The following speech was given at Archipelacon, held 25—28 June in Mariehamn, in the Åland Islands, Finland, where Johanna Sinisalo was one of the Guests of Honour. We are delighted to reprint it here.
Dear ladies and gentlemen,
I learned to read at a very early age. I do not have any memories of a time I couldn't read. All my life, it has been to me as natural a thing as breathing.
I was at the mature age of two and a half years when my parents noticed. I had two older sisters who were about four and five at the time. My parents used to read stories for us, and of course, when a child hears a short story from a picture book several times, they learn it by heart. My sisters used to "play reading" sitting with the books and reciting the memorised story aloud. Once, as I was "playing reading," my mother happened to notice that I always turned the page in the exact place where it should be turned, even if it was in the middle of a sentence.
She took another children's book, opened it, and asked me to read a bit. I did. She frowned, went to the kitchen, picked up the daily newspaper and showed me a headline, and asked, "What does this say?" I told her. I heard my mother and my father speculating that perhaps they had discussed the headline earlier during the day and I had overheard them. My dad then went to the living room and grabbed a book from the top shelf. It was something about aeronautics, because my dad was working for the air force. He opened the book at random and pointed at a line with his finger and asked me to read it. I did. From that moment on, my parents were freed from story-reading duty and I started to read to my two bigger sisters.
We had a lot of children's books at home, and when we moved to the southern town of Tampere, from Lapland, where I was born, I got a library card at the age of five.
I started to wolf down books. Tens of books in a week. Books for much older children. My parents did not realize I was pretty seriously nearsighted until I was about six, because I spent all my time with my nose in a book. It was no wonder I showed no interest in the surrounding world, because I practically couldn't see. But the worlds in the books were vivid, detailed, and crystal clear.
Somewhere around the age of five, I had two intellectual breakthroughs about books.
The first one was that some books were better than others. I could not specify exactly how they were better than others, but there were two things that had something to do with it. If there was magic, space travel, monsters, or secret worlds, they were usually good. But that factor was not an absolute, because some monster books were definitely better than others. The other indication of betterness was when I was drawn to the same book again and again, and although I knew everything that was going to happen in the story, I reread and reread and reread it, every time equally fascinated.
The other breakthrough was even more important: that there was usually a name on the book cover, the name of some person, in addition to the book title. And one day I realized that those names were real people. That someone who was alive at that very moment or had once been alive had written that book. I had never thought that about a doll or a teddy bear, that someone had made it. Of course, because I could read, I knew that the teddy was made in China—but there was nobody's name on it. But on the books there was. So writing books was a job that some real people had. Some people spent their days making up stories for other people to read.
And my brain connected this fact to the other one: it was possible to be either good or not that good in the trade. Some books were better than others, because the writers were perhaps more skilled. Just like I knew that every mother could cook, but only some mothers made truly tasty meals.
That was something pretty amazing to realise at the age of five. I decided that I would become a writer when I grow up. Or, why wait? I could start right then.
Well, before I really had very seriously started my career, a third breakthrough happened.
I had borrowed from the library an exhilarating book called Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson. I had never read such a book. A book for children about a cosmic cataclysm! A book for children about the end of the world! That was the coolest thing ever.
Before reading it, I had browsed some of my dad's popular astronomy books, mostly those with nice illustrations by guys like Chesley Bonestell. So I knew that the comets were a real thing and that the Earth was a planet in space and so on. But Comet in Moominland made me wonder a couple of things, and so, very early one Sunday morning I went and woke up my dad and asked: "Daddy, is it possible that a comet could one day collide with the Earth?"
Of course my dad knew that it was definitely possible and perhaps even that it has happened a couple of times in the history of Earth. But I think he was a little reluctant to tell that to a five-year-old girl, and instead of answering he asked: "What makes you think that kind of thing could happen?"
I went out of the bedroom and came back with Comet in Moominland. My father turned it in his hand and then he made a serious, serious mistake.
I have wondered why he said what he said. Perhaps he wanted to make a joke. Or—I later thought—perhaps he just wanted to protect his little girl from any extra worries about cosmic cataclysms.
He said: "This Tove Jansson, you know, she's a lady and women do not really know about these things." I have to tell you, "Tove" as a Swedish first name did not carry to me any indication of the writer's sex. I had always assumed the writer was a guy because most writers were.
In my five-year-old mind, two things happened at once.
First, I became a feminist.
Second, I decided that no one could ever come to me and say that women or ladies or little girls do not really know about cosmic collisions and space and stuff just because they are not boys. I definitely would know. And I definitely would read and write about space and stuff.
And so, dear audience, a kick-ass feminist sci-fi writer was born.
But did I start my writing career at the age of five? In a way, yes. I wrote little poems that were of course downright horrible, and short fairy tales, which were clumsy copies of stories I had read. I played writing like my sisters played reading. I had, and still have, a very vivid imagination, but there was nothing actually creative in my writing. Of course I myself thought that I was pretty good, because all the adults were soooo charmed to see that this little brat who was not even at school yet was writing poetry about the wonders of springtime.
But, luckily, yet another intellectual breakthrough was just about to happen. I was already at school, and we were supposed to write a short essay. The teacher gave us titles to choose from like "My Summer Holiday" or "My Own Pet." I found those extremely boring. But one title appealed. It was "My Favorite Relative," or something like that, and I thought that the teacher would never know if I didn't describe an actual relative but instead made up things a bit. And, bang!—enter Mrs. Damson. "Rouva Kriikuna," in Finnish.
Mrs. Damson was on elderly lady who continuously found herself in embarrassing slapstick situations. She was a blabbermouth and loved heavily decorated hats. She liked to bake cakes, and the cakes always became hilarious disasters.
In the middle of writing about Mrs. Damson I suddenly got chills. I realized that no one in the whole wide world had written about Mrs. Damson. Never. Mrs. Damson was mine. Mrs. Damson smelled totally fresh, not secondhand. Now I knew what this writing thing was all about. It meant that you wrote something no one else had done before.
After a couple of years, of course, I understood that Mrs. Damson was basically a combination of all those silly female relatives and comical neighbours in the juvenile literature I had read, but because I mixed into her character some features from my Aunt Maija and even from my own dear mom, I knew that no one else but me could have come up with her.
That was the final intellectual breakthrough. After that it was just hard work.
So, did I start my career, then? Yes and no.
I took writing very seriously, and tried to take part in every possible writing contest for children and teens. Sometimes I succeeded, perhaps got a third prize. My teachers at school supported me, and I had some pieces published in a magazine that was sponsored by a local bank and was distributed to all the schools in my hometown. At sixteen, I made my debut in a real literary anthology for young writers with two short stories. One of them was a pretty ordinary piece, but one was really, really weird, and was noticed and praised by reviewers. OK, I thought, I myself like this weird stuff much more than the regular realistic thing anyway, so I will go with that.
But go where?
There were practically no places to publish short fiction in Finland in the 1970s and '80s. There were one or two literary magazines, which mostly concentrated on essays and poetry. There were no anthologies to speak of—the anthology in which I had appeared was an outlier. There were some cheapish magazines which published romantic stories and so-called "true stories," and some crime stuff, and I have to admit that writing suspense stories for those was pretty easy money. (But I used a pen name, so do not even try to track those down.)
But I did not write anything very ambitious, because there was no market in which I could spread my wings, so to speak. I didn't want to try to publish a novel yet, because I knew that I was not mature enough as a writer for that. I had written a script and sent it to a competition, but it was rejected—for very good reasons. So I felt that what I needed now was more writing experience. And I needed real motivation. Writing for your own desk drawer is of course good practice, but not very satisfying in other respects.
I went to university and concentrated on my studies, on student theatre, and on drinking; and partly because of my theatre studies and experiences, I did later write for television. But that's another story.
And still another story is that I spent more than ten years in advertising before becoming a full-time writer. I'm not going to get much deeper into that either, but those years taught me a couple of invaluable lessons: the importance of research, the benefits of time management, and above all, the fact that one is able to be creative eight hours a day if one has to.
But what made me who I am, and the reason I stand here now, is—of course—the Finnish science fiction and fantasy community. And those blessed magazines that published domestic short stories.
I started to write SF short stories in the early 1980s, and they were very well received. It must be said that there was an easy explanation for that success: there were so few domestic writers that there really was not that much competition. But far more important than the nice feedback was to be given a publishing channel, to have discussions with other writers, to organize writer meetings and even take part in editing the magazines. And all the time fresh new talents were springing up. Soon there were anthologies and even some novels published, and ordinary people could see them in the library or buy them from a bookshop. We were visible, and we were ready to get some appreciation.
And we had these impossible dreams. That perhaps one day one or even several of us could break the language barrier. How perhaps one day one of us would—no, no, this is too much—would be recognized in Anglo-Saxon fandom, perhaps being shortlisted for an award?
But we all knew painfully well that there are about five million Finnish-speaking people in the world. And we knew that of all of the literature, fact and fiction, that is published in the United States, only three per cent of it is translated. Three per cent. And this three per cent includes all other languages. Spanish, French, Chinese, German, you name it. A Finnish book shouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of breaking into that market.
So we did not really believe that the breakthrough would ever happen. But we loved to speculate about it.
And now I live that speculative fiction life come true, and so do many of my colleagues. As I stand before you as a Guest of Honour, I hardly believe it. And what makes the feeling even more unreal is a piece of news that I received yesterday. I'll come to that in a second.
I have already discussed at this con, on a panel with Karen Tidbeck, the so-called genre barrier and the historical hegemony of realistic literature in Scandinavia. As we know, in Finland and Sweden realism has been widely seen as the correct way to write, and other genres have been seen as deviations from this norm. The overwhelming strength of the realist canon has made some readers forget the fact that even realistic literature is made up; that it is every bit as fictitious as the most unbridled fantasy literature. And, when you think of it, one could easily consider realism as an occasional literary fad that was born in the nineteenth century and is now retreating rapidly, because the roots of all literature are in myth, magic, fable, and wonder.
But until the turn of millennium, SF, fantasy, horror, and the weird were seen to be either literature for juvenile audiences or, if they were for adults, seen as cheap escapism. Or described with the most patronizing term ever invented: "artistic fairy tale," or "taidesatu" in Finnish.
When one looks at some statistics for Finnish literature, one finds that in the fifties there might have been one title a year that could be described as a non-realistic book for adults—and most of those were paleofiction. In the seventies, when translations of some of the most important SF and fantasy classics appeared in Finnish bookstores, some domestic writers were inspired and a couple of quite ambitious non-realistic novels were published. In the eighties, one of the most celebrated realists of Finnish fiction, Hannu Salama, even wrote a novel that was set in a future Finland after nuclear war, which was considered an extraordinary move. But still, the adult titles were very few and most of them were forgotten pretty soon.
Now things have completely changed. The latest Finlandia Prize, which is the most prestigious literary award in Finland, went to a near-future science fiction book. And no one labeled it science fiction. It was just contemporary quality fiction. We have come a long way. Every year there are tens of adult and young adult titles with fantasy or horror or SF elements published. They are shortlisted for important awards. Their rights are sold to tens of countries.
And as another sign of this new visibility, of this appreciation that we—all of us, as writers, readers, or academics—are now getting, there's the piece of news I got yesterday evening.
I have been awarded a five-year grant from the Arts Promotion Centre Finland. That's about the highest form of respect a writer can get in my country. I feel humble and proud and very, very happy, and this is the best place in the world to announce it.
So with all my heart I want to thank the Archipelacon committee for having me as a Guest of Honour. I want to thank you all, colleagues, fans, readers, academics. I feel that here I am among my very own.