As a daughter of an Estonian mother and a Finnish father, Sofi Oksanen has a twofold cultural background which also colours her works. It is possible to say that Sofi Oksanen is an author of two cultures. She has written three novels, two plays and a radio play. The themes of her novels can be described as multicultural or transnational in their nature because although the novels have been written in Finnish and published in Finland, at least two of them deal with Estonian past. Oksanen belongs to a Finnish-Estonian tradition which begun at the beginning of the 20th century when they were two prominent women authors, Aino Kallas (born in Finland) and Hella Wuolijoki (born in Estonia) who both wrote in Finnish, but didn’t live in their native country, and their works were set in the past (Kallas) or the present (Wuolijoki) of their new home country.
Sofi Oksanen became famous with her third novel, Puhdistus (2008, Purge) which won all the most important literary prizes in Finland. Originally written as a play, Puhdistus was last year’s best-selling Finnish novel. The narrative sifts between viewpoints of two characters and between different time frames. In 1992, Aliide, who lives in a farm house in a remote area in Estonia discovers a young woman named Zara in her yard. Zara is a victim of sex trafficking and she is actually a granddaughter of Aliide’s sister Ingel. The plot of the novel opens up gradually and the story of two sisters and of Allide’s deception condenses the history of Estonia in the interwar period, in the wartime and under the communist rule after the war.
Oksanen’s first novel was Stalinin lehmät (2003, Stalin’s Cows) in which she interweaves a story of bulimia with that of Brezhnev’s bureaucratic oppression of the Baltic countries. The novel’s plot is divided into three different levels: in the first place the novel is a story of the daughter Anna living her life in contemporary Finland, the second storyline deals with Anna’s mother, Katriina, an Estonian graduate engineer who meets a Finnish working man in Tallinn in the 1970s, and the third one speaks about people living under the Soviet regime during 1940s and 1950s.
The novel deals with the shame and stigma involved in the lives of women from different times. Anna’s mother wants to hide her daughter’s background as “a half-blooded” (a phrase used in the novel) because she fears that her daughter would be identified as an Estonian whore. Katriina feels that in Finland all Estonians were identified as “Russkies” because Estonia was a part of the Soviet Union and the Russian as well the Estonian women were stereotyped as whores. She wants that her daughter would be a “real” and “normal” Finn. That is why she refuses to teach her daughter the Estonian language. She trains her daughter to be silent.
But Anna learns Estonian during the visits to her grandmother who lives in the Estonian countryside. There she finds a new exciting culture which is perhaps more feminine than in Finland where women have no high heels and use trousers instead of skirts. As a child, Anna could be “a Finnish princess” in Estonia. As a grown-up, her identity is divided between two countries, Finland and Estonia. She learns to hide her Estonian origins but hungers for her mother’s and grandmother’s home country. In this situation, she feels displaced both culturally and mentally, and she reacts to the conflict by a bodily disorder, bulimia. At the background of Anna’s illness, there are fear and shame. Anna feels that the shame became rooted in her already in her mother’s womb and that is why she didn’t understand what the shame was like. She didn’t feel ashamed “although there was nothing but shame and silence, the silence of shame and the shame of silence”. At the same time, the silenced story of the fate of the Estonian people is passed to Anna. The title of the novel refers to the deportations of Estonian people to Siberia under Stalin’s regime. At this level, the Finnish reader is also ashamed: that we didn’t know, that we didn’t react — not even later.
Although there are the same themes (e.g. shame, secrets and silence) to be found in Stalin’s Cows and Purge as well in Oksanen’s second novel, Baby Jane (2005) which tells about a young girl from the county side who moves to Helsinki, meets a ten years older woman and falls in love, I will concentrate in my presentation on Stalin’s Cows.
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