It seems like only yesterday that we were reviewing Helena Halme‘s first novel, The Englishman, and today we have the pleasure of a guest post by Halme describing the themes of another new novel, Coffee and Vodka. Plus she is kindly giving away 3 copies! (Details below.) A Finnish expat in London, Halme was featured in our Random Nomad interview series, and we called on her again for an international fashion special (she is a self-confessed fashion maven). Today, though, we celebrate Halme as an international creative who bravely explores themes of displacement and cross-culturalism through fiction. So, brew yourself a cup of coffee and/or pour a glass of vodka, and let’s hear what Helena Halme has to say!
My novel Coffee and Vodka has been dubbed “Nordic Noir meets family saga”—but its central theme is really the displacement a young girl feels when her family moves countries, from Finland to neighboring Sweden.
Eeva is eleven and lives in a small town in Finland when her father decides that they will emigrate to Sweden in search of a better life. There the displacement the family experiences causes a rift so severe Eeva is still reeling from it thirty years later, when she is forced to re-live the dramatic events of her childhood.
Outsiders tend to think of Scandinavian countries as being similar in many respects. How could the impact of emigrating to a Nordic neighbor be so severe?
But for anyone who’s ever visited Finland and Sweden, the difference between the two is obvious: Finnish is a notoriously difficult tongue, and the country’s culture has been heavily influenced by the hundred years it spent under the rule of its Eastern neighbor, Russia.
Sweden: A sovereign—and superior—neighbor
Finland fought in the Second World War, and lost a large section of its territory to the Soviet Union as part of the price of remaining independent. Already poor, Finland’s less industrialized economy suffered greatly from the war effort.
Sweden on the other hand has no history of having been subjugated to another country’s rule. It remained neutral during the war, profiting from its mineral reserves and undisturbed industry.
Sweden has traditionally been the richest of Scandinavian countries. At one time it ruled over all its neighbors, and as late as the end of 17th century, Finland too was part of Sweden—before Sweden handed it over to Russia. Many of the wealthy, land-owning Finns spoke Swedish as their native tongue.
Even today, Sweden is very much considered in Finland as its Big Brother (for better or worse). For decades after WWII, many Finns emigrated to Sweden in search of a better life. But Finns were shunned in Sweden because of their different language and customs: they were seen as poor people who drank too much, didn’t learn the language and were often violent.
Notably, had I been writing about Sweden and its other Scandinavian neighbors, Norway and Denmark, the cultural differences would have been more subtle, of the kind that expats often find between the United States and the United Kingdom. This is because Swedes, Norwegians and Danes can (more or less) understand each other’s languages. (Anyone who wants to get an appreciation for the kinds of cultural differences that exist between, for instance, Sweden and Denmark, should try watching the Danish/Swedish TV series, The Bridge.)
Portrayal of little-known cultural differences in a novel
How to convey these historical, cultural and economic differences in a novel? First, I decided to set the story at the time, during the 1970s, when immigration from Finland to Sweden was at its peak. Also at that time, foreign travel and even foreign telephone calls were rare because so expensive. Once you’d emigrated, it was hard to go back or even have much contact with your native land again.
I thought that a story about displacement would be less poignant when you can spend hours on Skype speaking with your nearest and dearest, or can browse the Internet in your own language.
In addition, I decided that the family at the center of my story would make the move from a small town in Finland, Tampere, to the capital of Sweden, Stockholm, as a way of further highlighting the differences between the two countries, and hence the challenges facing the Finnish immigrant family.
Getting into my characters’ heads
After I’d decided on the time and the setting, I told the story the way I always approach writing; I tried to get inside the heads of the characters. I began by seeing the world through the eyes of the 11-year-old Eeva.
How would she react to being uprooted? Did it matter to her how far geographically she was going to go?
Of course not. Just moving to a different town in Finland would have shaken Eeva. But to be moved to a country where she understood nothing people said to her, and to a large capital city with a different way of life? That would be life-changing.
In the first chapter we see Eeva living in Finland, safe in her world. When her father and mother excitedly inform her and her sister, Anja, that they are moving to Sweden, Pappa says:
In Stockholm everything is bigger and better.
This simple sentence indicates that the move will have positive effect on the family’s economics circumstances.
Later, when the family first see their new flat in Stockholm, we see how impressed they all are by the size and quality of the apartment, even though they eventually realize it’s far away from the city centre, in an immigrant area.
In Stockholm the sisters get their own bedrooms—in contrast to an earlier scene where, during the last night the family spend in Finland, the girls have to share the sofa in their grandmother’s small flat.
To suggest the first chinks in the shiny new world the family have entered, I describe the first shopping trip Mamma takes with Eeva and Anja. It’s also the first time the girls hear the then-common abuse directed at Finns: Javla Finnar (Fucking Finns)—after Eeva nearly collides with a Swedish woman’s shopping trolley.
During the same shopping trip, a sales assistant is rude to Mamma when she overhears the family speaking Finnish. This episode visibly shakes Mamma, and she seems quiet and withdrawn afterwards.
When I considered how Mamma and the girls would react to this kind of rejection, I decided that they would try to learn Swedish and blend in as quickly as possible.
I show this desire for Eeva and Anja to sound convincingly Swedish when the girls go shopping with Mamma, and on leaving the flat remind her not to speak at all (not even in Swedish) in the tunnelbana (metro) so that the people around them won’t know that they are from Finland. At this stage the girls had already mastered the language well enough to pass as being Swedish-born.
But I thought Pappa would not react as well as the female members of his family to the situation. As his family begin to enjoy Sweden, learning how to appreciate their new surroundings as well as master the language, he grows resentful. Even though he originally had hopes of his family fitting in, he becomes jealous of the women’s success at adopting and adapting to Swedish ways, and regrets the move.
And so the stage is set for a tragedy. But that’s another part of the story—one you can read in Coffee and Vodka!
As luck would have it, I have THREE COPIES to give away. All you have to do is to post a thoughtful comment on this post. I will choose three of the best comments and send to each of you, in whatever format you choose.
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Kiitos—or should I say tack?—Helena! What’s more, I understand we haven’t caught up with all of your books yet—you have a new one out, The Red King of Helsinki, described as Nordic noir meets Cold War espionage. Sounds tantalizing: will you please come back again???
Readers, to whet your taste even more for Coffee and Vodka, here are some excerpts from Amazon.com reader reviews:
It’s a beautifully written story about a family in turmoil, caused partly by the displacement, but also partly due to the cracks in family dynamics which were already evident before the move to Stockholm. I really liked the voice of Eeva as a 11-year-old full of hope and fear, and then 30 years later as a grown woman who’s unable to commit to a loving relationship.
Set between Finland and Sweden, between the 1970s and the present milllenium, Coffee and Vodka reveals what it was like for a young girl to be uprooted from her home and transplanted to another country. One where she doesn’t speak the language and is despised for her nationality. I’m not ashamed to say this novel made me cry, but it also made me smile. … [E]ven if these things are as foreign to you as they are to me, along with the settings in this novel, Eeva’s story will still strike a chord.
Don’t forget to comment on Helena Halme’s post to be eligible to win a free copy! Extra points, as always, if you’re a Displaced Dispatch subscriber!
The winners will be announced in our Displaced Dispatch on June 1, 2013.
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, on creative international entrepreneurship.
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img: Helena Halme, taken on a ferry between Finland and Sweden, Finlandsbåt, which features in Coffee and Vodka.