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

Purge is characterized by the historical narrative which Oksanen underlines exists as a threat in contemporary society as well; but crucial to this narrative is the exploration of violence both on a personal and political level through Aliide and Zara’s stories.  “The reason I wanted to feature two female characters with similar experiences arising from different perspectives is that in my research the victims or survivors seemed to have such similar experiences; their ethnic, cultural or religious background seemed to not matter when they were experiencing such suffering- how you feel and how you suffer are universal.”

Zara (Elicia Daly) and Old Aliide Truu (Illona Lintwaite). Photo: Simon Kane

For Oksanen, the female identity is as important as the symbolism with which it is associated, and this is where she draws a cultural link with her current home country, Finland. In Purge, the body becomes a site of oppression. “Finland is a Motherland- the Maiden of Finland is a really strong figure, and I wanted to explore that matriarchal society which also manifested in Estonia, within such a male-dominated political landscape. There’s a strong relationship to Mother Nature within history- Estonia has been invaded so many times- the Swiss, Russians, Germans; Christinanity is an exported religion, in a way.” For Oksanen, Estonians are strongly connected to old beliefs. “Rulers are coming and going- in a situation in which you don’t know who will be ruling the country tomorrow, you have to rely on something else.” Estonia is a rural country, and this was an essential discourse in the context of the female experience explored in Purge.

Purge’s journey continues: it is currently being adapted into a film and an opera. Is it haunting Oksanen? “It’s been such an interesting journey. At one point, you have to let it go, and allow it to take its own momentum.  Somehow, the issues explored in Purge reinforce my understanding of this gap of feeling between Eastern and Western Europe: there’s still a lot of mythologization and exoticism across the board.” The play serves as a cathartic cultural ritual, a work that is more urgent and confrontational than the sum of its parts. How much of this cultural process will lead to the opening up of new discourses remains to be seen.

Read our review of Purge.  

Sofi Oksanen’s Purge is on at the Arcola Theatre until the 25th March 2012. For tickets and more information, visit the Arcola website


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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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