Some of “Purge” is so disturbing that when Finnish playwright and novelist Sofi Oksanen read from it at the PEN festival in New York last year, she chose a love scene rather than risk a sleepless night for her audience.
The play, and the novel that came a year later, are set during the occupations of Estonia by Soviets, Nazis and again Soviets, the last ending with the fall of communism in 1991. The operatic plotline most fundamentally concerns sisters Aliide and Ingel, and Ingel’s 7-year-old daughter, Linda, who endured sexual terror at the hands of rural communist thugs in a town hall basement and was left mute with shock. The story begins years later, when Linda’s daughter Zara, a sex-trafficking victim from Russia, shows up unexpectedly at Aliide’s rundown farmhouse in backwoods Estonia. The play unfolds through flashbacks.
While Oksanen is hardly a household name in America, she’s hot stuff in Europe. She has picked up a couple hundred thousand dollars in literary awards since 2003, including, for “Purge,” the prestigious Finlandia and Runeberg prizes, the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize and the 2010 French Prix Femina Etranger award. A French film version of “Purge” is in production, to be released in 2012.
Fans line up for hours at readings and book signings by Oksanen, whose cascade of dark dreadlocks with purple and pink strands falls below her hips. The dramatic look is amplified when she appears in skintight leather, spike heels, clingy halters or petticoat dresses — she’s sometimes called the “Gothic Finn.” A mask of eye makeup and glossy lips can distract from her nearly flawless English and her clear command of French, Swedish and Estonian, her mother’s native language. Part of the rock-star aura comes from her role as a popular columnist and broadcaster in Finland, as well as her public advocacy on behalf of LGBT rights (she identifies herself as bisexual) and her openness about having suffered from an eating disorder.
“I am who I am,” said Oksanen, 34, in telephone interviews from Helsinki and Estonia. “Judge my work, not how I look.”
“Purge” is one of a planned quartet of works that have the all-but-forgotten calamity of the Soviet era in Europe simmering in the background. “Purge” focuses on sexual terror in a political and military context. In her first novel, “Stalin’s Cows” (2003), Oksanen weirdly welds eating disorders to the shame of Baltic women who fled to Finland from Eastern Europe in Soviet times. “Baby Jane” (2005) explores anxiety and violence among lesbian couples in contemporary society.
“I strongly noticed that people my age have no knowledge or information about the Soviet era, no connection,” said Oksanen, who studied literature at the universities of Jyvaskyla and Helsinki, and drama at the Finnish Theatre Academy. “They are not interested in Soviets but are very interested in eating disorders, anxiety, sex trafficking and sex.
“In a way, my work forces remembrance that, like it or not, political discourse affects the life of the world, and we carry that weight for generations,” Oksanen said. “Everyone is scarred by the communists and Nazis — everyone, whether they know or acknowledge it.”
A writer and diarist from an early age — her first work was a Christmas book for her mother when she was 10 — Oksanen said that “Purge” came to her while she studied theater after years of academic research for her literature degrees. The plot, centered on the young girl sexually tortured by the Russians, is a family tale that Oksanen remembers from visits to her Estonian grandmother when the country was still under Soviet occupation.
Turning that outline into drama presented challenges, she said. “The Theater Academy was a totally different kind of world from the university,” she said, with students ranging from 17 years old to retirement age, from aspiring actors to people trying drama on a lark. “Some kids hadn’t gone to high school,” she said. “When I wanted to convey my ideas to the class, I had to do it in a new kind of way. . . . The moment I understood that if I’m not able to convey my ideas the way ordinary people speak, make it . . . understandable to people who don’t have an academic education, then it’s my fault as a playwright.”
It helped, she said, that beyond doing research in libraries and KGB archives for “Purge,” she lives in a red-light district in Helsinki, where sex work is legal. “I have always lived somewhere near the sex trade and have been exploring it as an outsider,” Oksanen said.
Beyond the searing plot, what makes “Purge,” both play and novel, compelling is the language. Verbs seem to breathe and sigh. Details from everyday life are summoned; blowflies, mosquitoes, spiders, worms and mice become poetic and powerful.
With “Purge” translated into 38 languages, and theatrical stagings scheduled in Germany, France, Hungary and the United States this year, Oksanen is hard at work on the final piece of the quartet, which she said will be published in 2012.
“I wish I could tell you more,” she said, “but I don’t know how it ends.”
Lane is a freelance writer.
By Sofi Oksanen. Produced by Scena Theatre; features Kerry Waters, Eric Lucas, Colleen Delany, Irina Koval, Lee Ordeman, Armand Sindoni and Stas Wronka. Through July 3 at H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE. Call 703-683-2824 or visit www.scenatheater.org.