Mehdi Ghasemi surrounded by collage of visual elements
Mehdi Ghasemi wants to challenge the traditional definition of Finnish literature in both his fiction and academic work. Image: Julia Bushueva

DO I KNOW YOU? – “Immigration and globalisation have broadened the definition of Finnish literature,” says Mehdi Ghasemi

For author and postdoctoral researcher Mehdi Ghasemi, improving his Finnish is on top of the to-do list in 2021, along with winning the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Tuomas Koivisto

01.12.2021

There is plenty of great Finnish literature out there. Mika Waltari’s Sinuhe egyptiläinen (The Egyptian) and Tove Jansson’s Tales from Moominvalley and The Summer Book are fine examples of Finnish classics, originally written in Finnish and Swedish but translated to several languages and widely distributed. However, alongside authors writing in state languages, there are a growing number of writers of foreign-origin and multicultural background who have successfully challenged the traditional definition of Finnish literature. 

One of them is Mehdi Ghasemi, an Iranian-born author and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Turku and Tampere University who has been living in Finland since 2011. Now, almost a decade later, Ghasemi has put down roots in Finland and has a portfolio of five published scholarly books, 20 papers in peer-reviewed scholarly journals, four fiction books with a fifth in the pipeline and one edited literary anthology.

Mehdi Ghasemi pictured in front of autumn colours in Tampere.

Mehdi Ghasemi is a prolific author of both academic and fiction work. He has created a completely new literature genre, noveramatry. Image: Mehdi Ghasemi

The anthology he edited and published in late 2019 is a cross-cultural collection of texts titled Opening Boundaries: Toward Finnish Heterolinational Literatures. It demonstrates the emergence and growth of new heterogeneous, multicultural and multilingual literature within the Finnish literary canon. This collection consists of literary outputs in 10 different languages by 24 immigrant authors of 16 different nationalities living in Finland, making it the most comprehensive and inclusive anthology on immigrant authors in Finland ever published. 

What is even more awe inspiring is that some years ago, after defending his PhD in literature at the University of Turku, Ghasemi decided to start writing fiction for a change. As a result, he created a completely new literary genre, noveramatry. Ghasemi’s literary work has been noted at a high level as he received a postcard from President Sauli Niinistö and Mrs. Jenni Haukio over his third fiction book, Finnish Russian Border Blurred: A Noveramatry, in 2019 and an innovation award from Tampere University’s Innovation Services in 2020. 

Now, this voluminous writer wants to open up about his books, recent projects and relationship with Finnish literature.

Picture of Ghasemi's book covers

Ghasemi has published four fiction books with the fifth one in the works. Image: Mehdi Ghasemi

You are best-known for the fiction literary genre you have created, noveramatryHow would you describe it? 

I believe that we are now living in the era of hyperhybridism, wherein new cultures and colours, new genres and genes, and new forms and contents are recreated through remixing different elements, styles, systems and disciplines. Such hyperhybrid creations are seen nowadays in industry, art, architecture, music, etc., enabling us to enjoy several paradigms, colours, flavours, cuisines, styles, systems, etc. all at once. Based on this observation, I created noveramatry, which is a combination of novel, drama and poetry all in one line. In this genre, I mix narrative forms with dramatic and poetic forms in one single work and attempt to make their borderlines less distinct.  

Let me add that it is not only the genre in my books that is hybrid. In fact, different characters, or as I sometimes call them, “correctors”, those who wish to correct, come from different eras and areas, old and modern times, here and there, and share their narratives with readers, and since they belong to different geographical locations and historical times, they use different languages and accents, which enhance lingual and cultural hybridity in the works. 

Aerial picture of Tampere

Ghasemi’s hometown, Tampere, is the third largest city in Finland. Image: Adobe / a_medvedkov

I also mix words and numbers along with dot and slash techniques to make my creative writings different. The use of dot and slash techniques helps me split the words and make several words and connotations out of one word at the same time. To avoid artificiality, sometimes I intentionally use spelling and grammar mistakes in my writings, especially when simulating characters using languages which are not their own mother tongues. While writing, I always ask myself how a character whose native language is not, for example, Finnish would speak or write Finnish without any mistakes?! Then, I try to imagine and simulate the ways a character might speak another language, even though my writing style might be misinterpreted by some readers. 

As a productive and innovative author, what would you want to accomplish? 

The Nobel Prize in Literature! This is also the subject of my fifth fiction book, M.animal and M.other: A Noveramatry. To be honest with you, I would be quite happy with the Finlandia Prize or the Helsingin Sanomat Literature Prize, but since such prizes are not granted to immigrant authors like me, writing in languages other than Finnish, I finally decided to think of the Nobel Prize in Literature.  

Mehdi Ghasemi presenting at a conference

Ghasemi regularly presents his work at conferences in Finland and abroad. Image: Claudia Daems

It is sad that, despite our potential, we as immigrant authors are not included in some Finnish national literary prize contests, mainly because we do not write in Finnish. Even sadder is that, due to the very same reason, we are prevented from joining the Union of Finnish Writers, and accordingly, we are deprived of some rights and benefits that our Finnish counterparts are entitled to. The saddest thing is that this exclusion is recurring in the 21st century in Finland, which has been a forerunner in several great positive changes and advancements in the world, including women’s rights! I always ask myself why no pressing need is felt to change this trend?! 

Besides fiction literature, you have been working on a postdoctoral project with a focus on Finnish literature with aspects of immigration and globalisation. The title of the project being Toward a More Inclusive and Comprehensive Finnish Literature, how could that be achieved?  

Yes, the project studies the works of two groups of authors: Finnish North American authors and immigrant authors in Finland. Their literary works and prospects provide an interesting platform for comparing now, when many people immigrate to Finland, and then, when about 400 000 Finns left their homeland at the turn of the 20th century.  I believe that such a comparative study, with its popular and scholarly programmes, can increase mutual understanding between the immigrants and Finns. I also struggle to introduce all these works under the umbrella of Finnish literature.

Ghasemi does his postdoctoral research both at the University of Turku (pictured) and Tampere University. Image: Hanna Oksanen / University of Turku

Let me say that immigration and globalisation have broadened the definition of Finnish literature, which was traditionally defined as a piece of literature written by a Finn in Finnish in Finland for Finns. As a result of immigration from Finland, Finnish immigrants and their second and third generations have written and continue to write literary works. In line with these writers, some immigrants to Finland have also produced and continue to produce literary works that deal with Finnish culture, society and history.

So I argue that the existence of these groups of authors and their multilingual and multicultural works can challenge the traditional definition of Finnish literature. To this end, I have proposed the term ‘Finnish heterolinational literatures’ to draw attention to the plurality of Finnish literatures and address all literary products, written in or out of Finland by Finns and by immigrant authors in Finland and even by national minority groups, including Swedish Finns and Sami, etc. Accordingly, I call all these authors Finnish heterolinational authors. 

Being an author and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Turku and Tampere University, what keeps you going? 

Hope! Hope is a strong force that keeps me going despite all challenges. The postdoctoral research phase is, in fact, a transition period in the life of researchers, and for those in the humanities, especially those with immigration background, it is much harder. Hopefully, diligence and hope will help us pass through this transition period.  

Ghasemi standing in falling snow in 2011.

Snowy weather greeted Ghasemi when he first arrived in Finland in January 2011. Image: Mehdi Ghasemi

Do you have a favourite Finnish word? Why?  

Based on this argument, I can say that, like many Finns, sisu is one of my favourite words. 

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