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Author Spotlight: Sofi Oksanen

Sofi Oksanen
Photo by Toni Härkönen.

Sofi Oksanen is an award-winning Finnish-Estonian novelist and playwright whose published works include Stalin’s Cows (2003), Baby Jane (2005), Purge (2008), and When the Doves Disappeared (2012).

Born in Jyväskylä, Finland, known for being the first city in the world to offer education in Finnish, Sofi studied literature at both the University of Jyväskylä and University of Helsinki, and then studied Dramaturgy at Helsinki’s Theater Academy before turning to writing full-time.

Sofi has suffered eating disorders and is openly bisexual—both topics that play central roles in all her novels and plays. In addition to addressing issues surrounding mental health, body image, and sexuality in her works, Sofi provides intimate looks at Estonian and Finnish culture. For instance, Stalin’s Cows (2003) tells the story of three generations of women whose lives unfold in capitalist Finland, communist Estonia, or both; Baby Jane (2005) discusses the female narrator’s love interest Piki, a girl who begins suffering from an anxiety disorder; and Purge (2008), which is set both in 1940s Estonia during the Soviet occupation, and in the Estonia of the 1990s that was grappling with its renewed independence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, tells the stories of two generations of women.

“[People of my age in Finland] hardly remember the Soviet Union any more. But if you don’t know [Russia’s] past, you can’t understand what’s happening in Russia and many other countries now. I represent the generation that was at school when the Soviet Union was still existing, so we learnt about the history of the Soviet Union. But young people nowadays don’t have any kind of understanding of that history at all, and they don’t even care,” Sofi explained, when asked about the recurring topics in her books.

“So I thought, eating disorders and the Soviet Union—maybe they seem like very different subjects, and first I was hesitating how it would work. But then I thought this was a way to get very different readers, since older people are interested in politics but not in eating disorders, whereas young people are interested in eating disorders but not the Soviet Union. But if they are in the same book, they must read both.”

Purge, inspired by Sofi’s play of the same name from 2007, was Sofi’s big breakthrough. It was a number 1 bestseller in Finland, won The Finlandia Award, Finland’s premier literary award, and the Nordic Council Literary Prize, which is the biggest literary award given out in Nordic countries. She was also the first foreign author ever to receive the FNAC Prize in Paris in 2010.

Sofi frequently participates in public debates in Finland, often in conversations that address LGBT issues. She makes appearances on Finnish talk shows, and writes her own columns. In 2009, shortly after the release of her third novel, she was awarded a prize from Helsinki Pride for her advocacy and activism on behalf of LGBT people in Russia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Sofi’s most recent novel, When the Doves Disappeared, was released in 2012 to critical acclaim. Like Sofi’s previous work, When the Doves Disappeared focuses on the lives of two characters living in war-ravaged Estonia in 1941, and on the same two characters in communist-controlled Estonia in 1963. House of Anansi will release When the Doves Disappeared for the first time in Canada later this month.

As for Sofi, there are no signs that she will slow any time soon. Fans of her work can expect more books that touch on many of the topics that other authors shy away from.

“I am a social author in the sense that I feel that it is the duty of an author living in a free and older democracy to deal with matters that are important also to wider experiences due to one reason or another,” said Sofi, during an interview with Theatre Info Finland.

“Rare professions allow one to exercise freedom of speech as that of an author, and therefore it is almost an obligation to do so.”

When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen

From the internationally acclaimed author of Purge comes a chillingly suspenseful, deftly woven new novel that opens up a little-known yet still controversial chapter of history: the occupation, resistance, and collaboration in Estonia during and after World War II.

1941: In Communist-ruled, war-ravaged Estonia, two men are fleeing from the Red Army — Roland, a fiercely principled freedom fighter, and his slippery cousin Edgar. When the Germans arrive, Roland goes into hiding; Edgar abandons his unhappy wife, Juudit, and takes on a new identity as a loyal supporter of the Nazi regime . . . 1963: Estonia is again under Communist control, independence even further out of reach behind the Iron Curtain. Edgar is now a Soviet apparatchik, desperate to hide the secrets of his past life and stay close to those in power. But his fate remains entangled with Roland’s, and with Juudit, who may hold the key to uncovering the truth . . .

In a masterfully told story that moves between the tumult of these two brutally repressive eras — a story of surveillance, deception, passion, and betrayal — Sofi Oksanen brings to life both the frailty, and the resilience, of humanity under the shadow of tyranny.

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