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International Children’s Literature Residency

Residencies for three writers supported by Helsinki International Artist Programme (HIAP), one of the largest international residency centres in Finland and the only one operating in the capital. HIAP focuses primarily on the Visual Arts but is open to artists and curators from other disciplines. In collaboration with local and international partner organizations, HIAP residencies are offered to professionals in other creative fields, including Literature.

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enough of cinammon buns and coffees in the sun. My chief raison d’etre, after all, was to write and to explore Finland’s children’s literary scene.

My findings? Many written books, not so many oral stories.

In terms of book publishing this side of the Baltic there is a refreshing state of health here, with vibrant bookshops and many books being brought out every year for children – even with the tax slapped on them and the resulting expensive price – Finns still buy books for their kids. There is also a courageous publishing scene here with no subject being off limits for the young Finn. I visited two of the largest publishing houses and it was heartening to hear people being really positive about their work and the industry in general. No tidings of doom and gloom.

I have been researching Finnish myths and have made a start in writing a novel for young people, where I aim to fuse Scotland and Finland, aiming in this to bring the two countries together with myth, magic and a dose of contemporary realism in the mix. This research has taken me into tents, archives and schools, seeking stories. I was permitted into a most sacred room in the literary archives, housing leather bound hand written books – each one unique and each one faithfully setting down in beautiful handwriting the old songs and stories collected from the countryside over 100 years ago. These stories, I felt, needed to be breathed life into once more by storytellers and told – in schools, community centres, libraries, parks, tents… And I think this storytelling revival will happen. Finland seems to be at the beginning of a storytelling revival and i wish it luck.

At the end of the kalevala Vainamoinen, the old rune singer and wise mythic father of Finland, says

let time pass and journey onward

one day go and come another

once again I will be needed

you will look for me and want me

for a bringer of new Sampo

for a singer of new music

for a giver of new moonlight

a new sun to shine upon you

when there is no moon or sunlight

there is also no rejoicing….

Written by Janis Mackay

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Thought it might be good, to give a Finnish glimmer, images that make an impression, that touch me. Been on this island for three weeks now. Every day is lighter. Now it is hardly dark. I thought having lived in Caithness for five years I knew what this seasonal huge outbreathing was like, but this is even more extreme, such a strong experience of light and of a people rejoicing in it, having known its opposite. Even at midnight light still seeps in through the gaps in my blinds. And often it is blue skies.

Then let me take you on a guided whirl around Helsinki. Jump off the ferry and wander round the market stalls on Kaupatorri (market square). Buy a punnet of berries, or fish, or Lapland souvenirs, then stare at the statue of a woman in the fountain. We’ll go up the wide Esplanade, where the tulips are coming out and the daffodils begin to fade. Where many a weather beaten twinkling eyed Romany sets down their cap and picks up their accordion, where cafes spill tables onto pavements and – despite it being apparently against the law, an awfy lot of young folks have cans of beer in their hands whilst lounging aboot in the park, and further along we go to Stockmanns – what Jenners once was to Edinburgh – the grand old fancy everything department store, and more shops with clothes you could get half the price in Edinburgh, but nice to look at, and thankfully big and thriving bookshops, then we could wander along the main street called Mannerheiminte and take in the big buildings like government and art and museum kind of area. Near here is Occupy Helsinki. Only a handful at tents at present. Then let’s take a tram and go way far and find ourselves in Lenin park. There’s a tent, an army tent but it’s full of storytellers, or at any rate, lots of peaceful lovely young folks come to listen to stories.

Judith Black, and American storyteller, and myself, did our stuff in Helsinki last week – twice – and was well received. The art of sharing traditional stories from the oral lore isn’t much done here, and yours truly shared the spirit of the ceilidh and had Lenin park singing – rest for a while now, the night is young, time is short and the road is long, tell me a story, I’ll sing you a song, for tomorrow the road will be calling us on…

A busy meeting people time. Met publishers, and school teachers. Was shown round a big book publishing house. Can you believe – a country with only 5 million inhabitants brings out over 100 new children’s titles each year (and that is just one publishing house – there are several others).

and other fleeting impressions – rye bread, old trams, screaming gulls, cobbles on the island, cardamon and cinammon buns, a beautiful language, tall strong imposing yet brightly coloured buildings, people eating ice cream in the cold, sauna, huge ferries sailing to Tallinn and Stockholm, the almost impossiblity of purchasing a bottle of wine, being invited into a family home, talking books with the children, paddling in the warm shallow Baltic, tall pine trees, salty liquorice…and light….

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Written by Janis Mackay

I met with Linna from the finnish International Literature Institute. We had an interesting discussion, over herb tea in a rather funky little Helsinki cafe. WE spoke about stories and self esteem. Finland has its national epic – The Kalevala. What’s your Scottish epic story, she asked. I didn’t know. Adam and Eve?

The Kalevala is interesting on lots of levels – not least of all because it is fairly new as far as creation myths go, and was in itself created. A folklorist, Elias Lonnron, went round collecting folk tales from many regions in Finland – which wasn’t politically Finland until 1918. Even the languages were different. He gathered these tales 150 years ago, shaped them into a narrative, added bits and gave Finland a story – the Kalevala. And with it a unifiying language. And in the story Finland had a wise creator – Vianamoinen. they had heroes and stories to tell their children, of how Finland was created, and saved, and it spoke to their hearts and minds. Elias did a good job. Finland has a creation myth and every child learns parts of the Kalevala. And tis said that with the Sampo (a kind of grail) Finland will prosper. On many levels Finland has prospered.

which got me thinking, where in Scotland is our Sampo? The tales that are the legacy of the Scottish travellers? The many ballads we have? The many songs? Do we need a creation myth? Would it help our self esteem – already, mythinks, eroded somewhat over 300 years by the you-know-what – union! Or have we, or most of us, bought into the big bang story and anything else, on a more imaginative level, might be seen as trite?

I don’t know, but certainly it is eye opening to wander in a country, strong with their story. Here in the photo is a couple of shady characters from the Kalavala, sculpted on a building in central Helsinki.

But then, my remit is children’s literature. Aye, what of that? It’s fairly healthy. In Finland, even babies have stories read to them and everyone born in Finland receives their first book as a gift from the Finnish government. Another element to children’s books are its risky subjects. No subjects, it seems, are off limits for children’s books. Where we by the north sea seem well able to throw all kinds of subjects into YA books (young adult) we are more conservative when it comes to younger ones. I liked the introduction for a children’s book called – girl under the jackdaw tree.

‘Literature children are not satisfied with just the laughs that stories provide. They also know how to seek out emotions in stories; they can understand the image of mankind created by the author and can appreciate the author’s narrativer style and the structure of the text. They enjoy literature and are capable of finding the spirit of the book in addition to the story. True children’s literature belongs to all age groups; it is for all romanic spirits and lost souls.’

On an unbookish note, didn’t make it over to Tallinn because it was too windy! And speaking of wind, today seemed to be Finland’s kite flying day.

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Written by Janis Mackay

Second week begins on this small strange island where my windows were built two hundreds years ago to shoot an arrow out and avoid any fired in, where when I run – yes run! in the morning.

I run over bomb shelters, whizz past canons, give a passing nod to prison cells and bunkers and here I am, spending a month in the barracks. Not what you might imagine floats a writers boat, but then again why not? I am learning to draw it out from within, rather than gather like a butterfly or bee honey and nectar from what I see around me. Like the Finns, not that they are unfriendly, but they dont – say in walking down a path with no-one else in sight, say hello! Not like us jolly Scots doffing our cap at all and sundry, and the further north in Scotland you go the more that hello expands into whole sentences, into the hullo and how are you the day?

So quiet here, leaves not yet on the trees, and yes – the air; the chilled air. I picture it – breathing across the globe and taking up whatever it glides over, which in this case feels like the ice of Siberia. So although the sky is blue, the sun is shining, my God it’s cold. Which got me thinking gulf stream. In Scotland generally a blue sky and sunshine, even in shy February, would generally bring with it a smidgum of warmth. The things we think about!

Travel broadens the mind, does it not? On a more serious note, I think Scotland’s national museum in chamber street is streets ahead, towns, cities ahead. It’s wonderful. I confess I found the national museum of Finland, at eight quid to get in, rather small and not, I suppose, what being brought up on regular visits to chamber street, prepared me for.

But the news worth reporting is the May day celebrations. They began a few days before the first of May. Hoards of students, in what looks like paramedic overalls, taking to the strees and swaying glasses in the air. Then, on the Ist of May itself a Finnish friend showed me Vappu. We wandered the streets. We drank champagne. We even saw Morris dancers in the park. And thousands of Fins, all in the white student caps, picniced and partied. It has been a long and dark and cold winter. I know – I said that before, but it’s true. Spring is coming. And my novel is nearly done!!!

And a parting note. My dear Finnish friend told me (after I moaned about folks here not saying hello when they pass you on a moutain path!!) that in times past, if you went to visit someone in their house, you would enter quietly (presumably no locked doors) and sit down in the corner, not announcing yourself and neither being greeted. You would, as guest, listen, sit in silence and gradually be welcomed warmly into the company. There is something about that, some humble, let me not blunder in but intuit what mood is already here, that I think is wonderful. defintely not – it’s me! I’m here! Some much quieter, sensitve spirit. Like a warm hush. xx

Written by Janis Mackay

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arrived on this unique fortress island two days ago, to blue sky, sunshine, cold chilly wind. got down to writing – cox the month I am sure will fly by. Two days in and at this rate i may well be giving Enid Blyton a nod – she of the 800 books fame!

And to stretch the legs, breathe the air, the Finnish island air, I wander. The place is a – buzz with slow wanderers, and very hip looking artistes. In Joseph Beuysian style one girl walks across a bridge. she takes one step a minute. I circle the island and return. she is still crossing the bridge. she is dressed in white from head to foot. she trails white balloons and white rags. She looks straight ahead and not at the bemused faces or the people pointing cameras at her. Aha, methinks. persephone awakes and by crossing the bridge she is crossing from winter to spring. She was brave, i thought. Edinburgh, for all its fringe and festival, lacks this art for the sake of it. She wasn’t shaking any hat for us to throw coins in. not that art shouldn’t be paid, hey! But that’s another story.

then later, on another walk in between writing, I come upon a very arty crowd surrounding a serious looking man pulling a large block of ice. he dragged it. he wrestled with it. he strapped himself to it and heaved it round a field. then – he set it alight. Another rite of Spring. Fire and ice. There is a 1st of May buzz in the air.

it has been a long cold winter. the light is returning.

Written by Janis Mackay

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Over the past four weeks the sea ice has melted, the snow has come and gone and a hovercraft operating the Helsinki-Tallinn route has appeared in the harbour, which is a sure sign of spring. I hardly dared climb the ramparts when I arrived because the ice was treacherous and I didn’t feel like taking an accidental swim. But now one can jog along the path and wave to the giant ferries that dwarf this island as they pass close by into the Gulf of Finland.

More of Suomenlinna’s secrets have been revealed since the snow receded. There are further underground passageways and tunnels, more fortified doors in the bases of hills. The odd atmosphere of these dark holes and locked doors has only intensified now that they are easier to see, and there a few places I have felt slightly uncomfortable with. But there are also more tourists roaming around now that spring is here, so it’s less usual to find oneself alone at the bastions.

Walking this island has been a tonic while I’ve been writing intensively. Even just twenty minutes of exposure to sub-zero wind chill knocks any lethargy or self-pity right out of my head. I can’t say I’ve worked out any plot issues or had any great brainstorms while out tramping by the nineteenth-century Russian cannons, but this place has seeped into my manuscript nonetheless. Suddenly a character decided to go to the Baltic Sea and encountered sea ice. It works and I seldom contradict my characters.

The place for my best ‘Aha!’ moments has been the Suomenlinna ferry. That fifteen minute journey to Helsinki instantly seemed to sort out writing problems and was key to planning my last two events in Helsinki. After three weeks of meeting Finnish and Estonian literature contacts, visiting publishing houses and libraries and attending HIAP contemporary art events, it was my turn to perform for my hosts. On Wednesday I spoke to two classes of eleven to thirteen-year-olds at a Helsinki bilingual school. I had had little idea of what to expect on my first school talk outside the UK and US, but was impressed with the high level of English the children spoke. I was also struck by their politeness and their eagerness to do the drawing activity I invited them to do.

The morning was very successful and I was ready to move onto the last event of my time here, a public  “Peer-to-Peer” talk at the Cable Gallery with two other HIAP residents. Sarah Ritter is a French photographer who has been working here towards a future Helsinki exhibition and Kosei Sakamoto is a Japanese choreographer has been overseeing a Finnish production of his piece, “Ash Is Falling”. This event was unusual for HIAP in that the three participants have such distinctly different practices and because I am the first writing resident there has been.

I put together my talk over the past week, having decided it would be an opportunity to create a fresh overview of my own work and the themes I have been exploring, as well as to think about what my HIAP residency has taught me. I enjoyed the process more than I thought I would. Perhaps the month away gave me some special thinking time about my own progress as an artist/writer. One of the interesting things about the event was how the audience found threads and commonalities between my, Sarah and Kosei’s work. They helped me think about my own practice in a new way and to feel linked into the larger community of creators.

On the way home from the event that night, I watched the Suomenlinna church from the Helsinki shore. The church steeple is also a lighthouse, beaming all night for sea and air traffic. I watched the beacon all the way back on the ferry and stopped to photograph it as I walked home. I felt how much this island has become one of my creative homes, a place I will want to return to not just because of its tranquillity and raw beauty but because I am now part of its artistic family.

Written by Teresa Flavin

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Suomenlinna continued its slow dance with spring last week. One day it would snow and the next it would melt, finally culminating in a (mostly) glorious Easter weekend. The islands got a bit busier with visitors and local children participated in a particularly Finnish Easter tradition, which I blogged about here (along with a detailed history of this sea fortress).

On Monday the 2nd, I had the pleasure of being a special guest at IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) Finland’s International Children’s Book Day event at the Finnish Children’s Bookshop. A year ago, Finnish children began a story in English and sent it round the world so that children in other countries could add to it. The story finished its journey on Monday and I was honoured to read the whole thing aloud in English for younger and older English-speaking children. It was a nice atmosphere, the kids were great and I felt lucky to have been here at just the right time.

I had several interesting meetings with Finnish literature professionals from Tammi Books, the Finnish Literature Exchange and Pasila Library, Helsinki’s main library. I have come away from all these meetings with a sense of the Finns’ deep respect for reading, their willingness to support bookshops, their pride in their unique language and how, despite the complexities of translation, many Finnish children’s books find a place in other countries because the stories are so strong. I was impressed to learn of Finland’s support for libraries, especially in encouraging young children to be active users, and of how literate this nation is. Finns are “among the best readers in the world“.

One of the most engaging introductions to current Finnish children’s literature and its cultural context is this online document produced by the Finnish Literature Exchange. It gave me a good overview of the publishing scene and during my stay I have become more familiar with all these books, their authors, illustrators and publishers.

My own writing rumbles on at a pace I am happy with. The Easter holidays were observed in Finland as a full four day holiday weekend with shops closed on Friday, Sunday and Monday. This meant several quiet writing days for me, with breaks to run around in the sun on the now nearly snow-free ramparts. I was joined there by crowds of families visiting the islands and braving the sub-zero wind chill. Many of the secret underground passages and doorways are now free to explore since the snow has left and I noticed that some patches of ground actually looked greenish, rather than dead brown. Has spring finally come to Suomenlinna? I have just under a week to find out.

For more photos of the places I have seen in Helsinki and Tallinn, click here!

Written by Teresa Flavin

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There are signs of spring this week, as the island goes through its freeze/thaw cycle. On Monday local people began to appear with rakes, gathering up the gravel that had coated frozen pavements and roads. There were curious “dances” performed by facing pairs of tractor-like machines: one would move the gravel forwards using rolling brushes and the other would scoop it up. By Friday, the now ice-free paths were as pristine as if there had never been winter. But of course, the cold is still with us. As I write it is -10 degrees and my visit to the island’s western ramparts to watch the sunset was kept to a very brief ten minutes. However, a few crocus have appeared and I watched a hare cavorting in the brush as the sun went down.

Things also moved forwards this week in terms of making contacts and meeting a variety of Finnish and international writers and artists. On my blog, I wrote about visiting the beautiful Villa Kivi, which houses writers’ workspaces and the Finnish Reading Centre, meeting well-known author Eppu Nuotio and Arts Council Literature Officer Päivi Haanpää to compare notes on writers’ practices here and in Scotland, and checking out the Finnish Children’s Bookshop, an independent bookstore that is already thriving despite being only a few months old.

I took a day trip to Tallinn in Estonia (see photo at top), having been advised that it is a stunningly beautiful medieval town (which it is) as well as a hotbed of artists and makers. I had also made contact with the Estonian Children’s Literature Centre and was able to tour their equally stunning centre, which featured numerous high quality illustration exhibitions as well as a detailed history of Estonian children’s publishing. Tallinn hooked me immediately and I came back thoroughly inspired.

I also attended an exhibition opening by former HIAP residents at the spectacular Cable Factory, a huge disused plant that was occupied by artists and eventually given over to artistic, cultural and educational uses by local city government. One of the most interesting places I saw was Arkki, a school of architecture for children and youth. It was a hive of activity, with children building objects and structures in a very relaxed but exciting venue.

Three HIAP residents from Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania completed their time on Suomenlinna this week and we gathered at the XL gallery space in central Helsinki for their ‘peer to peer’ presentations. Even though I have only been here for two weeks and had just a bit of contact with them over that time, it was bittersweet to say goodbye. Perhaps this is just the by-product of working intensely in a somewhat isolated place, with neighbours who are doing the same.

My own work progresses. I write whenever I can, from early in the morning to late at night, depending upon how much time I have been away from it during the day. As I had hoped when I arrived, my forays into town bring fresh air and inspiration for writing on Suomenlinna days. I welcome the quiet, concentrated time on the island but look forward to the next influx of energy from my Helsinki explorations.

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Written by Teresa Flavin

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I arrived with a mission to complete. This is the broad sweep of it: go to Helsinki; live for a month on an island sea fortress in a studio complex for international artists; meet with children’s book writers, publishers, advocates as well as teachers and librarians to learn about the Finnish literature scene; complete a large chunk of my Work In Progress, the final book in my historical fantasy trilogy.

When you stand on the brink of an adventure, especially one that has several important strands to tend over four weeks, it’s easy to get a little nervous. Will my contacts have time to meet me? How will I make sure I get my own writing done when there are fascinating things to see and learn? Helsinki is World Design Capitol 2012 and the city is bursting with events that interest me.

I decided to try setting my first week up so there would be a creative flow and rhythm, knowing that in an unfamiliar place everything I planned was subject to change. This meant, roughly, a couple of days of exploration and orientation, then down to writing. A few days of working in isolation would stoke the desire for more exploration and inspiration, while giving my contacts time to return my emails.

My first day in Helsinki set the tone for what has come since. The gripping fifteen minute ferry trip to the mainland, cutting through sea ice in freezing temperatures, inspired a fascination with Suomenlinna’s slow dance into spring and the comings and goings of snow and ships. A chance meeting with two fellow HIAP artists took me to the Tourist Office where I happened to pick up a leaflet about the first ever Children’s Book Cafe at Annantalo Arts Centre and decided to make it my first port of call.

The first thing I saw at Annantalo was an installation about reindeer herding by the Sami people. Again, I was struck by the relationship of people with the land, animals and yes, snow. The wonderful Children’s Book Cafe happened to have an exhibition of children’s books published by Tammi Publishing, one of Finland’s largest children’s publishers. I went next to the Academic Bookstore, a large and busy shop connected to Stockmann department store. I have written up the serendipitous story of how I came to meet children’s author Esko-Pekka Tiitinen there on my blog, which you can read here.

I brought home a copy of The Kalevala, Finland’s great national epic with prehistoric roots. The stories were collected and published in the 19th century by Elias Lonnrot and became hugely important for the Finnish independence movement. I have been reading it with enjoyment and am beginning to get an insight into the Finns’ relationship with the earth, the seasons and each other.

Day two brought snow to Suomenlinna and I explored the island in this blog post. Over the subsequent few days, as I got down to writing, my break time was spent wandering over the hills, ramparts and bastions, investigating tunnels and stumbling upon a 1930′s submarine. This island has been bombarded, defended, invaded, has housed prisoners of war and now, become a place where artists and artisans work. On Friday evening I attended a HIAP’s New Art Contact event in Gallery Augusta, a 19th century barracks building converted into an airy three room space. A friendly and receptive international crowd watched and participated in performances by artists from Sweden, Finland, Switzerland and Germany.

I visited the Association of Finnish Illustrators in Helsinki and saw an exhibition of Janne Harju‘s work. I found out that I’ll still be here when the Design Museum hosts an illustration festival in mid-April and left with illustration magazines and other info, some of it pictured here. Speaking of the Design Museum, I was impressed with its current show, Designworld: Designing the New World, on sustainable design using recycled materials and its permanent collection on the history of Finnish design, which you can learn about here. Highlights: lamps made from gold-plated rifles and huggable atomic bomb soft toys.

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There were so many things that just ‘clicked’ during my first week in Helsinki. Some of it was down to luck and some was down to the help of the very friendly people at HIAP and acquaintances I have made. And what of all my contacts? I have several appointments beautifully arranged for the coming week and more for the week after. And the Work In Progress? Fine, thank you, and growing by the day. Suomenlinna’s quiet is perfect for concentration.

I also learned a few key phrases in Finnish this past week. The Finns are multi-lingual and speak good English but I believe it’s polite to try and speak Finnish. I’ve got the basics: hello, goodbye, thank you, pardon, do you speak English? Yesterday I conquered “I don’t understand”. Finnish is a great language to curl your tongue around!

I’ll end with a note on my weather obsession. Helsinki swings between sun and snow, doing a backwards and forwards dance. Just as the mud and grass are revealed, a new coating of snow appears. Just as the sea ice vanishes from the water, it’s back the next day (though I have been reliably informed that it’s about to vanish until next winter). As I write this, Scotland is enjoying a spell of lovely spring weather, but I don’t mind. I like watching the ebb and flow here, knowing that one day, hopefully before I leave, Suomenlinna will enjoy its first flowering.

You can follow my personal blog here or my Facebook author page here.

Written by Teresa Flavin