How to Read Literature Beyond the (Finnish) National Frame?

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Olli Löytty: ’Farewell to the Domestic Literature’. Helsinki: Teos, 2021. 183 pages.

[a magyar változatért katt ide]

 

 

The essay collection ‘Farewell to the Domestic Literature’ (Jäähyväiset kotimaiselle kirjallisuudelle) by Olli Löytty set off a cultural debate in Finland that has also been called ‘the cultural discourse of this century’.[1] Pietari Kylmälä, the host of Kulttuuriykkönen, a cultural program on YLE Radio 1, spoke about the two ‘fronts’ of literary studies[2] in his interview with Löytty[3] and used the expression also in his blog post[4] published after the broadcast. He interpreted the commitments clashing with each other, i.e., one side holds on to the traditional concept of national literature and the representatives of the other side approach literature from border-crossing and multicultural perspectives. Löytty pointed out in this interview that there are also differences between generations and paradigms in the background.[5]

 

The debate started with an unusually critical book review of Jyrki Nummi,[6] a Professor Emeritus at the University of Helsinki, that was published in Helsingin Sanomat, the most prominent daily newspaper in Finland, at the beginning of April. Nummi’s critique is written in an irreverent, derisive, and aggressive tone. He judges the essay collection as superficial and finds fault with the lack of arguments and analyses of texts, although Löytty justifies his observations and contemplations, that are fully in accord with the genre of essay. Nummi’s book review contains deliberate-looking misinterpretations and false claims. In his blog post, Kylmälä[7] makes similar remarks on the: for instance, he quotes a sentence by Nummi according to which Löytty does not write anything about Hassan Blasim’s works, who is an internationally appreciated author, writing in Arabic, although, Löytty actually analyses several of his short stories and the peculiar features of his works.[8]

 

I agree with Kylmälä in that the parts quoted in Nummi’s critique can be misunderstood without their context, and so, the reader of the review could have the impression that in Löytty’s opinion the entire literary canon in Finland is racist because its works are written from a white perspective.[9] If one is reading the essay collection itself, she will soon find out that this impression is far from reality. Although Löytty deals with the question of whether certain literary works can be considered racist and if we can call a literary work racist in general, he underlines that a piece of writing can tell a story about racism and present the characters’ racist thoughts and actions without being racist itself. In a half-sentence, which is brought in by Nummi, Löytty writes that “it would be easy to find a lot of works in which their ethos confirms a racist world view so clearly that it is not needed to be proved by particular text analyses”.[10] However, Nummi has left out the beginning of the sentence,[11] and therefore the reader is not aware of the fact that Löytty does not refer to the contemporary literature in Finland or to the works belonging to the national canon analysed by him, but to Western colonial literature.

 

Nummi’s book review caused indignation among a wide range of literary scholars and in the cultural sphere as well, but many readers of the public have also expressed their disagreement in their comments on the writings about the book and about the interviews[12] related to it. Consequently, Löytty’s work has reached its aim: according to what Löytty said in the interview of Kulttuuriykkönen, he wanted to initiate a debate that transcends academic circles.[13] In an opinion piece in Helsingin Sanomat, Katri Talaskivi and Jani Tanskanen, the Doctoral Researchers of the University of Jyväskylä in Literary Studies defended the importance of dealing with the questions brought up by Löytty, such as the marginal position of the authors in Finland that do not write in Finnish or Swedish and thus are excluded from writers’ unions. They disagree with Nummi’s position that the nationalistic frame of literary studies is already dismantled enough to have no need of discussing its domination.[14] In his answer to the critiques raised against his viewpoints, Nummi sticks to his earlier opinion in an article published in Helsingin Sanomat and asserts that he mainly objected to the superficiality of the book and Löytty’s overgeneralised statements.[15]

 

In my opinion, Löytty is beware of generalizations and exposes migration literature in Finland and reinterpreted classics from multifarious and complex viewpoints.[16] Due to the criticism he received, Nummi changed the title of his book review, somewhat modified the language, but he has not changed its content significantly. The original title, which cannot be found on the website of Helsingin Sanomat anymore, was this: “The Domestic Literature is Racist, Asserts the Researcher Olli Löytty, Who Feels Deep Shame, but Does Not Prove his Claims at All”.[17] According to the new title, “The Racism in Finnish Society Can Be Seen in Literature, Contends the Researcher Olli Löytty, but the Reader Misses the Text Analyses.[18] The latter statement is again a misinterpretation on Nummi’s part since Löytty does not come to this conclusion only because he writes about the presence of racism in Finnish society to contextualize refugee narratives and stories about forced integration that leads to an identity crisis.

 

The book questions the classification of national literature by clearly put scientific contemplations and analyses of literary works. In Löytty’s view, the nation-based classification of literature is ungrounded: ‘domestic’ and ‘foreign’ literature cannot be separated completely. Furthermore, the demographical changes in recent decades have made this classification even more problematic; he adds. The study of Hassan Blasim’s works and situation, which plays an important role in several essays, demonstrates that the nation-related notion of literature is not sufficient to categorize and understand some authors and their works. It is not uncommon that when something cannot be placed into familiar categories, it is often ignored, even in the case of highly talented authors and multi-layered works with many influences from many important works of world literature.

 

Löytty highlights several times that from a historical viewpoint ‘nation’ is a relatively young concept, coined in the 19th century. He uses the definition of the political scientist Benedict Anderson who carried out quite extensive research in nationalism studies and considers ‘nation’ as a fictitious political community.[19] However, the idea of the nation has concrete effects and consequences, as it can be seen, for example, in the case of distinguishing national literature. Löytty expresses his awareness of the presence of a national framework in literary research: literature is divided into groups by languages or countries of origin in academic circles. He also mentions the mother tongue and literature classes in primary and secondary schools: the essay collection ends in a playful but thought-provoking vision: a hundred years from now Zainab Al-Hakkarainen (her gender and probable religion demolishes religiously racist stereotypes), a university teacher with a migrant background, gives a lecture at the University of Jyväskylä on the concept of national canon. She researches literature written in Finnish and speaks about mother tongue and literature as a long-gone school subject. Al-Hakkarainen’s course is called Introduction to the Literature of the Finnish peninsula – this is Löytty’s witty term to replace Finnish literature or literature of Finland (the latter is a fixed genitive case structure and the more widespread term of the two). Löytty draws attention to the power of literary scholars, teachers, critics, award committees, bloggers and readers that express their opinions on social media in the forming of the canon, and he acknowledges his own opportunities as a researcher: it is not necessary to hold onto the traditional frameworks and issues of literary studies – he can very well determine the subjects and methods of his own research. Therefore, he approaches literary works written in Finland from a perspective that transcends the national category.

 

In addition to contemporary and postmodern literature, Löytty reinterprets some classic works as well, exploring them through the depictions of characters who belong to ethnic minorities in Finland and of non-white characters. In the analysis of the drama called ‘The Worker’s Wife’ (Työmiehen vaimo, 1885) by Minna Canth, he concentrates on Homsantuu, a discriminatively treated half-Romani female character. No matter how hard she tries, she cannot become an active participant in a community that does not treat her as an unequal member, and her tale ends tragically. Löytty exposes the marginal status of Romani characters also in Seven Brothers (Seitsemän veljestä, 1870; translated by Richard A. Impola, 1991), a significant novel by Aleksis Kivi.

 

In his analysis of ‘The Death of the Novel Character’ (Romaanihenkilön kuolema, 1985), a postmodern novel by Matti Pulkkinen, which is usually considered to be a product of its period, Löytty itemizes the justification of the accusation of racism or its unreasonableness. He comes to a similar conclusion as he does with ‘Asylum’ (Turvapaikka, 1995), a novel by Arto Salminen: both novels have multi-layered networks of meanings, and cannot be labelled as clearly racist or anti-racist. The author deals with another novel that can be classified as Finnish mission literature,[20] ‘The White Man-Eater’ (Valkoinen ihmissyöjä, 1986) by Lasse Lehtinen. Löytty interprets the use of racial stereotypes as the features of the genre of satire, by which the implicit author creates easily recognizable, typified characters. At the end of the essay that studies the descriptions of Africa written in Finland, Löytty presents ‘Rain’ (Regn, 1997; in Finnish: Sade, translated by Leena Vallisaari), a novel by the Finland-Swede Ulla-Lena Lundberg. After some works that were influenced by the tradition of Western colonial literature, Löytty uses this novel as an example for works that do not depict African characters as ‘others’.

 

The most important merit of the essay collection is that Löytty gives examples of how to carry out methodological transnationalism and deterritorializing reading in practice. Although Löytty does not use these terms in this book – which I miss a bit –, he presents them together with his co-editors in the Introduction of ‘From the Shadow of the National’ (Kansallisen katveesta, 2016), an article collection, which maps the possibilities of border-crossing literary studies applied to literature written in Finland. The authors’ aim is to break with methodological nationalism: by methodological nationalism, they refer to the method by which the nation is – consciously or unconsciously – considered as a basic unit of research, while methodological transnationalism discards the national framework and enables border-crossing research.[21]

 

Globalization has a deterritorializational nature, which makes peoples and things (literature, among others) lose their connections to territories. On the other hand, this disengagement and dislocation are followed by reorganization and the formation of new connections. In literary studies, the reterritorialization shows itself in that the nation-based approach to literature is just one opportunity of many others. The editors of the article collection mention the studying of working-class, feminist, queer, postcolonial and migrant literature in literary histories in Finland, as examples of attempts to subvert methodological nationalism.[22] Though Löytty does not mention this in his new essay collection, as the editor of ‘From the Shadow of National’ he won’t reject the use of the category of the nation completely, since he finds it useful in the research of the literature of smaller language areas, and in comparative studies.[23] In Kulttuuriykkönen, Löytty has defined the function of national literature as a component of a larger national narrative.[24] If we’re aware of it, we can see the nation in literary studies as a possible, but not the singular starting point – which was dominant in literary studies for about two centuries –, and we can read literature from different, border-crossing perspectives.

 

 

Flóra Várkonyi

 

Notes

 

[1] Iso kiista kotimaisen kirjallisuuden rasistisuudesta

[2] The quotation marks are my own addition to stress the metaphoric use of the expression.

[3] Iso kiista kotimaisen kirjallisuuden rasistisuudesta

[4] Kylmälä: Kritiikki on osa journalismia

[5] Iso kiista kotimaisen kirjallisuuden rasistisuudesta

[6] Nummi: Suomalaisen yhteiskunnan rasistisuus näkyy kirjallisuudessa

[7] Kylmälä: Kritiikki on osa journalismia

[8] C.f. Löytty: Jäähyväiset kotimaiselle kirjallisuudelle. 29−44; 105−109; 118−125.

[9] Kylmälä: Kritiikki on osa journalismia

[10] Nummi: Suomalaisen yhteiskunnan rasistisuus näkyy kirjallisuudessa

[11] Löytty: Jäähyväiset…, 133.

[12] In addition to Kulttuuriykkönen, Taru Torikka, a hostess of literary radio programs and literary critic, has interviewed Löytty in connection to the debate around the book.

[13] Iso kiista kotimaisen kirjallisuuden rasistisuudesta

[14] Talaskivi–Tanskanen: Onko kotimainen kirjallisuus

[15] Nummi: En ottanut arvostelussani kantaa

[16] Migration literature has existed in Finland since the 1990s, but until recent years the research in this field has concentrated on migrant literature (by which they meant literature produced by immigrants). I define migration literature relying on thematic, formal, and structural features (see also Várkonyi: Bevándorló nézőpont…, 21). In this book Löytty does not mention the term ‘migration literature’, but he does in the another article (Löytty: ”Immigrant Literature in Finland…”, 56).

[17] Nummi: Kotimainen kirjallisuus on rasistista

[18] Nummi: Suomalaisen yhteiskunnan rasistisuus näkyy kirjallisuudessa

[19] Löytty: Jäähyväiset…, 17; Anderson: Kuvitellut yhteisöt

[20] Löytty has written his dissertation (“Our Ovamboland: We and They in Finnish [sic!] mission literature”) on literature related to the Finnish mission work in Ovamboland, Namibia. Löttytty: Ambomaamme…

[21] Löytty et al.: ”Johdanto…”, 9.

[22] Löytty et al.: ”Johdanto…”, 25−27; 12−13.

[23] Löytty et al.: ”Johdanto…”, 17−18.

[24] Iso kiista kotimaisen kirjallisuuden rasistisuudesta

 

References

 

Anderson, Benedict: Kuvitellut yhteisöt. Nationalismin alkuperän ja leviämisen tarkastelua. Translated by Joel Kuortti. Tampere: Vastapaino, 2007 [1983].

Löytty, Olli: Ambomaamme. Suomalaisen lähetyskirjallisuuden me ja muut. Doctoral dissertation. Tampere: Tampereen yliopisto, 2006.

Löytty, Olli: „Immigrant Literature. The Uses of a Literary Category”. In: Rethinking National Literatures and the Literary Canon in Scandinavia. Eds. Lönngren, Ann-Sofie et al. 52−77. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2015.

Löytty, Olli et al.: „Johdanto. Ylirajainen kirjallisuudentutkimus ja deterritorialisoiva lukutapa.” In Kansallisen katveesta. Suomen kirjallisuuden ylirajaisuudesta. Eds. Löytty, Olli et al. 7−37. Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, 2016.

Löytty, Olli: Jäähyväiset kotimaiselle kirjallisuudelle. Helsinki: Teos, 2021.

Várkonyi, Flóra: „Bevándorló nézőpont a kortárs finn irodalomban.” Észak 1 (1), 2018, 17−32.

 

Online resources

 

Iso kiista kotimaisen kirjallisuuden rasistisuudesta – tutkija Olli Löytty puolustautuu, Maryan Abdulkarim kommentoi. Access: 18.16.2021.

Kylmälä, Pietari: Kritiikki on osa journalismia – Nummi ja Löytty sotasilla. Access: 18.06.2021.

Nummi, Jyrki: En ottanut arvostelussani kantaa Suomessa esiintyvään rasismiin ja nationalismiin. Access: 18.06.2021.

Nummi, Jyrki: Kotimainen kirjallisuus on rasistista, väittää syvää häpeää tunteva tutkija Olli Löytty – joka ei todista näkemystään millään lailla. Access:18.06.2021.

Nummi, Jyrki: Suomalaisen yhteiskunnan rasistisuus näkyy kirallisuudessa, väittää tutkija Olli Löytty, mutta lukija jää kaipaamaan teosten analyysiä. Access: 18.06.2021.

Talaskivi, Katri – Tanskanen, Jani: Onko kotimainen kirjallisuus vain suomen- tai ruotsinkielistä? Access: 18.06.2021.

Torikka, Taru: Osa 46: Olli Löytty, Jäähyväiset kotimaiselle kirjallisuudelle. Pieni karanteenikirjakerho. Access: 18.06.2021.