New worlds

30 September 1998 | Authors, Interviews

Monika Fagerhom

Photo: Ulla Montan

The heroine of Monika Fagerholm’s novel Diva is a teenage girl. But this is a Lolita with a difference; for this is an intelligent Lolita, with a voice of her own. Silja Hiidenheimo interviews her creator

In Monika Fagerholm’s best-selling book Underbara kvinnor vid vatten (1994, English translation:Wonderful Women by the Water), the sun shines and the women really are wonderful. If there is a certain melancholy about the story, it is born more of longing and the unrealised dream of freedom. And although all those of us who were born in the 1960s thought Monika had stolen precisely our childhood memories of summer, that she had leafed through our photograph albums, the work is, in the melancholy lightness of its narrative, an exception in Finnish realism. While the book forces its readers to empathise so completely that one cannot imagine Monika has invented anything in the whole story, but merely, like a camera, has registered everything just as it happened, an ironic laugh is heard in the book: realism is just as banal as life itself. If one were to summarise the plot of either, one would not be able to repeat it without blushing.

But Monika herself is also a wonderful woman. For I gaze in astonishment at the notes I made during the interview. I interviewed her in a Helsinki café and made careful notes, not very detailed, just key words, for I agreed with everything and understood everything she said. Which seems astonishing now, even for the simple reason that she is a Swedish-speaking Finn and I am a Finnish-speaker. And that for most of the time we were remembering embarrassing incidents. Such as the time when Monika was in a German bookshop, appearing with her fellow writer Märta Tikkanen. They were sitting at the same table, signing books. Hour after hour, there was a huge queue for Märta. Finally a woman came up to say how much she had enjoyed Wonderful Women by the Water, which had just appeared in German, and asked for her autograph. Monika signed Märta’s name by mistake.


Teresa. Te-re-sa. Resa. Where are you now? asks the narrator in ‘Sham’, the title story of Monika Fagerholm’s first collection. ‘Sham’ – like the other short stories in the book – begins somewhere in the middle and ends in the same place: longing. Teresa is gone: travelling somewhere in central Europe. Perhaps this is something that is always present in writing: absence. Perhaps writing wells up from the desire to approach something that is not present?

‘Writing is an exploration. Naturally it speaks of absence, the attempt to approach something that is hidden, to throw light on what we do not see. On what cannot be explained by psychology, human existence. After years of studying psychology, I grew tired of the way of thinking – especially when reading literature – in which everything, and particularly femininity, can be explained by psychology. I want to cast light on the parts of existence that are not available to reduction. It is not a question of a journey to a paradise that lies behind language, of some deeper connection between words and the world than the agreed meanings of language. But it is a question of a journey. The exploration of the self, and now I am not speaking of myself. For in writing it is not important that the story is mine, Monika Fagerholm’s, or that I am exploring the existence of Monika Fagerholm. It is an exploration in the sense that I do not change writing, but it changes me. It is a question of reciprocity, a relationship in which the self is born. And neither is it the purpose of writing to bring books into the world, but to try to see, think, look into the world.’

As a publisher’s editor, I am startled. I have read countless piles of manuscripts for the simple reason that they should become books. I have, in fact, begun to suspect that literature is a group of physical books, that everyone wants to see their writing in only and precisely the form of a book, regardless of what is inside, as long as it has proper covers. And I have not very often heard any writer claiming seriously that the book is of no importance. That the intention is not to write books, but simply to write. That the intention is not to be a writer, but to write. Although it does sound believable from the mouth of a writer who unexpectedly, a year ago, did not deliver her manuscript for publication although her publisher demanded it and the press had already puffed and praised it in advance. But what does sound unbelievable, surely, from a writer is that it is not a question of the self. Generally, after all, even those writers who incessantly proclaim the death of the author are the first to explain to their readers how a work is to be read and interpreted correctly.

‘What I mean is that to write is an intransitive verb, it has no object, even if grammar demands it. Writing has no object but writing itself. A book, on the other hand, is an opportunity for the new. For me, it means giving something up. In practice: from time to time one has to complete something somehow, in order to be able to write. Publication is a good way to do it. After that it really is not mine any more. Anyway, I find talking about my own books difficult. Some of my texts I want to forget, and it is hard to talk about a new book when it is still underway. But in my books it is not a question of me myself, but of the self in general. The self is something that is explored in the book, the self in the world. The concept of self is, it is true, made large through narrative, but at the same time one’s own self is made small. In addition, the self is not self-sufficient, undivided, but is always formed through others. Language is an other. Perhaps, in the end, writing is not a project of the ego, although it would of course like to be so.’


The complete title of Monika’s novel Diva (1998) is Diva. En uppväxts egna alfabet med Docklaboratorium (en bonusberättelse ur framtiden) (‘Diva. An alphabet of your own for growing with Doll Laboratory [a bonus story from the future])’. The main character is a 13-year-old girl; no longer a child, but not yet a woman.

‘I think Diva is the end-point of my writing about girlhood. I still have not detached myself from it. In studies of femininity, it is not enough for old myths to be turned round and have a woman inserted. In fact, in Diva, I wanted to look into a dead end: into what does not yet exist. To create a new myth in which a woman speaks her own language. I was trying to write a book in which the girl has to invent an alphabet for herself in which existence as a woman is also existence as a human being, so that it too should be a question of existence, and not something where femininity shrinks to, for example, the ability to bear children. In some way all of us women have the experience of some kind of gender fraud, something which happens as we change from girls into women. Often anorexia in girls is interpreted as a desire to be beautiful, but in fact it is a suicide attempt: I will not put what you offer me into my mouth. Books written by women are full of metaphors of, for example, going into the forest, disappearing. It is necessary to find a language which one can use in order to be a human being. Diva has two separate narrators. There is Diva, the journal-keeper, whose text is at once complex, fragmented, elliptic, childish and adult. There is a narrator who describes Diva from afar and comments one what she has seen and written and talks sometimes to herself, sometimes to her mother. In other words, in this book – unlike Wonderful Women by the Water – Diva’s own language is also shown. I wanted to try that. In Wonderful Women by the Water, after all, the narrator is the family’s son, who describes the others. That was dictated by necessity. If Wonderful women had been written with a girl as narrator, the women would have been seen through anger. It would not have been possible to describe them as wonderful, as they are. Renée could not have seen how beautiful a woman is.’


And what of sham? Teresa loves sham, wastes all her money on sham, and Teresa is sham and Teresa is life and life is love between people. When, some time ago, I translated ‘Sham’ for a Finnish literary magazine, I did not, throughout the entire process of translation, really know what sham was. And I was too embarrassed to telephone the author and ask.

‘Sham is precisely that text. Sham is nonsense. Sham is everything. Sham is a moment, a flash. Sham is a questioning of the story. The entire collection was, for me, a process in which I wanted to write without the formula of drama. At that stage I did not even wish my short stories to be called short stories. Subsequently I have changed my mind: why not use good old modes of narration. That text was actually the first I wrote, and also the only one to arrive just like that, at one sitting. Sham is champagne. In the Sámi language sham means to love. For me, sham is a made-up word.’

All at once we both begin to feel sorry for the fate of the Volapük language. We know almost nothing of that forgotten language. Only that it was invented by a German a little earlier than Esperanto and that, after a promising start, it lost the battle for preferment and disappeared. Life is full of injustices. We can only imagine (for it is worthwhile to imagine and to suppose, as Monika says) how the few stubborn supporters of this dead, invented world language still hold vitriolic meetings in which they catalogue the weaknesses of Esperanto or criticise one another for semantic misuse of Volapük and the excessive use of loan words. We also feel sorry for the wife of the inventor of Volapük. How often must she have had to put up with her husband saying: in this house only Volapük will be spoken. We take a grip and decide to support all dead invented world languages. (Later I learn from the Internet that the inventor of Volapük was a priest who set about inventing a world language on the advice of God, and that Volapük flourished for a few years and that its supporters even held three international conferences. The first two went well, since the conference language was German. At the third, Volapük was spoken – which was, it seems, the end for the language.)


But is language invention or discovery? It is well-known that there are two kinds of writers: one wishes to consider language transparent, able to be shared by everyone, and the other wishes to invent a language of his or her own, which is obscure. Perhaps Diva combines both features: it invites empathy and its world can be shared – but nevertheless its language fractures reality, does something new. In addition it may be true that, for Finnish-speakers, at least, the book’s Swedish-speaking world brings a useful distance.

‘In one respect the creator of Volapük realised the dream of every writer. He created a language of his own, which everyone can share. A private language which is a world language. For me, language is discovery, a voyage of exploration. There is nothing entirely new for me to write; in fact, I am trying to discover what already exists, to find the aspect of which we do not yet know anything. And at all events, all private languages are somehow made up of old ones, of what already exists.’

I suppose so; even Volapük was not built on something completely new – for in that case we would not even recognise it. If writing is a journey into something new, it is discovery, not invention, of the new. The new already exists; we simply do not know anything about it. Perhaps one’s own language is a minority shelter. Minority literature cultivates its own language, not in order to cultivate its own identity, but in order to be able to discover new languages that the majority language cannot understand. Perhaps Finland-Swedish literature is not, after all, shut in its own bird-box, but makes escape-routes into Finnish literature.


I leave the café and walk past Monika’s city apartment and remember how it was I first got to know her. When I had to move out of my apartment and into exile, Monika rented me her Helsinki apartment, just like that and without knowing me – simply because she had heard of my predicament and wanted to help me. There I sat, for a month, in a monastic cell on a sagging bed. By day I ate the food cupboard empty and was afraid of the caretaker, who wanted to come every day to bleed the batteries or mend the dripping taps. By night I thought up strange phrases that I no longer remembered in the morning. When it was time to pay the rent, Monika refused to accept any money: after all, I had had to open the door to the caretaker once. It should be said that in the end I paid my rent in champagne – although I think I drank most of it myself.

Jönik vom, vö!


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