Features Q&A and Interviews Published 27 February 2012

Sofi Oksanen

Sofi Oksannen (b. 1977) is an award-winning Finnish-Estonian novelist and playwright. She studied Dramaturgy at Helsinki’s Theatre Academy and Literature at the Jyvasklya University. She wrote her first novel, Stalin’s Cows, in 2003 which introduced the Finnish literary scene to her politically-charged work. In 2007 she wrote Purge as a commission for the Finnish National Theatre, and a year later she developed the work into what became a bestseller across Europe. She is the first foreign writer to have won the FNAC Prize in France, as well as a recipient of the Runeberg Prize and the Nordic Council Literature Prize. She is based in Helsinki. Her work has been translated in over thirty-eight different languages, and her play Purge has travelled around the world, including the New York’s La Mama Theatre and Berlin’s Theatertreffen Festival.
Diana Damian Martin

Sofi Oksanen’s Purge is a play constructed around dualities. Two women – Aliide and Zara – at different stages of their lives,  each acting as a different chapter of Estonian history, are confronted by the realities of the present and the embodiment of a problematic past. Set in rural Estonia and spanning the period of Soviet Occupation and Estonian Independence, Purge confronts the female experience of repression both in political and social terms; its  deals in human trafficking and forms of dictatorship in an attempt to explore both the male-dominated political structures of contemporary Europe and the problematic appropriation of trafficking. The play is, in essence, a modern-day parable that addresses “a country in a process of equalization- the formation of a new society” and, perhaps, the debris this process leaves behind.

I speak to Oksanen in the hallway of an elegant, central London hotel, all marble floors and clinical lighting. She is confident and collected, feeding off an economy of energy that is released throughout our conversation in uneven doses. She speaks in nuanced prose, yet vies for simplicity when she can. It’s striking how much discourse is imposed on Oksanen’s work; there are claims that both the play and the novel it later developed into are inspired by her own experiences as a Finnish-Estonian, something which she carefully denies. “I am fascinated by auto-fiction- Marguerite Duras is one of my favourite authors- but I think identifying with a character is problematic. Distance is important to me, and I am constantly surprised that female authors are so identified with their text, more so than male authors”. She rests firmly in the context of a wave of female authors working in Finland today – “more than half of the writers are female; you’re not marginal because of your gender”, and is an active political and cultural commentator and supporter of the LGBT community.

Purge. Photo: Simon Kane

Given her reputation as one of the most sought-after writers in Northern Europe, particularly for her prose, there’s an overwhelming range of public discourses that seek to mythologize both her ambitions as a writer and the identity of her work. “I want to address issues that are particularly relevant to and overlooked by my generation”. Her language is filled with symbolism, and her stories are less politically confrontational and more dominated by personal narratives. “It takes time to create an identity, both on a personal and national level; the issues in Purge surfaced in the nineties, but they haven’t really been explored, neither culturally nor politically.”


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Diana Damian Martin

Diana Damian Martin is a London-based performance critic, curator and theorist. She writes about theatre and performance for a range of publications including Divadlo CZ, Scenes and Teatro e Critica. She was Managing Editor of Royal Holloway's first practice based research publication and Guest Editor for postgraduate journal Platform between 2012-2015. She is co-founder of Writingshop, a long term collaborative project with three European critics examining the processes and politics of contemporary critical practice, and a member of practice-based research collective Generative Constraints. She is completing her doctoral study 'Criticism as a Political Event: theorising a practice of contemporary performance criticism' at Royal Holloway, University of London and is a Lecturer in Performance Arts at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

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