Weird and proud of it
In this series Finnish authors ponder their profession. Johanna Sinisalo, detests literary pigeonholes: in her opinion, the genre isn’t the point, the story is. Instead of having her books labelled ‘fantasy’ or ‘science fiction’, she would like to coin a new term: Finnish weird
I’ve got a problem, and it’s a problem I share with my agent, my publisher, book retailers and librarians.
Nobody really knows which literary pigeonhole my works belong to. Almost without exception my stories include some element that is mystical, magical or otherwise at odds with our everyday reality, or they might be set in the future.
‘Doesn’t that make it fantasy?’ some might ask. ‘Or science fiction?’
Seasoned readers will of course appreciate that both ‘fantasy’ and ‘science fiction’ are very broad concepts that can encompass a whole variety of different texts. Even so, I still don’t want my works to be bunched into either of these categories. Why not?
For the simple reason that what we might call the ‘wider readership’ doesn’t look upon these categories with a particularly open mind. A significant section of the people who do not read books in these styles have a surprisingly narrow understanding of what these genres entail. For them, the mere mention of the word ‘fantasy’ conjures up visions of a pseudo-Dark Age world inhabited by fairies, spirits, dwarves and dragons and where people used magic swords to fight against the powers of darkness. Meanwhile many people think works of ‘science fiction’ must be set in space or on a far-off planet and feature lots of complicated technology, laser pistols and monsters with green tentacles. And it is because of stereotypical ideas like this that many people are turned off by ‘fantasy’ and ‘science fiction’. And the reason they are so turned off is about as rational as saying, ‘No, I don’t read detective novels, because they’re all full of old English spinsters solving crimes in between their cups of tea.’
If my works are labelled ‘fantasy’ or ‘science fiction’, everybody loses out. Certain readers will avoid them, because they’ll think they’re full of magic cloaks and neutron stars, though they might very much enjoy what I actually write about. On the other hand, if fans of post-Tolkien fantasy or hardcore sci-fi pick up one of my books, they won’t get what they are expecting either.
I write stories, for crying out loud, not certain genres. The genre isn’t the point of writing; it’s merely one of the writer’s many tools.
Like all writers, I use fiction to reflect, analyse and to try and deconstruct certain – often societal – problems and issues. Using non-realistic elements in my stories helps me to create a subtext and a fresh perspective on events. We might compare this to the ways in which we light a given object: if realism is when you light a statue from the front, I would move the light source so that the light hits the statue at a steep, diagonal angle. The object remains the same, but it looks different as new details are lit up while familiar details are hidden in shadow.
Let me give an example. If a writer wishes to examine the problems of otherness, of being an outsider, he might choose to write fiction that is a true depiction of everyday experience. But when that writer is someone illuminating the same story from a diagonal angle, such as Franz Kafka, he writes a story in which a man turns into a giant cockroach. A story of social exclusion, otherness, inadaptability, lack of acceptance and self-esteem suddenly becomes arresting and shocking in a completely different way. The story examines the issue of being judged from a most extreme angle: who could possible love an enormous insect?
It’s hard to squeeze Kafka’s story into any particular genre box: fantasy, surrealism, or simply horror? It doesn’t matter; above all the story is weird.
‘Weird’ is a good term for all ‘diagonal’ genres of this kind, hybrids of these genres, and genres that don’t have any other name.
For some reason the community of weird writers in Finland is thriving and of a very high standard. Courageous writers, each carving out their own path, are producing touching, believable and memorable stories that can’t easily be pigeonholed as belonging to any pre-existing genre. Common features of their work include the blurring of genre boundaries, the bringing together of different genres and the unbridled flight of imagination. In their stories, a man might take up residence in his wife’s thigh, dreams might disappear from Europe altogether, or whales may give birth to shamans. They – or perhaps I should say we – are weird and proud of it. In fact, the trend is so clear that we should give it a name all of its own: suomikumma, ‘Finnish Weird’.
I can’t help wondering quite how literature from a small geographical region can suddenly form a concept all of its own, a feat that Nordic crime fiction has achieved in recent years. It started off with a few star authors (in the case of Finnish Weird, Leena Krohn could be a good example), demonstrated that it is of a high quality, found a market of its own – and all the while a thriving, vibrant subculture has gradually emerged: the success of the pioneers feeds new talents, demands increases supply, and with that the positive cycle is ready.
Finnish Weird could very well become the next Nordic literary phenomenon, concept and cultural export product. I would be more than happy for my works to be categorised as Finnish Weird – the name doesn’t conjure up prejudices or dusty old ideas, but simply promises the reader that when they open the book, anything could happen.
Translated by David Hackston
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About the writer
Johanna Sinisalo (born 1958) has written short stories and novels and texts for television and radio. Her first novel, Ennen päivänlaskua ei voi (Tammi, 2000, in English, Not Before Sundown), now translated into 13 languages) won the Finlandia Fiction Prize. Guardian newspaper chose her novel Linnunaivot (Birdbrain, 2010, available also in English and French) as one of the best novels of the year in 2010. Read her essay on writing, Weird and proud of it.
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