Author Q&A with Hanna Pylvainen
- January 24, 2013
Ashleigh Andrews Rich interviews the author of We Sinners, a moving story of a family of 11 in the American Midwest, bound together and torn apart by their faith.
See our review of We Sinners by Hanna Pylvainen here.
This stunning debut novel — drawn from the author’s own life experience — tells the moving story of a family of 11 in the American Midwest, bound together and torn apart by their faith.
The Rovaniemis and their nine children belong to a deeply traditional church (no drinking, no dancing, no TV) in modern-day Michigan. A normal family in many ways, the Rovaniemis struggle with sibling rivalry, parental expectations and forming their own unique identities in such a large family. But when two of the children venture from the faith, the family fragments and a haunting question emerges: Do we believe for ourselves, or for each other? Each chapter is told from the distinctive point of view of a different Rovaniemi, drawing a nuanced, kaleidoscopic portrait of this unconventional family. The children who reject the church learn that freedom comes at the almost unbearable price of their close family ties, and those who stay struggle daily with the challenges of resisting the temptations of modern culture. With precision and potent detail, We Sinners follows each character on their journey of doubt, self-knowledge, acceptance and, ultimately, survival.
Q&A with Ashleigh Andrews Rich
You’ve written elsewhere about your personal connection to fundamentalist religion. Can you share some of your experiences in writing about a subject so close to home? For example, were you concerned that people from your family’s circle may read the novel and identify certain characters as real people? Or that one or more of your character’s views on religion might be incorrectly perceived as your own?
There’s an important reason We Sinners isn’t memoir –– it’s fiction, and it’s not meant in any way to convey any particular individual I know, or their stories. To the extent that it reveals anything about anyone, it reveals the most about myself –– my psyche, my relationship to forgiveness, to family love, to grief. Of course people read themselves into your work, and I think this is true for all authors; I’ve been approached by people who are not even from the community who think one character or another is them. Of course, I could not have written this book without having lived parts of the lives I write about, but in sacrificing truth I have, I hope, extended the advantage of the fictional arc to create not merely anecdotes of an unusual background but rather characters who are people first –– and a novel which is a novel first.
The novel follows the Rovaniemi family as nine siblings grow up. At some point, all of these siblings struggle with conflicting feelings about their religion. Some stay, and others leave. The experience of religion is deeply entangled with familial love and acceptance. For most of the siblings, the most pressing consideration in the decision to stay or leave seems to be fear of losing the family bond that has been such a central part of their lives.
At times, the question of belief in the tenets of the faith seems very secondary to the personal connections that the faith provides. Can you share your thoughts on this? To what extent do you believe people choose fundamentalist religion (or any religion) on the basis of family/cultural community versus pure belief in a specific doctrine?
The voice of Irene, in the chapter “The Sun and the Sow,” actually speaks indirectly to this best when she says, “It’s never the place, it’s the people.” I think the vast majority of major life decisions –– and religious decisions –– are people-based. I think it’s more of a wish than a truth that we make religious decisions for abstract reasons. One of the primary tenets of many types of fundamentalism, after all, is the binding to community –– the instance on the primary importance of community, sometimes to the extent of physical isolation. This isolation, emotional or physical, is no accident; when we surround ourselves with people of any particular belief, we become emotionally involved in the community, and it is the emotional ties that become the hardest to sever. This is not to say that I think that people don’t own pure belief –– of course many do. But the origins of that belief are often rooted in moments of community, of family, of friendship, of lovers. People are the greatest directional force for change, or inertia.
Was there any one character you connected with more than the others? One you found yourself rooting for, or one whose chapter(s) was the most interesting or engaging to write?
Paula was very heartbreaking to me, and I felt an unusual connection with her chapter, which I wrote relatively quickly, I think because of the purity of her character. In a strange way, she is perhaps the strongest of all of the characters in terms of her own faith and her own perseverance in wanting to hold the family together. Even in the later chapters, she appears in the distance, baking casseroles or babysitting. To some extent, she has what the church often calls a “childlike” faith; she is absolutely trusting of everyone in a way that the mainstream world would call naivete, but to me is sincerity.
The Laestadian church cherishes an unusual ritual of forgiveness through lay confession — the forgiveness of sins spoken by one church member to another. Depending on where a character is within a journey of doubt and belief, these moments when absolution is issued can be beautiful and moving, or they can be suffocating. But the need for forgiveness is always underpinned by a sense of guilt. Can you talk about the importance of guilt and forgiveness in the novel, or within fundamentalist Christianity more generally? Can people raised outside of fundamentalism really grasp the extent to which guilt pervades the existence of those within it?
To be forgiven requires that one feel guilty, and of course, there’s a reason that so many comedians joke about Catholic or Lutheran guilt: because it’s very difficult to unlearn guilt. Guilt is a powerful emotion, as is shame, and the lay forgiveness that Laestadianism provides is thus often cathartic; the belief of deep-seated guilt can only be relieved by deep-seated forgiveness. This is in part why Tiina, in the chapter “We Sinners,” reflects that saying “It’s okay” after someone says “I’m sorry” is “this other world of forgiveness.” And for Tiina, that system of phraseology does not live up to the system she’s long been taught. I can’t say whether those raised without the concepts of sin and forgiveness under sacred terms truly appreciate its dilemmas, but Montaigne did say, “We all contain within us the entirety of the human condition.” And perhaps that is the possible power of fiction, too –– to attempt to illuminate that entirety.
The characters in your novel respond to guilt in different ways. Some cling harder to the faith for absolution, others embark on a long, difficult process of leaving religion entirely and defining their own moral compasses. The ones who seem to suffer the most are those who dabble — like Nels, who experiments with different lifestyle choices, but is wracked by guilt over every minor transgression. What drives these different responses? As an ex-fundamentalist, what are your thoughts on the experiences of those who leave and gradually shed layers of guilt?
It’s personality, at some level, but it’s also how the children perceive their own various sins. I think Nels, in particular, carries a great deal of shame about his own perception of his “sin” of homosexuality, and thus has a harder time leaving behind the guilt. As an ex-fundamentalist, I know it differs very much for people in terms of how hard it is to free yourself of feeling guilty over things you used to feel very guilty about –– even small things, like going to the movies or coloring your hair or nails. There’s an ex-fundamentalist blog called “Learning to Live Free,” and I think the key word there is “learning,” because it requires re-learning. It does.
Rovaniemi parents, Warren and Pirjo, love their children very much, but their faith lends a complexity and conditionality to that love. As Tiina’s boyfriend states, “the best thing about the church is your family, and the worst thing about your family is the church.” Religion can be a vehicle for strong family bonds, but it also creates blind spots when unwavering confidence in church teachings leads parents to place those teachings above all other considerations. For example, even though the family is living in poverty in the beginning of the book, the parents refuse to use birth control and continue adding children to overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. Another obvious example is their coldness to their son Simon when his same-sex partner of six years is tragically killed.
Within the fundamentalist framework, basic human instincts are seen as flawed and often sinful, so when instincts and religious teachings conflict, the teachings win out. What are your thoughts on the implications this holds for the parent-child relationship? How are Warren and Pirjo’s perceptions of and emotions toward their children different from those of mainstream parents? Did you consider writing a chapter from one of their perspectives? Any thoughts on what that chapter would have looked like?
In fundamentalism, God is first. This is a hard concept for those who are on a spectrum of religiosity, or who are atheist, to understand. A truly religious parent will believe –– or believe he or she believes –– that their own children are not as important as God, and this can manifest in ways which can be painful for the children, as when, for instance, Brita risks her own life to become pregnant again. At the same time, it would be very wrong to categorize Pirjo and Warren’s relationship to their children as unloving. I think actually they are incredibly loving, but they show their love for their children by insisting on their faith. To them, that is love. I didn’t consider any chapters from the perspective of mainstream parents, only because their views were already a bit too clear to me, and thus not that interesting. I think, in some ways, the reader would simply find a character who thinks what they already think, and I wanted We Sinners to speak to the inside, and not the outside, of this insular world.
The final chapter of We Sinners takes us back to 1847 Scandinavia, the early days of the Laestadian movement. It tells the extremely painful story of a woman named Gunnà. At the end, it was unclear to me whether Gunnà embraces or flees the religion, although I’m not sure that it matters. Did you plan to end the book this way from early on in the writing process, or was it an idea that evolved gradually? Can you explain the thought process that went into this chapter?
I knew I wanted We Sinners to be bigger than a book about a contemporary, Midwestern, fundamentalist family. I wanted We Sinners to ask a more difficult question, which is, How have we all become who we are? The story of Gunnà, while seemingly unrelated to the lives of the Rovaniemis, actually provides a parallel counterpart to the questions of the forbidden in her world and the forbidden in their world, as well as the questions of family and community pressure. And of course, there’s a cameo from Laestadius. That said, I began to write the chapter initially as a kind of experiment, since I had never tried historical fiction before, and only realized later that I wanted to deny the reader the satisfaction of finding out “what happens to the Rovaniemis” by telling them what happened to make the Rovaniemis, the Rovaniemis.
Can you share some details on what you’re working on next? Will you continue writing on the theme of fundamentalism?
I am completing my novel “The End of Drum Time,” which takes place in the same time period and setting as the final chapter of We Sinners, “Whiskey Dragon.” Most simply, it’s the story of a love affair between the daughter of Laestadius and a reindeer herder; but it’s also about family, like We Sinners; about siblings, although it’s much more dramatic; reindeer herding, hysteria, murder, affairs –– it’s an epic, a beast and writing it has been the purest joy.
Ashleigh Andrews Rich is a writer living in Fairfax, Va. She studied English and history at Cornell University and works on publications for a think tank in Washington, D.C.