Finnish Literature Exchange

Maria Antas Photo: Heli Sorjonen
Maria Antas is Head of Literature Programming at the Finnish Literature Exchange, and talks here about Finland’s Guest of Honour role at Frankfurt 2014.

You have been preparing for the Guest of Honour appearance for a couple of years. What have been your highlights and successes so far?
Looking back today, so close to the fair, I cherish having had the opportunity to create networks and friendships within the Germanspeaking book community. This all makes planning the great event so much more fun and rewarding – creating a cool and beautiful iceberg and knowing that there are hundreds of people carrying it on their shoulders!

What makes Finnish literature ‘Finnish’?
Finnish literature is a rare mixture of referring to and even retelling the Kalevala – the collection of epic stories and poems that arise from our ancient oral culture. Through these sayings and images, a Finn can always hark back to a time before the Finnish word for literature was even invented. That word wasn’t coined until 1831, imagine that!

At the same time, since 1870 when the first written novel, by Aleksis Kivi, was published, Finnish literature has been preoccupied with positioning the individual as a seeker in the world, looking for a way to establish dialogue with the political environment. It is a literature turned upside down compared to many other European cultures.

There are only two exceptions to this general picture: Swedishlanguage literature written in Finland, which has its roots in 600 years of shared history; and the Sami literature of Lapland, which for a long time was only orally transmitted and despised by the Finns. As a ‘literary’ language it is only about thirty years old.

We have heard a lot about the importance of libraries. What do they mean to you?
This is a question that almost makes me cry. My family was not much into reading books, but my mother took me to the library when I was five. I received my personal library card and signed it in spidery capital letters. I even remember the first book I borrowed: När elefanten stal tanten (‘When the elephant stole the old lady’). From that day on I was a regular at the library; I knew all the ladies working there. They picked out books for me, accompanying me through my school years. Where would I be without the library and the school that became free of charge in the very year I started? I would not be planning a literary programme for the Frankfurt Book Fair, that’s for sure!

Leaving aside all the stress in Frankfurt, which events are you particularly looking forward to?
The FINNLAND. COOL. pavilion will be a place where new literature is born every day and everybody can participate. For instance, every visitor can have their brain scanned, generating a poem that describes what is happening in their brain at that moment. And I want everyone to come and celebrate Tove Jansson, one of the great personalities and artists of twentieth-century Finland. Her kind and anarchistic Moomin characters, her clear-sighted modern adult prose, her artwork and her comics – we will have several events to showcase her work.

We are also pleased to invite young readers to our pavilion on ‘Kids Friday’. Young readers are the most important readers to us. And a passionate reader never really grows old anyway!

Interview with Raphaela Sabel