Sofi Oksanen on why only a nation that writes can survive

Article published on April 28, 2016
Article published on April 28, 2016

Estonian history is relatively unknown across the rest of Europe. We interview Finnish writer Sofi Oksanen, on the role of literature in building national identity and the memory of Soviet occupation in the country. Thanks to her novels, other European citizens are also starting to ask questions about Estonia's past.

The Finnish/Estonian writer Sofi Oksanen rose to fame following the publication of her second novel Purge in 2008  translated in more than 50 languages. The title refers to the deportations ordered by Stalin of those Estonians accused of collaboration with the Nazi dictatorship between 1941 and 1944. We caught up with the winner of the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2010.

cafebabel: Do you think literature is able to shed light on things that the mainstream media usually ignores, by taking on the role of historians, journalists and public opinion? 

Sofi Oksanen: Art can be eternal; while journalism is always connected to the time of its publication and so is historical research. When you read yesterday's news or historical research, you can see the marks of time. If you think of a magazine a hundred years ago, or a history book, it seems out-of-date, but a novel published a hundred years ago can still be a good read. 

The Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich is a good example of work that can be investigative and eternal at the same time. Her work reveals the reality of Soviet life that the media of the time didn't talk about. 

cafébabel: There's a quote written on your statue at Tallinn airport: "A nation that writes cannot be erased from the map". What in your opinion is the relationship between Estonians, their identity and their history?

Sofi Oksanen: A Finnish professor Seppo Zetterberg studied Estonian history throughout the Soviet years. He was asked, how did he manage to do that? Material related to the Republic of Estonia was banned and sealed in Soviet-Estonia. He answered that you can put a country on lock-down, but you can't do the same with the material that exists outside the country. Even if you shut down the archives in Soviet-Estonia, not even Soviet officials could get their hands on those photographs, letters or books that Estonians had sent abroad.

During the Soviet-era Estonians also taught history to their children at home, from old Estonian schoolbooks dating back to the time of independence. I recently met a librarian who had been working at Finnish libraries during the process of Finlandisation [when Soviet influence dictated much of the country's policy. ed.]. Lots of books that were considered "Anti-Soviet" were ordered destroyed. She removed these books from the shelves, but hid them at home. Just recently there was an exhibition of these forbidden books. 

This is one reason why I like paper compared to e-books. You can control the contents of an e-book – or even remove them from reading gadgets – but trying to destroy every paper book is not that easy. 

This is of course the perspective from a young country. When Finns and Estonians started to think about independence in the late 19th century, it was clear that we needed our own literature in our own language. Before this, the language of both education and literature had been Swedish in Finland and German in Estonia.

Both Finnish and Estonia have a very old oral tradition, but as important as that is, it's not as powerful as the written word. When you think of all the ethnic groups that only have an oral tradition, but no literature in their native language – well, these groups don't have the strongest position in the world. You also need written word to convey your stories to others. 

cafébabel: You lived part of your childhood during the "Finlandisation" period. Do you have any memories of that time? And what does it mean for you?

Sofi Oksanen: Well it was part of my everyday life. Estonia experienced three occupations after gaining its independence, whereas Finland managed to preserve its independence more or less without interruption.

These differences are clearly seen in how our national memory is reflected in our literature, and the description of national tragedies and turning points in recent history. However, one common feature in both literatures is that they provide a platform for discussion in times when the political situation made it impossible to hold such discussions in public. Such a medium is vital for any nation.

Three of my novels describe Estonia's recent history and periods of occupation. Year after year, one of the most common questions I get is: why do you write about Estonia's recent history? As if it required a specific reason. Every now and then, I come across opinions that say that writing about Estonia's recent history amounts to writing against Russia. After my first novel was published in 2003, I came across journalists, also in Finland, who wondered if this was an anti-Soviet book. This phrase "anti-Soviet" belongs to the vocabulary of Finlandisation and should stay in the dictionary of the past, not the present. In Finland, the process officially ended when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Finlandisation refers to the influence that a stronger power exercises on the policies of weaker states. In Finland, it meant censorship affecting our publishing policy, news media and movies. Also, the Ministry of Education prevented the spread of negative information about the Soviet Union, especially through history books. The Soviet Union always had to be described in a flattering way. Schoolchildren were, for example, taught that agricultural collectivisation in the Soviet Union took place entirely on a voluntary basis, that the Prague Spring was caused by "a counter-revolutionary threat", and that socialism in the Soviet Union worked well. According to schoolbooks: "The Red Army liberated the Baltic States from German occupation and these states joined the Soviet Union as its new republics". None of this was true, but we were taught that it was.

It's no wonder that the first time my peers heard about Estonia as teenagers was in native language classes, while studying languages of the same family. This kind of situation seems strange when it comes to Finland's closest neighbours, but the memory loss brought about by the Soviet Union even affected neighbouring countries.

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This article was published by our local team at cafébabel Milan.