"laestadian, apostolic, gay, lgbtq, ex-oalc, ex-llc, llc, oalc, bunner" LEARNING TO LIVE FREE: Q&A With Hanna and "We Sinners" Give-Away

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Q&A With Hanna and "We Sinners" Give-Away

Thanks to everyone who sent in questions (compiled below), thanks to Hanna Pylväinen for her thoughtful response, and thanks to MacMillan for sending 10 free copies of We Sinners. They will go to the first 10 readers to email me with (1) a suggested blog topic and (2) a mailing address (United States and Canada only, please). 

When "Learning to Live Free" began in 2004, it felt like a voice crying in the wilderness. There was nothing available, online or in print, about the experience of leaving Laestadianism. Is yours the first novel on this theme? How did you choose to write about it? Did you ever visit Learning to Live Free?

Toni Morrison said that she wrote The Bluest Eye because she wanted to read it -- and I remember, as someone who had turned so often to literature, wanting there to be a book that somehow caught at the turmoil of leaving a community that was not all bad, a community that had some very lovely things about it, but that, ultimately, was forcing me to leave them because I did not agree. So in some ways I wrote We Sinners because it did not exist -- because the literature on Laestadianism was limited to the pamphlets, novels, and dictums coming from within the Laestadians themselves. I did, in fact, run across "Learning to Live Free," which lessened somewhat my sense of loneliness, but when I began to see that I was interested, moreover, in writing qua writing -- in fiction, in arcs, in stories -- I began to see that, in fact, I could be the one to write about Laestadianism; it could be me. This revelation was slow to arrive, but once it did, I began to see that contemporary American literature was very much lacking in sincere discussions of faith -- and perhaps even I could add to that.

Your book is fiction, but palpably "real." How did your family react? Was fear of their reaction ever an impediment to your writing? Would you do anything different now?
If the book feels real it is because it is a lie. Which is to say -- memoir is a terrifically hard genre because we always want to soften not only our own edges, but others' -- we become involved, too, at trying to recrystallize some essential truth. Fiction is an escape from that -- and I often feel that by avoiding the truth I have come a bit closer to it. I worried after selling We Sinners, of course, what others might think, but my solace is the truth that the person most exposed is myself. The Rovaniemis -- their failures, their flaws, their love for each other -- is only mine. I would not have published We Sinners if I did not believe I was acting under my own terms of good conscience, which is to say: that I knew it was truly fiction, that I knew in its own way it was an act of love, and that I knew it simply had to be said.

I seek to prove nothing with We Sinners, only to ask questions.

Some Laestadians leave but continue the "lifestyle," sans belief. Did you consider a chapter about a person who left for purely intellectual reasons? Were you concerned about playing into the stereotype that people leave because they want to sin?
In We Sinners, Tiina's unbelieving boyfriend Matthew most represents the intellectual debates against Laestadianism, and while Tiina herself never particularly articulates or engages with his inquiries, the implication was meant to be that he had encouraged her to question the church in this more rigorous and academic way. I wouldn't agree that any of the characters leave the church simply because they want to sin, and I think this is something I sought to say with Simon's initial response to his mother's discovery of his sexuality: he actually doesn't want to leave the church. Moreover, there are quite a few memoirs about those who leave strict faiths -- I wasn't convinced I had anything terribly new to add to that territory, which is why We Sinners largely avoids the moments of the characters leaving. And, of course, We Sinners was not written for Laestadians. I seek to prove nothing with We Sinners, only to ask questions.

You have said in previous interviews that you left the church twice. Do you maintain any connections to your former church? Do you have any words of wisdom for those who mourn the loss of community?
Those connections remain in flux -- I am uncertain about what they will be. My hope, of course, for those who read it, is that they will understand that We Sinners is not, in fact, an exposé, but I fear that bringing any attention at all to Laestadianism is tantamount to exposing it, no matter how kindly the light may try to fall. My advice for those who leave is the advice I followed myself: find a very smart therapist, love those you have left as much as you can, and forgive yourself for leaving -- and surround yourself with those who can hold you steady, and who love you no matter what you choose.

Many of our readers are weighing the costs and benefits of staying. You have said that "leaving isn't freedom." Why did you leave? What do you miss the most? How do you cope?
Leaving is freedom from something, for sure, but it also isn't something that you can hold in your hand; it does not care for you back, it does not tend you, or send you phone calls, or fill your Sunday mornings with a room of people who have known you since a child. I left because I did not believe the Laestadian faith held all the answers, and also because some of their doctrinal points were truly infuriating to me, but I also left because I was lucky: I was young, and I was in love with someone the church did not want me to love. The love did not stick in the end but the freedom did, but that relationship helped me believe that there were other openings for happiness in the world.

Find a very smart therapist, love those you have left as much as you can, and forgive yourself for leaving.

Several readers are curious about the final chapter, in which Laestadius appears. When and how did you learn about the roots of Laestadianism? Why do you think Laestadianism was attractive to the Sami?
I traveled to Lapland, I read Laestadius's sermons, I read memoirs of Saami reindeer herders, I read chapters entitled, "How to Catch a Bear by Making Him Drunk," and I became very sure that there was a book somewhere in this, in all of it, rather. Despite the research I've done, I'm certainly no expert, but I will give some speculations I have on why Laestadianism was so compelling to these people at this time: one, that Laestadius himself was charismatic, fluent in Lappish dialects, and knew how to use their own gods to speak about his God; two, that the Saami were undergoing an enormous social shift as the borders between countries prevented the migration of reindeer herding; three, that the Saami were struggling, most of all, with an omnipresent and devastating problem with alcoholism, a problem solved, of course, by the temperance of Laestadianism; and four, that the Saami were drawn to Laestadius's use of liikutuksia or, "hysterical laughter," by which I mean that the emotionalisms brought about during his sermons were both familiar, and compelling, to them. Perhaps in the same way that the emotional catharsis of forgiveness, even today, holds its own psychological pull.

Your characters demonstrate the Laestadian ritual of repentance as both solace and crutch.  What is your perspective on the psychological value of this ritual? Would you agree with the criticism that it "gives sin an aura of virtue?" Does "guaranteed forgiveness" foster abuse?
The forgiveness of the church is troubling because it requires the confessor and the forgiver to believe the sin is forgiven by God and thus, being forgiven by God, does not require much further human discussion. Furthermore, the theology of the church grants small sins the same credence as large sins -- thus there are no small transgressions, only the same, great transgression where even a painted nail is not merely a symbol of unbelief, but unbelief itself. Psychologically, for young children to be taught that their ordinary wants -- to watch TV at a neighbor's home, say -- requires a ritual of emotional catharsis, in which both child and parent may, say, resort to tears -- teaches that child something very dangerous: that only the system of forgiveness can provide emotional relief, and the tears that might often come seem to point backwards to the grandiosity of the sin. As in, I cried because I was so grateful to have that large indiscretion removed for me by the blood of Jesus Christ. That said, I would not say it is necessarily true that the guarantee of forgiveness fosters -- or leads to -- abuse. Perhaps it can, in some cases, though I would say that the majority of Laestadians are not led to serious abuse in this way because of the promise of forgiveness (here I refer to, say, the sexual scandals in the SRK in Finland). I would argue, actually, that the abuse that occurs from the ritual of forgiveness is much more subtle, and you see this even among the characters of the Rovaniemi family. Tiina wants, desperately, to find a source of emotional catharsis and forgiveness for her sins, as does, I think, Julia --and certainly Simon suffers, early on, from looking for forgiveness to heal his very sexuality.

Despite how critical I am of the ritual, though, I do think as a Christian philosophy it's uniquely democratic, and can often be a ritual of love. Warren, for instance, goes on his knees to his children to ask forgiveness in one particular flashback -- and I think such a moment of a father, in any scenario, humbling himself before his own children in this manner, has its own beauty, even if later his own children feel the reins of its oppression.

In Laestadianism, birth control is a sin, and large families are the norm, as your book vividly demonstrates. Do you think those who leave have a responsibility to show there are alternatives for a satisfying life? Do we have an ethical duty to tell our stories?
No -- I believe that an ex-Laestadian only has an ethical duty towards their own children, to grant them the freedom of religion and unconditional love they might not have had from their own families, and, moreover, to try as much as possible to move past bitterness or resentment they might have towards their families or communities for the childhood they have led. I think it's rather unfair to ask each ex-Laestadian to somehow lead an "alternative" life which is "satisfying" -- by which I mean -- it is damaging in its own way to ask ex-Laestadians to prove they have happy lives to prove one can be happy outside of the church. Of course there are so many forms of happiness, and unhappiness -- and, of course, leaving the church may leave one with many years of grieving, mourning, depression, anxiety - and to be forced to pretend this is not true is to deny the full gravity of the actual ex-Laestadian experience, which is by no means an easy life to lead.

Often I felt I did not want to be the one to write about it, and yet I must.

That said, I say all this with the counter-knowledge that I did, in fact, write We Sinners, to some extent, out of a sense of ethical obligation. I felt very much, early on, that it was a burden that had been put upon me -- that I chosen to take on, I suppose -- and often I felt I did not want to be the one to write about it, and yet I must. The trope of the reluctant prophet, I suppose, although I prophesize, I think, only ambiguity.

Social cohesion is a much higher value than individual expression in the church. How did you overcome that programming to become a writer?
As Laestadians and ex-Laestadians know, the act of asking forgiveness is in fact very difficult. Certainly, in many ways, it strengthened my character -- my ability to admit my own weaknesses -- but also my ability to loose myself from my own ego and desires. And to write -- to rewrite -- to again and again return to the draft -- requires much of this breed of humility. So I would argue that partially this programming has helped. And, too, once I had left the church -- which was the true moment of social separation -- I became much more able to assert my own individual needs and ideas. And soon came the writing.

All of us are eager to read more! What can you tell us about your upcoming novel, "The End of Drum Time"?
The End of Drum Time tells the story of the coming of Laestadius to Lapland -- at its heart is a love affair between his daughter and the son of a shaman. I have taken great liberties with its truthiness -- I was more interested, in this book, in the soap operatics of the setting of reindeer herders, long winters, alcoholism, shamanism, etcetera, than I was in trying to accurately tell the story of Laestadius. At the same time, I think, it touches on many of the same themes as We Sinners -- leaving the family faith, conversion, running to and from families and religion...and of course, in its own strange way, forgiveness.

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