Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Swedish Book Review - Contemporary Finland-Swedish Fiction

Swedish Book Review, published in London, has had several articles about, or short translations of, Finland-Swedish material in issues since the year 2000. But halfway through the decade, the editor Sarah Death decided to have a Finland-Swedish issue as a supplement to the review for 2005. The guest editor was Neil Smith, who also regularly publishes the Swedish Book Review with Norvik Press, now housed at University College London. And what is interesting is that this supplement concentrates on contemporary Finland-Swedish literature, i.e. what is being written now.

The introductory article is by Maria Antas of FILI, the Finnish Literature Centre in Helsinki, and she gives some insights into recent prose works by Ulla-Lena Lundberg, Lars Sund, Anders Larsson, Erik Wahlström, Zinaida Lindén, Merete Mazzarella, Robert Åsbacka, Sabine Forsblom, Monika Fagerholm, Mikaela Sundström, Kjell Westö, Henrik Jansson, Peter Sandström, Fredrik Lång, and a few others. These names alone are proof of the continuing vitality of Finland-Swedish literature during the 2000s, despite the fact that the language is spoken as mother-tongue by only about 6% of the total Finnish population.

There follows a compilation by Neil Smith called "Collected Thoughts", where various Finland-Swedish publishers, academics and critics are interviewed and asked to answer five questions about the characteristics, scope, and viability of Finland-Swedish literature today. These people are also asked to identify authors worth translating into English and introducing to the English-speaking world. Some of the most interesting answers come from the freelance researcher Trygve Söderling, who points to the shift in background of Finland-Swedish writers nowadays. He notes that writers no longer come from traditional Finland-Swedish cultural families, with major authors now also coming from what he terms the "periphery". Zinaida Lindén even comes originally from Saint Petersburg. Söderling also notes the strong tradition, with pioneers such as Södergran, Diktonius and Björling. Finally, Finland-Swedish literature sits on the cusp between the Swedish culture of Sweden and the Finnish-speaking one of Finland.

The rest of the special supplement is devoted to introductions to specific contemporary authors, plus excerpts from their recent work. So, for instance, there is a story entitled 1968 from Kjell Westö's recent collection (translator: Sarah Death); an excerpt from Lars Sund's 1991 novel Colorado Avenue (translator Laurie Thompson); an interview with Fredrik Lång and an excerpt from his novel Ryska kusinen (translator: Neil Smith); an excerpt from Zinaida Lindén's novel I väntan på en jordbävning (translator: Silvester Mazzarella); an excerpt from Robert Åsbacka's novel Fallstudie (translator: Henning Koch); an excerpt from Candida by Pirkko Lindberg (translator: David McDuff); plus further excerpts from works by Henrik Jansson, Erik Wahlström, Sabine Forsblom, Mathias Nystrand, and others. The list is too long to give here in full.

These authors represent four geographical areas of Finland: Nyland & Greater Helsinki; the Åland Isles; Ostrobothnia; plus the area around Åbo including the parts of archipelago. This is where what is left of the Swedish-speaking minority of Finland still live. Åland is still around 90% Swedish-speaking, but the percentages are far lower in the other three regions.

A couple of terminological matters are interesting. For this supplement, the editor decided to call Helsinki by its Swedish name Helsingfors, a name that was current in English too until the 1930s. Another word introduced - and a very useful one too - is the word Finlandic, which should be used much more in the English language. Using Finlandic gets rid of the eternal confusion, when using the word Finnish to describe the country as a whole, and the specifically Finnish-speaking majority. When speaking about matters that concern both language groups, Finlandic would be much better. This distinction is made in the Swedish language. But decades of English usage mean that it would be hard to introduce this term in Britain and the USA.

I really hope that British and U.S. publishers, critics, reviewers and comparative literature academics read this supplement, so that they become acquainted with a literature that has been going since about 1890, and is still alive today. During this short period for a literature, a lot has been achieved, not least, as Maria Antas points out because there is a Swedish-speaking hinterland, i.e. Sweden itself, that speaks the same language and will buy Finland-Swedish books. Plus the fact that history has been somewhat different in Finland than it has in Sweden.

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