Immigration to Finland has increased since the 1990s and so too has its effect on many areas of society; the arts is one of those. Recent years have witnessed a march of writers with migrant backgrounds. But compared to other countries in Northern and Western Europe, the rise of migrant writers in Finland began relatively late and until now at least, has rested on the shoulders of only a few names. But the change has started anyhow.
In 2010, one topical question in literature circles was this: how can a Slovakian-born novelist, Aleksandra Salmela, be a Finlandia prize nominee without Finnish nationality? In the end, the old rules were stretched in her favour and Aleksandra held onto her nomination alongside five others.
Describing culturally heterogeneous settings is nothing new in Finnish literature – Aleksis Kivi and Minna Canth, respectively, wrote minority characters into their novels. In fact both had Romany characters in their works: Kivi in Seitsemän veljestä (1870), Canth in Työmiehen vaimo (1885). Meanwhile, the creator of the Niskavuori plays, Hella Wuolijoki, originally came from Estonia. These iconic works therefore have something interesting to lend our present-day discussion on multicultural history and literature.
Migration has become one quite new and topical theme in Finnish literature during the 21st century. Especially new are young second-generation migrant writers whose novels and short stories often address the problems of integration, cultural differences and Finnish society from migrants’ own points of view. Many of these novels have gained publicity. Nura Farah’s Aavikon tyttäret (2014) tells the story of a migrant woman in Finland and the independence of Somalia. Meanwhile, Pajtim Statovci’s family moved to Finland during the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. His novel Kissani Jugoslavia (2014) was critically acclaimed and awarded Helsingin Sanomat’s annual prize for best debut work. It told the story of a Kosovar Albanian family who migrated to Finland in the 1990s.
Writers with a Finnish background have also shown interest in migration and especially tales of Muslim girls in Finnish settings. In Parvekejumalat (2010), Anja Snellman, tells the story of young Muslim females trying to combine Muslim and Finnish lifestyles. The novel was widely welcomed and its moving story captivated many readers.
Characters with minority backgrounds also seem to be popular in crime novels. Both Kati Hiekkapelto and Marja-Liisa Heino have chosen main characters from different minorities. Hiekkapelto’s detective, Anna Fekete, is a Hungarian from Yugoslavia with a migrant past. She writes not only on crimes but also on immigration and multiculturalism. Heino’s main character, Karli Eerola, is a Roma, so life as a Roma man in modern Finland is one of her sub themes. In Heino’s second novel with Karli Eerola, Älä tähti putoa (2015), police officer Eerola is trying to solve the disappearance of a second-generation Iranian girl in Finland.
Up until now, novelists with migrant backgrounds have mainly discussed issues concerning assimilation. But perhaps in the near future their topics will widen; perhaps we won’t categorise them as migrant writers anymore. Anyhow, discussing multicultural topics in literature – whether by writers with multicultural backgrounds or not – is here to stay. It provides the majority a great chance to learn about the lives of different people. It will take readers on a journey to different realities that are ever-present in our society and here to stay.