Saari Alumni Stories: Johanna Sinisalo

Author Johanna Sinisalo is one of the first ever resident guests of the Saari Residence. Her aim is to offer her readers peepholes into other kinds of realities: “I hope my readers stop for a moment to ponder something that seemed self-evident before and view it from a new perspective.”
Johanna Sinisalo, Teos. Kuva: Katja Lösönen

Tampere-based author Johanna Sinisalo worked at the Saari Residence in the spring of 2008 when the residence had just been established.

Sinisalo explains that she examines the foolish actions of the human race by building variations of the world through fiction. “Natural science has always fascinated me but so has everything that is in the fringe area of rational thinking, in the shadowy corners that the light of knowledge has yet to penetrate. That’s why I love to cross the borders of realism in my work,” Sinisalo says.

At the Saari Residence many years ago, Sinisalo was finishing off her novel Linnunaivot (Bird Brain), which was published in the autumn of that year. Linnunaivot is a story about power structures: the varying subordination between humans and nature, a young couple’s civil war and a socially marginalised person’s need to leave his mark on the world. The novel describes what happens when normal everyday is no longer enough and you need extreme experiences to make life meaningful.

Birds play a large role in the book. Sinisalo says that the spring migration of birds during her residency gave her additional inspiration for her work. The Saari Residence is located on the shore of the Mietoistenlahti Bay where numerous flocks of migrating birds stop to rest every spring and autumn. The Mietoistenlahti Bay is considered one of the best places in Finland for bird watching. “I took a walk to clear my head one day and bumped into a group of excited bird watchers who pointed out a bittern to me in the reeds,” Sinisalo says. “The spring migration brought a life-enhancing liveliness to the Mietoistenlahti Bay and reminded me about the positive side of encounters between humans and nature.”

The birds filled the Saari environment with life while the residence was still young and fairly quiet. In the spring of 2008, there were only two other Saari Fellows besides Sinisalo. Some of the apartments were still being renovated and not all the common facilities were finished yet. The group of three residents made their own contribution to the apartments’ equipment: “As the first residents, we were asked for comments on the equipment available in the apartments, because it would obviously be difficult to determine what was needed until someone experienced day-to-day life there. I remember asking for a grater, a chopping board and a small saucepan.”

The peaceful residence provided an excellent environment for writing. “There was no television in the apartment and the Internet wasn’t yet full of entertainment in the form of social media or streaming services, so I focused pretty much just on my work,” Sinisalo remembers. With no external stimuli, she found a natural focus in her work: “My days quickly settled into a rhythm: I got up when it got light and went to bed when it got dark. I worked for 6 to 8 hours a day and always took a run at the end of the day, then cooked myself supper and read until dark.”

Sometimes the guests sat down together to enjoy a glass of wine. Sinisalo explains that often interaction with the other guests started naturally through everyday needs, such as borrowing some ingredient they had run out of or a tool. “My grater was very popular!” the author exclaims.

Ten years after the Linnunaivot book and her residency, Sinisalo’s works still focus on the ever more topical themes of the environment, the relationship between humans and nature, and power structures. She is currently writing a novel about managing the weather and is drafting another text about humans’ relationship with their own biology. With her works, she hopes to offer her readers peepholes into other kinds of realities: “I hope my readers stop for a moment to ponder something that seemed self-evident before and view it from a new perspective. I also want to tell stories that make my readers want to enter into a contract with me where the events and people in my books – even though they’re not very likely – are true for them for a moment.”