Monday 23 October 2017

A friend told me, 'you don't think or look Irish so there's not point trying to sound it'

Finnish cartoonist Arja Kajermo came to Ireland in the 1970s as an au pair. Four decades later, the Dublin-based author has drawn on her Nordic childhood for her first novel, a dark and witty story of growing up in post-war Scandinavia, writes Joanne Hayden

Close to home: Kajermo, like her narrator, moved from Finland to Sweden as a child
Close to home: Kajermo, like her narrator, moved from Finland to Sweden as a child

Joanne Hayden

When Arja Kajermo began writing about childhood, she thought she was making notes for a graphic novel. A cartoonist, she was used to thinking visually and at first drew pictures to accompany her story about a girl growing up in post-war Finland. But some way into the process, she stopped drawing, and the notes turned into The Iron Age, her first novel, which will be published by Tramp Press next week.

Dark, witty and deceptively simple, the book is illustrated by Kajermo's niece, Susanna Kajermo Törner.

Its unnamed narrator lives with her family on a small farm. Her brothers ski to school in minus 30 degrees, sometimes having to call into a neighbour halfway so they can rub their hands to prevent frostbite. The coldness of the winters is mirrored by the coldness of key characters. Bitter and violent, the girl's father is traumatised by the war. Her grandmother is harsh, cruel even, her mother softer but overworked. Poverty intensifies the fraught relationships between the adults in the house.

When the girl is six, the family moves to Sweden and she is doubly displaced. Having lost her language, she stops speaking, finding safety in silence.

On the surface there are several similarities between the novel and the early life of Kajermo.

"It's based to some extent on my own experiences," she tells me in the Dublin hotel where we meet, "but I had to add bits to make it a story.

"Even if you wanted to tell the absolute truth about your own childhood, you can't do it because you interpret it differently than other people who were there."

Kajermo moved Stockholm when she was six, after her father found work in a paper mill, but she has lived in Ireland for longer than she lived in Northern Europe, initially coming here in the 1970s as an au pair.

"I must have been mad," she says now.

She found Ireland "charming" and was not affected by the repression of the time - though she was shocked to see children begging on O'Connell Bridge. "We are talking 40 years ago. All the houses were black from soot. It was so dark. People had the same woolly coat all winter; it never dried out. You'd never see any colour. Women would have maybe a green coat - it was called Kelly green. That was the only colour you'd see really."

She began drawing cartoons for In Dublin magazine and illustrated the Irish Women's Diary for the now defunct feminist publishing house Attic Press. Art had always been a central, if secret, part of her life.

"When I started school in Sweden, I didn't know the language and the teacher said, 'you sit there at the back of the class, you can draw.' So I did that a lot. I had a notion that I would like to go to art school but in my family it wasn't really on. It was for slackers. Mentally, it was very hard to break away from your family and say, 'I'll do this thing that you don't like', especially as a young person, so I did it on the sly."

She continues to draw a weekly cartoon strip for the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter and three books of her cartoons have been published in Sweden. The distance makes it "a bit awkward" to come up with material but she gets Swedish television, reads Swedish newspapers and still feels an affinity with the country, where her mother, now 92, still lives.

In Ireland, she's used to being quizzed about her nationality. Because of her accent, she says, people who stop her to ask for directions sometimes walk off before she can finish telling them which way to go. She would have liked to blend in more.

"I went to a speech therapist several times to try and get rid of my accent, until a friend of mine said, 'There's no point. You don't think like an Irish person. You don't even look like an Irish person and there's no point in trying to sound like one'."

Dressed in a loose, black, pocketed dress, Kajermo is softly spoken and self-deprecating - her wit understated, much like her narrator's. Her husband is Irish and she has two grown sons.

"I gave the eldest one a Finnish name, which was a mistake. He would've liked to have been Declan... That was selfish. I tried to tie him to me. So the second one got a Swedish name. It has to be even."

The Iron Age is split between Finland and Sweden, the Finnish section at once strange and strangely familiar. The depictions of poverty, storytelling and a close-knit, patriarchal community are reminiscent of many Irish novels and memoirs. The girl's father is not unlike the fathers in John McGahern's novels or the father in Hugo Hamilton's The Speckled People.

Kajermo's characters are influenced by dreams, myths, and folk and fairy tales. For them, there is a world beyond what is seen and seeable. The illustrations - with striking contrasts of light, shade and shadow - beautifully reflect the novel's themes, foregrounding the emotion inherent in the narrative.

The fallout from World War II looms over the girl's childhood, impacting on her father, her family and her community.

Because Finland had fought against the Russians (referred to as the "Vanyas" in the novel) it was forced to pay reparations to the Soviet Union until the early 1950s. In The Iron Age, the girl says that the shrapnel that had gotten lodged in her father's legs in 1944, "somehow worked its way into his children".

She and her brothers - hardened smokers by age six and seven - are wonderfully memorable characters, as resilient as they are vulnerable. Subject to the vagaries of their father's moods, they develop different methods of resistance; the girl reads obsessively and develops a keen awareness of the inequality between men and women.

In some ways, says Kajermo, she was describing "a fairly normal childhood for that age".

"When I was a child, the children were there for the sake of the parents," she says. "Now it's the other way around. Better for the children."

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