far as I know the only words in that letter that the scholars totally agree upon are “God” and “arrow”, and the most popular theory is that the the text is a spell or prayer protecting from lightnings, saying “Jumaliennuoli on nimezhi”, roughly ”You are / will be called as the Arrow of Gods”. Perhaps it forecasts that we Finnish Weird writers are lightnings of the literary gods?

Cristian Tamas: The Finnish national epic “Kalevala”, compiled by Elias Lönnrot, appeared in 1835. Finnish language received official parity with Swedish in 1863.

The first novel published in Finnish was “Seitsemän veljestä/Seven Brothers” (1870) by Aleksis Kivi (1834–1872). After more 49 years, another Finnish writer, Frans Eemil Sillanpää (1888–1964) was granted the Nobel Prize for Literature for „Meek Heritage” (1919).

Isn’t that the literary equivalent of an explosive cultural development ?

Johanna Sinisalo: I have myself given that fact some thought. There are not very many național literary histories that come from the first published novel to Nobel Prize in less than 50 years. Of course one has to take into account that the Finnish language was widely spoken, stories told and songs sung in it, long before it got the official language status.

Cristian Tamas: Is the recent buzz about the Finnish Weird just a Nokia moment or there is a long tradition of the fantastic in Finnish literature? Or as Paul Mullins said : „It seems somewhat oxymoronic to suggest that there might be a distinctive Finnish popular culture: that is, most of the mass cultural products in Finland are the same as those nearly anywhere.” Please comment !

Johanna Sinisalo: Whoever Paul Mullins is, he should be able to make a distinction between true mass culture (e.g. the new Hollywood sf blockbuster) and the internationally recognized popular culture that clearly derives from a known national culture, history, folklore or mythology. Many internationally well-known heavy rock bands have used Finnish folklore in their lyrics; some of the films of Aki Kaurismäki are deeply based on Finnish near history; Tove Jansson’s totally original Moomin books and comics have reached millions of people during several generations. When you think about the fact that J.R.R. Tolkien took a strong influence from Finnish mythology and our national epic Kalevala for his super popular fantasy worlds I do not agree to say that our heritage and those cultural products ”are the same as nearly anywhere”. Actually, there are not so many countries in the world that really could boast having an original, true mass cultural phenomenon being spread around the world – Japanese manga, perhaps?
It is true that the tradition of fantastic literature is not a very long one in Finland (because the written literature in general is so young) but we try to be truly original; the idea of Finnish Weird is not to ape the literature written elsewhere. We are happy *not* to have those binding traditions, prejudices and genre restrictions that a long literary tradition always produces.

Cristian Tamas: Is Finnish literature more popular than translated literature? Is the Finnish speculative fiction commercially viable ? Are power, money, mass idiocy, greed, lust, sex and death, fundamentalism and totalitarianism, the main themes of the Finnish speculative fiction ? Is the Finnish Weird a sub-subculture ? A macaronic mixture as the Finglish ?

Johanna Sinisalo: In Finland, both domestic and translated literature are popular. In the original Finnish language market a speculative fiction book has won our most prestigious literary award, the Finlandia Prize, in two consecutive years (2014 and 2015; my novel happened to win this prize in the year 2000). Finlandia Prize winners are always huge bestsellers, very often among the most sold books of the year. Also Finnish YA speculative fiction seems to be very popular. So I might say that it is commercially viable.
I wouldn’t say that your list of themes is too accurate. Perhaps the themes of fundamentalism (and/or societal and political power structures, human rights etc.) are quite common because of our historical past, the wars and the years Finland has been in possession of another nations.

Cristian Tamas:Under the official image of the nordic welfare-state there is another layer of poverty, criminality and brutality. This is the reality : a capitalistic, cold and inhuman society, where the rich got richer, the poor got poorer.” – Maj Sjöwall ; What is your opinion ?

Johanna Sinisalo: We are now having a right-wing government that clearly tries to undermine the social security system and add the profits of corporations, even cut funding from the educational system. It’s pretty unnerving.

Cristian Tamas: According with the research of Central Connecticut State University (http://www.ccsu.edu/wmln/), Finland is on the first position as the World’s Most Literate Nation. How come ? It’s life so depressing, so boring, so inbearable that the consumption of escapist fiction is a mass addiction in Finland ?

Johanna Sinisalo: As far as I know, the literacy of Finnish people is not based on reading as escapism but also as on the honest intention to understand the world better and educate oneself – in Finland one does not need rich parents to get in a very good school and our universities are free, so a good career is in anyone’s grasp (or, this has been the case before the current government). And about the boring life aspect – I would say that perhaps the long dark winters are more tolerable if you have some good reading!

Cristian Tamas: ”In Finland as elsewhere, the biggest sales figures are achieved by detective novels (Matti Yrjänä Joensuu, Leena Lehtolainen), thrillers (Ilkka Remes), family sagas (Laila Hietamies) and chick-lit-influenced portrayals of urban women (Katja Kallio).” Where is the place of the “Finnish Weird” into this consumeristic publishing landscape ?

Johanna Sinisalo: In my opinion, some of the Finnish Weird books are pretty close to being thrillers or even detective novels, Ilkka Remes has written thrillers that are located in the future or even in alternate history. One of great international successes of FW, Antti Tuomainen and his novel The Healer, is practically a detective story set in a climate-changed future. Some FW novels are clearly targeted to a female audience – historical romance in a fantastical world, for example. Finnish Weird lives and prospers as a part of the literary scene in general, not as a separate island.

Cristian Tamas: 99% of the humankind never heard of Jean Sibelius, Fredrik Pacius, Elias Lönnrot, Aleksis Kivi, Frans Eemil Sillanpää, Mika Waltari, Wäinö Aaltonen, Eliel and Eero Saarinen, Alvar Aalto, Viljo Revell, Linus Torvalds, Urho Kekkonen, Aki Kaurismäki, Sofi Oksanen, etc. There are some though firmly believing that ”Finlandia” is just a vodka brand ! Is this just the humankind’s fault ?

Johanna Sinisalo: I think we have our fair share of cultural celebrities – I think that 99 % of the humankind could not name a single Romanian, Sri Lankan or Kenyan writer, composer or painter, and I do not blame them. Knowing even a vodka brand is a very good start.

Cristian Tamas: Foreigners should also be prepared to encounter the other side of the Finnish national character: Finns are chronically insecure about whether the wider world is aware of the achievements of this northern nation. Finns love reading things written about them abroad, and foreigners should not feel uncomfortable being asked repeatedly what they think of Finland.” ; ”Finland prefers to be known as a country that tops “best in the world” lists: best place to be a woman, most transparent, least corrupt, best education, happiest, wealthiest — the list goes on. But as the economic crisis deepens, tens of thousands of finnish people now rely on charities and food banks to feed their families. This is not an image Finland likes the outside world to see.” – David Mac Dougall, Politico Is it so ? Why ?

Johanna Sinisalo: I think that the economic crisis (and idiotic right-wing governments) affect other countries, too. Finland is definitely not the only European country with charity food banks, but very few people in Finland are (for the time being at least) dependent on private charities, but the social security system covers the needs of citizens still quite well and most people visiting the food banks are not actually starving – they may want to get temporarily free food to use the saved money to pay, say, an unusually large phone bill or to compensate some domestic adversity like a broken washing machine. And even there certainly are lots of people who truly need support (like in every other country), in the average the population of Finland has gotten more and more wealthy all the time and I do not see Finland as bankrupt as Mr. McDougall does. (And, it is true that we are very curious to know what the rest of the world think of us. Having been an independent country just about a hundred years, we are like little kids who want that the grown-ups tell us how well we are doing, not necessarily how badly we have behaved.)

Cristian Tamas: What is the status of the artist within the Finnish society ? Culture and art have any significance in the modern world ? What is the objective of any artist ? To get rich ? To achieve fame and social status ? By any means ?

Johanna Sinisalo: Of course, our capitalist/populist government sometimes tries to convince people that supporting arts is a waste of money, but I think that even they do realize how important the cultural sector is for the whole domestic economy. And in my opinion, the Finns are pretty good cultural customers. I honestly do not think that anyone’s goal in Finland is to get rich working as an artist – if you want to get rich in Finland by your talent, try to get to play ice hockey in NHL. Even fame and social status are not the main reasons to work in arts; I think most of Finnish writers, painters, composers etc. are satisfied if they are able to live the life of a full-time professional artist, have an audience who respects them, and that’s good enough. International success, money or having your face on the cover of a magazine are just bonuses.

Cristian Tamas: Worldwide surveys have consistently ranked the Nordic countries — with their generous family-leave policies, low crime, free health care, rich economies and, yes, high income taxes — as the happiest places on earth. But this happiness has always been accompanied by a paradox: the happiest countries also seem to have the highest suicide rates.” Are the long, dark winters facing Finland the cause of the problem? Or some kind of Nordic depression gene? Or none of the above?

Johanna Sinisalo: As far as I know, the suicide rate in Finland has been very high before Finland became one of the happiest countries in the world. This kind of national tradition to solve problems is very difficult to unroot.

Cristian Tamas: Is Finland is a future-obsessed nation ? With a reason, aging of the population, very low fertility rate, increasing of the third world imigrants’ number ? Are modern societies producing only stress-related health problems — like obesity, heart disease, diabetes and stroke — being directly linked with hierarchy, increasing as a person moves lower down the totem pole ?

Johanna Sinisalo: I regret to say that I do not truly understand the idea of ”future-obsessed nation”. In my opinion, every nation should plan ahead even a little – investing in education and health, trying to avoid conflicts, regulating economy when it is needed – but just now in this moment our current government acts everything else than future-oriented.

Cristian Tamas: ”Many of us feel that Finland is a Jekyll-and-Hyde country. We have both the positive and the negative in extremes, just like sunshine: the never-setting summer sun is offset by several months of dark winter.” – Timo Harakka ; Do you concur ?

Johanna Sinisalo: Yes, in a way, this is true.

Cristian Tamas: What are ”the finnish way of life” and ”the finnish dream” ? A sauna, plenty of Koskenkorva, makkara, Kaljakellunta on each summer day and a mökki for everyone ?

Johanna Sinisalo: I think that every individual has their own, subjective Finnish dreams. Perhaps we have a bigger share of people who enjoy living close to the nature and having a summer cottage than in some other countries, but I know that there are lots of people whose Finnish dream is living in a trendy part of a largish city, eating fresh vegan food and never touching hard liquor.

Cristian Tamas: Is it true that the ”Lutheran-socialist ideals of community and co-operation have been undermined by the rise of consumerism and the mass uniculture of mcdonaldization” in all Nordic countries ?

Johanna Sinisalo: I really do not have enough sociological data to confirm this, and I do not like to make guesses in this kind of subjects. Sorry!

Cristian Tamas: Bertolt Brecht once noted that Finns are silent in two languages. Why is that ?

Johanna Sinisalo: We indeed do have a proverb in Finland that states ”Speaking is silver but close lips are gold”. In my opinion, the Finns just do not like small talk. They speak when it is needed and all unnecessary talking is considered as waste of time. That makes Finns also very honest in a way: if they say ”we should meet again”, they really mean it, because they do not bother to change empty pleasantries.

Cristian Tamas: The Finnish political cartoonist Kari Suomalainen once explained ”Finlandization” as ”the art of bowing to the East without mooning the West”.
What is the actual meaning of ”Finlandization”, ”the art of bowing to the West without mooning the East” ?

Johanna Sinisalo: This so-called ”Finlandization” was, in the times of the Cold War, a geopolitical strategy to cope with the Soviet Union as a very powerful neighbour and former war enemy. With this strategy Finland allegedly avoided the fate of some other Baltic countries to become Soviet satellite nation and kept its position as a sovereign state. The strategy included very close diplomatic relations with Soviet Union, also some bilateral contracts that postulated Finland to not join e.g. NATO or cooperate with Western powers in a way that the Soviets could interpret as threatening. (Here’s some information about a treaty: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finno-Soviet_Treaty_of_1948)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finlandization

Wikipedia page formulates the idea better than I could: ”The term is generally considered pejorative, originating in West German political debate of the late 1960s and 1970s. As the term was used in Germany and other NATO countries, it referred to the decision of a country not to challenge a more powerful neighbour in foreign politics, while maintaining national sovereignty. It is commonly used in reference to Finland’s policies in relation to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but it can refer more generally to similar international relations, such as Denmark’s attitude toward Germany between 1871 and 1940, or the policies of the Swiss government towards the German Nazi regime immediately before World War II.”

Cristian Tamas: ”I am very fond of the Finns, a most pragmatic, redoubtable people with a Sahara-dry sense of humour.

But would I want to live in Finland? In summer, you’ll be plagued by mosquitos, in winter, you’ll freeze – that’s assuming no one shoots you, or you don’t shoot yourself.
Finland ranks third in global gun ownership behind only America and Yemen; has the highest murder rate in western Europe, double that of the UK; and by far the highest suicide rate in the Nordic countries.

The Finns are epic Friday-night bingers and alcohol is now the leading cause of death for Finnish men.

“At some point in the evening around 11.30pm, people start behaving aggressively, throwing punches, wrestling,” Heikki Aittokoski, foreign editor of Helsingin Sanomat, told me. “The next day, people laugh about it. In the US, they’d have an intervention.

With its tarnished crown jewel, Nokia, devoured by Microsoft, Finland’s hitherto robust economy is more dependent than ever on selling paper – mostly I was told, to Russian mob barons. Luckily, judging by a recent journey I took with my eldest son the length of the country by train, the place appears to be 99% trees. The view was a bit samey.

The nation once dubbed “the west’s reigning educational superpower” (the Atlantic) has slipped in the latest Pisa rankings. This follows some unfortunate incidents involving Finnish students – the burning of Porvoo cathedral by an 18-year-old in 2006; the Jokela shootings (another disgruntled 18-year-old) in 2007, and the shooting of 10 more students by a peer in 2008 – which led some to speculate whether Finnish schools were quite as wonderful as their reputation would have us believe.

If you do decide to move there, don’t expect scintillating conversation. Finland’s is a reactive, listening culture, burdened by taboos too many to mention (civil war, second world war and cold war-related, mostly). They’re not big on chat. Look up the word “reticent” in the dictionary and you won’t find a picture of an awkward Finn standing in a corner looking at his shoelaces, but you should. “We would always prefer to be alone,” a Finnish woman once admitted to me. She worked for the tourist board.

Ask the Finns and they will tell you that Swedish ultra-feminism has emasculated their men, but they will struggle to drown their sorrows.

Their state-run alcohol monopoly stores, the dreaded Alko, were described by Susan Sontag as “part funeral parlour, part back-room abortionist”.

The myriad successes of the Nordic countries are no miracle, they were born of a combination of Lutheran modesty, peasant parsimony, geographical determinism and ruthless pragmatism (“The Russians are attacking? Join the Nazis! The Nazis are losing? Join the Allies!”).

These societies function well for those who conform to the collective median, but they aren’t much fun for tall poppies.

Schools rein in higher achievers for the sake of the less gifted; “elite” is a dirty word; displays of success, ambition or wealth are frowned upon.

If you can cope with this, and the cost, and the cold (both metaphorical and inter-personal), then by all means join me in my adopted hyggelige home.

I’ve rustled up a sorrel salad and there’s some expensive, weak beer in the fridge.” – “Dark Lands: the grim truth behind the ‘Nordic miracle'” by Michael Booth ; Is it anti-finnish propaganda ? Pure calomny ? Pure evil brit arrogance ? Or just brutal&cynical satire, a tabloid pamphlet ? Please comment !

Johanna Sinisalo: I do not see any reason why someone would like to do anti-Finnish propaganda, we are far too unimportant as a country for that kind of an effort. Some of those stories and claims are exaggerated, some are partly true, some are just misunderstandings, some are quite ridiculous opinions (why should we be ashamed of the fact that we have a lot of forests or a cool climate?). Many things that are typical for Denmark or Sweden are different in Finland; I do not understand why all Scandinavian countries are generalised this way.

Cristian Tamas: What is the national personification of Finland ? ”Suomi-neito” (allways being in danger to be raped by Mordor’s hordes), Väinämöinen, Kullervo, Joulupukki, Puukko, the Moomins, Salmiakki, Kantele, Koskenkorva, Aku Ankka ? Or a polar bear ?

Johanna Sinisalo: Someone hanging himself with a Marimekko designer rope.

Cristian Tamas: From Mika Waltari’s novels, to Miika Nousiainen’s ”Vadelmavenepakolainen” (’Raspberry Boat Refugee,’ 2007), Katri Lipson’s ”Kosmonautti” (’Cosmonaut,’ 2008), Kristina Carlson’s ”Herra Darwinin puutarhuri” (’Mr. Darwin’s Gardener,’ 2009), Elina Hirvonen’s novel ”Kauimpana kuolemasta” (‘Furthest from Death,’ 2010), and Johanna Sinisalo’s ”Birdbrain” (2008), there is a constant interest in the Finnish literature for universal human themes overpassing the parochial local dimension ? Are the Finnish curious about the Rest of the World ? Or are they only interested by the opinion of the British and Americans ?

Johanna Sinisalo: I honestly do not think that locating the stories somewhere abroad causes automatically ”using universal human themes in literature” and ”overpassing the parochial local dimension”. It is not significant where the story is placed but what kind of story it tells, and in my opinion, even the most ”domestic” story that describes very local surroundings and conditions can be truly universal – e.g. Halldór Laxness, a nobelist, could describe in a novel the life of a small Icelandic village and, simultaneously, embrace the most universal themes of power structures and otherness. An, paradoxically, the most universal-sounding stories like space science fiction can be very, very local if the exotic surroundings are meant to camouflage the fact that the story actually satirises the conditions of the present day of writing, say, in Soviet Union.
Of course the Finns are curious about the rest of the world (I’m not sure if I understood the question) or I do not understand why we should be interested only in the opinions of Anglo-Saxons. Finnish literature is translated very much into e.g. German and French (if that was the point).

Cristian Tamas: The Swedish-language writers from Finland as Johanna Holmström, Stefan Nyman, Henrika Andersson, Maria Turtschaninoff are considered to be a part of the “suomikuma” (the Finnish Weird) ? Seems to me that the “finnish weird” (in fact, old fantastic literature) is affecting also the swedish language writers from Finland ? Not only etnic finnish writers using finnish language.

Do you concur that since the 18th century there is an European Fantastic Literature (phantastische Literatur /littérature fantastique ) ?

And the recent import of some anglo-saxon mass market genre terms and the neglection of our common European literary traditions are just symptoms of alienation, of cultural imperialism, of the dependency to junk fiction aka transatlantic commercial&consumeristic models ?

Johanna Sinisalo: As I mentioned above, ”suomikumma” (not ”suomikumi”, which means roughly ”Finnish rubber”) is a commercial umbrella term and not purposed to pose as a scientific comparative literature concept (or to compete with any other concept or definition). If any Finnish writer wants to use FW to define their books, in my opinion it doesn’t matter if they write in Finnish, Swedish of even English (e.g. Hannu Rajaniemi and Emmi Itäranta, both internationally very successful Finnish Weird writers, write in English or in both languages.)
Personally I am not very keen on genre terms at all and I would see it ideal to call literature just literature, without any genre definition – e.g. the borderline between ”crime fiction” and ”contemporary fiction” is nowadays very difficult to draw if not practically nonexistent; and the borderline between realistic and weird/fantasy/sf is often very blurred indeed, too, so why artificially keep up pigeonholing literature? Even the concept of Finnish Weird is, paradoxically, an attempt to stop trying to classify a book as fantasy/sf/horror/surrealism/magic realism, but just simplify the genre jungle by packaging all non-realistic literature under a single name.

Cristian Tamas : What is Europe ? A continent, a phantasm, a possible utopia ? Or just one of the oldest hell’s kitchens ?

Johanna Sinisalo : Europe is a puny sub-continent with too many countries with artificial borders and thus it has been a phenomenal breeding ground for futile wars great and small. If the European Union hasn’t succeeded in forming a functional federation, in one thing it has succeeded: it has kept France and Germany out of each other’s hair for actually decades!

Cristian Tamas: Johanna, thank you very much for your time and cooperation !

©Cristian Tamas&Johanna Sinisalo
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