Fiction | Finland

“We constantly rewrite history”

“The Red Book of Farewells” by Pirkko Saisio is a creative big bang. It explores love and loss in Finland in the seventies
Black and white image of several young people demonstrating.

Looking back: Finnish writer Pirkko Saisio (center) in Helsinki

Interview by Laura Hypponen

Ms Saisio, in “The Red Book of Farewells” you talk about the discovery of your sexual identity as a lesbian woman in your early twenties and your involvement in Helsinki’s radical left-wing theatre circles in the 1970s. The rhythm of the novel is flowing and poetic, and the narrator is capricious, playful and sentimental. Is it your most personal text?

In my book, I have freely combined fact and fiction to achieve the strongest possible dramatic effect; for example, the book includes invented dialogue from my childhood. Unlike many contemporary examples of autofiction, the “Red Book of Farewells” is not a journey from victimhood to enlightenment.

“Unlike many examples of autofiction, the ‘Red Book of Farewells’ is not a journey from victimhood to enlightenment”

I have lived a long life, I am now 74 years old, and my experience is that moments of enlightenment pass. Life always offers new questions, new solutions and new insights.

As you read the book, you tell us a lot about the emotional chaos you experience when you fall in love with another woman for the first time. But you also talk about the painful separations from the great loves of your life. What was it like to relive these events for art?

There was something liberating about this process, even though I had to write the book twice because I had accidentally deleted the original manuscript from my computer. At the time, I was working as a professor at the Theatre Academy in Finland. It was around the beginning of the new millennium.

I read a lot of Marguerite Duras back then, I drank a lot of wine to overcome my self-doubt and wrote mostly at night. The next morning I read the text and had completely forgotten what I had written before. My subconscious produced words and feelings that my conscious mind would not have been capable of.

After practising this for about ten years, I was able to access my subconscious when I was sober. Since then, I no longer need wine to write.

“I drank a lot of wine to overcome my self-doubt and wrote mostly at night”

Has your view of events changed over time?

I don't normally re-read my own work after it has been published. “The Red Book” is an exception because I recently recorded it as an audio book. It's even more anarchic than I remembered!

I have wondered if I have in a way robbed myself of my past by writing about it. This is mainly on my mind because of the publication of my biography, which someone else has written and which, among other things, raises the question of how truthfully I have portrayed my past.

As a result, the Finnish tabloid press has exploited my sex life for days - and people were exposed. I probably shouldn't have got involved in this process. Memory is not static; its function is to allow us to revise and rewrite our view of the past.

This helps us to stay sane and to keep making sense of the chaos.

You discovered your love for women in the early 1970s, when homosexuality was still punishable under Finnish law and strongly stigmatised by society. However, I read between the lines of your book that, in addition to the shock you experienced, it was also exhilarating and exciting. How did you feel during this time?

In my youth, homosexuality was completely invisible and taboo. I wasn't aware of my own sexual identity at all. There were no role models, no points of reference to orientate myself to.

When I did find my way into the gay and lesbian “underground”, it made an incredibly strong impression. Friends and people we knew gave us access to bars and meeting places and gave us passwords that allowed us to discover a whole new world.

But your experiences weren’t all positive, were they?

The saddest thing for my generation was that there was only one mother in my large circle of acquaintances who accepted her child's homosexuality. The middle-class families sent their children to a psychiatrist, the working-class children were kicked out at home.

Acceptance was gradual. But families hardly ever talked about it openly. We were left alone with our feelings.

I wasn’t aware of my own sexual identity at all”

And was there a lot of fear of being caught?

Sure, but we weren’t afraid of being prosecuted, but rather of being stigmatised by society. I remember a case in the 1960s when a tabloid newspaper published a lurid article about a flat in the Kallio neighbourhood of Helsinki where homosexuals were meeting.

Pictures and names were published and several suicides occurred as a result. This form of social punishment and the fear associated with it continued into the 1980s.

However, in my experience, romantic relationships between men provoked more anger and violence. Relationships between women were taken much less seriously.

Why was that?

It was seen as completely natural for two women with low incomes to live together. Nobody asked themselves: Is there something going on between them? Either way, there was a lot of hypocrisy in Finnish society.

In “The Red Book” I describe being summoned to meet a group of teachers at the theatre academy where I was studying at the time. They told me that I had better leave my girlfriend at the time if I wanted to make a career for myself.

The radical left saw homosexuality as an example of capitalist decay. Strangely enough, years later none of the teachers could remember this little tribunal.

Most of your book is set in the Kallio neighbourhood in Helsinki that you have already mentioned. What was it like growing up there?

My father's parents moved to this neighbourhood when they were children and he was born there. Decades later so was my daughter Elsa and then her children: five generations of my family grew up there.

In my childhood, Kallio was a working-class neighbourhood. Today the neighbourhood is gentrified, but back then many of the flats were cramped studios inhabited by large families. There was domestic violence, alcoholism and petty crime on the streets.

Apart from me, only one of the people who grew up in the same house as me is still alive today. That reflects the harshness of the neighbourhood. You shouldn’t romanticise this reality, even if my family was much softer and more accepting than elsewhere.

“The radical left saw homosexuality as an example of capitalist decay”

How did you find your way out of this milieu and towards artists and intellectuals?

When I went to the co-educational school in Kallio, I also met children of academics and it was a big leap in terms of my social environment. At school, I suddenly got to know adults who worked in the cultural sector or were interested in it. This had a strong influence on me.

At the same time, I was internally torn between my working class background and this new world. I still feel a little guilty about my success to this day.

When we later moved to the middle-class neighbourhood of Kruunuhaka in Helsinki, my daughter noticed that I always explained to friends that we had bought the flat cheaply in the depths of the recession. I’m sure that had something to do with my background.

In your book, you write about your student days at the University of Helsinki and the Finnish Theatre Academy. Was it possible back then to be active in the Finnish cultural scene and not be left-wing?

It’s true that in the early 1970s almost everyone at the Finnish Theatre Academy tended towards radical left ideologies, and it was difficult to be successful without political conviction.

However, ideological positions often remained blurred and personal conflicts played a more important role. In hindsight, I think that people just wanted to argue and disagree back then. Ultimately, political ideals had little or nothing to do with the content of the art.

“You should also be allowed to simply remain silent, that doesn’t automatically mean that you side with the oppressor”

Are there parallels between the political movements of the 1970s and the activism of today’s youth?

I see great similarities between today’s identity politics and the left-wing activism of the 1970s. Back then it was also about the rights of minorities.

In my time, the capitalist social order was to blame for everything, today it’s the white patriarchy. There is a lack of nuanced thinking, and I don’t think it serves the cause of minorities if people are offended by everything and are not allowed to make mistakes.

You should also be allowed to just be silent sometimes - that doesn’t automatically mean you’re siding with the oppressor.