An LGBTIQ Interview with the Finnish children’s and youth literature authors Siri Kolu and Salla Simukka
How are the LGBTIQ themes intertwined in your novels? Do you see the character right away in your mind, and does the novel find its form in relation to a certain protagonist or a plotline? Or do you intentionally plan to discuss specific themes from the beginning?
Salla: I would say both. Each character is born in an organic way, in its own terms, and brings something essential to the story and the theme that way, with all its features and characteristics. Nevertheless, I also feel that because it is important to make different people, sexualities and gender identities visible in literature, I also intentionally want to write to show the diversity of human beings.
Siri: Planning the book about a trans boy, I was aware of doing a work of alliance, of telling a story that is urgently needed and that I will have to research carefully.
More generally I would say that I do not plan. To me, homosexuality is part of humanity. My mission as an author is to know the characters as deeply as possible and to compose a multi-levelled story that is structured well. If the character is a lesbian, I write from the perspective of her world, her body and her desire. I would like Finnish literature to be more flexible and think about all sorts of identities (gender-fluids, asexual adolescents, polyamorous adolescents) so that they too would become possible selves for carrying a story, a role traditionally left to heteronormative characters.
How much and what kind of a background work it has the discussion of LGBTIQ themes demanded?
Salla: First and foremost, it has been important to know the up-to-date terminology and legislation, all this concrete stuff. When you are writing about things that are important to people, connected to their lives, the terminology has to be correct.
Siri: I follow LGBTIQ news and different chat groups. The times, with all the different proposed new laws, give rise to lots of discussion, new concepts and the need to word things for the general public.
For the flybook (Kesän jälkeen kaikki on toisin, ‘It All Changes After the Summer’, Otava 2016), I was able and I had to do two and half years of background work about the trans question: about the care and treatment of people experiencing gender conflict in Finland, about the national and European legislation and the treatment processes for underage people. Trasek (The Finnish Association for Transgender and Intersex Rights), Transtukipiste (Transgender Support Center) and Seta (LGBTI Rights in Finland) have all been extremely wonderful partners, I have received an enormous amount of information and made lots of contacts. The groundwork included searching people I could interview and during the couple of years of writing, they became genuine friends and a part of our extended family.
The LGBTIQ themes have recently become more central in the gender-equal and feminist Nordic youth literature than ever before. What do you think about the significance of these themes and the need of/for readers? How are they in proportion compared to the developments in youth literature in general? What about the reception, including adult critics and institutions such as schools and libraries?
Salla: I think it is of uttermost importance that we have an increasing amount of and more strong and more polyphonic stories about different kinds of human beings. A book can explore what it means to be human, how one is allowed to be human. A book can be a safe and accepting space and a mirror for building one’s own identity and for understanding the identities of others.
Siri: One becomes a reader in their youth, if they find themselves in a book, one way or another. As an author, I see that is important to write characters with versatile genders and identities. Stories render visible positions of power that we might not have immediately thought about.
I find myself thinking about the reception of novels as a stone tossed in water with the widening rings representing the different communities of reception. A book is important for participating readers, those who recognize themselves in its stories or characters. A book is important for those in the inner circle of the participants, such as parents, educators and those who want to understand new perspectives on the world through emphatic reading. Certainly, the reception of LGBTIQ stories in the professional field, for example from the viewpoint of literary history, is similarly meaningful. We draw imprints of these times, times when you can choose who you are. Or at least times, when everybody should have that right.
What is especially important for you in dealing with LGBTIQ themes?
Siri: I would like to write about the diversity of human identity, love and desire. As an author, I try to get a hold of the process in which we participate as humans. We are not complete or of a certain type. Our understanding of love, our desire and even the way we perform our identity can change over time. We have the right to search and try as humans. We can be many. There is no right or wrong (if you talk about consensual encounters), there is only the journey.
Salla: For me, it is essential and important not to feel like I am writing about “those others”. I write about “us”.
In your opinion, how has the handling of LGBTIQ themes and the culture of writing changed in Finland? Equal marriage law, bill for maternity law, question about the trans law – are the themes now more central and visible also in (youth) literature, in addition to the general public discussion? It seems to be palpable: More radical atmosphere, the open LGBTIQ hatred, misogyny and racism in the internet and social media – in other words, the general intolerance of difference, the lack of prospects and how it is possible, especially through children’s and youth books, to open non-discriminating discussions on and produce versatile descriptions of sexual and gender orientation, being and life.
Salla: The handling of LGBTIQ themes has increased and become more versatile in Finnish literature over the last ten years, but we are still in a situation where the majority of contemporary literature is heteronormative.
It also sometimes feels like the general opinion is that when a book depicting, for example, men in a gay relationship or desire between girls or a trans-person, has been written, “the case is closed”. That is one-eyed and stupid, because one lesbian character cannot or does not need to represent all the people identifying themselves as lesbians – let alone all other fluid and changing forms of sexuality. Humanity and love are topics of which too much can never be written.
Siri: Our times are ruled by increasingly stronger xenophobia, a fear of foreignness. It is possible to project on otherness your own fears, values and attitudes that are not always recognized by these groups of people. The theme connecting my young adult novels is exactly this fear of otherness.
We need narratives telling about the kind of everyday life that is unfamiliar to us, because through these narratives different life choices and fates are rendered visible. In some cases, literature and art can give a voice to those, whose voice in this society is not heard at all.
The means literature uses to discuss its own time are simultaneously time-bound and very timeless. Literature asks: What is love? What is humanity? What is a family? To whom should I be loyal? What is the form of wrong-doing or injustice that forces me to draw a line?
Salla Simukka and Siri Kolu are internationally known Finnish children’s and youth literature authors. Kolu’s humorous and animistic children’s novel series The Robbersons has been translated into several languages and the adventures of the Robberson family have also been seen in movie theatres. ‘It All Changes after the Summer’ has been nominated for Finlandia Juvenile Prize 2016. The rights for Simukka’s Snow White trilogy have been sold to over 50 countries. The independent and strong Lumikki Andersson is also set for film treatment.