The literary panel discussion during the Helsinki Pride week featured a group of authors talking about how to describe homosexual love and relationships that break traditional norms. In their works, writers Jukka O. Miettinen, Johanna Sinisalo and Helena Sinervo have described the rainbow people. The Central Library also stands free of discrimination as a place where diversity is seen as richness. At the Central Library, love overcomes prejudice!
- Johanna Sinisalo: born in 1958, Johanna Sinisalo won the Finlandia Prize with her debut novel Not before sundown in 2000. She is best known as a sci-fi author and a TV screenwriter.
- Jukka O. Miettinen: born in 1950, Jukka O. Miettinen holds a Doctorate in the Art of Dance and is a versatile opinion leader. He has also published the Miesten kesken (Among men) anthology of gay literature.
- Helena Sinervo: born in 1961, Helena Sinervo is a poet, author and translator. Her book Runoilijan talossa (In the poet’s house) won the Finlandia Prize in 2004.
Despite the blazing hot July weather outside, some 70 people have made their way to the lobby of Kallio Library to hear the panel discussion on the different kinds of love in literature.
A hidden affair may turn out happy
Jukka O. Miettinen, a non-fiction writer and a self-proclaimed “opera freak”, describes the Chinese opera classic Salattu suhde (A Hidden Affair), which was introduced to Finland last spring. The opera is based on the debut play written by male author Li Yu during the 1600s. The play criticises women’s non-independent position in society. While the opera was originally popular in China, it was not performed for some 300 years after Yu’s death as it touches on a love affair between two women. Miettinen says that, in addition to having a bold theme, A Hidden Affair takes a surprisingly positive approach to homosexuality – the two lovers get to be together at the very end.
“Love is a central theme for all cultures. However, throughout the world, society wants to set norms on what love should be like. Perhaps literature is given the task of braking this set of norms? In western countries, does it always come down to conservative church opposing individual rights? How can Finns still today allow the church to plead on dictates dating back over 2,000 years? After all, Li Yu’s popular plays were forgotten when China was later taken over with devout religiousness,” Jukka O. Miettinen challenges the audience.
He continues by pointing out that, throughout history, male singers performing women’s roles in opera and vice versa have been the gay audience’s favourites. During the 1600s and the 1700s, the androgyne castrati singers in European music were admired by gay men.
As a Doctor of Dance, Miettinen involves dance in his discussion quite naturally: “For a long time now, starting from the 1970s in Finland, modern dance has discussed gay topics. The art of dance has reacted to gay topics and gender roles far more deliberately than the spoken arts, including theatre and films. It is natural to approach sexuality and gender through the body. In addition, dance offers a degree of safe distance for discussing the topic.”
The panel was directed by Kallio Library manager Harri Sahavirta. Authors Jukka O. Miettinen, Johanna Sinisalo and Helena Sinervo sit on a couch.
A great man or a great woman must be straight
Helena Sinervo explains how some readers were offended by the fact that the main character in her book Runoilijan talossa was a real-life great woman whose lesbianism is presented openly. “While there is no literary censorship in contemporary Finland, the author may get slammed quite a bit.”
Sinervo states that the main focus in her book is not the women that poet Eeva-Liisa Manner (1921–1995) was fascinated with. Instead, the main focus is on her intense and unpredictable character, tender personality and loneliness.
Jukka O. Miettinen brings up Katariina Lillqvist’s animation Uralin perhonen (Ural butterfly), which caused a commotion in Finland in 2008 after depicting President Mannerheim as gay.
“Why is it that by default we consider it insulting to depict a great man as gay?” asks Helena Sinervo. In the animation, Mannerheim is also depicted as a slaughterer. However, the violent nature of the character did not cause a commotion, like his relationship with a Kyrgyz boy did.
Johanna Sinisalo continues: “In my novel Not before sundown, I describe a fictive gay man from the inside, not through other people’s eyes. For himself, he is completely normal. My starting point is that people are quite similar despite their gender and sexual preferences; this notion gave me everything I needed to describe a gay man.”
“Artists have the privilege of stepping into other people’s shoes,” comments Jukka O. Miettinen.
Miettinen continues by explaining that almost all homosexual references were removed from old literature during the Victorian period. According to Miettinen, ancient Persian poetry is filled with love between women. However, all that poetry was written by men!
“A writer is working on a thin stretch if he can only write about people resembling himself,” adds Sinervo.
When relationships became voluntary
Johanna Sinisalo deliberates on the notion that teenagers just discovering their identities could really benefit from a youth book that discusses homosexuality without passing judgement.
Helena Sinervo points out that there are only a few homosexuals in the entire history of Finnish male authors and that there are only a couple of young gay writers today.
“In Finland, it is quite difficult to write for a marginal audience as the audience is so small. It is even more difficult for men as a tradition for marginal male writers does not exist. Homosexuality has not become part of Finnish literature written by men,” ponders Sinervo.
“Luckily, today it is possible to slide between the labels of author and gay author,” points out Miettinen.
“Contemporary marriages are no longer about match-made marriages and dowries. They are more about internal emotions. This way, the obstacles to love are personal, not societal,” comments Helena Sinervo.
Jukka O. Miettinen agrees that the concept of free, romantic love is relatively new. He highlights old Chinese novels as an example. In the novels, romantic love is almost always directed outside the marriage; for example, the man falls in love with a geisha girl or a servant. Traditional Chinese novels often touched on forbidden love as legally fixed marriages were usually not founded on love.
Is a gay writer always a gay writer?
Johanna Sinisalo points out the fact that contemporary readers are very much interested in autobiographies and interpreting fictional literature through the author’s personal life.
“Readers like to peep. Also, novels are often read as autobiographical works,” adds Sinisalo.
According to Sinisalo, authors used to get media attention by writing about sexual minorities. However, gay characters in literature are more commonplace today. According to Jukka O. Miettinen, German comic artist Ralf Köning has been a major gay influence by describing gay culture in his comics. After all, König’s huge reader base is not entirely gay.
As a conclusion, Miettinen challenges the Finnish gay community to show solidarity towards gay people living in worse conditions. “Many Finnish gay men and women do not understand that only a small minority of the world’s gay population can live out in the open.” Still today, homosexuality is a crime in 77 countries. In seven countries, homosexuality carries capital punishment. It is high time to allow the forbidden love for all.
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Text and photos: Elisa Helenius