Islandic critic and poet Ásgeir H Ingólfsson was the first one to take part in residencies arranged by Shine on, Critique! He visited Helsinki in May, and took part in Helsinki Lit literature festival. We have requested a blog from all of our resident art critics – here goes the first!
Arriving from my first maskless flight for over two years, I step onto the train to Helsinki and continue my Finnish lessons from four years ago. The lady speaking on the train seems to have heard about my limited Swedish and uses it to teach me Finnish; Hiekkaharju, Sandkulla. Tikkurila, Dickursby. Pasila, Böle. Sure, this will take time, but give it about 200 more trips and I’ll get there!
Then I walk to the hotel and marvel at all those stone humans the Finns make for their pigeons to sit on, to be then greeted warmly by Napoleon, the concierge dog of the Hotel Rivoli. As I get there, I finish the novel I chose to warm up for my Helsinki trip; Rosa Liksom’s Compartment No. 6, having already seen Juho Kuosmanen’s film adaptation. Both works are excellent, but the novel – taking place in the still imperialistic 1980s, somehow talks more sharply into our modern newsreels of warfare, with one of the two main characters at different times echoing most of the prejudices the Russians have towards their neighbours, literally all of them. Meanwhile, the film is more of a musing of those innocent 90s days when Europe was opening up again and we, in our naivety, assumed it would stay open.
The day after I go to my first literary event in Helsinki – a poetry night of ex-cons and other marginalized members of society. It’s all in Finnish and I only understand a fraction of it, key lines such as Hitler, Satan, chilli, pizza and kiitos, not to mention Mika Pogba, yoga, Drogba, kannabista, rappi and romantika spring to mind – but they might all have been misunderstood or misheard. But the body language and delivery was unmistakable, you got the underbelly of Helsinki through their moves and rhythms even if the words mostly passed you by.
The Helsinki Lit is still two days away, but I enjoy going to the bookstores and a very energetic concert with Finnish band Luukas Oja, echoing the 80s female punk of Iceland, only with much better sound. I also visit Lammassaari, the island of sheep, although that’s just the translation of the name – in fact the sheep are all on the next island. I was invited there by Harri Hertell, who had hosted the forementioned poetry night, and as we enjoy the view and exchange our books he tells stories about his cabin – but perhaps it’s simply best to let him tell the story?
But finally, the festival is upon us. I get there early, early enough to strike up a relationship with the bookstore clerk selling the books. I was a bookstore clerk myself for a decade, so we understand each other. I tell him Finnish novels are getting translated a lot more into Icelandic over the last decade or so, and I give him a few examples found on the table – he recommends to our translators that Koko Hubara’s Bechi should be next.
But the festival is about to start – only many of the first readings are in Swedish, so I can’t tell you anything much about Nicklas Natt och Dag or Ann-Helén Laestadius, except the latter did Sami fashion proud. Usually, I don’t bother writing much about people’s outfits, but there was some utterly compelling statement in how she merged traditional Sami clothing and modernity, saying to the rest of the world that this world is not a world of dying traditions, rather a world ready to find its place in the present.
And as I go over my notes from all those talks, the overriding theme, perhaps echoing trends and fashions of the literary world, was perhaps this; minorities reclaiming their past while the cis gendered whites tried to grasp the present, sometimes a bit too on the nose.
Hanna Bervoets’ We Had to Remove This Post sounded like an unusually original take on the present though, diagnosing our social media times through the people behind the scenes; the stateless army of content moderators, enraging some by not taking down every nugget we find uncomfortable but censoring some unimaginable horrors most of us are lucky enough to never see.
But the most interesting talks were certainly with Maaza Mengiste – reclaiming the stories of Ethiopian women in the war with Italy in The Shadow King, Douglas Stuart – reclaiming the realities of a queer childhood in working class Glasgow in Shuggie Bain, Colson Whitehead – reclaiming the Harlem of his ancestors in Harlem Shuffle, and Bernandine Evaristo – reclaiming the untold tales of black women in Britain in Girl, Women, Another.
They often echoed each other in their answers, particularly the first two. Both Mengiste and Stuart are overjoyed about finally being on a proper tour with a proper audience after the pandemic, for Stuart his very first tour, since this was his debut novel. Both talk about loving the evil characters, Stuart even speaking of finding sympathy with the men who tortured him in his youth; men who worked unspeakable and dangerous jobs, forced to be all manly about the experience. Even if they just wanted to cry. Both speak of how literature and stories can be a safe space, a place to go to when life becomes unbearable, how imagination rescues us in our darkest moments – or as Mengitse put it beautifully; as “those pockets of mercy.”
Mengitse and Whitehead both spoke of how the process would have been so much easier if they had just listened to their parents from the beginning. Or if their parents had spoken sooner – the way information sometimes doesn’t travel as freely as it should between generations being a complicated dance between past and present, even our past and present selves.
All those stories of course speak to the present; Mengitse mentioned the Ukraine conflict, and not just because one character was of partly Ukrainian origins, and Stuart drew a line from the insidous homophobia he experienced in his youth and new legislations in the United States, repressing minorities.
I particularly enjoyed and sympathised with Whitehead’s talk about his influences, being originally Marvel Comics and Stephen King – wanting to write “the black Shining” – or any King book with “black” added in front – and then discovering Dostoevsky, Toni Morrison etc, an unusually frank admission that most writers don’t start with the classics, it’s often the children’s literature and the pulpy teenage stuff we devour that is just as influential as the canon. Meanwhile Stuart talked about not reading Charles Dickens, whom many had compared him to, but I must say I find that comparison lazy – he’s obviously more indebted to the angry young man generation of Alan Sillitoe et al, one of whom, Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave, Stuart himself mentioned as an inspiration.
Finally, Bernandine Evaristo mentioned how many readers made the presumption her novel had to be about suffering, given that it was about black women, even if that was never explicitly stated in the promotional material. Speaking of, the reason I bought Evaristo’s Manifesto in the bookstore was it featured one of my favourite quotes in the beginning, from Andrew Nicol’s Gattaca, where Vincent (Ethan Hawke) says during a swimming endurance game of chicken: “I never saved anything for the swim back.” Perhaps the only way to write a novel too?
Finally, after all was said and done, I found my way to Buenos Aires, the new Kaurismaki brothers’ bar, meeting some friends and the Finnish Bukowski. Last time I was in Helsinki I was just in time to visit their previous bars, Corona and Mosvka. Realizing the names of those bars are suddenly synonymous with the world’s trauma over the last few years, I do hope the people of Buenos Aires are doing fine …