Try Woolen Socks this Winter: An Interview with Finnish-Australian author Selma Kaasinen

Try Woolen Socks this Winter: An Interview with Finnish-Australian author Selma Kaasinen

Selma Kaasinen is Australian-Finn residing in Canberra who has published her very first book, Woolen Socks, a collection of short stories written in Finnish. The book relates to her childhood surroundings of Outokumpu a small town in Eastern Finland. Each story delves into the twists and turns of the human mind. 

Summer in North Karelia. Photo: Asko Kuittinen/Visit Finland

We interviewed Selma to learn more of her passion for writing, story composition and how a love of science encouraged her to make the move to Australia.

1. Congratulations on publishing your first book "Woolen Socks", what inspired you to write this collection of short stories?

Writing has always been part of my life. At the younger age, I wrote short stories. In fact, still in primary school, I participated in a children's writing competition organised by Yleisradio. The theme was to write a fairytale, so I wrote a story about three instruments, a violin, a cello and a trumpet going for an adventure. I cannot remember anymore what place I got to in the competition but I got awarded and my fairytale was presented on the radio afterward several times. It was naturally exciting for a kid of that age. This was in the 1970's so, unfortunately, that story is archived somewhere in Yleisradio records.

My literature teacher in college was trying to persuade me to go and study literature and writing in uni. Perhaps he saw my aptitudes for fiction writing and perhaps I should have listened to him. Who knows. These are the ifs and buts in life. However, I ended up becoming a biologist and later a neuroscientist. Uni studies, family and being a scientist turned my attention away from fictional writing and for years my focus was on scientific writing. Moving to Australia made me realise very quickly that unless I found a way to maintain my writing skills in Finnish, it would deteriorate all too rapidly. So I picked up my pen again and started writing, first to entertain my friends and family members by writing long letters and keeping a blog, then short stories with more determination to take fictional writing seriously.

The short story collection Woolen socks and other stories, which by the way is written in the Finnish language, came about when I decided it was time to take the challenge in writing to the next level. I chose five short stories that in my mind best fit under the same theme and yet were very different. I concentrated on working with them. I was lucky to find a writing coach Marija Vantti whose guidance and support played a significant role in getting the 'package' completed. Writing on top of daily work, at night times and weekends and on holidays requires some determination. Hence, it was nice that there was a person who pushed me and supported me when I had a moment of giving up on the whole idea. My husband and kids have been very supportive too. Afterward thinking, in a way I have written these stories for my children.

2. Besides being a writer you are also an accomplished scientist who lives in Australia. So, why Australia and what do you miss most about Finland?

It is very common if not even recommended that scientist after completing their Ph.D. thesis should seek post-doctoral opportunities outside Finnish borders. There is absolutely nothing wrong in continuing with one's own research in the home university or going to another Finnish university for the post-doctoral period. Visit abroad just adds that another level of experience when you become challenged not only by the research and the team but the new environment and culture. In addition, it makes you respect your own research, even more, when nothing works in the way you were used to it to work in the home lab...LOL 

For me, Australia meant an adventure. By then I had been visiting several of the European countries, USA and the USSR but Australia was still the big unknown. At the same time Australian neuroscientific research, especially at the John Curtin School of Medical Research (JCSMR) at the Australian National University (ANU) carried a good reputation which made me interested in applying for a post-doc position at JCSMR. It also helped when my husband and the children were interested in this adventure as well. After 14 years of living in Canberra, I can only say that in my and my family's case the four-year contract with the JCSMR seems to have turned into a lifetime in Australia. Kids have grown out of the home and with the birth of our first grandchild, we already have the first generation Australian in the family.

John Curtin School of Medical Research (JCSMR). Photo: Australian National University (ANU)

Missing things about Finland has changed quite a lot over the years. First, it was almost about everything, family, friends, food, sauna, nature, you name it, it was on the list. As we settled in as the family, the list got shorter. At the same time, I have to note that some items are more readily available in Australia nowadays than they were when we moved here. So those items were immediately off the list. We do order certain lollies every now and then. In fact, I and my friend are putting together a joint order as we speak. Apart from occasional cravings, today I'd say it is family members and friends that I miss the most. There can be long periods of time that I don't particularly miss anything and then the feeling comes like a big bang. Without Skype, Facebook, Messenger, and WhatsApp it would be harder.

3. Woolen Socks is written in Finnish, what was behind this decision and how have your readers responded?

The Finnish language came naturally to me. Although I am fluent in both speaking and writing in English as it is my work language and language for socialising with other people, there still are certain subtleties that I find easier to describe in Finnish. It is one thing to write and communicate using technical and scientific English when that is what I am trained for and quite another to produce belletristic text. Having said that, perhaps writing fiction in English will be one of my next challenges.

In overall, the book has been well received in Finland and Australia and the feedback so far has been encouraging. Considering I am a first-time author, the publisher was impressed by the number of pre-orders it made. Several people have asked me why the book is not written in English or when will it be published in English, so there is an interest by the English speaking audience for sure. Unfortunately, it is impossible for me to say at this stage will there be a translation and when would that be. I am planning to start negotiating about that with my publisher at some point.

In addition to native English speaking audience, there also are a whole lot of people with Finnish heritage who have either partially forgotten the Finnish language, especially how to read Finnish text or were born in Australia from Finnish parents but cannot speak Finnish. I have seen from my own kids how quickly the second language becomes the dominating language and as a result, reading (as well as writing) becomes difficult or painfully slow. Based on the feedback from the Finnish community in Australia, this book is good reading material especially for Finnish immigrants and their descendants. It is not only because of the storylines and landscapes of the stories but the easiness of the language it is written with. Also, as the name says one only needs to engage with a short story for a short period of time. Therefore I am hoping that the local Finns of all ages and genders will find my book and will enjoy it.

4. In the book you draw upon the landscape of Eastern Finland, how do you reacquaint yourself with this scenery and surroundings?

A good question. Someone once said that one has to live within the language environment and the culture to be able to write in that language, i.e. I would need to be living in Finland to be able to produce Finnish written text. There is some truth in it. As one lives away from the language environment, both the spoken and written language impoverish over time. As said above that was where my writing started. The same thing naturally happens with the environment we live in. It changes and unless you live in it, you cannot see or understand the change. From the perspective of a fiction writer, it only matters to certain extent though because if we were so restricted by our environment and time how could there be for instance medieval stories written in modern times.

Forest in North Karelia, Finland. Photo: Visit Finland

In these stories, I relate to my childhood surroundings, the countryside, and the forests. I only need to close my eyes and I can see the landscape in front of me. I can smell the flowers and the trees and I can hear the sounds of a pine tree forest. In addition, these stories reflect times when I was a young adult and to older times that I could not remember. Regardless of the era or environment, I have written, I have needed to search for information and study the subject before writing about it and changing it into a fiction.

5. The stories are told by very different storytellers offering distinct perspectives. What helped you delve into these depths of the human mind?

Afterward thinking I could have selected any other short story to this collection of stories because a lot of what I write has to do with the human mind, how it twists and turns. What triggers a perfectly normally functioning person to take actions that changes his/her life, sometimes quite dramatically. It fascinates me and will probably never stop being one of the focal points in my writing. No artificial intelligence will ever be able to meet the level of wiring and flexibility that human brains have.

I have started writing stories that would be based on completely different issues but somehow even the most innocent sounding stories end up turning to look at the dark side of the human mind. Take the Lioness (Naarasleijona) for instance. It is one of the short stories in this book. I was missing Finland and wanted to go to Finland at the time, so there I was imagining how the most beautiful summer's day in Finland looks, feels, smells and taste like. As a result, I started writing this story with a view to write a beautiful wedding story, but what happened in my head then? The rest of the story can be read in the book. It must be the gloomy characteristics in my Finnish heritage as Finns never believe in a thing being as good as it appears to be. Though I have not yet given up on the hope of writing something completely different in the future.

6. You've said writing has always been part of my life. So what is next, where do you see your passion taking you?

I will continue on the pathway I have chosen. It took me so many years to get here and now that I have succeeded in publishing the first book, I am determined to keep on working with new stories, whether they short or long, in Finnish or in English. Currently, I have a manuscript for a full novel under works which will again be written in Finnish. It is early to say when it will be published though as I have already learned that compared to short stories it is a whole different level to build a story-line that carries over a length of a novel.

I can give a sneak peek regarding my writing plans for the future which includes an idea to write more about immigration, especially about Finnish immigrants over time and transforming their stories in a form of a fiction. Before there can be a fiction, real stories and events are needed to build a frame for the story. Therefore I will be reaching out to the Finnish community in the near future to help me in telling this story. That could be in form of searching for information and background events from different databases regarding Finnish immigrants but even more importantly by interviewing local Finns.

Woolen Socks is available for purchase from Reuna Kustantamo ja kirjakauppa. Cover: Paula Heiäng

Originally published June 26th, 2018