For our Out of Scandinavia Artist in Residence at Gustavus this year we had the Finnish author Johanna Sinisalo. The Out of Scandinavia program at Gustavus is pretty cool, I have to say– previous artists in residence include Jonas Hassen Khemiri (in the news recently for this letter), Max von Sydow (who showed up in the first Conan movie, so you know he’s a big deal), and Liv Ullmann. I was especially happy to have Johanna visit, as much of her writing fit perfectly with my course on Scandinavian Other Worlds, and I enjoyed chatting with her about (and hearing her speak on) the status of the unrealistic genres (sci-fi and fantasy) in Scandinavia in general, and Finland in particular. When I first studied in Sweden over a decade ago (yikes…), fantasy seemed to only show up in the children’s section (at least in the bookstores I visited back in Fall 2001). Later I found special sections for Anglophone science fiction and fantasy (both in English and Translated), but in Sweden at least, there was very very little in the way of “native” sci-fi and fantasy by dedicated authors of the speculative fiction “ghetto”–on the other hand, flip through the history of Scandi literature a bit, and you’ll find otherwise “respectable” authors from Karin Boye and Harry Martinson to Kerstin Ekman and Lars Gustafsson occasionally slumming in the “ghetto” to greater and lesser degrees (sorry, maybe not the nicest parallel…). As a self contained genre, however, the prestige of speculative fiction is still fairly low, so it was interesting to get Johanna’s perspective.
While she grew up on science fiction and fantasy herself, she tries to avoid the terms in describing her own work these days–it is just too difficult to escape your “brand” once it sets in, and the stereotypes associated with the terms “science fiction” and “fantasy” can be pretty misleading. If you love Tolkien or Asimov, then you may be disappointed to get, for example, something like Sinisalo’s Troll–if you don’t like those authors, then you might avoid Troll, even if it may actually turn out to be something you’d enjoy. That said, Johanna shared a term she seems happy to embrace, which nevertheless highlights the “unrealistic” element in her fiction: Finnish Weird. The term is inspired by the term “New Weird,” which has come into use the last decade or so in the Anglophone world and which looks back to the “Weird” fiction of authors like HP Lovecraft, and magazines like Weird Tales. Finnish Weird is not meant to be equivalent to the New Weird, although I imagine they can certainly be related, as the latter term encompasses many of the more “literary” minded writers of unrealistic fiction in the Anglophone world (China Miéville is the first that comes to mind for me), just as “Finnish Weird” seems partially intended to enable the mainstreaming/respectibilization (I made a new word!) of the unrealistic genres in Finland. What sets “Finnish Weird” apart? Well, I’ll have to answer that after I’ve spent some more time reading other works of the “Finnish Weird”…
While she had been active as an author in the Finnish spec-fic community earlier as well, Johanna’s breakout novel is Troll: A Love Story, published originally as Ennen päivänlaskua ei voi, or Not Before Sundown (I believe the latter was the title on the British Market) in 2000. Among the other awards she has received or been nominated for, Troll got her the Finlandia Prize as well as the James Tiptree Jr. Award. The various strands of the novel all take on the theme of Otherness and one’s relationship to the Other in quite different, yet nicely complementary ways. The troll, discovered early on by the main character Angel, is of course the supernatural Other of folklore, but while this element is preserved in the novel’s references to folk belief and Finnish literature, the troll here is treated as a scientifically verified species, having joined (in the world of the novel) the ranks of other formerly mythical creatures turned “real” (the panda, the gorilla, the komodo dragon) in 1907, and the troll’s presence in the narrative brings in, among other things, our epistemological relationship to the world (“science” and the digital and pre-digital archive) and our relationship to the environment, an examination of the Culture-Nature divide which my students this semester have gotten to see in both Norse mythology and in our (all too brief) introduction to ecocriticism. We find both the colonial and gendered Other in Palomita, a Philippine girl purchased as a “bride” by Angel’s neighbor, who gets caught up in Angel’s troll problem, and finds hope from the encounter (no spoilers here though…). Angel is homosexual, giving us a queer angle on sex and Otherness (Johanna said that Troll was “that gay novel” in Finland…), and in a couple places this difference in sexual orientation/identity becomes both a point in the development of the plot, and a case-in-point of intersubjectivity (let’s say “personal Otherness”) as confusion, false-hope, and jealousy arise when another’s sexuality and intentions are misinterpreted. The Others of our relationships (OK, how about “relational Other”… well, personal Other still works) are prominent in Angel’s various sexual and/or romantic liaisons as he either tries to find love (it doesn’t go so well… um, spoiler alert…) or tries to get what he wants as he struggles to figure out how to take care of this forest creature in his apartment, and heck, we even get “One’s self as an Other,” to steal (and I think slightly modify?) a Paul Ricoeur title, as we have, for example, one character unaware that he is in “the closet” (although the audience and the other characters are clued in), and our main character Angel manages to surprise himself when it comes to exactly how he feels about… well, read the book. The way the book is written nicely emphasizes these same themes, as we get lots of short first-person accounts of the action, often different angles on the same scene, highlighting the misunderstandings and intrigues that come from… well, from being different people. Interspersed with the first person accounts are various fragments of internet sources on the flora and fauna of Finland, as well as of various literary and folkloric resources, bringing us back to the ecocritical and epistemological (how do we “know” the world) themes I noted at the start. Johanna’s strategy, as she told my class, was to allow us to fit together our own picture of what trolls are in the same way we would when we learn about anything that we do not have first-hand experience of–and to my mind, it works admirably and contributes to the realistic feel of the book as a whole.
I read this book on the plane back from the annual Scandinavian Studies conference, and found it very engaging, easy to read at the same time that it kept going in unexpected directions. I should note that, while it is not at all pornographic or explicitly erotic, it could be a bit much for many of my friends and family–in fact, the homosexual angle itself would be a “no-go” for many of them, but as this novel is an essay on how to engage with Otherness, I encourage people to give it a try anyway. And for many of those same people I would have to give a similar (but… um, different) note re: the movie Iron Sky, based on another story by Sinisalo. I showed this movie to my Other Worlds course after hearing Johanna’s talk (after we learned that she was involved in it, we decided we had to watch it instead of our planned Let the Right One In–we’ll get to that later). Nazis on the moon–intentionally over-the-top sci-fi adventure, and pretty pointed politically. Relentless ridicule of Bush and Palin and the USA’s tendency towards international showmanship and unilateral action–a big turn-off for my Republican friends, I realize, and it is a harsh enough criticism (if satirical) that it is probably not going to actually win anyone over (but if you are already sympathetic to some degree you will probably laugh a lot… and maybe cry a little). Many of the foibles criticized are common to politicians and politics worldwide (and beyond, if we count the Nazi-infested moon), but our dirty laundry (meaning the USA’s) and its consequences take front-and-center on the world stage by virtue of both our power/significance in world politics, and, well, by the fact that American media has a stranglehold on the world (heck, what do you do when most of the movies available in your country are about American good guys beating up badies from your part of the world?). Something worth keeping in mind, though I understand that many will feel that it goes too far (OK, it is pretty [intentionally] ridiculous much of the time… I mean… NAZIS ON THE MOON).
Well, sorry for all the caveats– what can I say, I love everyone I know, liberal and conservative (and Other axes–let’s not get too binary), and sometimes it just gets a bit hard to write for all of them. In any case, I’m excited to learn more about the “Finnish Weird,” and will have to try to find time to read the next book I have by Johanna, Birdbrain. You can also find this interview with Johanna at, appropriately, the Weird Fiction Review.