Anja Snellman


Jorma Marstio/Lehtikuva


Standing the Test of Time

In celebration of the 2017 centenary of Finnish independence, the Finnish Broadcasting Company selected 101 classics, one book for each year of independence. Sonia O. Was Here by Anja Snellman (then Anja Kauranen), from 1981, was included in this list of modern classics as a book that portrays a new femininity and captures the reality of an entire generation.

Sonia O. Was Here authentically depicts the zeitgeist of the 1970s. The novel became a literary sensation, having caused quite a stir even before its publication. It is a perceptive interpretation of the passions of a radical generation. The main character represents a new concept of womanhood, and many readers also idolized the author.

Its protagonist—a woman who claims the right to tell her own story, instead of letting others define her—stirred controversy at the time, but the book also met with very positive and enthusiastic feedback. Its key themes include otherness, the punk culture, and conflict between generations. While being very personal, the story also speaks to a whole generation.

Your debut novel came out in 1981. You were 27 at the time. I read somewhere that many men were worried about your book: they were afraid that women would follow Sonia’s example and imitate her lifestyle. Why do you think they were so worried?

“That is difficult for me to say. On the other hand, many young men thanked me for the book. They said it helped them understand their girlfriends and the mystery of women a little better. It seems that the response to the book arose from many kinds of fears, wishes, and dreams.”

Many contemporary critics, men in particular, were appalled at the graphic sex scenes and the thought of a young woman going from man to man. Why were people still so shocked by that in the late 1970s and early 1980s?

“I think the same could still happen to a female artist. Although much has changed, double standards have not vanished; they are still lurking beneath the surface. To me, it came as a surprise: I was a literature major and knew how openly women had written about their sexuality in the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps my approach was even more straightforward, but as I said, I was taken aback by the moral dismay.”

The book attracted attention even before its publication, and it became a literary sensation overnight. How did that make you feel?

“I did not think about it back then, as I was living amid all the excitement and controversy. If I had stopped to take it all in, my reaction might have been similar to how Mika Waltari felt after My Great Illusion: I woke up one morning, and everyone seemed to know me. I was probably most worried about people recognizing me on the street, because I like observing more than being observed. I think I was worried about somehow losing a part of my identity and privacy.”

Your debut novel is also a description of an era. Leftist radicalism was dwindling in politics, culture, and academia. Fearing that a third world war would break out, crowds of people assembled for peace walks. Punk rock emerged. You were a part of all that, in the middle of everything, with no reflective distance. As a contemporary, how were you able to see the big picture and portray that era so insightfully?

“It took me seven years to write the book, in the middle of a major cultural transition. Political life at the university was highly polarized until the early 1980s: you were either one of us or one of them. One of the challenges was to write a book about that generation, for that generation. Come to think of it, that kind of division seems to be a timeless theme. Some people have a strong desire to prove that they are right—so strong that they do not care if others are traumatized or even killed in the process.”

The book continues to be passed from one generation of girls to another.

“And boys. I still receive feedback from people of all ages and genders. And the book is still being translated into other languages. It is interesting that the story still lives on so strongly.”

Sonia O. lives in Kallio, a working-class district near the center of Helsinki. Wherever she goes, she always seems to be an outsider, a stranger who keeps her distance. She comes from a very modest background: her father is a drunkard, and her mother works in a textile factory to support the family. Her grandmother and grandfather are the ones who keep the discordant family together. Why does Sonia have this type of background?

“I wanted to write about second-generation immigrant identity and about immigration, which has recently become a topical phenomenon again, very much so. The book is about otherness, about being a stranger in your country and neighborhood. Because of my own background, I have firsthand experience of that, and so do many of my friends. I wanted to describe otherness from as many perspectives as possible.”

The book was originally published 40 years ago. How do you feel about the book today?

“It is very dear to me. Of course, I always remember the uncertainty and fear of rejection—that it took me seven years to complete my first novel. Some people called it a flash in the pan, but it turned out to be the beginning of a writer’s life and career. As I said, it is still being translated into other languages. The book is very much alive after all these years, which makes me proud.“

You were even called the “Priestess of Punk” back then.

“Yes, in a belittling, derogatory manner. Even though people remember the book as an instant success, that is not the whole truth. It did win literary prizes, but many of the reviews were condescending or scathing.“

How did you create Sonia, a restless seeker? Where did she come from?

“I wanted to portray a woman of a new generation, my generation. I wrote several versions of the manuscript, which were quite different from one another. I wanted the main character to be a strong woman, as I felt that the Finnish literary tradition was lacking an independent woman who put her story into words instead of leaving it to be told by other people.“

Anja Snellman was interviewed by Nadja Nowak
Published with permission from the Finnish Broadcasting Company

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