The Language Debate in Finland
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.
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.”
Eeva Joenpelto, Anu Kaipainen, and Eila Pennanen have all focused on women’s lives, on patriarchy, and on gender roles in their prose works, whether Eeva Joenpelto’s snapshots of the time in her Lojo series from the 1970s, Anu Kaipainen’s historic mythical novels, or Eila Pennanen’s insight into the life of Saint Bridget of Sweden in Pyhä Birgitta (1954; Birgitta the Visionary), or into middle-class life in her Tammerfors trilogy, set at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Existential Resistance Stories
In the 1960s, the strong Icelandic ‘rímur’ (rhymes or ballads) tradition made way for a ‘free form’ modern poetry, which itself was part of an international revolution within poetic language. At the age of nineteen, Steinunn Sigurðardóttir appeared at the crossroads between modernism and the 1970s confrontation with modernism’s inaccessibility.Her authorship has received a lot of attention, and is characterised by a unique lightness and linguistic playfulness. The combination of isolation with a many-sided self, a theme that occasionally emerges in her poems and prose works, is the result of a reflection on time, its nature, and its transitoriness. In this way, a search for time goes hand in hand with a search for the self. Today, Steinunn Sigurðardóttir is a beacon of Icelandic literature. Her thematic concerns have been picked up by other Icelandic writers, including Vigdís Grímsdóttir and Álfrún Gunnlaugsdóttir.
Anna Bondestam took up literature after a Nordic novel competition in 1936 in which her debut novel, Panik i Rölleby (1936; Panic in Rölleby), was the runner-up. Klyftan (1946; The Chasm), Bondestam’s autobiographical novel, reaches into the most intimate corner of her life: her childhood experiences of the Finnish Civil War in Jakobstad in 1918.As an account of the civil war, Klyftan is a harbinger of the more open approach that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Read as a trilogy, Vägen till staden, Stadens bröd, and Klyftan are not only a journey through changing Finnish society, but an uncelebrated slice of women’s history: the lives and political education of factory workers.
Women writers of the so-called primitivist movement write about lawless passion. The female characters of their novels often pay with their lives for their forbidden passion. The novels formulate a more or less explicit critique of the way that patriarchal society links ownership of the earth to that of women as sexual objects while maintaining a level of erotic ambivalence – a strategy that successfully attracted wide female readership.The novels reflect thoroughgoing knowledge of the joys and hardships associated with tilling the soil. Nor do they skip over the role that women’s crafts played when it came to ensuring survival of the family farm. Both male and female primitivists wrote about sexuality in a frank and open manner. Female primitivism decoupled the ambivalence of the sentimental literary tradition from its religious, patriarchal assumptions and turned it into a sensual code that stood on its own.Female desire in these books burns down villages, devastates marriages, slaughters farmers, and allows women to affirm themselves by listening to their bodies. Eventually, they and their offspring are punished mercilessly, often with death.
Finnish author Eeva Kilpi made her debut in 1959 with the collection of short stories Noidanlukko (Moonwort), and during the 1960s she published a number of novels and short story collections in which the pairs of opposites – man and woman, body and intellect, but even more city and countryside – were the mainstay. With the collection of poems Laulu rakkaudesta (1972; Songs of Love) and the novel Tamara (1972; Eng. tr. Tamara), Eeva Kilpi became one of the leaders of the Finnish women’s literature scene. One of the central themes of her oeuvre is the assertion that the city and modern technology kill not only plants and animals but also people. She has a singular mix of longing for the village and militant eco-activism, and her organic and holistic vision of life is clearly expressed in her writings. With her autobiographical trilogy she writes the history of WWII from the perspective of women and the Finnish home front. She enables the reader’s own memory work while describing her own, and she consistently completes the critique of civilisation that has been the driving force throughout her works.
In the early 1950s one of the great oeuvres in Swedish literature was initiated when the young Birgitta Trotzig published Ur de älskandes liv (1951; Out of the Lives of Lovers). The novel contains a striving to reach beyond the limitations of the I, to reach the You that is indispensable to life, and this will remain the basic theme and stylistic movement of Trotzig’s works. Is not Birgitta Trotzig really a lyricist? The most intense parts of her work take the shape of poetic prose fragments or of lyrical vision. But narrating the “path between birth and death” stands as a necessity. “The great problem is terribly simple. A brief run between birth and death. That human life should be a community of love. Why doesn’t this exist?” she writes in the essay “Hållpunkter, hösten 1975” (“Fixed Points, Autumn 1975”). This attention to the progression of life as a whole is found in all her stories.