“Literature is the last bastion of monolingualism”

A research group led by Heidi Grönstrand is boldly uniting the work of researchers and artists.

The group comprises comics artist and illustrator Mika Lietzén, author Zinaida Lindén and researchers Ralf Kauranen, Olli Löytty, Kukku Melkas and Julia Tidigs, and Grönstrand. Such intense cooperation between researchers and artists has never been seen before in a research project funded by Kone Foundation. Kone Foundation considers this cooperation to be very valuable.

In everyday speech, in particular, it is normal for literature to be categorised into separate monolingual entities, or into nations that produce literature in one language. “Literature is the last bastion of monolingualism,” says Heidi Grönstrand who is in charge of the Multilingualism in Literature in Modern Finland initiative that has received EUR 405,600 in funding from the Kone Foundation for the years 2014–16.

Even though Finland is officially a bilingual country, and is even more interesting in the respect that the areas in which the different languages are spoken are not geographically as separated as they are in Belgium or Switzerland, there is still a long tradition of two separate monolingual literature entities. This situation harks back to the birth of the nation states when nations wanted to separate themselves from other nations. It was more natural for much older forms of literature, such as Roman or medieval European literature, to contain more than one language.

Grönstrand’s research group is examining multilingual literature: literature in which more than one language is used, and authors who write books in more than one language. In this research, the definition of multilingualism is not based on fluent language skills or bilingualism. This is a pioneering initiative as multilingualism in Finnish literature has never been studied to this extent before.

Grönstrand explains that “an ostensibly monolingual text may contain one word from another language, which is the key to a whole other world”. She uses an example from Sofi Oksanen’s novel Stalinin lehmät (Stalin’s cows). Estonian words are sprinkled over the pages of the novel and the function of these words is to take the reader back to the main character’s past. According to Grönstrand, the autobiographical composition also contains other emotional images which are attached to language: “Language is used to convey feelings of safety and love for children and adults”.

“The use of more than one language in literature is still a taboo”

– Heidi Grönstrand

When Kjell Westö’s novel Drakarna över Helsingfors (Kites over Helsinki) was published in 1996 it received positive reviews, but people were also astonished as the book, which was set in Helsinki in the 1970s and 80s and written in Swedish, contained so much Finnish. “The authors of Finland’s Swedish-language literature have been able to produce purely monolingual texts in the same way as the authors of the Finnish-language literature”.

Nowadays many people who produce texts for a living end up in, or can achieve, a situation in which they are producing texts in more than one language. It is the same for authors. As an example, Grönstrand uses Emmi Itäranta who wrote her novel Memory of Water in English and in Finnish. She uses the term super-diversity, which means that, as a result of globalisation, linguistic and ethnic identities may now be more diverse than those experienced before in any society. The concept is useful when talking about the literature, created as a consequence of migration, which may be linked to the literary traditions of countries located a long way from one another. “What will happen to our understanding of literature when this starts happening more and more?” asks Grönstrand.

This research project is not restricted to verbal literature, as it also deals with comic strips. “The visual nature of comic strips highlights the fact that you can understand and communicate subjects and situations without the need for fluency in the verbal language”, explains Grönstrand.