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Kirsti Paltto.

Kirsti Paltto (b. 1947) is one of the most prolific authors working in Sami, the language of the indigenous minority inhabiting Lapland, or Samiland, in the Russian and Finno-Scandinavian Arctic. She currently chairs the Sami writers' union. Her short stories, poems, and novels have been appearing since the early seventies. She has worked as a teacher and a translator and has also written books for children and award-winning plays and radio plays. The following extract is taken from Guhtoset dearvan min bohccot (Run Safely, My Flock), the first volume of Paltto's long historical novel chronicling the experience of the Sami people in the early twentieth century as their small, austere communities try to cope with the disintegration of ancient traditions and the intrusions of a foreign war. As is appropriate for a novel describing a culture of transhumance and nomadism, the narrative meanders freely. Description is punctuated with spoken recollections, digressive dialogue, and the occasional juoiggus, or traditional Sami chant. Guhtoset dearvan min bohccot deals with somber events, and the narrative has a valedictory tone: arbitrary legislation and military conscription by the Finnish state disrupt Sami communities, while compulsory education in Finnish schools threatens to rob a generation of Sami children of pride in their own language. The modern world with its wealth and technology exercises a mesmerizing influence on the young and impressionable. Paltto openly laments these events but without nationalistic bitterness. She trusts a quiet voice and asserts the dignity of the quotidian.

Fiction: Soaknu (The Proposal Journey, 1971), Risten (Risten, 1981), Guhtoset dearvan min bohccot (Run Safely, My Flock, 1987), Guovtteoaivvat nisu (The Woman with Two Heads, 1989), Gurzo luottat (Run, White Fox, 1991), 256 gollaza (256 Gold Coins, 1992). Poetry: Riddunjarga (Stormy Headland, 1979), Beaivvaza bajasdandun (Updance of the Sun, 1985). Books for children and adolescents: Vilges geadgi (The White Stone, 1980), Go Rahkun bodii Skahpenjargii (When Rahkun Came to Skahpenjarga,1982), Golleozat (The Warblers, 1984), Davggas ja nasti (Davggas and the Star, 1988), Divga (The Bell, 1990), Urbi (Urbi, 1994).

Interview

PHILIP LANDON: Can you name any shared characteristics of contemporary Finnish fiction? Do you identify with any of your international or domestic contemporaries?

KIRSTI PALTTO: I think urbanization and the exploration of individual psychology are shared characteristics of contemporary Finnish fiction. I do not identify with any Finnish or foreign writers.

PL: How would you situate fiction in general and your own work in particular in relation to mass culture and the mass media?

KP: Literature is more durable than mass culture and the mass media because the literary writer often captures things that are common to all humans (aspects of history and life, dreams, passions), rather than merely trying to grasp at the superficial phenomena of the moment--gossip, politics, and so forth.

My own writing cannot belong to mass culture or the mass media because it is written in Sami. Sami literature, cinema, and the other arts that are bound up with our language cannot be disseminated all that widely in different languages because we have no funding of our own. The translation of our literature depends entirely on funding from the Nordic countries.

As for the content of my books, my work is not as light and superficial as mass culture and the offerings of the mass media. My books deal with Sami life, which might seem strange to consumers of mass culture who have a Western outlook and who might have difficulty in getting to know a different culture, its richness, and its way of thinking.

PL: Kai Laitinen has written, "The traditional Finnish novel is close to nature. Nature features in the role of a friend or an enemy or both." Can we read your work as part of this tradition? Does nature require a new approach from writers?

KP: I see nature neither as a friend nor as an enemy. Nature is an element and companion that exists on an equal footing with humans, so it can't be treated as a friend or a foe. Nature would exist without me; it existed before me, and it will still exist after I am gone. A human person, on the other hand, can be either a friend or an enemy of the existing world.

You can't set preconditions for literature, not even concerning proper attitudes to nature. Writers are products of their own age, and they write of the backgrounds and images of their particular situation. The stance that authors adopt toward nature will change of its own accord as the ecological catastrophe deepens and imposes limits on society, thereby changing attitudes and opinions.

PL: From the Kalevala to postwar fiction, much of Finnish literature has been intimately bound up with the question of national identity. Do you see yourself as a member of a more international generation?

KP: As a Sami writer, I do not emphasize Finnish identity--I stress Sami identity. The Sami people nowadays live in four different countries: 2,000 in Russia, 5,500 in Finland, 20,000 in Sweden, and 40,000 in Norway. The Nordic countries and Russia divided Samiland between them in the seventeenth century and practiced a policy of oppression and assimilation by obstructing reindeer husbandry in border areas, by marking off the lands of the Sami as part of their own empires, by outlawing Sami culture and the language, and by teaching Sami children only the language of the "official state," that is, Russian, Finnish, Swedish, or Norwegian.

The Sami identity has also been shaken because the conditions of land ownership, the concept of justice, and the politics of each nation state have dispersed the shared values and aspirations of our people. A conscious search for an identity began in the early twentieth century, when the first Sami books appeared and when the Sami people began to gather behind shared symbols: linguistic, historical, and cultural.

PL: Contemporary Finnish writers frequently use autobiographical and mock-autobiographical forms. Why?

KP: I don't know, really.... Perhaps it is because literature is becoming popularized, trying to compete with mass culture and the mass media on their own terms, trying to persuade the public at large to buy and read books.

PL: Individual spoken voices enjoy exceptional freedom in your novel Guhtoset dearvan min bohccot--the narrator makes little effort to bind them into the overall scheme of things. In the light of the Sami oral tradition, how do you see the significance of speech in your work?

KP: In Guhtoset dearvan min bohccot dialogue is conducted with the community and with nature. It is these things that control the individual spoken voice, not the so-called plot of the book. The Sami community and its environment, its changes and pressures, constitute the plot of this book, in a manner of speaking.

Of course, the rich narrative tradition of the Sami has an effect on my work. It is also true that the Sami are lively and talkative compared to the Finns. However, the function of speech in my work is very deliberate and carefully balanced. In addition to trying to define a prevailing situation, I want to render the human reality of that situation and, of course, also the interiority and personality of each character. A given story in a novel or text aims to advance the string of events or to define the society or social situation of that particular moment or to show the relationship between an individual and the environment. This is an old oral Sami tradition, but it also works well in literature.

PL: Your novel describes the efforts of Sami civilization to resist hierarchies and laws imposed from the outside. The book has no controlling overall viewpoint, no contrived plot, and puts little emphasis on psychology. Its desultory, meandering structure amounts to a rejection of the traditional form of the European novel. Can we call your work decentralized fiction?

KP: In my opinion Guhtoset dearvan min bohccot does have a distinct, controlling overall viewpoint that gives a form to the fragmentary, roaming culture and lifestyle of the Sami people. That it is fragmentary is due to the times when the Sami have had to "take cover," that is, either ostensibly or quite concretely submit and become invisible in order to survive as a nation. As for roaming, that stems from the ancient Sami custom of wandering nomadically with the reindeer. Writers will reflect their people, right?

Of course, my novel could be decentralized, if this means disrupted, because even in actual fact, Sami culture, the Sami way of life, and the Sami language are being disrupted by pressures from the other people living in the Nordic countries as well as by legislation.

PL: Do you feel any cultural affinity with the indigenous peoples of, for example, America or Australia? Has literature or art from such sources had any influence on your work or outlook?

KP: It is natural for me to feel an affinity with, say, the indigenous people of America or Australia because I myself belong to the indigenous Sami. The world's indigenous people have their own global organization, the WCIP. Almost all the world's indigenous groups are members. In Samiland the work of the WCIP is conducted by the Sami Council, a joint body representing the Sami of all the Nordic countries and Russia.

The literature and art of different indigenous groups are, of course, inspiring to me, particularly the works of American and Canadian Indian writers. But the major influence on the perspective of my books was black American literature during the 1960s. Indeed, that was what set me going and taught me to look at things from the point of view of my own people.

PL: Guhtoset dearvan min bohccot performs a valuable service by retrospectively vivifying a neglected historical perspective, forcing readers to reassess their view of the past. Momentous changes are under way in Europe again today. Do you feel tempted to write about the contemporary European context?

KP: The contemporary European context is interesting but also dangerous. Even though so-called national self-determination seems to be on the increase, I see no sense in creating numerous small nation states. Building up a national bureaucracy and hierarchy is toilsome and costly in terms of natural resources and human energy. What is more, it is increasingly the case nowadays that an individual country cannot get along without others. I don't believe that a nation state as such can save the identity or culture of a given people--at least, not from supranational mass culture and the mass media. On the other hand, I do believe that a small people has the right to self-determination, autonomy, and equality with larger ones.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Review of Contemporary Fiction
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Interview
Author:Landon, Philip
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 1996
Words:1768
Previous Article:Lucilia illustris.
Next Article:From run safely, my flock.
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