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.
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.
“The first Bomb detonated at the ‘Trinity’ site was called a ‘baby’. When the scientific fathers of the Manhattan-project telegraphed President Truman after the ‘birth’ on 16 July 1945, the telegram read: ‘The child was well-shaped’. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima was called ‘Little Boy’. And today they are creating ‘fifth generation’ rockets,” writes Norwegian author and psychologist Wera Sæther in 1985.Can such a ‘civilisation’ ever be saved? Only with the language of love, Wera Sæther thinks, can evil be conquered and life worshipped – in place of death. In this striving, man and woman are not separated from each other: only by a united effort can powerlessness be conquered.
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 number of Kerstin Söderholm’s traits qualify her as a Finland-Swedish counterpart to Karin Boye and Virginia Woolf: the privilege of working at the core of avant-gardism, as well as vulnerability, failing physical and mental health, and a death wish that eventually led to suicide.Like many other Finland-Swedish modernists, Söderholm wrote poetry that largely centred on nature themes. Poetry is her way of defining a tentative self and an evasive, inaccessible other.
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.
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.