The Books Interview: Sofi Oksanen

You are sometimes described as a crime writer. Is that how you see yourself?
I'm only described that way in the UK. I think that might be because I'm from Finland, but I don't know - you might have a better explanation. I'm not a genre writer. The explosion of crime writing in Scandinavia is an interesting phenomenon, but I have to say that most of the popular Scandinavian crime authors are not Finnish. They are mostly Swedish.

One author whom you have cited as an influence on your work is Marguerite Duras, and she was not a crime writer. Why do you admire her?
I read her first when I was a teenager and the language she used really struck me, the musicality of it. It's not exactly the same when you read it in Finnish, but it's so obvious when you read it in French. I try to write in such a way that the language itself sounds beautiful. It's like I'm trying to sing with the language.

Your latest novel, Purge, began life as a stage play.
Yes. The Finnish National Theatre commissioned a play from me and I knew I was going to write a big role for an older female actor because I don't think there are too many big roles for them. They are always, at least in Finland, somebody's mother-in-law. I was writing a monologue for the central character, Aliide, and I noticed that I actually was writing a novel. It also felt very exciting, because when you have living actors in a story that involves violence, it is always a little bit complicated. But when you write a novel, you don't think about the limitations of the stage.

Much of the violence in Purge is bound up with sex trafficking in the former Soviet Union. Do you see the sex trade as one of the bitter fruits of the end of the USSR?
Yes. In the early 1990s, when everyone was happy about regaining their independence, nobody was thinking about those kinds of consequences. But every time a dictatorship is falling down -- you can see it happening now in Africa -- it creates circumstances that are unstable. And whenever circumstances are unstable, organised crime flourishes.

The novel also examines the fate of Estonia under Soviet occupation. Your mother is Estonian, isn't she?
Yes, and we went back to Estonia as often as possible. My father, who is Finnish, was working in the Soviet Union, so we also travelled to see him. My mother had left Estonia for Finland in 1976. When I think about my childhood in the 1970s and 1980s, I think about all the fantasies and dreams people like my mother had about the better future they thought was waiting for them in the west.

What was the relationship like between Finland and Estonia back then?
Difficult. For example, in Oslo there was an immigrant refugee government of independent Estonia through the whole Soviet period. The refugees there published Estonian newspapers; they had their own print houses, they had Estonian schools. In Finland there was nothing like that, because Finland had to be friendly with the Soviet Union, and Estonia was a part of the USSR.

How does it feel to be claimed by Estonians as one of their own? You were decorated by the Estonian president in 2010.
It's nice, of course. I meet a lot of Estonian readers who often ask, "Wouldn't you like to write in Estonian?" But that's not likely to happen.

You've written about Estonia's past. Do you think you might do the same for Finland?
I might, though it's quite a complex thing -- especially when you think of the way people talk at the moment about "Finlandisation". There are many who insist it had no effect at all, and then those who know the reality. Many Finns consider it quite insulting if Finland is considered to have been part of the Soviet Union once. As for politics in Finland today, I feel that we need to wait for the next generation, because those who were in power during Finlandisation are still the people who are in power today. And as long as they are the guardians of power, nothing will change. l

Interview by Jonathan Derbyshire

Sofi Oksanen's "Purge" is newly published in paperback by Atlantic Books (£7.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Obama 2.0

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis