Finnish writer Minna Canth became a single mother, businesswoman, and author all at once. Instead of being satisfied with the simple and retired life of a widow, as was customary at the time, she became the most controversial of Finnish authors and shaped the direction of the country’s drama. Obituaries described her as a national hero, and her plays are still among the most popular on Finnish stages.
The Language Debate in Finland
In Swedish women’s prose of the 1980s, we find an attitude that is focused on the self and is explicitly critical of language, as well as a thematisation and revision of monstrous and angelic traits that relate to the tradition of women’s literature.
An important theme in Finnish Women’s Literature is the criticism of child-rearing. The idyllic surface is broken, and no family member is exempt. One of the theorists who influenced the new literature is Alice Miller, whose works were translated into Finnish in the 1980s. In the new family tales the mother often turns out to be the exploiter, but a child might equally well be found in the role of the unappeasable tyrant. Standard impressions and interpretations of growing up a girl are twisted and turned, and myths are reinterpreted.Many important women writers in Finland in the 1970s and 1980s concentrate on the eternal existential questions that go with being human. Often, the human being is placed in borderline situations, separate from others, or near to grief and death. The main themes are guilt, identity, frustration, mental breakdowns, and the possibility of changing in one way or another. In the background are problems relating to growing up, living in a marriage, or professional life.
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.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.
A number of Swedish female poets in the 1980s were accused of writing impenetrably, but they become the central figures of the period. Ann Jäderlund, Birgitta Lillpers, and Katarina Frostenson emerge from a decade of straightforward everyday poetry, and now begin to investigate the slippage between language and the world. They prove its existence, use it, and play with it. Our everyday language to them appears to be an independent and arbitrary system.Many of the female poets of the 1980s also strive to block intellectual reading in order to show language in action. It can be called a language of the body and the senses. Are there other common traits? It is characteristic that the female poets cannot say I in a self-asserting manner – and perhaps do not even want to. They turn their backs on the proud modernist striving for an authentic self. The self that is found in their poems is dispersed.
The Swedish author Carola Hansson’s oeuvre is at the centre of the aesthetic turn of the tide and epistemological turbulence of the 1980s, but her novels still deviate from the main literary path. The books, like so much of the decade’s prose, deal with an identity in dissolution, a lost language, and the evasive nature of memory. The focus of Carola Hansson’s novels is the modernist anti-hero: a homeless, alienated human being seeking his identity without ever finding it.This same dissolved identity becomes a theme in the work of Åsa Nelvin, who already in her debut children’s book, De vita björnarna, (1969; The White Bears), depicts the conflict between the self and the world that will underpin her entire body of works. The hackneyed and ironic traits in her texts multiply and destabilise the ‘I’. They also draw the reader’s attention to the fact that the depiction of this dissolved female ‘identity’ is a means for Åsa Nelvin to discuss women’s relations to language, creativity, and a possible but not yet realisable new femininity.
There has been talk of a turning point in the literary climate of Sweden around 1975. New poets make their debut in part thanks to state publishing subsidies. Space is found for a more nuanced and changing prismatic view of what poetry is and can be. Inner reality begins to be accorded its full significance, as do specifically female experiences.Modernism’s full, rich arsenal of expressions – rooted in symbolism and Romanticism – is available to those women poets making their debuts in the second half of the 1970s who will become the foremost of their generation. They are contemporary with the new women’s movement, and they depict sensuality, eroticism, the dark language of gender, and the peculiar spiritual and bodily landscape of motherhood in very different ways.
Kerstin Ekman is a literary successor to Elin Wägner, and is close to her biting criticism of society and strong pathos. Her oeuvre began with a number of detective novels, but developed away from the detective genre, and the writer brought the detective genre with her into her later novels.In her works, one finds controversial perceptions of God and indications of the metaphysical that delineate a rebellion against the male ideologies, which for thousands of years have absorbed woman into a pattern wherein she must basically fight herself. Kerstin Ekman’s books are very different from each other. She keeps trying out new forms. However, they all concern themselves with lovelessness and love. And with a journey in language through continued transformation towards a core point in the human being: “a point where she is at home with herself.”
During the 1970s, Agneta Pleijel was one of the leaders of the generation of critics that stood up for a new literature that was to be better adapted to society. Like Anna Westberg, she takes her starting point in the aesthetics and ethical ideals that were prevalent in the 1970s. But where the ethical ideals were maintained through the oeuvres of both Pleijel and Westberg, an almost immediate distancing from the predominant realistic aesthetics took place.In the beginning of the 1980s their style became far more tentative and fragmentary. They abandoned objectivity and surrendered instead to a more lofty tone and deeper resonance in their works, which were initially light and optimistic about development and now gradually darken.