Alumni of the Month, December 2023

The December 2023 edition of the HCAS Alumni Gallery features Antje Ravik Strubel and Kaius Sinnemäki
Antje Rávik Strubel

Had I not had the opportunity to be one of the first writers-in-residence at the Helsinki Collegium, I can fairly say my latest novel Blaue Frau, which in 2021 was awarded the German Book Prize and came out under the title Sininen nainen in Finland in 2023, would never have been written. Inspiration for the novel was my time in Helsinki, not just living in this wonderful northern city, but also engaging with my colleagues at the Collegium, who sensitized me to the east-west European dynamic. I had inspiring discussions with researchers at the Collegium, which led to some main topics of my novel. I also had the opportunity to attend talks and presentations that I would otherwise never have had the chance to hear. These new insights played a crucial role in the story.

Apart from that I had intoxicating cross-country skiing excursions in-and-around Helsinki, experienced the chill and thrill of ice-swimming after the sauna. Often I visited my favorite sight: the Sibelius Monument in all its wintery magic, hovering high over the frozen sea.  

As to my work, I also teach writing, respectively at the Deutsches Literaturinstitut at Universität Leipzig, as well as institutions such as the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin. Other residencies include Deutsches Haus in New York, Villa Aurora in Los Angeles, the Center for Writers and Translators in Visby, Gotland, and the Max-Kade-Fellowship at Lafayette College, Pennsylvania.

Kaius Sinnemäki

My name is Kaius Sinnemäki, and I am Associate Professor of Quantitative and Comparative Linguistics at the University of Helsinki. My main area of expertise is general linguistics, and within that field, global linguistic diversity. My recent work focuses on two areas: first, language typology, especially how languages change in bilingual language ecologies across the world, and second, dialectology, especially grammatical variation in Finnish dialects.

I was at HCAS in 2013–2016. My project The functional-adaptive nature of grammar allowed me to focus on a research theme that was still a small thread in my PhD thesis but that since then has grown into an ERC Starting Grant project that by now has reached its final stages. The collegiality, the support for research, and the freedom and challenge to learn new things will certainly remain in my memory as career highlights. And that freedom, I took full advantage of it, with no regrets. In 2014, I started co-directing a multidisciplinary network of a few dozen researchers from the humanities and the social sciences who were interested in how the main religion in Finland, Lutheranism, and the society have intertwined. We published three books, gave interviews to multiple media, and organized at least half a dozen symposia and seminars as part of the Finland100 and Reformation500 programs. It was an intense period of learning but also a wonderful opportunity to grow as a researcher and to get to know amazing researchers in Finland and abroad.

After my term at HCAS, I worked as a postdoctoral researcher, funded by the Academy of Finland (2016–2019). A major turning point in my career was the reception of an ERC Starting Grant for the project Linguistic Adaptation, which paved the way for my current position in 2019. It was already at HCAS where I started thinking about applying for an ERC grant but realized, with the help of other fellows, that my idea was not yet mature enough. The right time came after two more years.

I have sometimes said that until HCAS I was rather rigidly a linguist, but that time changed me and turned me into a scholar with much broader interests in the humanities and social sciences. This probably would not have happened without the freedom and strong support from the leadership and other fellows to pursue new ideas, however out-of-the-box they may be.