Nationalism and Racism in Literary Field in Finland


A panel conversation on Working-Class Literature Day (04.09.2021)

 

[a magyar változatért katt ide]

 

 

Eriikka Magnusson: …the title of the next panel conversation is ‘Nationalism and Racism in the Literary Field in Finland’. We have three participants: Susinukke Kosola, Olli Löytty and Flóra Várkonyi.

 

Susinukke Kosola (by his real name Daniil Kozlov) is a poet, a teacher of creative writing and a charter member of a publisher, who lives in Turku and was born in the Soviet Union. His first book of poems, .tik., was published in 2014 and received the Silja Hiidenheimo -scholarship of Teos Publisher. His second work, Varisto, from 2018 was given the Prize of Kalevi Jäntti. Kosola wrote the original version of the book by hand and the copies could not have been bought, but the readers could get them by sending a personal confession to the poet. The newest work by Kosola, ‘Turqoise Zone. A Study on the Color Theory of Loneliness’ (Turkoosi vyöhyke. Tutkielma yksinäisyyden väriopista), came out last Spring.

 

Olli Löytty, who was born in Namibia, is a non-fiction writer from Tampere, a docent of the Department of Domestic Literature at University of Turku. In his dissertation ‘Our Ovamboland. We and Others in the Missionary Literature in Finland’ (Ambomaamme. Suomalaisen lähetyskirjallisuuden me ja muut) (2006) he studied the conceptions on Ovamboland in literature written in Finland. His latest work is an essay collection, titled ’Farewell to the Domestic Literature’ (Jäähyväiset kotimaiselle kirjallisuudelle), which was published last Spring and it raised a polemic on the nationalistic and racist features of Finnish Literature.

 

The hostess of the conversation is Flóra Várkonyi, a Hungarian-born Doctoral Researcher of the Department of Finnish Literature at the University of Tampere. In her dissertation she examines the topics of othering and racism in the 2010’s migration novels. She is a Master of Fennistics and she also did research on poetics.

 

Flóra: Welcome to everyone, especially to Olli and Daniil! I thought that we will start the conversation with the presence of nationalism and racism in the literary field in Finland in a wider sense. Then we will talk about ‘Farewell to the Domestic Literature’ by Olli that has evoked a broad cultural debate. After that we will move on to the ‘Turqoise Zone’, stressing the social themes of it, which also have an important role in Daniil’s works elsewhere. So, what do you think, in which levels and in which senses nationalism and racism are present in the literary field in Finland?

 

Olli: Quite an extensive question that could be answered from many different directions. Nationalism and racism are phenomena that are present in the world, and if we think that literature tells about the world, it is also about nationalism and racism. It is a question of analysis, how well or badly literature carries that out, does it realize it in a thought-provoking way, which offers new perspectives, or in a narrow and excluding way. The literary field means that literature is not merely text on pages, but the institutions which maintain literature also belong to that. The literary field includes the authors, publishers, critics, award committees, scholarship foundations and translators. Of course, nationalism and racism can be found in all these levels, as also in the society generally, because the literary field is based on the structures of society. I could tell a monologue about it, but now I might not want to give a lecture.

 

Daniil: I agree that nationalism and racism are structures which are present in the whole world in certain ways, so they appear also in literature and in the literary institutions as well. The question is really how we want to structure the discourse about nationalism and racism in literature, what we separate in it and what kind of analytic tools we apply for it. The first one is the level of literary institutions, in which their history can be seen to some extent. The second is the literary level, which means how racism and nationalism are depicted in literature. I would separate also the perspective of the influence of literature on the readers’ attitudes. Another important viewpoint is that if there is a racist character in a book, who is not judged by the plot, it does not necessarily mean that the work or the author are racist. The content and the effect of a work are two different things. Furthermore, also the language is a possible aspect: how racism and nationalism are presented in the level of the language?

 

Olli: In addition to these, the literary history is also significant in that sense how we see the eras of literary history and their connections to the actual social circumstances. The readers’ relationship to older literature is important, because it defines what we read and appreciate.

 

Flóra: I also meant these levels, and we are going to talk about them. How do you consider, for example, the situation of authors in Finland who write in another language than Finnish or Swedish? Is their status different from the authors’ one with a migrant background who write in Finnish?

 

Daniil: The authors’ situation who write in another language is obviously worse. For instance, the works written in English get a lot less attention and their number is very small. However, the so-called migrant writers are encouraged by the publishers to build up their profile on their background, which is an external factor from the viewpoint of literature. This is the reason why I want to avoid this label, in addition to that I have lived here for a very long time – I have memories about being a migrant only from my childhood – that my experiences would give a false picture on what it means to live in Finland as a migrant. Moreover, if you identify yourself as a migrant writer in public, all topics related to otherness are underlined in your works and direct their reading. It is dig out from your work how it comments on the racism in Finland, even if it is a love story with ordinary, white heterosexual characters.

 

Olli: Nowadays the publishers are especially looking for writers with a foreign cultural background. This can also be a positive thing, but the authors’ situation writing in other languages than Finnish and Swedish is very bad. Multilingualism is still not considered as a factor which enriches literature and the opportunities in it are not recognized. Hassan Blasim, who writes in Arabic, is the only example of a non-Finnish or non-Swedish writing author living in Finland, who is successful, but he has become famous through English translations. In Finland it had not been noticed that we have this writer here before he was celebrated in the English-speaking world. We must also mention the decision of the writer’s unions that they still do not provide a membership to writers with a language different from Finnish and Swedish; the Finnish union accepts only Finnish-writing authors, and the Swedish union accepts only Swedish-writing ones. Regarding the authors writing in other languages, it is very sad.

 

Daniil: The authors must stand out from others, and an exotic background is considered to be an advantage if the author consents to use it in public, but at the level of the language publishers do not want to see this background. They seek for small, exotic stories but only written in Finnish, preferably in the standard language. For anything else, there is no place in printed literature. In performance poetry, which I practice, many poets speak other languages. There are also performers with a refugee background, who write in their mother tongue and present their works to each other. In performance poetry multilingualism is more visible and more accepted.

 

Olli: This reveals my professional orientation: when the question is about literature, I often speak about novels. It is great that you mentioned the multilingualism in performance poetry, in which it is truly present. In poetry, they experiment with also mixing the languages a lot more, whereas mixing languages is almost totally missing from novels. It emerges in them mostly in small code switching as words in other languages, but the novels usually do not contain linguistic elements that are bigger than words in different languages. For instance, any novel that would depict the everyday life of a Finland-Swede family and in which the characters would speak two languages, does not exist. At least, I do not know about that.

 

Daniil: The only novel, which comes to my mind, is Something not good (2018) by Erkka Mykkänen. Partly it is written in English and one line of the plot is placed abroad. But also this novel is jumping between English and Finnish and it does not include the perspective which we are talking about. It uses the code switching as an effecting device.

 

Olli: The narrator plays with languages also in ‘You’ (Sinut, 2007), a novel by Umayya Abu-Hanna. For example, she tells a joke in English, because it works better in the source language.

 

Daniil: There are some expressions in another language also in ‘Brown Girls’ (Ruskeat työt, 2017) by Koko Hubara.

 

Olli: Yes, there are some untranslated expressions in it in Hebrew. This is quite a strong gesture, because the readers can feel that they are excluded, but it is good as an effecting tool. It demonstrates what our world is like: we often bump into languages, which we do not understand.

 

Daniil: I would like to add that I see it as a very positive thing that there are multilingual experiments in poetry, because often phenomena get into the mainstream from the peripheries. High quality poetry is a Petri dish, in which many means are tried out, and the experimentation often flows into the mainstream. It may happen to multilingualism, because it is already alive enough in poetry, but of course, it could live more vigorously. Through poetry multilingualism can get into novels and culture and sometime also into the level of institutions.

 

Olli: That would be nice. I believe that in the poetry it is possible to experiment with things which can become successful in the prose, too. My wish is that it will happen. It is possible also because many poets start writing prose as well.

 

Flóra: I hope that prose will adopt multilingualism. I study migration novels, which also contain multilingualism. I do not know if it can be called a full-fledged multilingualism, but it is usual that some expressions in other languages are wedged into the Finnish texts. I consider it as a formal or more exactly, a linguistic feature of the migration novel. As far as I know, Olli also thinks that migration literature can be understood as a distinct genre, which has its own thematic, formal and structural characteristics.

 

Olli: It also depends the situation in which it is necessary to define the genre of migration novel. Surely, there are situations like that, but in my opinion, the question is problematic, because a tag like this presses the work into a very narrow frame, and, therefore, the work is read only in a certain way. I have a critical attitude to these labels. Of course, if the question is about migration as a topic, we can say that something is migration literature. In literary studies, at least we have got rid of the term of migrant writer, which was tried to be launched in Finland just a few years ago. That notion is really stigmatizing.

 

Flóra: I have also been thinking about it if was better to use the term of migration themed-novel or if I could replace it with something else, but in my opinion the term migration novel is more proper than migrant novel. In my research I do not use the word migrant, but I replace it with the expression migrated, because in Finnish migrant resembles to an adjectival participle form, which sounds as referring to that migrants are eternal strangers.

 

Daniil: If we define the genre of migrant novel through themes, it is clearly an existing genre, which examines, for example, cultural collisions, I agree with that. However, this genre still includes a danger that everything you write is supposed to be migration literature if you are a migrant author. Because of that the term can be misleading. Nevertheless, as a literary genre we can find texts dealing with these topics, and usually they are written by migrant authors. But also, Finnish-born authors can produce migration novels, and there are some stories like that.

 

Flóra: Yes, I agree with you, and I also deal with works written by Finnish-born or “ethnically Finnish” writers.

 

Olli: Antti Tuuri has written very good novels on emigration to the USA. We can call them migration novels.

 

Flóra: I have also been thinking about that if I should use the term emigration novel.

 

Olli: At least, it would be better in the sense that many works depict constant migration. They rarely tell only about moving from A to B.

 

Flóra: Daniil, how would you feel if you were called a poet with a migrational background? I guess that you have chosen a Finnish pen name in order to avoid this classification.

 

Daniil: Yes, it is true. I was young, 16 years old, when I figured out my pen name Susinukke Kosola. My aim was not to perform under that name to the larger public, I just wanted to publish and spread zines on that, but the name has remained. The thought behind choosing this name was exactly that I did not want my real name to guide the reading of these booklets. Later I did not want to overemphasize my migrant background, although I deal with otherness – which is a bit cliceic−, and in my first poem collection the experiences of being a migrant emerges directly in the level of the texts. However, I did not wish to receive attention because I am a romantic migrant author, who writes about otherness. I wanted to be discovered based on the merits of my texts, and my target was to make the readers think about them. Afterwards I realized that it was a very repulsive supposition that the name Susinukke Kosola would be neutral, because it refers to a Finnish-born man. I thought that if it were a feminine name or a name exposing my migrant background, I could always be accused of getting into the limelight by representing a minority, by my identity and my background, not thanks to my texts. I sensed it already at the age of 16 and attempted to avoid it by naming myself Susinukke Kosola.

 

Olli: It is absolutely understandable.  I dare to claim that you would have got a totally different reception on your real name. Your pen name was a good choice, even if you have regretted it.

 

Flóra: I agree that the migrated authors and authors with a migrational background are concerned by different requirements or expectations related to the themes which they should write about. In recent years there have been many debates on cultural appropriation, particularly around the works of white, “ethnically Finnish” authors in which they depict migrant characters. In your opinion, how should white, “ethnically Finnish” authors create migrated characters to evade the accusation of cultural appropriation?

 

Olli: They should write migrant characters well. The discourse of cultural appropriation is useful to the extent that it makes the authors aware of the pits they can fall into. When an author writes about characters whose experiences they are not familiar with, they have to use more fantasy, which means a bigger job. Though, we can write about aliens, nonetheless we do not know anything about them. Credibility comes from several factors, not only from the fact that the work is based on reality.

 

Daniil: This is a very difficult question because, as far as I can see it, cultural appropriation is a proper term in the sense that it is defined sensibly and generally, it is used properly. However, if we apply it to literature, it is very problematic and complicated, so I do not do it. In literature, I approach racism and cultural appropriation through the effects of a published literary work that is rather a sociological question. Does the work, for example, confirm preconceptions towards a certain group? Does it exploit that someone else has not had the opportunity to tell the story? For instance, does a novel, which presents Sámi characters and is written by a non-Sámi person, take advantage of that the Sámis do not have any opportunities to tell their own story? The view that the accusation of cultural appropriation would like to prohibit the fantasy, the language, and the freedom of speech from the writer, is also a problem of the communication culture. The question is how the work fits to the overall picture and the literary institutions and how it communicates with surrounding social structures. For instance, I  do not think that a white author shouldn’t be allowed to write non-white characters. Nevertheless, if someone, who does not have personal experience in being a refugee and would like to create a refugee story, may not be the primary candidate who should write it, but, for example, she should interview refugees or give them a chance to make them voices heard and not to speak in their names. These are more ethical than literary questions.

 

Olli: I could not agree more. I would add that culture is always borrowing, it is an adaptation, not a self-standing thing. It is a spectrum, which has extremities. The way an author uses their cultural knowledge, is an ethical choice. In addition to the ethical axis, the writer’s solutions also shift on the axes of competence and quality. Because of this I indicated that migrant characters can be written well or badly.

 

Daniil: I teach creative writing at the University of Turku, and the students often ask me whose experiences they can write about, and what is the guideline to that. It is a very difficult question to answer, but when someone asks, for example, if it is true that it is not allowed to write about a transgendered murderer, because transgendered people belong to a minority, my answer is no. Depicting a transgendered murderer causes a problem in that case if you write a transgendered murderer whose two main characteristics are being transgendered and being a murderer, and there is a cause−effect relationship between these two features; the character is a murderer because he or she is transgendered. But if transgender is just one of the murderer’s features, not a crucial characteristic or one which leads to the murder, then the depiction of the character is a lot less problematic.

 

Olli: It also happens that authors play with stereotypes, resist them wittingly or adopt and appropriate them, but with the purpose of questioning and causing a disorder. They do not simply borrow and use stereotypes, but they have other aims, too.

 

Flóra: Stereotypes can be really used in many ways. Now I would like to ask about the reception of Olli’s book, because the work raised a heated debate after Jyrki Nummi’s critique. What sort of feedback have you got during the previous months?

 

Olli: I was very lucky, because many people noticed something unfair in the critique, also people whom I had not known before. They helped me and I did not need to, so to speak, defend myself. Furthermore, I got an opportunity to react to the critique in the radio immediately, so the readers did not misunderstand me so much. Of course, I have been thinking a lot, why the book can be read in the way that the author of the critique did. In excuse of him, I can find one argument: although my book is clearly an essay collection, not research, I still announce in the first lines that I am a literary scholar. It allows to read the work as words of a researcher, and in this way, it may be criticized from the perspectives mentioned in the critique. It seems that in Finland you can be simultaneously only one quality. In my essay collection I wanted to present the results of my research in the last years and, at the same time, be myself, and I expressed my doubts if it makes sense to carry out research like this. From this point of view the work may be contradictory and may enable different readings.

 

Daniil: I would approach the question how it was possible to read the book in this way, through the reasons why the critic decided to read it like this, considering its background. Even if he strongly disagreed with the viewpoints presented in the book, Helsingin Sanomat would have been a proper platform to have a discussion on them. Instead, he distorted the assertions of the book very much and he did not examine or open them up, but he presented them in a misleading way. It was a strangely reluctant book review. I do not understand why the person in question did not use the space for fostering the discussion, but he aimed to set Olli and his book into a ridiculous light like that and it is not worth to waste more words for them.

 

Olli: There was still a short period when the work was debated in the most important daily paper in Finland. As a sequel of the critique, there was a discussion on Finnish literature. It would have been a great opportunity to the professors and to literary institutions to take a stand.

 

Daniil: I thought about the situation rather as a lost possibility. It would have been a good occasion for a nuanced public discussion based on the book, but in my opinion, unfortunately it has not been realized.

 

Olli: It would have been possible to talk more about this topic, but the discourse is almost closed. In my view, the main figures of literary institutions should take part in conversations like this. Where are the professors? [Addition: After the panel conversation Olli added that on the web page of Finnish Literature Society, published on 30th of August 2021, in his blog post Tuomas M. S. Lehtonen, a Professor of History, took a stand for Olli’s ideas.]

 

Flóra: Has the book achieved its aim in the sense that it has evoked a broad discussion outside the scientific community?

 

Olli: Yes, I hope so. In Finland, a lot of books are published, and most of them disappear without any attention. I must be happy that my book has found an audience and received regard, because it deals with questions which will be subjects of discussion in years to come. The world is changing to this direction.

 

Flóra: I tried to make the debate around your book border-crossing by writing a bilingual book review on it to Észak, in Hungarian and in English, with the intension that it would be understandable in both countries. How much space does border-crossing research get in literary studies? Is it a relatively marginal phenomenon or is it increasing?

 

Olli: It depends on the definition. I participate in several projects which can be categorized as border-crossing research, and due to that for me it seems that it is quite a popular field. I dare to assert otherwise, too, that this is a viewpoint and a research field which will be significant also in the future. For example, a dissertation will be published soon on multilingual authors in Finland by Katri Talaskivi at the University of Jyväskylä, and there are also other theses under work.

 

Flóra: Your essay collection ends with a vision, according to which in one hundred years in Finland there will be multilingual literary scholars, who may specialize in also Finnish-written literature. Literature written in Finland will be multilingual, such as the students of literature and the readers. Can this change be seen already? Are there literary scholars here with a migrational background?

 

Olli: Only a few. We can speak about weak signals, but hopefully the process has begun. What do you think, Daniil?

 

Daniil: I started studying Finnish literature, because I was very interested in how the image of Finland was built up in literature. For me, Finnish literature was rather a sociological branch. I may be one of the weak signals, because I have a migrant background and I studied Finnish literature. As far as I know, also Pajtim Statovci studied literature. Now I do not remember other students with a migrant background. There are such students in Finnish literature programmes but few and far between.

 

Flóra: I know a few literary scholars with a migrational background. In connection with my own case, I have been thinking about whether it can raise a question and whether I have the right to say anything about literature in Finland. I did not grow up here, I learnt Finnish as an adult and moved here to assert something on literature written in Finland.

 

Olli: It could also be thought that “It is very nice that someone non-Finnish is interested in Finnish literature! Tell us, what you think!”

 

Daniil: It also depends on whether the person, who came from outside, tells what the Finns would like to hear. If they do not, then they can say that ‘you cannot understand it’. I find it quite possible that some time you will face comments like that, but I see your externality – in the sense that you do not have supersensitive relationship to Moomins and The Unknown Soldier (Väinö Linna: Tuntematon sotilas, 1954) – as a strength which you can utilize. It can give some new perspectives, which are needed in literary studies. I wish that the people’s attitude would be like that: ‘Do you see it differently? Tell me the details!’

 

Olli: You have mentioned, Daniil, that you see Finnish literature from a sociological view. It could be understood also from an anthropological aspect, as staying with a foreign tribe. When Europeans arrived in Africa, they did not wonder if they could claim anything about it. In my book I wrote about the importance of the perspective given by externality. When we are too close to a phenomenon, the proximity dazzles us, and it is very difficult to take a step away from something if we are in it.

 

Flóra: Does it pertain to the thought that the original title of the book should have been ‘In the Light of the Stranger’ (Vieraan valossa)?

 

Olli: Yes, it does. The book got another title, but still the aspiration to see the familiar and customary with the eyes of a stranger occurs in it. You have this ability at the outset, but you will lose it over time. You must write down your remarks quickly!

 

Flóra: I am trying to follow the advice. We could move on to ‘Turqoise Zone’, in which Daniil deals with inter alia social themes, as he does also in his other works. In the publication event of your book, you said that for you, poetry is an extension of philosophical writing. Do you consider your poetry rather philosophical or social? Or are these two features well-balanced in your works?

 

Daniil: Philosophy is in connection with my motivations for writing. I find it very interesting for example, because I like its obscurity, which also characterizes poetry and poetic perception of the world. Poetry can offer a new, non-academic terminology to observe the world. In science, the use of terminology requires exact and consistent definitions, while in poetry we can find words with ambiguous meanings, which can be applied better for our emotional world and our experiences. Poetry may propose good tools for examining and analysing the world if we find this possibility in it. In my works, I am trying to create a world view with a perspective and to offer useable words and metaphors, through which we can understand and structure our feelings and thoughts which come from the depicted world.

 

Flóra: In the introductory sentence of your latest work, you comment on its fictional character: “it is true like every life which is written down”. It is a too wide question, but what do you think about the relationship of fiction and reality?

 

Daniil: I have hidden a bit of derision in this sentence. In my view, the truthfulness of a work does is not based on its connection with reality. The genre of autofiction is interesting, because its definition does not come from the text itself. There are no signals in the text from which you could deduce that it is autofiction, but the definition of the genre is a promise that the content of the work is about reality. Due to that, autofiction is read in a different way, and, for example, the readers forgive the text more or they search for other things in it than in the case of fiction. When we write down a life, it becomes fiction in a sense. If our aim with reading literature is to get to know the world, in my opinion, it is lazy to leave this function only to autofiction. We can reach many kinds of truth through fiction, which we cannot attain in other ways. I wish that the readers take fiction seriously, see it as literature which has social functions, and which can make observations on reality. In contrast, I hope that the role of autofiction will decrease. My target is to restore the respect of fiction.

 

Flóra: In one of your poems in ‘Turquoise Zone’, you have a critical attitude to neo-nationalism. The addressee finds a nationalistic sticker on a bench, tries to scrape it off, but a razor blade is hidden under it, and the addressee gets a wound on his finger. Do you deal with nationalism and racism in your other works, too?

 

Daniil: In my view, the question of nationalism penetrates my works, even if I hardly ever call it by name, because power has an important role in them, and nationalism is a form of power. In poetry, I almost never call things on their name, because as far as I can see it, it is not the task of poetry. If I want to write about something directly, I write a column. My first collection of poems, .tik., is the only one in which I deal with life as a migrant in text level, and with experiences about what was it like to grow up in Finland as a Russian. Because I moved here in a very young age, I noticed my Russianness just through Finnishness. I got to know from the Finns that I am Russian and due to that, I am other. I spoke a different language at home, but I did not think that there was a fundamental difference between me and them, before they pointed it out. For me, Russianness was formed as a weird negation of Finnishness, through that “you do not belong to us, but you are one of them and you are bad”. ’90s and suburban life were like that.

 

Flóra: The formation of identity in the light of the other is a central topic in ‘Turqoise Zone’, and otherness occurs in it in several levels. Did you want to depict a kind of intersectional otherness?

 

Daniil: I did not have that definite aim, but it is true that an intersectional approach can be found in my texts. I am trying to avoid that characters would represent only one thing. They are nodes of different happenings, identities, stories, characteristics, and power structures. I see people in this way, and I depict them so. I strive for that my characters would not be defined or captured by only certain features, but different features would intersect in them, what can lead to peculiar results.

 

Flóra: Also, Olli has written much about the concept of otherness, its utility, and its limits. Olli, how do you see this concept now? How useful and significant can it be in literary studies, for instance, in the analysis of novels on topics of migration?

 

Olli: In ‘Farewell to the Domestic Literature’ I have written that the concept of otherness is discriminative per se, and this is the problem with it. If you build your research on it, the results can easily reproduce othering. Daniil spoke about poetry so cleverly, that I would like to start reading it again. The language of poetry really provides an opportunity to avoid overcategorization, and that is my aim. On the other hand, it is very difficult to resist categorization and conceptualization as a researcher, because we, scholars need them, and we operate with them. Maybe I should switch to poetry if it gives such a freedom. Its language environment is very attractive.

 

Daniil: The language tradition of philosophy is also very rich, maybe a bit poetic, too. It can be noticed also in essays and in philosophical aphorisms, which are represented, for example, by Nietzsche and by popularized philosophical texts.

 

Olli: This is it. However, the ideal of academic writing is originated in and derived from natural science and leads to unambiguity. It takes away the pleasure of writing totally.

 

Daniil: As far as I see it, self-help has taken the role of old philosophy. Self-help tries to structure the world, to make it understandable and to provide tools and instructions for managing in life. Nonetheless, it is irritating that the human image or the subject of self-help, who are the target audience of these texts, is always neo-liberal and quite bourgeois. I would like more diverse subjects and multifarious thinking in self-help. I wish that it would return to the roots of philosophy, bring modern stoicism, and restore the philosophy both in the level of poeticism and of practice. I have digressed a bit from the topic in question.

 

Flóra: Let’s give a chance to the audience to present questions. Someone asks if the term migrant author is stigmatizing, is it valid also for the term of working-class writer? Does it also direct the reception too much? Does working-class literature even exist nowadays?

 

Olli: To the first question my answer is yes, the same things are valid for this term, which guides the reception and the reading. In certain cases, it can be a useful guideline, but not in all cases. The second question was if working-class literature still exists. Why would it not exist? As a brand, working-class literature is an important subgenre, it has a readership, and it is used in marketing and in classification of research. However, the meaning of working-class literature has changed over time, same way as the meaning of belonging to the working-class in society.

 

Daniil: Today working-class literature is noticeably less popular than it was before. Hannu Salama is still active, he performs with his ensemble, gives interviews, and he published a new book a while ago. It is an interesting work, because it combines the tradition of the late working-class literature in the early ‘90s with the present, with social media, smart phone and internet. However, in my opinion, recently it has not spoken much about working-class literature, except for Ossi Nyman, but also in that discourse the central thought has been that “nowadays working-class refuses working”. In contemporary Finnish literature, the world, which is depicted, is mostly limited to the middle class. Even though poverty and minorities have been portrayed more in recent time, the basis is still middle class. In contemporary literature and in literary discourse, it is not dealt with work and its notion in the ways it was examined in working-class literature before. I wish that the aspect of class would be discussed more in literary discourse and analysis. In my view, it would be useful to examine contemporary literary works from this perspective. How are the experiences of social classes depicted in literature? How is it written about work? What does the idealization of burnout mean? In Helsingin Sanomat, the latter one has been called a generational experience.

 

Flóra: Also, your works could be studies from the view of class, because class difference is a recurring theme in them, in ‘Turqoise Zone’, too.

 

Olli: I would like to add that working-class literature follows and continues its genre wittingly. Belonging to the genre occurs, for example, in choosing style, topic and publisher, and it can be seen also from the covers of the book. Depicting work and characters from different social classes is another thing. The two should be separated.

 

Daniil: If you ask me, the renaissance of working-class literature could be carried out by analysing contemporary works from the perspective of class. The literary field, arts and media would react to it, and more works related to these questions would be produced. Or we would need one big sensation, for example, a work written by a poor and lowly educated person, who got Finlandia Prize.

 

Flóra: We have another audience question: is there any contemporary literary work or could be written one, which would have a status like Under the North Star (Täällä Pohjantähden alla, 1959−1962), a trilogy by Väinö Linna? It significantly changed our notions on many events of Finnish history, and it was considered as a description of an era. Could a novel have a similar role nowadays?

 

Olli: Right now, I am reading Halla Helle (2021), a novel by Niillas Holmberg. In the discourse on Sámi literature, the question has been raised that in Finland, there are not any great novels dealing with being a Sámi. In my opinion, the novel by Holmberg compensates this lack. It is an old-fashioned novel in the sense that it does not put the stress on the narrative techniques, but on the important questions of Sámi community. The narrator of the novel comes from South-Finland, and he can present the questions of being a Sámi from an outsider perspective, therefore the reader can understand them even if they are not familiar with them. The novel by Holmberg is the great Sámi novel of the literature in Finland. The ways and the success of the realization could be subjects of further discussion, but the work fulfils this position in literature written in Finland. To the question if it is possible to produce a work like that in the mainstream culture, Daniil will answer.

 

Daniil: My cynic answer is no. Leaving a deep mark in culture requires power, since otherwise the work will not get enough public attention and enough space in the collective consciousness. Nowadays the lifespan of books is so short, that a novel cannot leave a significant mark. O (2017), a ball or a circle or something else, a novel by Miki Liukkonen  was an attempt to it, even if it was not a popular reading novel. It was published at the same time with the new edition of The Egyptian (Sinuhe egyptiläinen, 1945), the classical work of Mika Waltari, creating an impact that there was a new era of great Finnish novels. The novel by Liukkonen received great attention – as much as it is possible in the case of a novel –, but then it disappeared once and for all. Therefore, my answer is that it is not possible to produce a novel which would have a key role like some great novels had before, because literary institutions do not have enough power anymore. Works like ‘Book of Our Land’ (Maamme kirja, in Swedish: Boken om vårt land, 1875) by Topelius and Kalevala (1849), which have had a long-time effect, did not strike root in culture because they are outstanding, but because the pupils were forced to read them in school. Nowadays no one reads Kalevala, and it took ten years even in that time when it was published to sell the first five hundred copies. If I remember well from my studies, contemporary reception considered it as a too difficult text, but they were happy with its existence, because the Finns became a separate nation by that. They needed to be taken seriously as a nation, and the existence of Kalevala was more important than its content.

 

Olli: If a work with a similar role like Under the North Star were written today, it would not be enough to publish it in a book format, but it should be at the same time a movie and a TV-series, and T-shirts related to it should be sold etc. The publicity of a book is not enough anymore, as Daniil said. It should live in many genres of art, but its starting point could be a book which might offer a good basis for other media.

 

Daniil: I would like to mitigate the cynicism of my answer in the perspective that in the case of using enough power it would be possible to adopt the same story to different genres of art. Still, a book would not be enough, but it should be an intermedial experience and whole. However, the coordination of a project like this, is unprobeable, because it would not be worth economically. Furthermore, the organizations, whose main interest is not in the profit, do not have enough power to coordinate a huge intermedial work.

 

Flóra: There are no more audience questions, but we have some time left. Daniil, I would like to ask you about your notion of identity. In ‘Turqoise Zone’ a notion of identity can be seen which has a significant role, for example, in the research of otherness and in postcolonial theory, and in my opinion, it would fit also to the research of racism, because it is based on the thought that we form our identities in the mirror of others. Could you explicate this notion of identity? For me, it seems to be a constructivist notion of identity, which could be applied also to national identity. Could it help to dismantle the nationalist frame of literary field in Finland in your opinion?

 

Daniil: I understand identity as a construction and I believe that identity is built up in language, so I have a poststructuralist notion of it. Identity is not a thing inside the person, but, in any case, it is formed in interaction with the environment. Due to that, identity relates to the environment either in a complementary or a restorative or in a challenging or a denying way. Identity is the ground of action. Our action towards the world is directed by our self-picture and our identification. Hence, the question is rather what kind of identity would result from an action which leans on a sustainable base, and which could demolish, for example, harmful national structures. The identity which attempts to dismantle it must be in some connection with nationalism, but it cannot depend on nationalism totally, because in that case identity would be built only on negation, which is not a sustainable base for any identities. The problem can be seen in its best, for example, in underground cultures which were inclined to define themselves merely opposite the mainstream, and these identities are fluctuating and instable. Nonetheless, they resist to the mainstream, and their existence depends on it. Due to that, an identity, which is only an anti-nationalist one, cannot be built on a sustainable base and cannot be enduring. We must form more complex identities, which have several starting points. One of them can be history, like, for example, in pan-Africanism, in which the resistance towards contemporary circumstances and historical reading are combined, and identity rely on that basis in trying to create a new future, culture and form of cohabitation. I have expressed my thoughts in a too complicated way.

 

Olli: Because the question is really complex. You have interlocked the structure of identity and nationalism very well. In the case of racism, it could work in such a way that we recognize our racist thoughts and acknowledge that we are also prone to certain ways of thinking and emotional reactions, and it could help us to overcome them. This method would be more useful than banning anything categorically and saying that we are not like that.

 

Daniil: Yes. If you just deny that you are racist, it would be only reactivity, reaction to the environment, and the proactive part, which creates something new, would miss from it. Durable identity needs both.

 

Flóra: I agree. Identity, which is based on othering, can be problematic. It has been a concern also in postcolonial theory.

 

Daniil: It is important to speak about identity as a perspective, which is a way to understand our relationship to the environment and our place in the world. Human life still does not end in that, but we are a lot more, and we cannot be constrained to words. In my opinion, we always should be open to new impacts and directions. Identity and identity policy are good devices to find people who have similar social experiences and to ally with them in the struggles against oppressive structures. However, we must keep in mind that a person is not only one identity, but they are more. Identity must be in constant motion. It is a process, which is being formed in interaction with the world, not a congenital, essential thing, to which we just need to give a name.

 

Flóra: ‘Turqoise Zone’ delays exactly a notion of identity like this. The speaker’s identity is in continuous motion and progresses by rejecting permanent identification.

 

Olli: This is a great ending!

 

Flóra: Thank you for the conversation!