By Inna Allen | Photos: Toni Härkönen
First there was a play, then came the book and then things went haywire. The phenomenal success of her third novel, Purge, shot Sofi Oksanen to worldwide fame. Her multi-award winning book has been sold in millions, translated into 38 languages and adapted into theatre productions, a feature film and even an opera. Purge, on every possible level, is Finland’s most successful book and its author the most talked about writer in decades.
Such shooting-star success does not happen often in Finland. Wowing both critics and the masses, Oksanen has managed to marry commercial success with literary credibility. Having won Finland’s premier literary award, the Finlandia Award, in 2008, as well as the Nordic Council Literature Prize, in 2010, Oksanen made history by becoming the youngest author ever to win either one of these prestigious prizes. Purge also won the 2010 FNAC prize in France, the first time the award has been given to a book by a foreign author.
Entering the scene
Sofi Oksanen was born in 1977 in the city of Jyväskylä in central Finland to a Finnish father and an Estonian mother. Having grown up in Estonia during the Soviet occupation and emigrated to Finland in the 1970s, Oksanen’s mother regularly took her daughter to visit relatives in Estonia, although it wasn’t always easy. Visas were hard to obtain and travelling was at times challenging and tense. Young Sofi had to get used to the feeling of uncertainty and bittersweetness. These trips lead Oksanen to a different world – a world she now describes so accurately and achingly but back then needed to stay quiet about. Perhaps inevitably, her multicultural background and personal experiences are now heavily present in her literary work.
Oksanen studied literature at the Universities of Jyväskylä and Helsinki and later drama at the Finnish Theatre Academy in Helsinki. Her first novel, Stalinin lehmät (Stalin’s Cows), was published in 2003. It tells the story of a young girl’s eating disorder and explores the image of Estonian women who emigrated to Finland. The feministic and political début instantly catapulted her into the elite of young Finnish authors and earned her a nomination for the Runeberg Award, one of Finland’s most celebrated literary prizes. In 2005, Oksanen carried on the success with the publication of her second novel, Baby Jane. Telling a story about two lesbian lovers, both deeply depressed and suffering from a severe anxiety disorder, the book addresses mental health issues and homosexuality, and their status in society.
Then came Purge
After two novels, Oksanen tried her hand at writing a play. Puhdistus (Purge) was staged at the Finnish National Theatre in 2007 to rave reviews. However, the characters she had created would not leave her alone, and with so much more to add to the story, the play grew into Oksanen’s third literary novel of the same name. Published in 2008, Purge explores the dark events of the Soviet occupation of Estonia. Focusing on two generations of women, one set in the wartime 1940s and the other in the 90s, the book tells the suspenseful and dramatic story of Aliide Truu and her grand-niece Zara. Aliide is an old Estonian woman whose hands are soiled with the crimes she committed during the Soviet era, whilst Zara, a young sex trafficking victim, has managed to escape and seeks shelter at Aliide’s countryside home. As the two women start to approach each other and the links between them are revealed, a tragic and complex family drama of rivalry, lust, and loss unfolds.
Purge became a runaway success, topping bestseller lists and receiving rave reviews with critics calling it a sheer masterpiece. Its rights have been sold to 40 countries, and this year only, the play will be staged in twelve countries around Europe. So, how does the author feel seeing her own text as a visual entity? “It’s not actually my piece of work anymore,” Oksanen answers. “I just build a structure, a skeleton, or I just design a plane, and others are flying with it. I saw the production of Purge by Teatro Aberto in Portugal and was really amazed by it. It was so different from the Finnish and Scandinavian productions. It was excellent, one of the best.”
This year has kept the author incredibly busy again. In April, Purge was turned into an operatic adaptation for the Finnish National Opera by Estonian composer Jüri Reinvere, and this month it hits the silver screen as a film version. Directed by Antti Jokinen, the feature film is a Finnish-Estonian collaboration, and the cast includes the cream of the crop of Finnish acting talent.
On top of being involved in both of the above mentioned projects, Oksanen has also managed to find time to establish her own publishing company, Silberfeldt Ltd, and finalise her latest novel, Kun kyyhkyset katosivat (When the Doves Disappeared). Placed in the 1930-60s era, the novel concentrates on loyalty, infidelity and maladjustment of people in a country whose fate is to be left to the mercy of its occupiers. “It’s the third part of my series of novels called Quartet. It’s about the separation of Europe and consequences of WWII in the long run, from the perspective of a small nation,” Oksanen explains. “The novel has already been sold to several countries so it looks like there’s lots of travelling ahead.”
With globetrotting, book signings, TV appearances and magazine interviews, Oksanen admits most of her working hours are occupied with tasks other than writing. But the self-confessed workaholic, who lives in Helsinki with her husband, claims she doesn’t crave free time. “I don’t need nor am I longing for taking time off when it comes to writing itself.”
The world premiere of the Purge film is held in Tallinn’s Nokia Theatre on 30 August. The large red carpet event is open to the public and will culminate in the launch of Oksanen’s new book.
For more information, please visit: www.sofioksanen.com