Kati Hiekkapelto is a best-selling, award winning writer, a punk singer and a performance artist. She lives on the island of Hailuoto in the north of Finland.
I’m thrilled to be closing the official blog tour for The Defenceless.
Kati’s first novel, The Hummingbird, was published in the UK in September 2014. Her second novel, The Defenceless, was published in translation in the UK on August 1st 2015 (e-book) and early September in paperback.
I asked Kati if she would like to do a Q & A on some of the themes in her writing and what her life in Finland is like, including her punk singing and experiences of immigration. Reviews of both books are linked at the bottom of this blogpost.
Kati, lovely to have you on the blog. I see you are currently in Serbia, doing some research for subsequent Anna Fekete books.
Q & A
1. Your second novel, The Defenceless, is published in English on August 1st. It has won an award in Finland and been a bestseller there. What inspired the plot for the book and how did you do your research?
The plot for The Defenceless had two inspiring incidents. Both happened when I was still writing The Hummingbird. I was having a couple of days writing retreat at my mum’s apartment in Oulu (the nearest town on the mainland) and I went to bed after a long day. I was really tired but I could not sleep because someone in a neighbouring flat was having a party and the music was so loud that it was hurting my ears and making the bed shake. I got really, really angry and decided to go to the flat and tell them to switch off the music. I jumped out of bed and was almost in the corridor when I suddenly got scared. What if they were on drugs? What if they killed me? And at that moment I realized that this would be the beginning of the next novel.
The other thing happened a bit later. I was hiding a Pakistani family from the police on Hailuoto. After years of waiting in refugee centres they did not get permission for asylum in Finland. If the police had found them they would have been sent back to Pakistan. It was a Christian family, mother, father and two little kids, the youngest of whom was born in Finland. They had lost everything in Pakistan and the father was sure he would be killed if he was sent back. Their case made me to do some research into the situation of the Christian minority in Pakistan. It is not a pleasant situation. This is how one of the main characters in The Defenceless, Sammy, was born.
2. Both your novels, The Hummingbird and The Defenceless, have immigrants as key characters. What interests you about this group of people?
When I was studying special education at university, I wrote my Masters thesis on racist bullying in Finnish schools. I used to work as a teacher for immigrant/refugee children. My ex-husband is a minority Hungarian from the former Yugoslavia (like Anna Fekete) and he came to Finland as an asylum seeker. So I have plenty of professional and personal knowledge on this theme. Multi-culturalism has been my everyday life for about 20 years. When I wrote The Hummingbird, I was re-reading my Masters thesis. In it I quoted research from the 90s which found that in Finland we don’t ‘hear’ the voice of immigrants. Like all minority groups, they are treated as a target of ‘our’ actions; almost all public discussion about immigration has the voice of majority. Little has changed since. And it will never change if we, the majority, don’t do anything about it.
3. As a Finn who lived in the Hungarian region of Serbia, how was your own experience of immigration?
Even though I was living on my own with three children in Serbia (my ex-husband was working in Bosnia then) I was a very privileged immigrant. I had money and I had a network of my ex-husband’s family and friends. We lived in a big house and I quickly learned to speak Hungarian. And maybe the most important thing: I had an EU passport. I was free to come and go across the EU border to Hungary. Locals needed a visa. So I can never compare myself to those who have nothing and who are in danger, dependent on smugglers or on people’s good will. And even though I had everything, it was not easy to live in foreign country. I was often lonely, the system was different, I could not understand everything people said. Especially in the beginning, it was really frustrating. I can just imagine, how hard it can be if you have nothing!
4. My fantasy of life on a small island is that it is like a Greek island in August all year round. Tell us about the reality of life on Hailuoto through the seasons.
A Greek island! This made me laugh. We have long, cold winters with lots of snow and then we have short, cold summers but with less snow. In winter we have an icy road from the mainland to the island, which is 10km long. The ferry runs all year round and it breaks up the ice. Last winter was the first time that we did not have ice on the road. The sea was frozen, but not enough for it to be a proper road. Global warming is having its effect here too. Winters are not as freezing as they used to be and storms are much more common. The island is covered by darkness and silence. It is actually quite beautiful. Spring is here when the sun shines again and then the weather is perfect for cross country skiing. The Defenceless is set in spring. I wanted to describe how the light gets stronger each day, how the backbone of winter is slowly broken away. Summer is short but intense. It is so light that you don’t want to sleep at all. We have a couple of cool festivals here and lots of mosquitoes. We swim in the sea and enjoy the sun. Autumn is my favourite season. The forests are full of berries and mushrooms then and these are free for everyone to pick. I also go hunting during this period. It gradually gets colder and darker, migrant birds fly away, and it feels like nature is going to sleep.
5. Where I live, local people are concerned about where newcomers have moved from. At a national level, do you think that we will ever reach a point in society where it doesn’t matter whether people are immigrants or non-immigrants?
I really hope so, but to be honest I don’t believe this will ever happen. Human beings are cruel animals.
6. What do you think drives our human obsession with difference? Why do we need to classify people as ‘us’ and ‘them’?
Feelings of superiority, power, security and control. And the fear of losing these things.
7. In the UK we have immigrants from various countries and cultures, and have done for decades. In your experience, do you think that some groups cope with the ‘immigrant experience’ better than others? If so, why do you think this is?
In general the closer your country, culture and language of origin is to the country you go to live in, the easier it is to adapt and integrate. But we have to keep in mind that in all groups there are individuals who cope very well and also individuals who don’t. I think it could be very useful to study why some immigrants cope well, what their personal histories and skills are, if any coincidences happened, how their surroundings treated them when they arrived etc. Instead of looking at bad examples we should learn from the good ones. I believe that school and work opportunities are key factors here.
8. You are clearly very creative. Is there any overlap between singing in a punk band, performance art and creative writing? What sort of performance art do you do? And do you write song lyrics?
Yes, there is an overlap. Everything springs from the need for self-expression. I have been a punk since I was young. I write most of my band’s song lyrics and I’m the lead singer. I have always been a rebel and I always will be. Punk is about having a DIY attitude, freedom of creativity and anger towards the rotten, money oriented system. In punk I can be angry and crazy. When performing I can be just crazy. I have an alter-ego called ‘Ginger Cunt’. She wears my wedding dress and goes to forests and the seashore and swamps, or sometimes shopping. My performances have an eco-feminist aspect and they are not meant to be performed before audience. Sometimes I shoot a video and sometimes I do things with my friend who wears a wedding dress bought from a flea market. Like punk, performance art is a good way to poke fun at oneself. We all want to look so intelligent and be taken seriously, I want to laugh at myself (and others like me). Also the idea of a piece of art, which is not performed in front of an audience and which is never repeated, really fascinates me. It is so different from, for example, a book which can basically last hundreds of years, or a gig, where the same songs you have practised and performed hundreds of times are played over and over.
9. Having read both your novels, identity is a theme which runs through them. Was this a conscious choice? What is it about identity which interests you?
Identity wasn’t a conscious choice but it came naturally with the themes of immigration. My main interest is the connection between language and identity. How do we construct our self-image – and that of others – through language? What happens if language cannot develop normally, if you lose your mother tongue, or lose people, books, education, and the media etc? Do people perceive themselves and the world around them differently depending on the language they use? How has it affected to Anna that she has lived most of her life in Finnish speaking surroundings?
10. To what extent do you think that culture and geography contribute to identity?
Culture is based on communication, transactions and language within groups of individuals. Culture is the sum of the actions and reflections of different identities. It is not fixed thing. It is continually moving, waving, developing and changing. And also the other way round: identities are formed by their surrounding cultures. Geography is like a frame. It defines certain basic elements of our everyday lives and therefore contributes to culture and identity.
11. Part of the experience of moving to another country involves cultural dislocation. What does ‘culture’ mean to you, and how easy is it to take your own culture with you when you move to another culture? How easy it is to adapt to a new culture?
Ease of adaptation depends on society’s flexibility. If society is stuck stubbornly in the ways of the past, it is really hard for newcomers to adapt no matter how they want or try.
12. It is interesting to reflect on why people respond differently to moving country. Can you explain why you think Anna has learnt Finnish (amongst other languages) and developed her career whereas her brother has struggled to settle, hasn’t learnt Finnish, and has found it hard to find employment?
Anna was the perfect age when she and her family came to Finland. She was almost 10 years, old enough to have learnt her mother tongue, Hungarian, properly and young enough to adapt to her new school and learn a new language. Studies show that children aged 7-10 years are in the optimal phase of development of their mother tongue to learn new languages. If you are younger your own language is not strong enough to act as a base for a new language, and if you are older, it is harder to study because the language used in school is more complex. So, yet again, the important thing is the language. Anna’s brother, Ákos, was a young man when they arrived. His education in Yugoslavia was interrupted. He could not study in Finland because he didn’t speak Finnish and so he could not get a job. I think Ákos feels that he is worthless, that he’s a failure. Maybe he compares himself to his sister who has done so well, and feels ashamed.
13. Another strong theme in your writing is belonging. Maslow places this in the centre of his hierarchy of needs. What does ‘belonging’ mean to you, and how important do you think it is to people?
I believe all human beings have things in common despite their culture, religion or whatever. One of these things is the need for a sense of belonging. We all want to belong to something: family, a group of friends, a book club or a football team. We need other people. We are pack animals. This need can be exploited too. I don’t believe we need to belong to a nation or country. If we think and feel that way, it is due to a couple hundred years of brain washing. Leaders, lords and money makers benefit if we act like sheep.
14. You have untranslated Hungarian phrases in both your novels. The meaning of some of these can be guessed from their context but not all. Was this a deliberate choice on your part and, if so, what effect did you want the phrases to have?
I wanted to give the reader a taste of how it feels when you don’t understand everything. That’s how it was for Anna when she came to Finland and how it still is for her brother. Nothing particularly important is untranslated. If you want to learn to swear in Hungarian or Serbian, read my books!
15. I really enjoy the descriptions of landscape, weather and nature which you incorporate into your writing. Do you include these to be in keeping with Nordic-Noir tradition or are they important to you personally?
Landscape is important to me personally. I live ‘in nature’. I don’t just observe it, I am part of it. It’s a very non-verbal connection and therefore I find it challenging and interesting to try to describe it. Perhaps in Nordic countries we are still so close to nature that landscape descriptions seem like a Noir tradition but actually they are every writer’s experience.
16. I have referred to your writing as ‘social realism’ as your novels have plots which stem from issues in contemporary society. Which comes first for you, the issues or the stories?
Story. It is the soil where I develop my characters and themes. Often I don’t even think about issues or themes before that. These form during the writing process. But actually it is the same with a story too. I don’t plan it in detail. Writing is the best way to think and plan both the story and any issues. In the beginning I have a rough idea for a plot and it doesn’t develop if I don’t write. It’s like walking into darkness with a faint hope of finding a route to the light again. It’s a very intuitive process, one which is hard to explain.
17. Many of the topics and themes you cover in your novels are potentially sensitive. Some authors are nervous to discuss immigration and culture and prejudice. What are your thoughts about writing about sensitive subjects? Are there any rules that you have?
I write about subjects that interest me and I want to be on the side of people who feel ‘small’ and rejected. I want to be honest in my art, honest with myself. Maybe these are my rules.
18. I really like your detective, Anna Fekete. She is capable and determined but also vulnerable. What do you like about her and does anything frustrate you about her?
I think Anna is not a typical female heroine and that is what I like about her. For example, she is not always verbally super-witty and sometimes she can be annoyingly unconfident. What is best about her is that she has the courage to do the right thing even if it’s against the rules. She is a complex person and this fascinates me. Her morals may differ from mine but I let her do what she wants or needs to do. Her unsteadiness can surprise me.
19. After The Defenceless, what is next for you?
I’m working on the third Anna Fekete novel. It should come out in Finland next spring.
20. Please can we have a photo from you of anything which has meaning for you?
Thank you so much, Kati, for going into such depth with your answers.
My review of The Defenceless is here: https://vickynewhamwriter.com/2015/08/01/the-defenceless-by-kati-hiekkapelto-a-review/
My review of The Hummingbird is here: https://vickynewhamwriter.com/2015/06/07/the-hummingbird-by-kati-hiekkapelto-a-review/
Kati’s website is here: http://katihiekkapelto.com/
Vicky Newham © 2015