Heroines

«Who inspires you in your work?» 

This is a question I get every now and then. My answers may vary depending on the context, but there are two people I always mention: Tove Jansson and my grandmother. 

These two are connected, in a way. It was my grandmother that introduced me to Tove Jansson. She owned all her books, and when I picked up my first Moomin story, I was hooked. As I got older, I turned to Tove Jansson’s short stories and non- Moomin novels (Jansson was much more than the creator of the Moomins!), and of course lots of other books. Sigrid Undset. José Saramago. Virginia Woolf. Albert Camus. Selma Lagerlöf. My grandmother’s bookshelves were packed.

But back to the Tove Jansson: I’ve always seen similarities between my grandmother and some of the Moomin characters. Like Snufkin, she craved time alone. Like Moominpappa, she loved the sea and stormy weather. Like Little My, she was fiercly independent and had a hot temper. Like the Moomintroll, she was a dreamer. Like Moominmamma, she would collect pretty rocks, seashells and driftwood. Like the Snork, she had a love for learning. And like the whole Moomin family, she had a heart for people who were vulnerable and lost, or maybe just eccentric and different.  

This is where I see some similarities between my grandmother and Tove Jansson herself. In all her books, Tove Jansson shows both love and sympathy for wandering souls, free-spirits and norm-breakers, and this is also a reflection of the life she lead. She was politically radical, had a keen eye for injustices, and worked hard to free herself from the constraints of traditional womanhood. She was a queer woman (back when homosexuality was illegal in Finland), and although she never addressed it publicly, she dealt with it in her books and in her art. The fact that she herself was a norm-breaker must have contributed to the sensitivity and tolerance that she displays in her work. Tove Jansson was ahead of her time. 

My grandmother lead a more traditional life than Jansson, but she, too, was ahead of her time. All her life, she was conscious of social matters and equality issues, and she was probably a bit different from a lot of other women of her generation. She was always a strong supporter of women’s rights, and would go on to supporting the rights of LGBTQ people. She was never someone who had to be convinced to “get with the times”! I never had to tiptoe around any issues, or think: “Well, she’s from a different generation, I can’t expect her to understand.” She did understand, and she always tried to learn more.

It probably shines through that I am immensely proud of my grandmother. She has been on my mind a lot these last few weeks, as she recently passed away. A few weeks before she died, I went to the arctic island of Svalbard, where she spent two years with her family. My grandfather worked as a doctor in Longyearbyen in the mid 1950s, and when I was there in June this year, I went to see the old hospital. I looked up at the window on the top floor where the family flat used to be, and pictured my grandmother looking out. I also pictured her skiing across the Longyear Glacier or across the frozen Advent Fjord – carrying a gun in case of polar bears. And I pictured her gut punching the governor of Svalbard, which she did when he tried to be funny one dark winter night and said BOO! right behind her!  

A few years ago, when I told my grandmother that I had taken up martial arts, she was very pleased, and said that it was important for women to know how to fight. Then she proudly repeated the story about the governor. I wish my grandmother had been able to read Lopsided, which builds partly on my experiences with martial arts. By the time it was published, her eyesight was more or less gone. But she was able to read parts of my first novel, The Leap, which revolves around one of her other passions besides literature: Dance. And we talked about my writing, about books I was reading, and about books she had read and still remembered. We would always return to Tove Jansson at some point. 

The last time I saw my grandmother, I told her that she was one of my great heroines in life, next to Tove Jansson. She was drifting in and out of sleep at this point, and I don’t know if she heard me. I pictured her hibernating, like the Moomintroll in winter, dreaming of spring.