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Keeping Loss at Bay

Written by: Ann-Christine Snickars |

The change of decade from the 1980s to the 1990s was interesting and eventful for Swedish minority literature in Finland. Epic depth, psychological intensity, and fully formed characters, a rich subject matter integrated in a convincing intrigue, narrative skill, and consciousness of form, interesting metafictional reflections, and the ability to create suggestive fictional universes – all these technical virtues of the novel are found richly represented in the new golden age of Finland-Swedish prose, which, furthermore, is dominated by women writers.

Ulla-Lena Lundberg (born 1947) made her breakthrough in 1982 with Kungens Anna (1982; The King’s Anna), followed by Ingens Anna (1984; Nobody’s Anna), a traditional female Bildungsroman with strong ties to the author’s childhood home in Kökar in the Åland Islands. Already distinguishable in these books are the two traits that will come to shape Lundberg’s prose. The author’s anthropological education is revealed in the skilful handling of a rich subject matter: concrete details in the depiction of time and environment provide the text with a firmly realistic and yet exotic foundation. And the novels also display the themes of loss and resignation that are to return stubbornly in Lundberg’s later works. Early in life, Anna loses her father, the loving and charismatic fisherman nicknamed ‘the King’, and her love for a Swedish artist is lost due to an insurmountable cultural gap. Consequently, she ends up as “Nobody’s Anna.”

In her later novels Lundberg varies the theme of loss and absence as a universal and existential theme of life, starting with Sand (1986; Sand), which is about two Western anthropologists and a South African soldier in the Kalahari Desert. With Leo (1989; Leo), she begins a seafaring trilogy that opens with the seafaring farmers of the Åland Islands in the nineteenth century, and ends with the cruise ferries, those floating luxury hotels and shopping centres. The depiction of people and their lives, the socio-economic seafaring history, and narrative techniques and phrases familiar from the conventions of the historical novel are arranged in structures that add to the narrative a dimension beyond that of the well-told story. In the second part of the trilogy, Stora världen (1991; Great World), the final stages of the farmer-seafaring culture are depicted

by a series of male narrators. A single woman, the commanding captain’s wife Moster Elise of Simonsgården, participates as a first-person narrator in the final chapter, entitled “Pyramidens innersta rum” (The Innermost Room of the Pyramid). Here, for the first time, the female voice is raised, the Other speaks – and suddenly the reader realises that she has been silent for 300 pages. The same astonishing trick of presence and absence is performed by Lundberg in her travel book from the Siberian world of birds, which she published in 1993, before the final part of the seafaring trilogy. The book is entitled Sibirien – ett självporträtt med vingar (1993; Siberia – A Self Portrait with Wings), and its opening lines are: “At the Yaroslavsky Station in Moscow I once met a man without peer. It was like being touched by an angel, and a distinctive characteristic of angels is that they pass.” With the geographical point of departure thus designated, the now much older author’s ornithological journey through Siberia begins – a passionate account of Ross’s Gulls and Curlew Sandpipers, without any reference to the man who once upon a time had been her travel companion through the same landscape. And then, in the epilogue, on her way home from gulls and curlews, she makes a detour to the Yaroslavsky Station: “I don’t feel particularly sentimental when I recall how it was. Rather, I stand there like a cow, a camera on a tripod, anything, keeping loss at bay.” The antidote to loss in Ulla-Lena Lundberg’s universe is objectivity, exact documentation, interest in the tangible objects and circumstances of the surrounding world, often strobe-lit in a fast and laconic exposure of the unsaid: the deafening silence of the commanding captain’s widow and her fellow sisters, everything the writer herself does not think of when she stands like a camera on a tripod.

Marianne Backlen (born 1952) is a writer who, to a higher degree than Ulla-Lena Lundberg, has devoted her writings to the world outside Finland. The novel Den osynliga draken (1980; The Invisible Dragon) is coloured by her knowledge of Buddhist philosophy, just like Den sista sommaren (1982; The Last Summer). In Skuggan av Ninja (1987; Ninja’s Shadow), she depicts an ethnically mixed New York, and in Hundarna i Kingston (1993; The Dogs of Kingston) and the young adult book Donovan från Jamaica (1994; Donovan from Jamaica), she uses her experience and deep knowledge of Rastafarianism as well as Jamaican everyday life. Backlen’s way of writing is artlessly realistic, and her novels provide mosaic-like impressions of loosely-connected networks of characters or small groups of people, rather than portraits of single protagonists.

Pirkko Lindberg (born 1942) made her debut in 1989 with Byte (1989; Prey), a relationship chronicle (rather than a love story) about the relationship between the artist Inna Lysander and the actor Sten Zhurikoff. It is interesting how Pirkko Lindberg distributes and allocates terms like “language” and “body”. While Inna literally has the word in her command, Sten is the flesh, the tormented body that expresses his feelings and penance, is stigmatised, and displays symptoms. The novel tells the story of falling in love, the cooling of emotions, betrayal, and separation. Hardly original, but the aura of psychological and allegorical significations that Lindberg creates around her characters is both suggestive and ambiguously captivating. And although Sven is the betrayer and Inna the faithful one, the reader’s sympathies constantly oscillate between the two of them.

As is often the case in Finland-Swedish prose, the summer cottage is a place of great significance – in Inna’s case it is the mythical Mother-place. Here on Majudden (May Point) the little bilingual girl spoke Finnish with her mother and maternal grandmother, and Finnish in the adult Inna’s life becomes a sort of pre-language, where words do not represent but simply exist.

“– At times I am still gripped by a longing for Finnish, says Inna. I am overcome by it here by Totuudenjärvi. And some words have a power and splendour in Finnish that they will never have in Swedish.

– Say a word like that. / […] /

– Kirkas, Inna says. Lightning bolts of purity explode in all directions from that word. Kirkas ikkuna, it is a window with the clarity of a slice of ice, and outside the world is as if created anew, that’s how sharp and crisp it is! But say that in Swedish.

– Rent fönster [clean window], Zhurikoff said. You’re right, that doesn’t sound like anything.”

Pirkko Lindberg: Byte

After six collections of poems, Agneta Ara (born 1945) made her debut as a prose writer with the novel Antonio Gades kommer inte (1990; Antonio Gades Isn’t Coming). The novel’s perspective is narrower and more intimate than that taken in Ulla-Lena Lundberg’s and Pirkko Lindberg’s prose, and Agneta Ara’s metaphors and choice of motifs are informed by strict economy. The protagonist Annika, a translator employed by the Spanish Embassy in Helsinki, lives through a spring and summer of memories and loss: she looks after the flamenco dancer Antonio Gades’s dog; she experiences the last months together with her mother, who suddenly dies in early summer; she returns the dog to its owner; her brother disappears. Annika’s symbiotic tenderness towards her mother and her ambivalent love for her heavily drinking brother are the novel’s emotional and psychological focal points, making her relationships with men appear palely pragmatic. Agneta Ara’s narrator remains objective throughout. She seems more interested in the ostensibly trivial precise detail than in the naming of large emotional abstracts. Over the course of the novel, she works her way around a thematic complex involving language, memory, and identity. What is the construction and reconstruction of what we consider our selves? What is beyond language? Is linguistic construction something we have to live with? Language and silence are also the central motifs in her next novel, Huset med de glömda dörrarna (1995; The House with the Forgotten Doors), in which one of two parallel stories is about a little girl who has lost her mother and has stopped speaking.

Monika Fagerholm (born 1961) is a writer who combines a boldly explicit meta-fictional and self-reflective form with something that can be seen as a purely polemic feminist attitude, as is the case in her novel Underbara kvinnor vid vatten (1994; Eng. tr. Wonderful Women by the Water). She made her debut in 1987 with the collection of short stories Sham (1987), a number of cleverly written and stylistically varied portraits of girls, some of which might recall the young women in the works of the Swedish writer Inger Edelfelt. In her next book, Patricia (1990; Patricia), the different short stories are more clearly linked by the themes of metamorphosis and identity.

In Underbara kvinnor vid vatten, the psychologically spot-on depiction of children and girls is secondary to an ambitious, original, and very clever realisation of a novelistic project that makes readings on several different levels possible. One is about Thomas and Renée, abandoned children of glamorous and decidedly un-maternal mothers, Isabella and Rosa. Another reading, guided by the title of the book, focuses on the wonderful women; their failed emancipation project, in terms of a femininity that should transcend the women’s roles within middle-class families, and their attempts at escape. Here Rosa’s daughter, Renée, tragically has to take over from her mother; her strategy becomes that of the openly aggressive deviant, her punishment destruction. Throughout the novel, Monika Fagerholm also presents a number of subtle guides to the reader that bring the book’s third, metafictional, level to the fore, not least through descriptions of her Wonderful Women: their dialogue, their props, and their manners, which are elevated to the level of rituals. By consistently highlighting (or over-emphasising) the superficial – Rosa’s and Isabella’s constant concern with their looks, the cosmetics, and the sun dresses, their clichéd language – the writer paradoxically manages to make the reader curious and insecure about what it is all about. Is it the surface she wants us to pay attention to, or something beneath it? Is there any authenticity behind the clichés? What would Rosa and Isabella say if they spoke from the heart? The close-up study of their chat, like the small distortions in the narrative chronology – which, however, still follows a straight storyline – and the ritual repetition of key phrases and expressions draws the reader’s attention to the fact that this is a novel also, and very much so, in the sense of being a literary artefact, not just a piece of rarely well-conjured ‘invented reality’.

The mothers in Underbara kvinnor vid vatten (1994; Wonderful Women by the Water) seek emancipation in terms of La Dolce Vita (symbolised by Anita Ekberg bathing in the Fontana di Trevi) during the first half of the 1960s, when modernity was represented by ready-made cake mix, Mickey Mouse measuring cups, the twist, and cocktail cabinets lit from within.

Pia Ingström

The Youngest of the Finland-Swedish Poets

For the Finland-Swedish poets who made their debuts in the 1980s and 1990s, “women’s poetry” is no longer relevant. “Use” poetry has done its part, and consolidating sisterhood and agitation are no longer necessary. The interest is more in poetry as language, very much inspired by Julia Kristeva, whose works have now become available in Swedish. That the mother tongue, Swedish, is a minority language in their home country seems to spur on the Finland-Swedish poets when it comes to asserting themselves in a larger literary context.

Merja-Riitta Stenroos (born 1963) was eighteen when she made her debut as an author, and she declares, as Hagar Olsson once did, that she has very little in common with the tradition. When she eventually creates her own periodical, she claims that it has not been self-evident to write in Swedish at all – Finnish would have done just as well. When Merja-Riitta Stenroos became the editor-in-chief of the literature and debate journal KLO (which was published in six issues between 1985 and 1987), she already had a hectic career as a poet behind her. When the last issues were printed she lived in Scotland, a move motivated by language: Gaelic, a struggling minority language, was one of the attractions.

Her three collections of poetry, Guldgrävarens tårar (1981; Tears of the Gold Digger), Fri marknad (1983; Free Market), and Kanariefågel Blues (1985; Canary Blues), in part live up to the youthfully romantic titles, but the splenetic moods, too, have an energetic potential.

This is where I must start from
in order to move on at all: a room
Where not only the walls confine you.
I add the parrot,
the cage, the paintings:
the warm colours that sit
lined up
and the skin that covers precisely, everything.
This is where one must start,
as you know
this is where almost everything
Slowly. The seasons exist
here, one by one.
The hydrangea carefully in
a vase.
That which creeps in between
each and every line.
But nothing of you exists
here, hardly
of me either, no streets, no
What remains is to
blast the walls,
crush the glass, tear up
the skin.
Only like this can one continue,

Merja-Riitta Stenroos: Kanariefågel Blues (1985; Canary Blues)

The anger – and perhaps the annoyance at the indifferent reception of her poetry – is obvious in the third collection:

Continue? why should I,
with all branches, nuances in the blood,
as long as you swallow all I can
not continue.

I have been cold since I turned twelve, drawn out
icicles between my legs, long as spears
and cold so that I have always had to wear
a muffler around my neck,
gone to pieces in a snowstorm! bent like a rainbow
over frozen stones!

A similar exposure, but conveyed with a far more desperate sensibility, is found in the work of Diana Bredenberg (born 1963). But the angst here comes from within: the motif of her half-dozen collections of poetry is an unveiled desire to belong. The courageous nature of the poetry lies in the self-exposure, which is without reserve. The object of longing is often the man, but the position is not exclusively female. Lack of ability to communicate causes isolation that is suppressed by a consistently desolate poetic landscape.

When Diana Bredenberg uses images of rooms in her poetry they appear confined. Sometimes even double locked, as in the collection Hundra dikter (1986; Hundred Poems), in which the room is not just shut – it is also “shut in”: “Call to me through the opening / I am in the enclosed room.”

Language, Voice, Space

Hakola, Marikki (born 1960): Sistanz, 1992

In the vanguard of the new developments in poetry in the 1990s are Agneta Enckell (born 1957), Eva-Stina Byggmästar (born 1967), and Henrika Ringbom (born 1962). All are very different from each other, and their efforts can – without further similarities – be seen as a parallel to the Swedish generation of poets consisting, among others, of Katarina Frostenson, Ann Jäderlund, and Eva Christina Olsson. Like these, they have abandoned more traditional poetry, and see writing as a search in which the poems are not reports from already executed experiments, but are in themselves the experiment, the lesson, the game.

After an ambitious, but in terms of motifs still rather conventional, debut, Agneta Enckell delivers advanced poetics in her second collection, rum; berättelser (1987; space; narratives):

clear language, hi – see with blood swim in the multiverse: the
mute woman uncontradicted, yes – inaccessible? eaten
to be granted access to language: must she? sleepless
in the cannibal pot, afraid of her thoughts, that they are neither
necessary nor sufficient, incomplete
possibly fulfilling all demands for clarity in language: who demands?

In Agneta Enckell’s poetry language cannot be grasped without bodily references. In her breakthrough collection Falla (Eurydike) (1991; Fall (Eurydice)), the expression is treated of in two declinations that also have physical implications: the one is female, the free fall, which implies both abandon and the risk of accident; the other is male, it is the fixation which can result in a static reproduction, as in a photograph, but of which murder is the ultimate consequence. The picture of the murdered woman is signed Eurydice, the woman whom Orpheus the man failed to sing back from the underworld.

In the work of Agneta Enckell, speech happens in the condition between sleep and wakefulness, and the voice(s) possess varying degrees of awareness: sometimes they speak from within a light trance, sometimes they follow the material sounds of the language, hinting at nursery rhymes and children’s songs. But space is not unlimited; on the contrary, there are walls and claustrophobic linguistic intervening spaces like “between I and I”; or the more cryptic “between sand and strand”, found in the collection åter (1995; again), in which the difference in linguistic scope and sense is not just two potentially voiced consonants, but the difference between unarticulated matter and specific landscape.

In Gungerd Wikholm’s (born 1954) poetry collections Torplandet (1982; Croft Country), Aria (1987), and Ur vattnets arkiv (1993; From the Archive of Water), matters from the private world overlap with the outside world in a dialectics that is more like that of Tua Forsström and Claes Andersson than that of her colleagues from her own generation. Like the latter she has, however, abolished the polarisation between man and woman, and she describes the world without resorting to gender categories.

Eva-Stina Byggmästar, who is also an artist, has chosen another path. She, too, undergoes a dramatic poetic development. Since her first two hastily written poetry collections, in which she carries on a poetic struggle against mutilation and obliteration in very aggressive surroundings and with an apocalyptic mood, she has moved on to an earnest searching – and also finds what she seeks. Initially Eva-Stina Byggmästar finds a common womanhood. Of all the poetry collections published by writers of Byggmästar’s generation, Spiralens form (1988; The Shape of the Coil) most clearly echoes 1970s women’s poetry. The next phase in her authorship is to expand the search in the direction of ritual. In Drivkrafter (1990; Driving Forces), the poet borrows religious terms from Shinto, but also from ancient Egyptian mythology and the goddess Hathor, known to assume the shape of various animals. In the two subsequent collections from the 1990s, För upp en svan (1992; Perform a Swan) and Framåt i blått (1994; Forwards in Blue), Eva-Stina Byggmästar arrived at a use of language that is far from that of her debut. The speaking voice is unsuspecting, the voice of someone rediscovering the world. It is – or is akin to – that of a child. It is allowed to address things, experiment with proportions, toy with constructions, act like a child at play and become its own activity, as in the following poem from För upp en svan:

Hear mulberry hoe, scrape the clouds.
evening swim, with
a mouth full of berries –
But earthworm dear,
Bring it home.

for a
featherbed crown
cornett collar to


The contents of the poem, most akin to a level of energy, demand a punctuation that is unbridled, and in terms of typography, the poems are often loosely spaced on the page. Space must be unlimited.

Happy cow sees red roof tile.
Planet hovers like a master-swimmer
frog, through the trumpet of space –

And of you I remember nothing
except bread

Eva-Stina Byggmästar: För upp en svan (1992; Perform a Swan)

Henrika Ringbom deals with a different kind of linguistic cleanout. The serious experiment is most clearly present in her third collection Det finns ingen annanstans (1994; There is No Elsewhere), but from the very beginning, her ambition has been to free the poem from its shackles within prescribed hermetic metaphors. In her debut book Båge (1988; Arc), she clearly states what she does (not) want:

i don’t want
symbols, i want what
works, if it is images, sounds
i want them. if hands work,
voices i want them. if it is
evil dreams i want them.

She consistently pursues her programme in Det jag har (1990; What I Have), with the declaration “Vad jag kan” (“What I Can”). This means to “… pass on / what I have, and by / Going pass it by”.

The cleanup going on in the latest collection is phrased in verbs like “rinse”, “sing”, and “part”; their task is to purify and rehabilitate the place from whence the poems issue – the mouth – and to re-establish their non-specialised innocence. The mouth also deals with food and kisses; it is an emblematic image of passage that is frequently used not only in Henrika Ringbom’s poetry but also in that of many other female poets.

O to become mouth
Innocent like a sleeper
in company and completely involuntarily
Let the bite the kiss the word go
Left abiding behind indolent
lips in darkness and moisture
Keeping swaying vigil over a receding throat.

Henrika Ringbom: Det finns ingen annanstans (1994; There is No Elsewhere)

The youngest among the recently debuting women authors, Hanna Ilander (born 1974), bears some resemblance to Merja-Riitta Stenroos, who first voiced the reorientation of modern Finland-Swedish poetry. The points of intersection are less than thematic or formal, but are about the naturalness of resolve with which they relate to their role as authors. But where Merja-Riitta Stenroos participates in the creation of a literary space within which to act, Hanna Ilander couples her voice to an already existing body of poetic works.

In her debut collection, haren misteln tjuven (1993; the hare, the mistletoe, the thief), the poetic speaker moves unconstrainedly between the universe and the kitchen table. The omnipotence could be that of Edith Södergran, but without the prophetic notes. The prose poems in Till skuggan bakom min vänstra axel (1995; To the Shadow behind My Left Shoulder) could, if the spleen the poetic speaker touches upon was taken in earnest, easily be compared to those by Baudelaire. But in Hanna Ilander’s poems, right from her debut, there is an attitude that carries traits of the androgynous. “The Lucia Train. My queen is very beautiful tonight. He wears a gold lamé dress that clings to his narrow hips […].” The self-conscious note is also full of hope. The light-bearer could on some occasions possibly be a man.

While waiting for lightning
I fell through the days
and just a few comma-
signs barred my way

Hanna Ilander: haren misteln tjuven (1993; the hare, the mistletoe, the thief)

Ann-Christine Snickars

Translated by Marthe Seiden