From cold, post-war Finland to sunny Australia: Maria Takolander talks writing habits, obsessions and the land of her roots

Sandra Partanen
Posted on October 08, 2018, 3:07 pm
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Born and raised in Australia by Finnish parents, a lot of Maria Takolander’s writing reflects the hardships of the post-war Finland that has been passed down to her; heritage and history is the focal point.

Takolander’s writing settles a specific feeling into the reader: the feeling of the universe stretching backward and forward, lending you its eyes, one text at a time. It leaves you with a sense of having the secrets of the world whispered into your ear. She provides a kaleidoscope of perspectives as she inhabits the viewpoint of a wide range of diverse characters; anyone from Joseph Stalin or a war-ravaged veteran, to children or expecting mothers. Her writing is dark, sometimes strange, and endlessly captivating. She is the author of several collections, Ghostly Subjects (2009), The Double and Other Stories (2013) and The End of the World (2014) being a few. In addition to being a writer, Takolander is also a mother, a scholar and an educator.

Upon contacting her, I expected a mysterious and gloomy, vague sort of author — but that vision was soon diminished. Takolander greets me warmly and enthusiastically, her bright and kind personality a stark contrast to her dark writing.

You have quite the CV in regards to publications; do you remember what it felt like when you got published for the first time?

I used to be very shy—morbidly shy—and very frightened of sharing my work. I was in my early 30s when my first poem was published. I can remember feeling very pleased about it, but the overwhelming memory is of the trauma of sharing the poem in the first instance! I have learned to cope with that anxiety in part by continuing to write and publish new work, and in a variety of genres, so that I am always escaping how I have publicly revealed myself. I like to think of the writer as a snake, discarding her skin when she publishes something and then disappearing into the grass to begin again.

You write in a lot of different voices and from a lot of different points of views, both in your poetry and your short stories. What type of research and/or preparations do you conduct to produce these texts? How do you inhabit the position of past leaders, of traumatized, alcoholic men of war, of a child witnessing abuse, or even just entering the world?

I am constantly reading, and reading is an experience of inhabiting the mind and world of someone else. That was what attracted me to literature in the first place: the potential for escaping the prison of the self. Thus my writing is simply an extension of my reading. If you are prepared to surrender who you are, and prepared to really explore your range of feeling, you will be shocked by what you can imagine and the kind of people you can become, whether that’s Joseph Stalin, Sigmund Freud, Madame Tussaud or a medieval woman being persecuted for witchcraft (as per some of the poems in The End of the World.)

A lot of your writing, especially your poetry, often takes on a surreal or mystical tone. Is this something you work actively with, or something that comes as a result of your subject matter and style?

This proposition has been put to me twice now, and both times I have been surprised by it. I am now beginning to think that, despite my embrace of atheism as an adult, my Lutheran upbringing has profoundly influenced me. Growing up, feelings like fear and anger and wonder always had a supernatural edge. In my imaginative world, it appears that they still do.

Both The End of the World and The Double covers a lot of ground. How do you work with these collections? Do you know that you are going to write a collection and then set out to write on that theme, or do you continuously write, and then realize that a group of texts could turn into a collection?

I am a very obsessive person. When I find myself hooked on an idea, I obsessively think through it via different written approaches, until I feel exhausted by it. That work then provides the material for a collection of poems or short stories, or at least a part of a collection. This way of writing probably gives my work a coherence that is not entirely intentional. Those obsessions arise organically. For instance, The End of the World has a section on childbirth, which I felt I needed to explore following the birth of my son and my defamiliarising transformation into a mother.

Writers sometimes claim that their material ”comes to them”; in a dream, from a face on the train, a voice on the radio. Does your writing usually ”come to you”, or do you have to go find it more often than not?

I tend to find my inspiration reading and writing; that is, working with the materials of my art form and being open to what they might reveal to me. I wish I could get a free pass every now and then! My son’s name came to me in a dream, but generally dreams only give me a sense of the inexorable strangeness of human beings. I suppose that informs my writing.

Do you have any writing rituals and/or preferred places to write? Any tips and tricks for other writers our there?

I like to be alone at home. I don’t understand café writers. For me, writing in public would mean writing politely or self-consciously, aware of how you might look to others, perhaps reluctant to be transgressive or ugly in your thinking and imagining in case, as in the portrait of Dorian Gray, your mind becomes visible.

Do you sometimes feel like you owe something to the people and history you write about?

Perhaps I owe them my full attention, but that is only because I have an obligation to my writing.

Do you have any texts that were harder than others to write? If so, why?

Poetry and fiction are always harder to write than scholarly works, and that is because scholarly writing is usually about demonstrating authority through ratiocination and simplification. There’s much more going on than that in poetry and fiction, which are driven by an understanding of how mood and ineffable complexity are the truths of human experience.

What text of your own are you the most proud of?

I am pretty happy with some of the stories in The Double; at least I was shortly after I had written them. I haven’t and won’t read them again.

Why won’t you read your stories again?

Simply because I’m not interested in who I was then or what I was writing. I’d much rather read someone else!

You are of Finnish heritage, and as a fellow Nordic person, I’m curious as to when you started writing about Finland, and why? What prompted you?

I was smuggled into Australia in utero! I may have been born in Melbourne, but I was brought up in the cultural traditions of my Finnish parents and the Finnish diasporic community here. Finnish was my first language, and I attended a Finnish Lutheran church on Sundays. The only thing missing was my homeland. That sense of being displaced, those feelings of loss and intrigue and longing, have always been rich fodder for creative imaginations.

If someone who knew nothing about Finland read your poetry, their impression may be a little dark. What comes to mind when you think of Finland right now – does it reflect the Finland we see in your poems, or does it look different to you?

The Finland I grew up with was the Finland of my parents’ childhoods. They were in their early 20s when they migrated to Australia, and what I mostly heard were stories about Finland after the war. This time of hardship, marked by an unspoken generational and intergenerational trauma, was what they remembered most powerfully. Thus it came to infect my imagination. Diasporic communities often represent a kind of time capsule of their homes at a particular point in time prior to migration. My parents gave me a time capsule of Finland after the war.

Looking at Finland now, it seems like a kind of utopia, where education, social equality and the natural world are valued. Australia could learn a lot from this model of society. Our current prime minister is known for brandishing a lump of coal, as if it was some kind of talisman, and for ‘stopping the boats’ of asylum seekers, who are still imprisoned on islands far away from the mainland.

You teach at Deakin University alongside your writing. Do you think your teaching and your writing feed into each other in any way?

Teaching is a wonderful complement to writing, because it provides the opportunity to learn as much as teach. It also means that I basically live, full-time, in the space of writing and literature, which is a rich space of thought and feeling.

Are you working on anything at the moment that you can tell me about?

I have just finished a new collection of poems called Trigger Warning. I am also trying to finish a novel, The Night Owns Everything, for Text Publishing in Melbourne.

Maria Takolander recommends:

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk
Oneiron by Laura Lindstedt
Outline trilogy by Rachel Cusk

These are stunning works of literature. These books expand, in different ways, the boundaries of the conventional novel. They also combine the elegiac or profound with the absurd or comic in ways I perhaps respond to best. Tonal complexity is the source of such an elusive energy.

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