Sofi Oksanen is a literary sensation. Born in Finland in 1977, to a Finnish father and an Estonian mother, she writes in Finnish but calls herself a Finnish-Estonian writer. As a declared feminist, she speaks openly about men’s violence against women and Putin’s rule in Russia.
The Women Writer’s Group in Ostrobothnia
Three female Finland-Swedish authors who are generally included among the second wave of modernists began writing in Helsinki during the 1930s: Solveig von Schoultz, Mirjam Tuominen, and Eva Wichman. The war sliced through their lives and rewrote the terms of their careers.They explored new means of describing their experience, renewed the short story genre, and modified modernist poetry in various ways. Schoultz turned the spotlight on what she later called “society’s smallest cell, interpersonal relationships”, while Tuominen illumined the fundamental ethical issues of the age with the passion of Cassandra, and Wichman – whom the war radicalised – wrote political battle songs.
The focus of women’s works shifted from the sexual aspects of motherhood in the 1930s to children as the targets of wanton violence during the war. The time had come, they thought, to manifest the responsibility for society that Fredrika Bremer and Ellen Key had posited as women’s contribution to civilisation. The focus had shifted, however, from pleading the cause of women to that of children.The focus on children and the social responsibility of mothers was the last attempt by modern women writers to launch a new ethic of human relations and envisage a political utopia of peace. The broad-based, multi-genre effort did not dissipate until the 1960s when motherhood was stripped of its revolutionary content and redefined as either autocratic or powerless. Female characters assumed the position of helpless children in relation to men, and militant mothers were relegated to the status of frustrated housewives.
The gloominess of post-war Finland created a deep thirst for art and literature. A great deal of poetry was published and an unusual percentage of the first-timers were women, both Swedish- and Finnish-speaking. The women’s poetry, however, did not centre on politics or patriotism, but on the self, personal experience, family, home, children, the world, and humanity. Post-war poetry sought to create forms that differed from the classical approach, whose status had grown during the war. Young women, who frequently were more eager than their male colleagues to discover fresh perspectives and to emerge from the shadow of war, found their voice earliest and most naturally.The work of female poets may be interpreted as a commentary on a genre that was in flux, as well as an elaboration of creative strategies. A remarkable number of women were able to forge distinctive identities and write their own brand of modern poetry – clear evidence of their importance and strength in the shadow of the war.
A secure idyll that covers up a frightful abyss but always cracks eventually is a typical scenario in works by Finnish writer and illustrator Tove Jansson. The picture books Hur gick det sen? and Vem ska trösta Knyttet? (Eng. tr. Who Will Comfort Toffle?: A Tale of Moomin Valley) outline the utopia that emerged from Jansson’s traumatic experience of the war’s meaninglessness, creating a Moomin world.Maternal sensibility rules and family bonds extend to everyone. But Jansson’s writing does not end with the dream of a happy family. Her last Moomin books and adult fiction deconstruct this mythology.
Karin Boye’s most inspired poems are born at the juncture of “the world of appearances – a world that depicts”, and “the other world, the heavy, transformational world that did not ask for superficial flourishes”. Their tension oscillates between “that which breaks” and “that which bars” and is instantaneously released in a euphoric cry of freedom, for “fear can live no longer”, and the ego surrenders unconditionally to “the trust that creates the world”.Her suicide in 1941 has affected the way that people look at her life and her art. She has been portrayed as “tragic” and “consecrated to death”. Her work has been interpreted throughout as that of someone who struggled heroically against her “death wish”. Her writing often resides between sleeping and waking, an unreal kingdom in which dream and desire reign, a place that human beings never completely leave and always yearn for deep within.
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.
Much of the literature written by women after World War I bespoke a reaction to a new trend in sexual morality. The new age, the new woman, and the new sexuality echoed throughout its pages. With her “sex appeal” and “professional” relationship to traditional femininity, the new woman hovered around or simply crossed the line between the “good” and “bad” girl as defined by the old system of morality.Marika Stiernstedt’s prolific output reflects the temper of literature in Sweden in the first half of the twentieth century. She was a pacesetter in the 1920s. Her first twentieth-century novels examined infidelity and double standards in the spirit of Ellen Key. Relationships between women and men grew more complex in her later works.Her final work, Kring ett äktenskap (1953; About a Marriage), gives a no-holds-barred account of her infamous marriage to author Lubbe Nordström. The punctilious recital of the decline of an alcoholic and sexually ambivalent genius is unsparing in its directness. What good is freedom to the new woman if the new man turns out to be a cross between a hypocritical patriarch and a helpless child despite assurances of an egalitarian companionate marriage?
The Cultural Duality of Emigrant Literature