Helena Halme is a Finnish author living and writing in the UK. She has independently published three books, all with a Finnish connection, the latest being Coffee and Vodka.
Helena, when we met at the London Book Fair, it was apparent that one thing we had in common was that we'd both emigrated from one country to another that, to an outsider, would seem to have superficially similar cultures. But we both found that, from a child’s eye view at least, the differences could loom a lot larger. Can you tell us a bit about your experience?
When I moved to Sweden in the early 1970s, at the age on ten, my parents decided to put me and my sister into a normal Swedish school. It was the done thing in those days. But for us Finns learning another language is very difficult. Finnish is close to Hungarian and very unlike Swedish, which is Germanic and related to English.
I was soon aware, however, that learning the language wasn’t enough. I noticed that people around us - the normal Swedes – very much looked down on Finns.
I now of course understand the socio-economic reasons behind this discrimination.
Sweden has traditionally been the richest of Scandinavian countries. At one time it ruled over all its neighbours, and as late as the end of 17th century Finland too was part of Sweden (before Sweden handed it over to Russia). Even today, Sweden is very much considered in Finland as its Big Brother (for better or worse).
Finland fought in WWII and lost a large part of its territory to the Soviet Union in order to remain independent. This had a drastic effect on the Finnish economy, so after the war many Finns emigrated to Sweden in search of a better life. But in Sweden Finns were seen as poor people who drank too much, didn’t learn the language and were often violent.
For a child, it was puzzling why suddenly your mother tongue, and the country you came from, was undesirable, and even hated.
This feeling of bewilderment, combined with a desire to adopt the new language and its customs, was why I was compelled to write Coffee and Vodka. I wanted to convey a negative immigrant experience from a young girl’s point of view.
You then moved countries again, from Sweden to England. How would you compare the experience of emigrating as an adult to doing it as a child?
My second major move was a totally opposite experience. To my great surprise, in the UK Finns were rather revered and admired. My father-in-law complimented me on the ‘brave Finns who fought the Russians’ and on the Finnish composer Sibelius who he loved. (And who I’ve later discovered I am distantly related to!).
My second experience of this ‘admiration’ was at the airport when I travelled into the UK for the first time as the wife of an Englishman. This was before Finland had joined the EU and I was required to have a medical examination at the border in order to receive an ‘indefinite leave to remain in the UK’ -stamp on my passport . Instead of examining me, the doctor apologised for the inconvenience and said I was probably healthier than majority of the English population and signed my forms without as much as lifting the stethoscope from around his neck.
How would you say those experiences have influenced your writing?
I would go as far as to say that without having the experience of changing countries and cultures I would probably not be a writer at all. Coffee and Vodka is based on my experience as a Finn growing up in Sweden, and The Englishman is a fictionalised account of how I met my naval officer husband and moved to the UK. But of course, it’s hard to say if I would have become a writer anyway. The urge to write is so strong, I’m sure I would have found something else equally compelling to write about.
We’ve both been back recently to the places where we grew up, which can be a strange feeling. When your lead character in Coffee and Vodka returns to Tampere for the first time as an adult, she feels like a stranger. Does this mirror an experience you had? And how do you find it today?
Eeva in Coffee and Vodka does feel like a stranger when she visits Tampere, but she has been away for thirty years, which is a long time. I have visited Tampere more often, but I did have a period of being away for about 10 years, when the children were small, and none my close family lived there. I think visiting your home town is always strange, and even more so if you live abroad.
Today when I go back to Finland, I feel somewhere between the two: I am a Finn and an Englishwoman, all rolled into one. I look at my fellow Finns through the eyes of an Englishwoman. I recognize the shyness, the silences in conversation that Finns never feel compelled to fill, and the directness of their actions and words. This makes me smile and feel at home again; at the same time I feel foreign in my own country. It is a very strange feeling, and I often feel very sad leaving Finland while at the same time delighted to be coming back to the UK. Conflicted doesn’t really begin to convey how I feel!
You have published several books in English. Why did you choose to start writing in English, and does it feel like your natural medium of expression now? Do you ever write stories in Swedish or Finnish?
I’ve written a diary on and off since I was little. When I married my Englishman and moved here, I started keeping a diary in earnest. I don’t know why, but I wrote it in English at the start of the book and in Finnish at the back. I’d forgotten about this until I found the diary a couple of years ago when we relocated to London.
My first job here in the UK was working for the BBC where I translated Finnish and Swedish news items into English, and I guess that is when I slowly began to think in English. Now I sometimes write articles for ex-pat Finnish magazines in both languages, but the Finnish version takes me a lot longer to compose!
Why did you choose to publish as an Indie author and how have you found the experience? What have been the best and the hardest things about it?
Over the years I’ve approached a few literary agents, and was asked to rework one of my novels for an agent. In the end nothing came out of the relationship and so with the emergence of the e-book, I decided to take the plunge. I had the three books professionally edited, employed an experienced cover designer and pressed ‘publish’.
I could not be happier about publishing my novels as e-books. To be able to share my work and get positive feedback from people I’ve never met makes me giddy with happiness. Everyone tells you that as an independent writer you are lonely, but I haven’t found this to be true. There is a wonderful community of Indy writers, and now we even have our own organisation, Alliance of Independent Authors! There is a closed Facebook page purely for discussions on the fast changing face of e-publishing, monthly meetings and a support network, something which I could not have done without.
One reaction I had to Coffee and Vodka was that – in an odd way – it reminded me of the Swedish/Danish television series, The Bridge. Of course the subject matter is very different, but they both draw attention to the differences between Scandinavian countries that the rest of the world tends to lump into one. I know you’re a big fan of Scandi-noir yourself. How do you place your own writing in relation to the current craze? Do you think there is an opportunity to broaden the interest in Scandinavian writing beyond crime fiction?
I’m delighted Coffee and Vodka reminds you of The Bridge. Result!
Seriously, I think the time has come for Nordic writing to get literary. I don’t mean that Scandi Crime isn’t of good quality, but there are so many Nordic writers not writing crime which are worth a try. But as usual, this like any craze, is fuelled by the industry. Couple of years ago, a fantastic Finnish book by Sofi Oksanen called Purge got a lot of attention here and in continental Europe. It won so many awards, it was almost ridiculous. But in UK bookshops this ‘serious’ fiction title, dealing with violence against women, war atrocities, prostitution, human trafficking, reflected against the oppression of a small Baltic state, was classed as a crime novel. Many people who do not read crime fiction, were turned off this high end fiction title just because the UK publisher was too scared to sell it for what it is: a modern literary classic.
Do you have any undiscovered gems of Scandinavian writing that you’d recommend to English speaking readers? What about books that haven’t been translated but you wish had been?
Apart from Sofi Oksanen’s Purge, I would recommend Kari Hotakainen. Like Oksanen, he has won the coveted Finlandia Prize. His latest novel The Human Part is a quirky tale of ordinary folk in modern Helsinki who do extraordinary things. The Human Part has has been awarded the Runeberg Prize as well as the French Prix du Courrier International.
As for Finnish books not translated into English; there are just too many to mention! Only a very small fraction of Finnish titles get to the English-speaking market. Many more Finnish books are translated into German. I am not sure why this is; I guess it’s one of the many strange things about the publishing industry that I just don’t understand…
Finally - the inevitable question for any writer - would you like to tell us what your are working on now?
As always, I’m working on several novels at the same time, and will eventually pick the one that has the strongest pull on me.
At the moment this is a sequel to The Englishman based on the diaries I wrote when I first moved to the UK.
Oh, to be in England is another story of displacement: even though Kaisa feels happy to at last be together with her Englishman, the reality of being a naval wife isn’t as wonderful as she thought. The Englishman is away at sea for long periods and Kaisa can’t find a job. Her hard-won degree from Finland seems worthless in the UK, and she is lonely and home-sick. In the UK coffee is too weak, the bread too soft and the conversation too polite. Will the cultural differences and domesticity pull Kaisa and The Englishman apart?