Granta Finland recently launched its second issue, themed Strangeness, featuring stories by Zadie Smith, Mark Haddon, Haruki Murakami, Naomi Alderman and Don DeLillo alongside new writing from Finnish authors. Editor Aleksi Pöyry joins Granta’s Francisco Vilhena in conversation about the magazine.
FV: Where did you first come across Granta?
AP: I first came across Granta about ten years ago, when I was studying at the University of Helsinki. I took a class on contemporary American short stories, and the course handbook was The Granta Book of the American Short Story, edited by Richard Ford. I knew who Richard Ford was, but the name Granta was something I wasn’t familiar with. However, it didn’t take me long to find out what Granta’s all about – and I’ve been a fan ever since.
For this second issue you cover a wide spectrum of strange. Some of the stories are quite humorous, like ‘I Don’t Know Anything About You’ by Juhani Karila, where the two main characters Vonnegut and Hemingway are lost in space; others are more serious, such as Sofi Oksanen’s essay ‘Strange Talk’, in which the author discusses propaganda rhetoric in Estonia under Soviet rule. What were the curatorial process – and intentions – behind this issue?
The Finnish word outo has many meanings. Besides ‘strange’ it could be translated as ‘weird’, ‘odd’ or ‘uncanny’. This is one of the main reasons we chose this theme: the word itself can be understood in many different ways. At the same time, Outo enabled us to find a strong thematic unity for the issue. Every piece addresses questions of both strangeness and estrangement – ranging from individual experiences to the shared values of communities, from child narrators to semi-autobiographical approaches, from the borderlands of northern Finland to Brazil. One thing I find interesting in many of the pieces is not only that they make you think of what is strange but also its opposite: the pieces raise the question of what we see as normal or natural, and why.
We also had in mind one special genre, the New Weird, which is characterized by the crossing of boundaries between literary realism and fantasy or sci-fi, and even by the discarding of all possible boundaries between genres. In Finland, probably the best known translated author of the genre is China Miéville, but in my opinion, there are also characteristics of the genre in the work of David Mitchell, who is one of the contributors to our issue.
The New Weird has been quite popular in Finland in recent years. It has sparked a movement particular to our domestic writers – the Finnish Weird – and from what I’ve learned, it has been generating some interest internationally. What is often particular to Finnish Weird is that it portrays a realistic, palpable setting which gradually starts to acquire elements of fantasy. The Finnish Weird never represents full-blown fantasy; instead, there is a constant tension between the real and the fantastic. One of our contributors, Johanna Sinisalo, is widely regarded as the Finnish master of the genre. Her epistolary short story ‘Voiceless Voices’ is set in an alternative reality which does, however, look a lot like the real world that we the readers inhabit. As the story progresses, the protagonist describes a new artistic process he’s had the chance to experience – a strange form of calligraphy performed in front of a live audience. This new technique is not entirely unrealistic, but it does lend a very strong feeling of the fantastic to it.
However, we didn’t want to limit the issue to a specific genre, so the rest of the stories are not really regarded as representatives of it. Juhani Karila’s short stories are often characterized by strange settings and wild, unexpected plot twists. Katja Kettu, on the other hand, is a fiction author who often depicts the peculiarities of the people and communities of northern Finland. This is another kind of strangeness, figuring not so much on the level of plot, but rather on the level of the personalities and cultural background of the characters.
You’ve also fashioned an interesting selection of Granta pieces from our archives. How did these contribute to the overarching narrative?
With Zadie Smith’s story ‘Martha, Martha’, we were able to address the special kind of strangeness that can subtly arise in social situations – when people with different backgrounds and different sets of expectations just cannot seem to find a connection. Joshua Ferris’s ‘More Afraid of You’ is a truly frightening story, and as there seems to be a special connection between strangeness and fear – we are often at the same time fascinated by and afraid of what we find strange or weird. Another piece dealing with fear is Jerker Virdborg’s story, which we translated from the first issue of Granta Sweden. It depicts a man coming face-to-face with unexpected and unexplainable violence while travelling in the Stockholm underground.
I find it fascinating how some of the translated pieces started to interact with our domestic pieces. In Haruki Murakami’s story ‘Thailand’, for example, the protagonist is led to discover something alien within her. This is also addressed in Harry Salmenniemi’s series of poems, although from a more internal perspective: we are inside the narrator’s mind as ordinary things feel increasingly strange to him. Both these texts address the question of knowing yourself – and most interestingly, to what extent it is even possible to know yourself fully.
Could you explain a bit about this issue’s fantastic cover?
Our cover was designed by the Finnish graphic designer Markus Pyörälä, who also made a set of illustrations for the issue. It depicts three people in hospital gear, gathered around a table to perform some sort of operation. The illustrations gradually reveal that these so-called doctors are cutting someone’s heart with pruning shears. One important detail in the cover is that one of the doctors is holding a copy of a book that happens to be the same colour as this issue of Granta – for the reader holding an actual copy of the issue, this creates a connection to the illustrations that they are looking at; almost as if they were the person holding the book in the illustrations. This way, a feeling of strangeness is brought forward not only by the pieces in the issue, but also by the book as a physical object.
You are preparing Granta Finland’s third issue, a selection of the Best of Young Finnish Novelists, to be published in October this year. What was your selection process?
We formed a five-member jury, which consisted of two critics, one author, one editor from the Finnish Literature Exchange and a representative from Otava, the publisher of Granta Finland. I acted as secretary of the jury. Last fall, we had meetings where we discussed Finnish authors, evaluating them on the basis of their whole writing career – and taking breaks to read and reread the work of the candidates. In the end, we managed to agree on a list of twenty. At the moment the authors are writing their pieces for the issue, and I can’t wait to get to read them!
Illustrations courtesy of Markus Pyörälä