The fifth chapter of Hanna Pylväinen’s debut novel, We Sinners, begins with the sentence, “Nels went to a party.” The sentence would feel innocuous were it not for the fact that Nels is one of the nine Rovaniemi children, a family that belongs to a small and fundamentalist Finnish sect of Lutheranism. The adherents are not allowed to dance, to watch TV, to drink. Five chapters into their lives, Nels’ attendance at a forbidden college party carries tremendous weight.
Pylväinen has done what so few writers on religion have done: she treats her characters with such compassion and care that a liberal audience understands quite quickly that their strange fundamentalist faith isn’t their story — they are not a sideshow act — but rather, the way in which their belief weighs upon their lives and their relationships has something to say about the way in which we all relate to our upbringing, to our family, to our own religious inheritance.
Pylväinen was recently awarded a Whiting Writer’s Award, and she is currently working on her second novel. We corresponded via email about religion in contemporary fiction, New Atheism, moving between fiction and nonfiction, and losing faith.
Nika Knight: At one point, Tiina’s boyfriend tells her, “You know, the best thing about the church is your family, and the worst thing about your family is the church.” Can you talk a little bit about this quote? How are faith and family connected for you?
Hanna Pylväinen: Most of us still learn faith from our families — less so than in the past, of course — but still, the dynamic remains. For some families, the relationship between family and faith can be inseparable, especially when the faith dictates that the choices of a family revolve around their beliefs. When Matthew says this particular truism to Tiina, he is trying, I think, to show her that some separation does — or can — exist, and to speak to the idea of the influence of the church on her own understanding of family. For Tiina, her family cannot exist intact unless everyone remains within the church, and this is perhaps the largest underlying tension of the book — can they, in fact, remain intact? How much is really lost? How much love can remain?
The faith your characters adhere to, Laestadianism, is a fairly small religious sect that I don’t think many readers will have heard of before reading the book. It’s also the faith that you yourself grew up in. Were you worried about representing the community truthfully to outsiders? Did you make any concessions or avoid any hard truths, or did you try to be fairly objective in your representation?
We Sinners is not a memoir, nor a biography, nor an ethnography study; it is fiction. If it portrays anything accurately, it is my own psychology. I tried, in fact, as much as possible, to write We Sinners without feeling an obligation to convey, first and foremost, accuracy. My own contract of conscience in writing was that the characters and dilemmas were possible.
While Laestadianism might not be well-known, I think losing a faith or leaving a church (which several of your characters struggle with) is something that many people can relate to. Is there something universal about that experience? How have readers who have gone through that experience responded to the book, compared to those who haven’t?
Leaving the family faith is more of a shared experience than it seems, though it has higher stakes for some religions than others. To some extent, I think everyone experiences familial separations that are painful — and because of this, I hear from readers from every vantage-point; sometimes, for instance, atheist-raised children who become religious. Of course, my hope in writing We Sinners was that it would resonate with readers on a more universal level — this is why, in part, there is relatively little exposition about the actual rules of the church. The what of Laestadianism is not particularly of interest to me — the emotional consequences of turning away from your family are much more so.
I know that in your own life, you grew up in the faith and eventually left it. What was it like to describe the opposite trajectory in the chapter “Jonas Chan”?
To write about the character of Jonas, I had to reenter my own former feelings of desire to be a part of the church. This was not terribly comfortable, emotionally, but it was necessary — as with any character in any book, you must believe utterly the feelings your character believes as you write it, or the reader senses the pretense. And, of course, some of that desire of Jonas’s to join the church was mine — or came from that old desire — to belong, to be cared for, to be forgiven.
A particularly devastating chapter describes how a character almost dies after complications from her seventh birth via C-section. What do you think about many orthodox religions’ emphasis on prohibiting birth control, and what that means for women in those communities?
Many, many religions are controlled by men, taught by men, and upheld by men — this is not a unique issue to Laestadianism. When birth control in particular is forbidden in such communities, the religion assumes a physical control of women as well. I do not want to pass judgment on this, either — certainly many women in such communities do so willingly — but the issue remains important because it reveals that religion has not only abstract stakes, but physical ones.
Something I’ve noticed many reviewers mention about your book — and something that struck me as well, when I read it — was the extraordinary warmth and compassion that you demonstrated toward your characters’ fundamentalist faith. Do you think such compassion toward religion is rare in contemporary liberal culture? Why?
It’s shockingly rare. I think it is very difficult for those raised outside religion to understand at all why people would choose such stringent lifestyles — and, moreover, the media’s emphasis on conservative religion is regularly sensationalized — think Breaking Amish, Big Love, 19 [Kids] and Counting. Even literature which seeks to step outside this — for instance, David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife lands pretty clearly on the side of fundamentalism bad, freedom good.
What do you think about New Atheism and the way that its adherents — writers and figures such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Bill Maher — represent and critique religion?
I think they bring an important conversation to the public, but I think the use of satire — particularly from Bill Maher — while often funny, and piercing, and sometimes truthful, fails to acknowledge the real role of religion in people’s lives. For a conversation about atheism to be useful, it above all cannot resort to condescension.
Would you like the way religion is written about in contemporary fiction to change? Is there anyone writing about faith today, who inspires you?
Of course there are many writers who write about religion, and many, I’m sure, who write beautifully about religion that I haven’t read or heard of; that said, the name that always springs forward is Marilynne Robinson, and rightly so. That said, I tend to turn to James Baldwin, and in particular, Go Tell It On the Mountain, when I think of religious feeling being represented at its most moving.
Another thing that struck me about this book is that the family members seem so isolated from each other, although they go through similar struggles, in terms of their faith and dealing with the outside world. Faith is so often described as something that draws people together — why is it that the Rovaniemis feel so separate?
Ultimately, as the church saying always goes, you cannot believe for someone else. And in large families, like the Rovaniemis, each character is ultimately an individual, and has an individual relationship to the faith. Their difficulty to turn to each other about their struggles with faith is, I think, more of a problem of Finnish reserve than anything else, but I think also comes from the emphasis of the church on conformity — to express doubt is often tantamount to leaving, or seen as an early sign of unbelief, so questioning often happens only in interior ways.
The structure of your book is unusual, and echoes the disconnection between the characters — it’s essentially a collection of loosely linked short stories, and, for the most part, each one focuses on a different member of the Rovaniemi family. How did you arrive at the structure? What appealed to you about it?
Trying to write about such a large cast of characters is a very difficult challenge, and this structure allowed me to treat each character individually, but also to create dramatic irony for the readers, who can experience the pathos between what the other characters think or know of each other. As with all books, I think, the form came from the function of the book — I was less interested in a larger dramatic arc than in the daily, particular problems of each Rovaniemi.
The last chapter of your book is completely different than the rest. You take your readers to 19th century Finland — to the founder of the Rovaniemis’ faith, Laestadius. Why did you leave that chapter to the end? How does it relate to the rest?
Also, why did you choose a different protagonist for that chapter, rather than Laestadius himself? I realized that none of the Rovaniemis talk about the life of Laestadius, in contrast to many evangelical Christians’ focus on the life of Jesus. Why don’t the members of Laestadianism discuss their founder’s life?
Where does any religion come from? From what needs, or problems, is it born? I was very interested in how little the Rovaniemis thought about Laestadius as a person, or the past of their religion — its de-emphasis seemed to suggest a prehistorical understanding of their faith, the idea that their faith simply had no moment of “founding.” I think this is true, really, for most religions — to believe in a god, you must first believe in his or her infinity. I wanted the shock of the life of Gunnà in “Whiskey Dragon” to be a shock — to demand the reader to re-see each chapter which has come before.
The book’s epigraph is a quote from Luke, in the King James version: “Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment and cast lots.” Why did you choose those particular lines, and why that translation?
My hope with the epigraph — and with the title — was that the question of “them,” and “we,” would be all-inclusive. We Sinners is not a book of judgment, and in my own view, all of the characters seek forgiveness, and I think, as Simon says in the chapter “Eyes of God,” they don’t know how to live, which resonates for me with the line, “they know now what they do.” I use the King James because I grew up on the King James — it may be more inaccurate, but it’s rhythms remain essential to my writing.
I heard that We Sinners arose out of a short nonfiction piece about your family and their faith that was published in the New York Times‘ “Lives” column. What was it like, to switch the story from nonfiction to fiction? From a writer’s perspective, what did it change, and how was the writing process different for you?
In fact, We Sinners was written previous to my “Lives” piece, but to answer your question, the switch — the turn — from fiction to nonfiction is as different as writing a novel and then deciding to write a screenplay. You do not control the arc of nonfiction, nor its characters, nor its facts — in part this is why We Sinners is a novel, and not a memoir. As a writer, I love for things to happen — this does not sound particularly profound — but I’m drawn, always, to wanting to know what happens next. God is often not very dramatic — try sitting through a hundred sermons — but the interiority of considering God, and family, and faith — can be. It isn’t always, but it can be, and fiction, I think, is the answer to that how.