Finnish-Estonian writer Sofi Oksanen will read at the Reykjavík International Literary Festival this September. Her latest novel, Purge, was Finland’s bestselling book last year and the translation rights have been sold to 23 countries. The Grapevine met up with the 32-year shining star of Finnish literature in Helsinki a couple of weeks ago to discuss – amongst other things – the Soviet Union and international sex trade.
“I have always known that writing is my thing,” she says without hesitation as we meet in Helsinki.
Her first novel, Stalin’s Cows, came out in 2003 and was an instant success. Baby Jane followed two years later. But it was with her latest novel, Purge, that Oksanen hit the jackpot, selling over 130.000 copies in Finland alone (to offer some perspective, Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code sold 150.000). Among the many awards bestowed upon Purge was Finland’s premier literary award, The Finlandia Award 2008, making Oksanen the youngest author ever to win this prestigious prize.
Purge takes place in Estonia and its main characters are an old Estonian woman in her seventies, Alide Truu, and twentysomething Estonian girl Zara. The novel revolves around ideas of power, nationality, sexuality and estrangement.
Those of you that haven’t been keeping up with their Finnish/Estonian history, Finland got its independence 1917 and Estonia in 1918. In World War II, Finland lost the war against Soviet Union, but kept its independence. Estonia’s destiny was much worse. It was occupied by the Soviet army, which was the start of the cruel ‘Sovietisation’—concentration camps, torture, sexual violence and mass killings. Estonia regained independence only after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
While Purge is set in Estonia in 1990s, the novel also flashes back to Estonia’s period of Sovietisation in the late forties and early fifties. In it, Oksanen explores Estonian reality, including the inevitable shadows of both the Soviet Union and, later, Russia. Nevertheless, the fundamental themes are universal. The author examines how history informs not only a nation’s development, but also the individual’s spirit and life choices.
Purge tells the story of two women of different generations, exploring their experiences with the loss of freedom.
The year is 1992. Alide Truu lives in the Estonian countryside. One day, Alide discovers a young woman lying unconscious in her front yard. The Russian-Estonian Zara turns out to be on the run from the Russian mafia, a pawn in the global sex trade industry who sought a well-paid job in the West like so many others. Her fate is reflected in her host’s history, a time of night-time interrogations, when thousands of families were shipped off to Siberia and partisans hid in the forests.
By interweaving these two women’s lives and destinies, Oksanen examines the searing wounds of the post-war period and also brings the country’s recent history into sharp focus. While reading the book, it became clear to me that Finland’s destiny could have been the same as Estonia’s and my life could have been like the protagonist, a modern-day slave of sex trafficking. For me, Purge was a physical experience. I nearly threw up three times. The horrible violent scenes are told through the victim’s experience.
“Violence porn would have been too easy solution. I wanted readers to be able to identify with the victim. Clinical description of a rape do not tell you anything about the victim’s experiences,” Oksanen explains.
Purge was initially a play Oksanen wrote for the Finnish National Theatre. When the play was practiced in the theatre, Oksanen began turning the story into novel.
“I do a lot of associative work when I write. And I must say that the text for this novel came out pretty fast, since the story and the characters were already there from the play,” says Oksanen.
“Purge actually has its roots in a story that I heard when I was a child. An Estonian mother and her daughter found a wounded soldier close to their house. They took him in and hid him into their home. Somebody from the neighbourhood talked, and so Soviet authorities took the daughter to interrogation. After the interrogation night she stopped talking,” she summarises.
Besides all the stories heard from Estonian relatives, Oksanen also researched Purge by reading Estonian women’s magazines from 1920s. “After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Estonian used bookstores started selling old Estonian magazines. It was amazing to see the 1920's and 1930's in photos, since there was hardly any visual material available from these times up until then. When I was reading these magazines, it looked the same as Finland in the times of gaining its independence. It was very confusing.”
All the Estonian magazines were prohibited during the Soviet occupation, from World War II to the collapse of the Soviet Union. “Who was hiding these magazines all those decades? It is a mystery. But it’s great that they did.”
“However, there was not so much material regarding human trafficking. I used the material I had, for example Viktor Malarek’s report The Natashas, which is a covering report of modern sex trade in Europe.”
Trafficking women and children for sex industry is an ugly aspect of modernity. It’s the third biggest black market business, after drugs and the weapons trade. Should governments criminalize buying sex?
“Absolutely not. The more visible prostitution is, the safer the situation for the weakest participant. If a western country criminalizes prostitution, it means that sex tourism increases. People will go abroad to buy sex. It’s not fair if welfare countries like Finland outsource their problems to poorer countries like Estonia or Russia.”
In Oksanen’s opinion, the most effective way to prevent the illegal sex trade and trafficking is to stabilize the economy in the poor countries, where the poorest ones have little choice.
“It’s stupid to moralize the decisions that poor people living in poor conditions make to survive,” she adds.
An Icelandic translation of Purge will be out on Forlagið in 2010.
The Reykjavík Int'l Literary Festival
Sofi Oksanen joins a long list of acclaimed international wordsmiths who have graced the fine city of Reykjavík with their presence over the twenty-four years and nine instalments of the Reykjavík International Literary Festival. The most prominent of its kind in Iceland, the festival has been visited by the likes of Haruki Murakami, Kurt Vonnegut and Fay Weldon in the past, and September 6th through 12th will play host to such international literary talents as David Sedaris, Luis López Nieves, Naja Marie Aidt, Kader Abdolah, Jóhann Hjálmarsson, Ingunn Snædal, Steinar Bragi and Thor Vilhjálmsson and Griffin Poets Robert Bringhurst, Dionne Brand, Don McKay and Michael Ondaatje, among others.
The Reykjavík International Literary Festival is a volunteer-run bi-annual presentation of author readings, interviews and panel discussions, and also features a publisher’s symposium and a segment dedicated to the Griffin Poetry Prize, featuring speeches and readings of the noted international poets in attendance. The 2009 festival events will take place at the Nordic House and Iðnó. For more information about the Reykjavík International Literary Festival and its programme see the Listings section of this very publication.