Sofi Oksanen (born in 1977) is considered the greatest living novelist from Finland. Her books have been translated in 38 languages. She studied Dramaturgy at Helsinki’s Theatre Academy and Literature at the Jyvasklya University. She wrote her first novel, Stalin’s Cows, in 2003, which introduced the Finnish literary scene to her politically-charged work. In 2007 she wrote Purge as a commission for the Finnish National Theatre, and a year later she developed the work into what became a bestseller across Europe. Gifted with a natural ability to tell stories, Sofi kindly answered all of my questions accordingly:
“Arizona is a place on a children’s board game pretty popular in Finland”
Octavian CURPAS: You are currently on the top of many bestseller lists in the Nordic countries in Europe and your books have received attention from the international media. You have won numerous literary prizes, including Finland’s premier literary award, The Finlandia Award, and the biggest literary award in Nordic countries, The Nordic Council Literature Prize 2010. Also, you are the youngest author ever to win either one of these prestigious prizes. What is the key to your success?
Sofi OKSANEN: Writing.
Octavian CURPAS: What languages were spoken in your family, taking into consideration that your father was Finnish and your mother Estonian? How many languages do you speak?
Sofi OKSANEN: Finnish and Estonian. I speak English as well, some French and Swedish, and I can read the newspaper somewhat in German as well. English, French, German at school. Swedish as well, Swedish is compulsory.
Octavian CURPAS: I’ve read some findings which revealed that Finland has one of the lowest immigration rates in the world. What was it like to grow up in a mixed family in Finland?
Sofi OKSANEN: Well attitudes towards immigrants are different in different parts of Finland and in different groups. We do have tolerant people as well. And it’s totally different to live in Helsinki (more immigrants) than in other parts of Finland. Finnish people are not used to broken Finnish so any tone of accent gets attention. Education – if it’s not from Finnish schools – is not valued in general. So for an immigrant it’s pretty difficult to get a job, even if you come from the UK, the US or other Western-European countries.
Octavian CURPAS: Tell me about your books. I’ve recently learned that they have been translated into 38 languages. Tell me a few words about your first novel Stalin’s Cows. How long did it take you to write it?
Sofi OKSANEN: Two years. It’s about immigration in Finland, double-identities, second-generation immigration. It’s also a post-Gulag-novel.
Octavian CURPAS: What is different about the Scandinavian countries compared with the other countries in Europe?
Sofi OKSANEN: Western European countries are still very different from Eastern European countries, so one should make the comparison between Scandinavia vs.Eastern European countries and Scandinavia vs. Western European countries. In Scandinavia we have a high level of freedom of speech, only a little corruption, awareness of the environment, and the level of equality is better than in many countries.
Octavian CURPAS: Now, tell me some similarities and differences among the Scandinavian countries.
Sofi OKSANEN: Swedish, Norwegian and Danish belong to the same linguistic group.
Octavian CURPAS: Finland is like a step son to other Nordic countries – the language is so different and Finnish is not an official language in the Nordic Council (Swedish, Norwegian and Danish are).
Sofi OKSANEN: We share the same values though, like a high level of freedom of speech, equality and so on.
Octavian CURPAS: What is unique about Finland and Finnish people? What places are worth seeing in your country?
Sofi OKSANEN: I like Helsinki, the capital. Tourists usually enjoy Lapland. Four different seasons are an experience for some as well.
Octavian CURPAS: What kind of books does the average person in Finland read?
Sofi OKSANEN: Novels mostly. Lots of historical novels, more fiction than non-fiction, more domestic authors than translated. Finnish people do read. Finnish people visit libraries more than any other nationalities in the world.
Octavian CURPAS: What does it take to become a great writer?
Sofi OKSANEN: There’s not a single path for that. All authors are individuals.
Octavian CURPAS: Which states have you visited in the U.S.? Have you ever visited the Grand Canyon State? What comes into your mind when you think of Arizona?
Sofi OKSANEN: Arizona is a place on a children’s board game pretty popular in Finland or was when I was a child. No, I haven’t visited your state. I have visited NYC, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Washington DC and some other cities.
Sofi Oksanen’s interest in the post communist countries from Europe began many years ago. Being half Finnish and half Estonian, she has been brought up at the border of East and West. In 2009 she was declared Estonia’s “Person of the Year”. Sofi is probably the only writer from Western Europe that emphasizes the fact that Western Europe does not understand the history of Eastern Europe since it never experienced years of total government control over the people. Some of the unbelievable facts about those terrifying times are encompassed by the Scandinavian writer in her award-winning novel Purge, which appeared in nearly 40 different countries.
Octavian D. Curpas