Finnish Music: An Interview with Author Sofi Oksanen
On April 27, novelist Sofi Oksanen visited Sampsonia Way to give a reading with Christos Tsiolkas and Tommy Wieringa. The event was sponsored by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh in partnership with PEN/America. While she was here, Oksanen sat down for a conversation with Sampsonia Way editor Elizabeth Hoover.
In her 2008 novel Purge, a young woman escaping the sex-slave trade ends up in the backyard of an Estonian woman who survived sexual assault at the hands of Soviet occupiers. While at times disturbing, the book is a strong testament to women’s resistance and survival in the face of violence.
In this interview, Oksanen talks about how oral history informed this book, as well as how she thinks artists can respond to trauma, her love of language, and the meaning of the word “feminist.”
Purge was ranked No. 1 on the Finnish bestseller list when it was first published. It has been translated into 25 languages. She is also the author of two other novels and the winner of the 2009 Finlandia Prize.
READ an excerpt from Purge.
In Purge there are terrible silences in these women’s lives because of sexual trauma, yet they tell the story of their traumas with their bodies—in gestures and flinches. What is the significance for you in translating the story of their bodies into a body of language?
My motivation had to do with the way certain people’s history is silenced and has no written form. The experience the women in my book have with sexual violence doesn’t have language.
Aliide is the older character in the book and is in her 70s. She doesn’t have language to talk about this kind of experience. When I think about my grandmother’s generation, it is obvious that they wouldn’t tell these stories out loud, but they must express it somehow. They express it through the reaction in their bodies, because if you are a human you have to react somehow.
Despite these silences, women manage to communicate with each other and recognize each other’s shared experiences. Can you talk about how you came to understand the way women tell their stories of trauma in ways that are indirect or even nonverbal?
As a child, I heard a story about my older relative who was a young girl during World War II and was living with her mother in the countryside. One day, they found a wounded solider in their backyard. They decided to hide the solider in their house and wait for a better time, but someone in the village turned them in. Then the secret police came and took the girl in for the questioning. They weren’t interested in the old mother. When the girl came back the next morning, she was physically OK, but she never spoke again. I guess adults all understood what it meant, but I didn’t understand then.
While researching the book, I read everything I could get my hands on about sexual violence. I read the memoir of a woman who was raped by a man who smoked. She couldn’t stand the smell of smoke because it always made her fear. I started to think that this was very important because if you can’t talk about something your reaction must be even stronger. In a way that becomes another language—one without words.
Why is oral history so important to you?
What if you live in a country were certain types of expression are forbidden? You still need to talk about what is going on, so you use expressions that are not direct.
At a certain time in Estonia wasn’t possible to use the word occupation or resistance movement. Nobody said, “member of the resistance movement.” They said “forest brother.” When I was doing research, it was very strange for me to read the words “member of resistance movement,” because I was used to hearing, “Oh he went to the forest.”
It makes the world totally different when you read about it instead of hearing about it. Written history has a greater importance or legitimacy. I learned Finnish history from the books and it is a very different kind of history.
Often it seems like the women are left out of that official history.
I have heard a many stories and legends of the Forest Brothers, but no legends of the women who supported them. Even though there is no way the Forest Brothers would have survived without help from women and children.
Women at war are considered to be less active than men. Women can’t have weapons, for example, which is an odd thought because you have to ask, why aren’t they allowed to protect themselves? The idea is if women don’t have weapons they are protected in a way because they are out of combat. But in truth this fact means they can’t protect themselves.
I think the resistance that these women do is very active and very rebellious. In that sense, they are not actually victims because they are active.
It was interesting to me that the male hero spends the entire book hiding in a closet and the women are the ones who are out in the world and in danger.
Yesterday I was in Washington and this man asked if this book is fantasy. He said, “There is no man who could stay in a closet.”
That is something I hear quite often and it is always men who say that. Anyway, the book is based on a real story. There were a lot of men in hiding in closets and secret cupboards. I never thought that it was something a man wouldn’t do.
Is it somehow shameful for a man to stay in a closet? I never thought about it like that.
On your blog you wrote, “art solves trauma.” I’m interested in what you think art can do in the face of trauma.
I don’t know if it ever can be solved totally, but I think literature has a great power. If you think of numbers: 10,000 people were killed there or 1million are starving in Africa. Numbers aren’t something people can feel empathy toward. These are horrible things, but we don’t actually feel them. If you don’t feel them, why take care of them.
On the other hand, if you have a face for something—someone singular—then you can identify with that person and feel empathy. You can’t feel empathy toward millions, but you can feel empathy for one single person.
That is why movies and books are so powerful, because there is a central character who is a human being, so there is love, hate, passion—all of these universal feelings. Through those feelings you can relate yourself to somebody who is living in a totally different world or in a totally different culture. They just become humanity.
That can be a double-edged sword, because there is always the danger of sensationalism and voyeurism. Some of your scenes are quite explicit. Was sensationalism a concern for you?
I think that sensationalism is more of an issue in the news because art has different means. In literature you can use symbols, metaphors, and language that is for aesthetic purposes. Poetry cannot be sensational. It’s too highbrow. But that is a very good question, because when you think about heroic stories—those are great tools for propaganda.
During the Georgian war, people on both sides would stream these news stories with images of women crying and children crying. Through those types of stories, you can really justify horrible things.
Of course, you can also write a novel or a poem that is propaganda, but it won’t last. I think propaganda is more obvious in literature. Perhaps I am putting too much of my faith in literature.
Women’s bodies are always used as part of the propaganda machine.
Somehow women are always representing the land or nationality. Women can be made into a symbol for anything. And you know a symbol is, by definition, not a person.
Your mother is Estonian. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of the Estonian language to you?
I write in Finnish and I doubt I am ever going to write in Estonian. Estonians really wish I would, but it is an even smaller language that Finnish.
Estonian is a very musical language, a very beautiful language. It’s more musical than Finnish and that has affected how I write because I try to write in a musical way.
In Purge, I tried to create a musical language experience, but I am not trying to take horrible things and make them more beautiful. The language does give a kind of distance that might be easier for the reader. Because people want to protect themselves, but the language can open your heart to something you don’t want to know.
Can you talk about why it is so important to you to call yourself a feminist?
I had never actually questioned calling myself a feminist until I published my first novel and journalists started to ask me that question. But it just always seemed so obvious. If you think that women are equal to men, obviously you are a feminist. But I believe strongly in the differences between genders. In Finland, it seems like a woman has to be a man to be considered equal.
Click here to read Elizabeth’s bio.