Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Like "Any Muslim Family That Has Moved to Finland": The Fallacy of Realistic Reading Practices in the Reception of Parvekejumalat by Anja Snellman

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Like "Any Muslim Family That Has Moved to Finland": The Fallacy of Realistic Reading Practices in the Reception of Parvekejumalat by Anja Snellman

Article excerpt

In the past two decades, transcultural or cross-cultural literary texts have sparked several public controversies in various Scandinavian countries. Bokhandleren i Kabul (2002; The Bookseller of Kabul, 2003), by Asne Seierstad, in Norway; Gomda (1995; Buried Alive) and Asyl (2004; Asylum Granted), by Liza Marklund and Maria Eriksson, in Sweden; the poems of Yahya Hassan (Tahya Hassan: Digte, 2013) in Denmark; and Layla (2011), by Jari Tervo, in Finland are among these controversial texts that are located between cultures. All of these texts have induced arguments between those who write them and those whom they are written about (or who perceive themselves to be the object of the writing). The reasons for these controversies are manifold, but one almost always has to do with the question of realism: that is, to what extent have these texts been written, presented, or read as realistic and generalizing or as generalizable depictions of the texts' respective cultures and people? In recent decades, this problem has been particularly topical in Scandinavia; however, the issue is larger. Similar questions have touched cross-cultural literary texts all the way from The Satanic Verses (1988), by Salman Rushdie, to The White Tiger (2008), by Aravind Adiga (on Rushdie, see Pipes 1990). Are these texts offered to readers as realistic descriptions of alien cultures? Or, alternatively, to what extent are they read as true representations, regardless of their genre? The current article approaches this cross-cultural problem by examining the reception of the Finnish novel Parvekejumalat (2010; Balcony Gods), by Anja Snellman.

As one of the first novels written in Finnish to deal with Somali immigration, Parvekejumalat narrates the story of a girl with a Somali background and a Finn who has converted to Islam. In the spring of 2010, several newspaper critiques of Parvekejumalat included a strange and, perhaps, worrying feature. More than one critic seemed to have read this novel, which describes cultural contact zones (Pratt 1992), as a truthful, realistic period piece, revealing aspects of society that had previously gone unnoticed. They read Parvekejumalat as a kind of expose of the taboos of contemporary Finland. As such, the reception of Parvekejumalat seemed to repeat the starting points for many literary conflicts located on the borders of cultures.

This article focuses on this question of a realistic reading of Parvekejumalat. Even if Snellman's novel did not ignite an actual public controversy, by examining its reception, we can better understand why narratives located in cultural crossroads so often evoke strong emotions and determine the role of realistic reading practices in the controversies that follow. The article approaches this question by analyzing two sets of data in the reception of Parvekejumalat. newspaper reviews of the novel and entrance exam answers about the novel produced at the University of Turku. The first part of the article examines nine newspaper and magazine critiques of Parvekejumalat and the inclination of these critics to read the novel as a plausible and realistic story. It focuses particularly on critics' tendency to read and interpret the patriarchal violence of the novel in a larger culturalist frame. The second part of the article analyzes entrance exam results concerning Parvekejumalat, which were produced in the Department of Finnish Literature at the University of Turku. (In the Finnish educational system, access to universities is gained through participation in an entrance exam, for which material must always be read beforehand. In 2011, this material included Snellman's Parvekejumalat.) The second part of the article discusses how the examinees perceived the novel as a depiction of the clash between cultures, and tended to confuse the categories of fact and fiction.

With the aid of these two source categories, reviews and examinations, I will discuss how Parvekejumalat was interpreted in relation to contemporary reality, which many consider to be plagued by a conflict between the values of Islam and Somali culture, on one hand, and Finnish and Western values, on the other. …

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