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

The idea of ‘purging’ presupposes a violent removal that is cathartic, and hence theatrical in form, but it is also transgressive, a ritual of confrontation.  Oksanen’s play has gained a momentum of its own since its premiere in Helsinki in 2007, carrying with it a cultural and political baggage which New Europe had sealed. In light of a problematic political and economic climate that is making visible the fragmentation and unevenness of a territory that hasn’t yet confronted its recent history, there’s a sense that Purge provides a form of identification that is sparking debate, questioning the relationship between personal and political, national and international identities in contemporary Europe. The play is underlined by a narrative that explores the inherent after-effects of a Russification of Eastern Europe which has shaped the region’s recent history.

“The public’s reaction is configured by its relationship to the past”, Oksanen tells me. “There’s a distinction between how Finland historicized the events in Purge, whereas other Nordic countries considered them hot topics, rendering a need to come to terms with the past”. Oskanen relates the reaction to her play to issues that have dominated Europe’s historical narrative and their public perception. She tells me that in France, a history of occupation has meant an outward concern to the Soviet past, whereas Portugal surprised her; “thinking about how close dictatorship is to them, they were surprisingly disinterested about this aspect of the play, focusing on reducing it to economic terms”. If the US has also seen an uneven public debate that separated human trafficking from Soviet colonisation- which Oksanen deliberately weaves in the same narrative- Eastern Europe did the opposite. “There, you don’t have to start from scratch; they known the stories, so you don’t need to bring the map with you- there’s a really strong emotional response.”

Does she find these discourses reductive, associating cultural response according to a relationship to history? “You know, after the Second World War, they said never again, but it didn’t take that long for a genocide to happen on European soil. This is something I really want to underline in Purge, and it brings different narratives to the public domain that hold political and historical nuance”. If the Bosnian genocide in Srebrenica in 1995 saw an outwardly aggressive process of ethnic cleansing, this echoed loudly in a newly-independent Estonia that was seeking to rebuild its own national identity.

“All European countries with a totalitarian past experience this political shift. You can have occupations without domination, but the Soviet Union was different. In Estonia, there was a successful process of Russification that displaced national identity, which was also affected by the brief German occupation.” Estonia was occupied by the Soviets in 1939, then by the Germans in the midst of the Second World War and reclaimed as Soviet territory in 1944. Estonia was recognized as an independent state in 1992. “When I was young, Estonia did not exist for the Finnish, it simply wasn’t on the map. The first time I understood the ties with Northern Europe was when you teacher at school explained the Finno-Ugric language. I realized how much of an achievement it was for the Soviet Union to fragment such a long history between neighbouring countries; it didn’t take that much to change the perception of national identities between the two countries.”


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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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