Interview with Leena Krohn (TAINARON: MAIL FROM ANOTHER CITY)
Leena Krohn is one of Finland’s most iconic and inventive writers. Her novel Tainaron: Mail From Another City was written in Finnish in 1985, and when it was translated into English by Hildi Hawkins in 2004 it was nominated for multiple awards. The novel tells the story of a woman visiting a city inhabited by insect people, and is told through her unanswered letters home. Startlingly original yet reminiscent in places of Italo Calvino or Franz Kafka, it is the perfect introduction to Krohn’s idiosyncratic and powerful work. Jeff VanderMeer cites it as a pioneering work of New Weird fiction; it is the only work in translation to appear in VanderMeer’s list of crucial New Weird texts and in excerpted form in his and Ann VanderMeer’s genre defining anthology The New Weird (2008). Her novels translated into English include Datura, or A Figment Seen By Everyone (2001, translated 2011) and The Pelican’s New Clothes (1976, translated 2015).
Leena Krohn was kind enough to speak to The Fantasy Hive via email.
Your novel Tainaron: Mail From Another City was nominated for the Finlandia prize, and when it was translated into English many years later it was nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the International Horror Guild Award. What is it about the book that has made it so enduringly popular?
I never thought Tainaron would be popular at all. Perhaps there is something timeless in it. We are all strangers to each other, to ourselves.
Jeff VanderMeer has talked about Tainaron as an example of the New Weird, and it also contains elements of Fantasy and science fiction. How do you feel about these genres and where your work sits with them?
I did not try to write any fantasy or science fiction. Perhaps I did, however, sort of it. I only tried to express something about the human situation, about her restlessness, her unfulfilled longing, her sorrow and her curiosity.
The novel is set in a city inhabited by insect people. Insects recur throughout your work, like the insect-like computer-generated creatures in the story ‘Gorgonoids’. What draws you to the insect world?
When I was very young, my pleasure was to follow ants or some strange insects in deep rain puddles. It was no scientific hobby, it was more meditative and philosophical. I have read as a child already Spoon River Anthology (in Finnish) and I especially like Theodore the Poet, he who stared “at the door of the crawfish’s burrow, waiting for him to appear…”
Tainaron is told through a series of letters from a woman visiting the city. Like many of your novels, it is told in this mosaic form rather than a single straightforward narrative. What draws you to this form of storytelling?
Tchehov and Andersen, my favourite writers, are both masters of short form. When I was 16, I read Harry Martinson’s Vägen till Klockrike. It is a masterpiece in the mosaic form. Martinson, too, has surely influenced on the way I write. I cannot write heavy prose at all.
By the way, I work now with mosaic tiles. I will make concrete mosaic stepping stones for the garden.
Your work also tends to cross the boundaries of dreams and hallucinations, as with the protagonist in Datura, or a Figment Seen By Everyone, which causes the reader to question the nature of reality. What is it that fascinates you about how we perceive reality?
It is utterly important, how reliably we can trust in our senses. But we must learn that our perception can receive only glimmers of reality and that our consciousness is narrow and low. This teaching is luminous, I think, because it tells that there are infinitely unknown secrets. We don’t know what we don’t know…
Datura also features the Voynich Manuscript. What drew you to this mysterious text?
It is fascinating, because its origin and purpose are so uncertain. The language is unidentified and illustrations strange, the plants in the drawings are unknown. You cannot be sure, if it is an elaborated hoax or something very meaningful. (But a hoax could be meaningful, too.)
The theme of human conflict with the environment and the non-human world occurs in much of your work. How important is this idea to you?
It is basic and central. It is the conflict, which has harassed me since my school years.
Your stories frequently feature artificial intelligences, clones and other forms of posthuman beings. What attracts you to these subjects?
When you learn about artificial intellect and artificial life, you learn about natural intellect and natural life, too. Especially what they are not. Not yet, anyway.
Your early novel The Pelican’s New Clothes is a children’s novel, unlike much of your more recent work. How does writing for children differ to writing for adults?
Actually, I have written many books for children, but only few have been translated, some into Japanese like Children of Sun. A Japanese film company will produce an animation film about this story. Perhaps The Pelican’s New Clothes is still my most personal book for children. H. C. Andersen wrote that your text should be short, clear and rich. I have always the same goal, also when I write for adults.
The Pelican’s New Clothes features elements of the fairy tale. Is this a form of storytelling you feel particularly attracted to?
It is only one of my favourite forms. Sometimes I have tried to write some plays (or radio plays), too, but it is too difficult genre to me.
You started writing about computers and the internet very early on, which now seems very farsighted. What initially interested you about this technology?
When I saw first time (perhaps in 1983) a personal computer – Apple Lisa, I suppose – I thought it was a cool, beautiful, fascinating thing, but I couldn’t afford it. A couple of years later I bought an English computer: Apricot, and then Amiga. I learned to use computers with my son Elias, then 8 years old. It was especially exciting to try to make illustrations digitally. And I read about new-born computer based sciences, like AI and A-life, and I understood that they will surely change – if not evolution – our future at least.
You’ve spoken about the concept of “tribar” as a way of thinking about reality, which is absolutely fascinating. Would you be able to talk about how this idea shapes your work?
It is the concept, which has shaped my world view entirely, not only my work. I see that all the social constructions are logically impossible, they are made of true and untrue, material and immaterial, rational and irrational. But we need them, anyway. It is the human situation inevitably, ad infinitum. In the heart of our existence there is an unsolvable paradox. And our society is so vulnerable, like The House of Usher.
You’ve also written about the importance of morality in your work. How does morality manifest in your writing?
About thirty years ago there was a Finnish video artist, who killed a poor cat for his video very cruelly. Kiasma, the Finnish Museum of Modern Art bought his work, which was a shame. It wasn’t art, it was a nasty crime. This case forced me to think again about the relationship between ethics and art, between ethics and imagination, between ethics and rationality – and to write about my thoughts, too.
There is no justice, no fairness, no righteousness, if you have no imagination. You must have imagination to judge consequences of your deeds – and not only for yourself. Imagination is an important part of human rationality and of ethics, too.
Only a small proportion of your work has been translated into English. What are English readers of your work missing out on? Is there a chance we will see more of your works translated into English?
I don’t think there are still so many Leena Krohn’s texts, which should necessarily translate into English. Of course I would be glad, if somebody would like to translate into English some of my children’s books or perhaps my novel Kadotus (Oblivion). When I began to write, I did not even hope that my works would be translated into other languages. Now there are some amateur writers in Finland, who will write their texts not in Finnish but in English in order to get larger audiences immediately. You should not think so much about readers and audiences – it destroys your language, your passion, your true compassion.
What are you working on at the moment?
This year I have published a collection of essays: Mitä en koskaan oppinut (What I never learned). Now I am working on a short story about short stories.
Thank you Leena Krohn for speaking with us!