FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Finnish writer Sofi Oksanen arrives for an interview in a Frankfurt hotel in trademark vivid make-up and theatrical outfit — a black and violet suit topped with her customary black, blue and purple dreadlocks.
Her gothic appearance chimes with the darkness of her writing and its themes of oppression, banishment, censorship, collusion and rape.
Author of the 2008 award-winning “Purge” and four other published novels, Oksanen is headlining at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the trade’s biggest annual get-together, where Finland is this year’s guest of honor.
The unsmiling 37-year-old is single-minded, repeatedly turning the conversation back to the message she wants to convey: the world should know about the suffering of the Estonian people under Soviet and Nazi-German occupation.
“We have seen in the Ukrainian war that western European countries actually do not know the history of the eastern European countries and in that way it needs to be written in their own voice,” she says.
“For 50 years the voice was the Soviet voice and now it is the time to do something about it. It has to be done, otherwise people do not understand what is happening there,” she says.
Oksanen is convinced that, 23 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s grip on power is a serious threat for Eastern European democracies.
The daughter of a Finnish father and Estonian mother, she grew up in Finland but traveled regularly to the Baltic republic to visit her Estonian grandparents as a child.
With a population of 1.3 million, Estonia was occupied for centuries by Denmark, Sweden and Russia, gaining independence in 1918 only to be annexed in 1940 by the Soviet Union.
Oksanen is convinced that today’s Russia, under Putin, has similar expansionist ambitions.
“We have seen this so many times when people wanted to believe that Russia does not want to be aggressive,” she says.
“Dictators will not stop. People are dying all the time. Putin is not going to stop that and we cannot pretend that we believe he’s going to stop,” she says in a deep, smoky voice.
“Purge” — Oksanen’s international breakthrough, and winner of France’s FNAC Prize and the Nordic Council Literature Prize — tells the story of two Estonian women over two generations.
Both women survive sexual abuse, keep a criminal secret and have to defend their existence in repressive regimes. The story spans 60 years until 1992, when Estonia regained its independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In her first book “Stalin’s Cows” in 2003, Oksanen wrote about a young bulimic Finnish-Estonian woman, symbolically vomiting out her problems with her family and her origins.
Reviews at the time talked about a fine line between history and autobiography — Oksanen too suffered from eating disorders.
In Frankfurt, Oksanen is promoting her new book “When the Doves Disappeared”, to be published in English in February.
She continues the Estonian themes, this time covering the period during and after World War Two when the country was caught between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, and focuses on collaborators.
“There are plenty of memoirs and biographies of those who were deported for example to Siberia, Gulag stories... But there are no confessions of collaborators,” she says.
“They never want to tell their story and that’s the corpus of identity stories that we are lacking.”
Editing by Louise Ireland