Text and textuality

Issue 1/1999 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

In winter, the writer Riikka Ala-Harja walks the last 50 metres of her journey home across ice. She lives in a large villa on an island near the centre of Helsinki. When the ice begins to melt she takes a pole with her in case she falls into the water. Ala-Harja does not, however, consider herself particularly brave on this account. She likes her island.

One of the main characters of her first novel, Tom Tom Tom, Elsa Kokko, known simply as Kokko, also lives on an island, but only in summer. Born in 1967, Ala-Harja, who trained as a dramaturge, says she has been ‘wringing out’ her novel for years. In 1990 she won first prize in the J.H. Erkko competition for short stories, and she has, among other things, written five radio plays, four stage plays and scripts for cartoons, directed dramatic texts, held an art exhibition of autobiographical texts and images made on plywood with tacks and thread, and teaches creative writing at the Theatre Academy and at the University of Industrial Art and Design, as well as at a sixth-form college.

‘I’m not desperately interested any more in writing dramatic texts. I do like the atmosphere of the theatre, that experiential presence and the physicality of actors, but I am not keen on writing finished text for a living performance. I am passionate about the making of printed texts.

‘I may write quickly, but when I read over my text the next day, the little dramaturge arrives on the spot wielding a red pen,’ she grimaces. ‘I don’t have a horribly serious attitude to my own texts. I don’t make a conscious attempt to write action-led text, but the dramaturge in me eagerly cleans my texts up. Don’t all writers do that?

‘Actors are keen to amend texts if the writer turns up at rehearsals. That makes you critical. Perhaps it’s because of my dramaturgical training that unnecessary curlicues and sentimentalities fall away – and it’s not always even a good thing.’ The father, Tom, and daughter, Kokko, in Tom Tom Tom, at any rate, are straightforward people; according to readers, their rather brusque but genuine expressions of emotion are moving and amusing, different from ordinary family relations in their originality. It is also true that the novel is economical text; perhaps that is why it stood out from the crowd of last autumn’s books, ending up on the shortlist for the Finlandia Prize and the three finalists for the Helsingin Sanomat literary prize.

’I love text. Nothing beats a well-turned phrase,’ Ala-Harja says – and laughs.

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