Anja Snellman


Westend 61/Alamy


How Far Have We Really Come?

My debut novel, Sonia O. Was Here, was published 40 years ago. I was a student of literature and psychology. I had witnessed, at school and at the university, how differently talented boys and girls were treated. Boys were regarded as prospective geniuses, while girls were expected to become average, adequate, good enough. Pretty good.

I was an observer who absorbed all expressions, tones, words, winks, and pats on the behind in my environment. In works of Finnish culture—books, plays, movies—men loved boldly, primitively, and passionately, and experienced great adventures. Women listened, watched, and admired.

Messages that young girls were surrounded by at the time:

Smile often.
Help others.
Don’t think that you are important.
Don’t think that you are anything special.
Whatever you do, don’t excel or shine.
Don’t think that women could be geniuses.
Don’t laugh too loud, and definitely not at men.
Don’t talk when others are talking.
Don’t share your opinion.
Don’t ask too many questions.
Don’t argue with men.
Control everything about yourself, so no one will be offended.
Think about how you dress.
Lose weight.
Be ashamed of yourself.
Feel guilty about everything.
Lose more weight.
Belittle yourself.
Conceal your wrinkles.

In my debut novel, I wanted to write about how girls and women must also be allowed to explore themselves and their boundaries: to love men, women, humankind—or no one, if they so choose.

I LEARNED TO READ at the age of four and began to explore literature at our local library. Ten years later, in addition to Finnish literature, I took an interest in European, North American, and South American literature. In writers and their galleries of characters, I admired people who broke conventional boundaries and had the courage to stand for what they believed was right—and oppose what they found to be wrong. 

My favorites included Hemingway, Karen Blixen, and August Strindberg, as well as Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and other groundbreaking authors. As a teenager, I discovered Erica Jong, and I liked Henry Miller, an author whose exuberance, happiness, contradictions, humor, and freedom fascinated Jong. I saw Miller not as a chauvinist but as a lover of life. Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying was an important novel for a high-school girl in its wonderfully naive boldness and shamelessness.

SONIA O. WAS HERE is a coming-of-age story about a young woman’s hunger for life, sexual awakening, and search for identity, and about her men, lovers, friends, dreams, and survival. I wrote about all this in a new way: bluntly, ironically, even lyrically. The novel portrays sexuality openly and uninhibitedly from a young woman’s perspective. The language is that of a young woman. 

The book was recently selected as one of the all-time Finnish classics. To quote a young book blogger:

“Can a book from 1981 still touch readers? Can it offer anything new? Is it still relatable? Yes, yes, and yes. I would not have believed that I would become a fan, but here we are. At the age of 27, Anja Snellman wrote a book that nearly four decades later makes me, at the age of 27, nod in agreement. I reflect on the same themes and issues—perhaps not in the exact same words, but still. The song of feminism plays beautifully and joyously in this book. I would like to high-five the author: nearly 40 years ago, she did what many are still afraid to do.” 

Since my literary debut, I have written 24 novels, three collections of poems, and screenplays. I have discussed themes related to women, sexuality, and power also in my later novels: motherhood, mother-daughter relationships, the multitude of sexuality. My books have often evoked lively—and even heated—discussion.

I HAVE TWO DAUGHTERS, now young adults. I have been delighted to see that they have grown up into adulthood and womanhood in a very different Finland, Europe, world. However, over the past few years, I have seen signs of a backlash arising from developments in the global markets, international politics, religious and cultural conflicts, immigration, climate change, and other factors.

Women are subjected to new types—or, rather, old types—of beliefs, wishes, and demands. 

Women still need to fight for the right to control their bodies, sexual identity, and pleasure. In some parts of the world, women still need to fight for their right to get an education, to drive a car, to leave their homes to take a walk or run errands on their own . . . Back in the eighties I wouldn’t have believed this would still be true in 2020.

In Finland and across the world, the Me Too movement has shaken institutions and shed light on what still goes on behind the scenes: how sexism and chauvinism continue to lurk in the shadows in institutions and relationships. 

WHAT DO I THINK about all this? That I must write more!

When you live long enough, you will see the same themes and trends resurface, again and again. We come across our earlier paths—“a fugitive crosses his tracks,” as the Danish author Aksel Sandemose put it.

So, how far have we really come in the fight for equality, nondiscrimination, human rights, and feminism? This question may make some people feel depressed or anxious.

My take is: two steps forward and only one step back. As a writer, I want to make a difference, but I know that change takes time. However, change is taking place, all the time, in people and society alike. This I have the privilege to witness daily, as an author and also in my work as a therapist.

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