Truths to tell

1 June 2011 | Authors, Interviews

Johanna Holmström. Photo: Irmeli Jung

‘In my writing I try to give as many angles as possible, and my agenda is to show that there’s not just one truth, that there are always several ways of seeing what one perceives at first sight. So I often have more than one main narrator. I constantly aim to question accepted truths. My stories always begin with indignation about something I feel I must write about. Fiction is a way of distancing oneself. After all, books are literary, invented things. When you work on the subject of a literary text it becomes less personal.’

This is how Johanna Holmström (born 1981) describes her approach to writing. Since her first collection of short stories published in 2003 she has produced a book every two years: three short story collections and one novel. Her books have been variously described as imaginative, committed and uncomfortable. Her short story ‘Stormen’ (‘The storm’) is a precisely observed account of a day when everything changes for its young protagonist.

TS: You’ve written three books of short stories. Did you deliberately choose short fiction as your genre?

JH: I’ve written a novel, too, but even as I was writing it I noticed that I was using the same techniques that I do when I write short fiction, and that didn’t really work. In a short story you can focus on every small detail, whereas in a novel you have to employ a style that’s more sweeping. The short story is stylistically compact, it often describes brief moments and yet it should also say as much as a whole novel. When I’m writing I am very precise, I do a lot of work on the language and spend an endless amount of time polishing details.

TS: What do you think the short story of the future will look like?

JH: The short story is going to increase in popularity. It’s already making progress in Europe – and Africa – for example. There is so much room for the form to develop. Anything can happen with that form, it’s able to use all the components of literature. I’m constantly preoccupied with trying to develop it, to see what can be done with it.

Before I started out as a writer I had read so many bad short story collections. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to write short fiction – I wanted to write the kind of thing I had wanted to read myself. And I knew what I was going to write, and how. I think a good short story collection can’t consist of disconnected narratives, it has to hang together in some way. That is what I’ve wanted to work towards, and it’s what I did in Camera Obscura. The publisher asked me if I would write it as a novel, but I wanted the words ‘short stories’ on the book’s cover.

TS: But now you’re working on a novel?

JH: Yes, it wasn’t that I thought I had to write one, but the topic I wanted to write about needed that kind of scope. The novel is about a Finland-Swedish Muslim family. It’s a book about fundamentalism, Islam, culture and the rebellion of children against the ideologies of their parents. I did a lot of background work – I borrowed over 200 books from the library, and I also had to make a break with short story thinking. And I was pleased to notice that I’d been wrong in my own assumptions – how much I had really been influenced by the media and the public debate on the subject the book is about, much more than I’d thought, but I was able to revise that picture. A novel takes more time to mature than short stories do, and this one is no exception. I’ve been thinking about the topic and working on the book for nearly five years.

TS: You’re a trained journalist. Has that affected your writing?

JH: I’ve learnt an enormous amount from my profession: the ability to try to remain objective, to do a lot of research if it’s necessary, to write in a pared-down way when required, the disciplined ability to edit and the interest in finding out about things. I read newspapers a lot and I react to external stimuli that I have to get to grips with and write about. I don’t think I could write a historical novel – I want to write about topical issues.

I write a lot all the time, and I’m disciplined about my writing.  I also welcome comments and feedback from others, because I can’t always know what will work for every reader. If someone points out that something I’ve written just doesn’t work, I take it out.

I’ve never suffered from writer’s block. When I was nineteen I took part in a creative writing course where we visited the author Monika Fagerholm and she gave us a useful tip, though I’m not sure that she knows she did: always stop when you know how to go on. Never write everything out of yourself – and that has worked for me all these years.

TS: I read in an interview that you think you have a moral responsibility as an author, that you can’t just write in an aesthetic, literary way? Some of your stories also have a socio-political agenda.

JH: For me it it’s not clear-cut who is good and who is bad. It’s a person’s actions that decide that. My characters’ actions decide what happens to them. I’ve been criticised for making my characters unsympathetic – but for me the characters are less important than what they do. I don’t feel sympathy for them, and sometimes they have to suffer so that the story can go the way I want it to.

I also think about my responsibility as an author, what it is I’m giving to the world and what is the best way to do it. Maybe not everything is material for literature – sometimes it’s better to write a column, and sometimes it’s better to write a diary.

TS: Where is your literary home? How would you place yourself in Finland-Swedish literature, a minority literature that has rather broad and fuzzy outlines, a tolerant one, perhaps, but still relatively traditional?

JH: I would say that I’m slightly outside ‘typical’ Finland-Swedish literature. I wrote my master’s dissertation on the typical Finland-Swedish novel. Statistically that’s a book about a middle-aged man in a midlife crisis written by a middle-aged man. The action is set in Helsinki. Or it’s about Finland-Swedishness, what it means to be a Swedish-speaking Finn. Now there’s a new generation of young writing women who write about things other than themselves. Perhaps I see myself as a bit of an underdog. Not that I’m outside the literary establishment, but I like to adopt the perspective of those who are weaker.

Translated by David McDuff

Johanna Holmström’s works: Inlåst och andra noveller (‘Locked up and other stories’, Söderströms, 2003), Tvåsamhet (‘Twosomeness’, short stories, 2005), Ut ur din längtan (‘Get out of your longing’, novel, 2007), Camera Obscura (short stories, 2009; it will be published in Finnish by Teos in September)

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