A world of make-belief
Learning to be a grown-up, finding out what being happy can mean, working out what makes us different from each other: Monika Fagerholm (born 1961) talks to Pia Ingström about what lies behind her latest novel, Den amerikanska flickan (‘The American girl’)
A wood with muddy parts, a fen where someone drowned, an impossible house that broods on a dark secret, a gun – Monika Fagerholm’s new novel Den amerikanska flickan (‘The American girl’ Söderströms, 2004) is a thriller and a melodrama. It contains elements of humour, but it would be truer to call it creepy, tragic and irritating, all at the same time.
As in her previous novels, Underbara kvinnor vid vatten (1994, published in English as Wonderful Women by the Sea in 1997), and in Diva (‘The Diva’, 1998), Monika Fagerholm (born 1961) looks for unusual aspects of her characters’ emotions and relationships, with a focus on forces other than the cohesion that holds nuclear families together. The sense of place is also strong; in Underbara kvinnor vid vatten it was the archipelago, in Diva the suburb and the school – here it is the country, woods and fen, and local residents in an encounter with newcomers and summer visitors.
The new novel is mostly about Sandra and Doris: hare-lipped Sandra whose mother has mysteriously disappeared, and Doris, who looks for a new family when her own becomes – literally – deadly for her. The girls become friends in the symbiotic, physical way that girls are capable of, but with a slightly different emotional investment. Some of their intensive games involve the mysterious Eddie de Wire, the American girl who turned up in the area one summer a few years earlier, only to disappear in a gruesome and obscure manner. Another disappearance lurks ghost-like in the background – what really happened to Sandra’s mother when she could no longer cope with being married to Sandra’s father?
The scene is set in the District, somewhere in southern Finland, where longtime residents and summer visitors from different social classes meet. The time resembles the late 1970s. Many of these mysteries are cleared up in the end, and yet it is not the plot that plays the central role in the 500-page novel, but the language, and the manner of narration.
PI: I experience your language as very intimate. It comes close to me, to some layer in my development. It irritates and tickles and creates a very special mood and a feeling for the characters, and their youth.
MF: Death, love, violence, it all happens on the first ten pages. Sure, it’s melodrama. It also has to do with the ages of the characters: life is only two days long when you’re young. ‘I’ll take my own life,’ one says. One’s only playing, but it’s also deadly serious. And as it is so tragic, I had to find a language that would say something beyond that – I sought to recreate the tone of teenage slanginess, colloquial language and jargon. And I’m trying to study the effect of repetitions; the fact that the more times someone says something, the less it exists, or the more the meaning is displaced.
What I’m trying to create is just that extreme closeness to physical language, and to what is being described. I can only create it by writing, writing, writing – that’s why it takes me such an awfully long time to finish a book. I have to write my way to the structure, I can’t think in synopses, piece card-indexes together, or build the dramatic technique in advance.
PI: I’ve heard people tell stories about how you papered your whole study with small slips of paper containing events, dialogue, and details from the book.
MF: Yes, but at a relatively late stage – I wanted to find out what it was like to just let the material fall on top of me from all directions. I rented a small cottage, 2 x 2 metres, from the poet Tua Forsström and pinned everything up on sheets which I hung on the walls, it was quite unusual.
PI: What would you say the subject of your book is?
MF: On the one hand, guilt and atonement, to put it formally. There is mercy, but it doesn’t come to one automatically, one can’t escape from the guilt first.
On the other hand, perhaps: ‘How ought one to live?’ The characters are constantly torn between the instinct for freedom and openness on the one hand and the things that bind and close on the other. I don’t know how one ought to live, but I try to find out, by writing. But what I know, and want to try to show in different ways in my books, is that there are many different ways of being happy. There is so much that is taken for granted in literature, it can be quite lazy and serve up answers that we take for granted, mother-father-two-children-models for a happy life, What is a happy life?
PI: I think I can see a problem here – none of your characters seem to get it together at all, this being happy.
MF: What do you mean by happy? For me, happiness is determined by situation, it’s something that exists in moments and situations. Doris and Sandra are happy while they’re playing, and other characters enjoy being together, too, and that’s also a form of happiness. I see the relationship between Sandra and her father as a positive one, though many others don’t…. The father and the daughter who get closer to each other when the mother is gone, and for the first time get to know each other by doing things together. Earlier the grand passion, the one between the mother and the father, got in the way. And Sandra, she really does get it together in the end, even though it means that she has to give up certain people, certain ways of being.
So it’s very hard to judge offhand who is happy and who isn’t, in life in general. From one point of view we are all lame dogs, from another, heroes and heroines – it depends on how you look at it.
PI: And just when it turns out that Sandra has been freed from a great sorrow that has stood in the way of her happiness. Doris dies!
MF: I don’t want to be accused of being cold, but that’s what life is like! That is how the picture of what happiness is changes when one gets older. Ten years ago I would have picked out completely different events in my life as moments of happiness than I do now. Perhaps happiness is grounded in a state where one perceives how much sorrow and death there also is in life. Being grown up presupposes a consciousness of death that is also a very powerful part of the positive aspects of life. As for Sandra, it’s not just her happiness that’s on the line, but also the matter of her guilt. She has done something that she may perhaps have to atone for; there are no shortcuts, in that case.
PI: I know that you don’t like to have sexuality put in the centre when considering the relationship between Sandra and Doris.
MF: No, I don’t think it’s relevant to say that the subject is ‘Lesbian love’ and that Sandra and Doris ‘can’t have each other because of the pressure of their surroundings.’ Lesbian love is one of those ‘automatic misreadings’. I wanted girls as main characters because they’re so rarely allowed to be that in the typical study of existential human problems – archetypal human beings, like ‘the golden boy’. ‘The love interest’ is not the important thing here, we mustn’t make the mistake of over-sexualising Sandra and Doris, as it’s so easy to do where women and girls are concerned. If only love were involved, it would all be so much easier. They build a world of their own at the bottom of an empty swimming pool in Sandra’s father’s house, and there aren’t really any surroundings to clash with. And that’s a problem, perhaps, but on a more universal level; things rarely go well when two people expose themselves and reflect themselves only in each other.
PI: But what are they actually doing in that swimming pool, in that mishmash of records and fabrics and odds and ends and clothes?
MF: They’re playing, and trying things out. As so many young people do, in a physicality and a sensual energy that isn’t yet directed towards one sex or the other, unambiguously. ‘What about trying this, too?’ – like little animals, without a clear idea of what feelings ought to accompany the actions…. But it’s probably the games themselves that are meaningful, for their own sake and also the other side of the games.
PI: Then there are Doris’s cousins Rita and Solveig to consider; Rita in particular is hard to make out her aggressive manner and antagonism in relation to her fellow human beings. But Rita is the person who finds the dead Doris in a dramatic passage (see page 28) and later she becomes more significant in the narrative.
MF: No one likes Rita, that’s the idea. But I would like to be able to understand her – actually, she and Solveig will feature in the next volume; if Den amerikanska flickan is about young people and adults who are children, the next book will be about adulthood and what it might mean to be grown up. Like ‘happiness’, it can mean an awful lot of different things.
PI: In your books there are quite a lot of people who find it hard to be grown up, at least in the way that parents are expected to be.
MF: I’m not interested in writing about that standard solution for happiness – the family versus the wilderness. I also believe that grown-ups are not as grown up as they seem just because they live in such a way that they don’t come into conflict with anyone. And that’s a kind of problem area of our time, really. I want to present and examine other ways of living together. One ought also perhaps to reflect that if one is very determined on that point, that one knows what a good and happy family life is – the fact that one is living it out one can make a lot of other people downright unhappy. I mean, the ones who don’t meet the standard, the ones who don’t fit in, the ones who are always lame dogs…. No, the more I think about it, the more dangerous I think it is to lay down what happiness and unhappiness are. But when one is writing, one doesn’t need to lay things down and argue with concepts, one can do something just by showing a situation.
I’m not interested either in the universal, in the sense of what unites us all; instead, I want to write about what distinguishes us, the nuances, the changes. Life becomes more enjoyable if one tries to be precise make good use of the nuances!
Translated by David McDuff
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About the writer
Pia Ingström (born 1958) works as a critic and writer, and as a literary journalist for the Swedish-language newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet. Among her publications are Den flygande feministen ('The flying feminist', 2007, about Finnish feminism in the 1970s). A memoir of her mother, entitled Inte utan min mamma ('Not without my mother'), was published in March 2010.
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