Debut Novelist Liisa Kovala on How the Finnish Concept of Sisu Informed Her Story of War, Family, and Alzheimer’s
Just months before the outbreak of the Second World War, the Soviets invaded Finland in a conflict that came to be known as The Winter War. No one expected the small country to survive the Soviet War machine, but the Finnish Army managed to push back the invaders, who suffered heavy and unexpected losses.
It's against this tumultuous backdrop that Liisa Kovala sets her evocative debut novel, Sisu's Winter War (Latitude 46 Publishing), in which Meri, a young Finnish woman, promises her dying mother that she will keep their family together in the face of the war. Suddenly in charge of caring for her siblings, her courage is tested when her father is declared missing in action and Meri herself must go to the front lines to search for him. With the madness of war swirling around her, Meri's promise becomes increasingly complicated.
In Meri, Kovala builds an irresistible, complex protagonist, exploring love, sacrifice, duty, and memory. Readers meet Meri once more, forty years after the war, in her adopted home of northern Ontario. Diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, Meri's broken memories of the war, and her fateful promise, still haunt her. As her memory and independence begins to slip away, Meri sets out on a final, fateful search.
We're speaking with Liisa, who is Finnish Canadian, today about Sisu's Winter War and her personal connections to the story. She tells us about her fascination with the Lotta Svärds, a Finnish paramilitary organization for women that becomes central to Meri's story; about the lesson that both she and Meri had to learn while she wrote the book; and about the fascinating meaning of the Finnish term sisu.
Do you remember how you first started this novel or the very first bit of writing you did for it?
While I was interviewing my father about his experiences as a Finnish merchant marine imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp in Poland for Surviving Stutthof, he described the bombs falling on his hometown of Oulu, Finland when he was a boy of eleven, finding bombs with his friends and setting them on fire and seeking safety in a neighbour’s root cellar—a makeshift bomb shelter. My father’s memories led to my research about the war for the book I was writing with him, but eventually led to my interest in the Lotta Svärds, the women’s paramilitary organization that played a significant role during the war. I became interested in knowing what the women were doing when their husbands, brothers, and sons were off to war.
My father’s memories created the spark of the idea for what would become Sisu’s Winter War, but the first bit of writing I did was a short assignment for a writing course I was taking with Mariko Tamaki at University of Toronto. We were tasked with introducing an object that carried a significant meaning to our character. I knew I wanted to write about a young woman during the war who would become a Lotta Svärd, and that she was tasked with keeping her family together. Meri’s huivi, a traditional Finnish shawl she inherited from her mother, became central to the scene. Meri finds comfort in the warmth of the shawl and a connection to her deceased mother, but the huivi’s threads are wearing thin with her worrying. While the scene has changed several times, the huivi is an important symbol.
How did you choose the setting of your novel? What connection, if any, did you have to the setting when you began writing?
There are two significant settings in Sisu’s Winter War. The first is Finland during the 1939-1940 Finnish-Russian Winter War. I have a strong connection to Finland as my father was born and raised in Oulu in Northern Ostrobothnia and many of his extended family still live in the area. My grandfather on my mother’s side was from South Karelia near the Russian border, while my grandmother was from Jyväskylä. I’ve been fortunate to travel to Finland several times in my life visiting family members and becoming familiar the streets, markets, and landscapes.
The other significant setting is Northern Ontario in 1980. I was born and raised in a Finnish community in Sudbury, Ontario where the novel is set. The rocks, trees, and lakes that surround me are also reminiscent of the Finnish landscape. Perhaps that’s why so many Finns settled in places like Sudbury and Thunder Bay. It was important to me to set the novel in a place I know intimately and that has such strong Finnish connections.
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Did the ending of your novel change at all through your drafts? If so, how?
Almost from the beginning, I knew how the novel ended. I wrote the final scene as I’d always envisioned it, and it remained that way for many drafts. But something unusual happened, something that had never happened to me before. Early one morning, drifting between the dream and waking states, a new ending arrived, unexpectedly, and to be honest, a little unwelcome. I already had an ending—I didn’t want another. For days after, I thought about the possibility of changing my ending, going back and forth between my original idea and the one the universe had given to me. The new ending wouldn’t let go, so I decided to write it as I’d imagined it in that strange, dreamy state, but only after I copied and pasted the original ending in a document, just in case the universe was wrong (it never is). It turned out that the universe was right again, and I just needed to be open and receptive to its message. It’s a lesson I resisted, and one Meri needs to learn on her journey throughout the novel, but apparently, I needed to learn it first.
Did you find yourself having a "favourite" amongst your characters? If so, who was it and why?
One of my favourite characters is a Sámi woman named Akka (meaning old woman) who is a gifted midwife with an uncanny ability to see into the future. She has a special relationship with Meri’s family and delivered Meri and her sisters Eveliina and Nadia. My inclusion of a Sámi character led to research about the Sámi, including a deep dive into folklore. When I was writing, Akka came to me fully formed with crow’s feet and knotted hands, thinning hair, and a stopped posture. I loved her strength and optimism. She provides insight to those who are receptive, but she never tells others what to do. Akka allowed me to delve into magical realism. Akka’s foresight is mysterious to Meri, who doesn’t really believe in her abilities at first, but eventually Meri becomes more receptive to the signs she encounters during her journey. Later, when Meri receives a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s, the lines between reality and another world are blurred and sometimes overlap. Akka plays a significant role as a mother-figure in the novel and she’s a character that lives with me still. To me, she represents women’s strength, compassion, and intuitiveness.
Another character I fell in love with was Meri’s six-year-old sister Nadia. She is energetic, curious, and insightful. Her simple joys, ability to play, and dance even as the war draws closer were important for me to portray. The novel hinges on a promise Meri makes to her dying mother to keep the family together, and Meri is doing her best to keep that promise, but when the bombs fall on their hometown, Meri makes the difficult decision to send Nadia away with other Finnish children to Sweden for her safety, as was the case for more than 70, 000 Finnish children during the Winter and Continuation Wars.
Did you do any specific research for this novel? Tell us a bit about that process.
Historical fiction requires a great deal of research and my focus for this novel was the Winter War, the Lotta Svärds, and Alzheimer’s.
During my research, I read anything I could find about the war, searching for references to the Lotta Svärds. I found excellent books devoted to the Winter War, many in English, but often references to the Lottas was brief, and a good number of online resources.
It’s important to me to be in the locations I write about, whenever possible, so I travelled to the Lotta Svärd museums in Tuusula and Lappeenranta, as well as the Suomenlinna Museum in Helsinki’s where I found a wide variety of artefacts, photographs, videos, and texts. I also travelled down the Saimaa Canal to Vyborg, Russia where I came to understand the important role Vyborg (then Viipuri) played in Finland before it was lost to Russia.
Alzheimer’s was another focus of my research. Less was known about Alzheimer’s in 1980, but I learned about the signs of Alzheimer’s and how it affects both individuals and the people around them. In his later years, I witnessed my father’s decline due to Alzheimer’s disease and many of the incidences I write about in the novel are from my firsthand observations. I wanted to write about the decline from the perspective of my main character. What was she experiencing? How did she cope? What did believe was happening to her?
Who did you dedicate your novel to, and why?
Sisu’s Winter War is dedicated to my husband, Michael. We met in our final year of high school and have been together ever since. This year we will celebrate our twenty-seventh anniversary. In many ways, we’ve grown up together, always supporting one another in our decisions, giving each other space to learn and grow. I wanted to dedicate this novel to him because he has been a constant in my life, especially during some personal tragedies. In the novel, Meri has a childhood friendship that grows into a romantic relationship, and she comes to understand the importance of that relationship in her life. She struggles with her romantic involvements, but eventually recognizes her true soulmate. It felt fitting to dedicate the book to my soulmate.
What if, anything, did you learn from writing this novel?
Writing this novel taught me a great deal about the role of the Lotta Svärds during the Winter War and the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s on individuals and their families. In learning about both, I explored the concept of sisu.
Sisu is a uniquely Finnish term with no definitive English translation, but has variously been defined as grit, courage, perseverance, and determination in the face of great adversity. It's not a temporary thing, but the ability to sustain that bravery. Joanna Nylund, author of Sisu: The Finnish Art of Courage, says you don't brag about sisu, you let your actions speak for themselves. In the novel, the Meri needs to draw on her sisu during all the stages of her life: as a caregiver to her younger sisters, as a Lotta Svärd during the war, as she searches for her missing father on the front line, later as she immigrates to a new country, as her daughter struggles with addictions, as she cares for her granddaughter, and as she faces a diagnosis of Alzheimer's. She wants to be loyal to her country, her family, and her husband, but her loyalty is tested, and she doesn't always make the right choices. She makes promises she can't keep and fails time and again. Despite everything, she keeps moving forward.
Meri 's struggles are those that many of us have faced. It is that inner force, that sisu within all of us, despite the losses we amass, that helps us power through, even when the result might not be what we hoped for. Meri is a survivor even as she inevitably declines. I think we can all relate to her struggles and learn about the power of sisu through her story.
Liisa Kovala is a Finnish Canadian author and teacher. Her first book, Surviving Stutthof: My Father’s Memories Behind the Death Gate (Latitude 46, 2017), was shortlisted for a Northern Lit Award and published in Finland under the title Stutthofin selviytyjä (Docendo, 2020). Her work is inspired by her Finnish heritage and the northern landscape she calls home. Sisu’s Winter War is her debut novel. She lives in Sudbury, Ontario with her husband and two children.