Someone trying to be nice and supportive once said that everyone has a book in them. So far, my mother has had twenty-four in eighteen different languages. When she was my age, she had already published her first novel, which immediately became a record-breaking feminist bestseller and earned her the nickname “the priestess of punk”. I, on the other hand, live an unremarkably average Tesco Value life and so far don’t have any edgy pet names to speak of.
What is it like to be a famous writer’s daughter?
When I was ten years old, my best friend told me what sex was. Ignoring my look of horror, she then dropped the real bomb: your mom writes about it. I furiously denied all her filthy accusations, but was left in doubt. What does my mother actually do in her study, a room which has a massive painting of a shirtless Jim Morrison and which I am not allowed to enter without her permission? Later that night I slyly sneaked into the study – and had my worst fears confirmed. The book I found was all about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Shocked like an electric eel, I ran to my dad and asked whether he knew about this literary sodomy practiced under our roof. Apparently he did, and advised me to re-visit my mother’s bookshelf a little later in life.
My best friend may have caught me off guard, but as the years went by, I learnt to grow a thicker skin. As my mother does not exactly write about the weather, she is a very colourful, visible public figure in Finland, and people tend to have strong opinions about her. To some she is the inspirational, liberal voice of her generation, to others she is the token angry feminist wench. We used to read her novels in school, although my teacher saved me from the life-long trauma of having to analyze my mother’s semi-autobiographical eighties adventures with a class full of high school bullies. Furthermore, many of my more cultured friends spent their teens pouring over her books and demanding intellectual discussions about her work. I would have gladly obliged if I hadn’t been rather busy looking like an Oompa Loompa and smoking Marlboros behind the school sheds. To me she was still just my mother, a mother who loosely based one of her characters on my adolescent self and revealed to the world that I, at the mature age of 15, still had a Moomin alarm clock and wrote a funny poem about my favourite hat to cheer me up when I lost it to the ocean. Why could she not be a suit-wearing lawyer with a nine-to-five job? I sometimes wondered, stupidly anxious about my somewhat eccentric household.
When high school ended and all the suit-wearing lawyers sent their ambitious offspring away to universities to become lawyers and doctors, I gave higher education the middle finger and moved to Greece to be an unqualified and fairly horrific bartender. Surprisingly, my mother, being a bit of a wanderer herself, supported my choice and therefore ruined my attempt to rebel. Far from home and away from my family for the first time, I suddenly felt very alone. Maybe it was the distance, maybe it was the general intellectual dissatisfaction of being a barmaid, but in Greece I finally decided to read my mother’s first novel – the one which had made me blush like a prudish little nun ten years ago.
In less than two weeks, I had read all of them. I read the wild-at-heart ones she wrote long before I was born, I read the beautiful requiem novel she wrote about her own mother and I read the awkwardly short book she managed to write the summer my sister and I constantly fought and wrestled and did not give her a moment of peace to work – ah, the burning guilt.
For the first time I could see the person she had been before becoming my mother (which I of course sincerely thought had been the most rewarding, precious experience of her life) and the incredible storyteller she had been all along. I had always been too close to be able to meet her.
What is it like to be a famous writer’s daughter?
Sometimes it is depressing to acknowledge that I will most likely never be as talented nor successful as her, and that anything I might try to scribble in the future will always be compared to her work. Sometimes I feel exposed. Sometimes I get tired of people and their thorny opinions and preoccupations. But, even if reading her earliest, untamed novels may occasionally bring back the blushing little nun, most of the time I am just very proud.
Elsa Snellman studies Social Policy at the University of Edinburgh. Her mother, Anja Snellman, is a best selling author in Finland and across the globe. Accordingly, Elsa is a global jet-setter who recently represented Finland in Oman for the UNESCO Connecting Cultures programme. She has a penchant for plastic toy necklaces and once wrote a short story about a robot dog who committed suicide because it was not a real dog. She was eight. It was published. It’s no big deal.
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