I poured myself into drawings and stories, always, especially when my body and speech felt too small to contain the galaxies inside me. When people foisted narratives onto me, I locked onto fictions that held the possibilities that seemed too scary to name, or that I lacked the language for to begin with. When a feeling looked too painful or beautiful or both, a cipher, a protagonist carried it for me. I didn’t even have to know what the story was doing for it to work, not consciously.
In the second Moomintroll book by Swedish-speaking Finn author-illustrator Tove Jansson, 1948's Finn Family Moomintroll, Tove introduces us to two small characters, Tofslan and Vifslan (Thingumy and Bob in the English translation). The pair lug around a giant suitcase with some mysterious insides that they call the Contents. In the name Tofslan, we hear “Tove,” and in Vifslan, “Vivicka.”
Tove met Vivicka Bandler, the first woman who she was intimate with, 3 1/2 weeks before Vivicka had to leave for Paris. Tove was also entwined at the time with Atos Wirtanen (“her love affairs, both with men and women, were many,” Westin says), but for Atos, romance came second after politics and philosophy. Tove wrote to her friend Eva about being the romantic center for once, with Vivicka, and said, “Now I’m the sun shining.”
Little Tofslan and Vifslan speak in a strange language shared between the two of them. The Groke, a great gray isolated creature who spreads ice wherever she sits, wants the suitcase. She doesn’t care about it, she just thinks that whatever’s inside must be expensive. The ownership of the suitcase comes into dispute as Tofslan and Vifslan contradict each other and themselves when asked who the Contents belong to. In response, the Moominvalley inhabitants hold a trial.
The Snork says that Tofslan and Vifslan “can’t tell the difference between right and wrong. They were born like that and can’t help it.” This was in 1946, and homosexuality was only legalized in Jansson’s native Finland in 1971. Tove and Vivicka kept their affair secret, for safety.
The Moomins live in a state of glorious apartness. They remain unaware, by and large, of conventions around love and money. Their weirdness defines them, their staunch desire to hold fast to their bohemian ways of living.
Joselle Vanderhooft wrote in “Tove Jansson: Out of the Closet” that
In Moominvalley, everyone from Fillyjonk and Too-ticky to taciturn Snufkin and mischievous Little My is not only part of the Moomin family, but Family, in the truest sense of the queer term.
Tove referred to her gay community as specters living on “the other side.”
I grew up without words for the weird nonsexual longing for the butch Clea DuVall character in But I’m a Cheerleader. I smuggled that DVD out of SunCoast Video when I was in middle school and into my house, as contraband.
Moominmamma satiates the Groke, who only wanted the Contents because she thought them expensive, by giving her the magical but troublesome Hobgoblin’s top hat.
The summer and the story draws to a close, and Moomintroll’s friend Snufkin departs to travel for the winter. Moomintroll sits on the stoop and cries for his friend, seemedsurrounded by blooming lilacs and tall grass. Like Tove and Vivicka’s brief affair, Mooomintroll and Snufkin’s time together felt too short.
Tofslan and Vifslan try to comfort him, and offer to show him the Contents to cheer him up. They lead Moomintroll to their secret hideaway, tucked among the leaves, and open the suitcase.
A soft red light lit up the whole place, and before him lay a ruby as big as a panther’s head, glowing in the sunset, like living fire.
The ruby glows with Tofslan and Vifslan’s secret love.
I remember the man who loudly said, “Hey ladies, how’s it hanging?” to me and my date, another trans girl, on a Toronto bus, and the man in black sunglasses who smiled like the Joker at us when we held hands walking down the street a few weeks later in Winnipeg. My date took her hand from mine and apologized, and said she didn’t feel safe. I told her she didn’t need to feel sorry. I mentioned this to a friend, who said they never got harassed in Toronto on their own, but when they were with someone and they got read as a queer couple, it came on like wildfire. I remember feeling like I had to shrink inside myself, though I wanted to open the suitcase and let the light blaze. My time with her was brief since we lived far away from each other, and I spent many hours sitting on Moomintroll’s stoop, crying for ideas I held fast to, even more so than a real relationship.
There are songs that I believed in so deeply when I was a kid that I made their doomed romanticism manifest in my life. As that Clea DuVall-loving teen, I lied on my bed and heard Morrissey from the Smiths sing, “I know it’s over, and it never really began, but in my heart it was so real.” These ideas took such root within me that I integrated them into my stories of relationships that did begin, that I moved through, and then naturally ended.
Tove’s ruby stayed locked away for many readers, for many years: whether consciously or unknowingly, both the FSG editions of the Moomintroll chapter books, and the lovely reprints from Drawn & Quarterly of the comic strip version of the Moomins, omit any mention of Tove’s relationships with women, including her inspiration for Moominland Midwinter. Many of her critics, to this day, downplay the influence of her sexuality upon her work. “It’s not so significant,” Paul Gravett says on an episode of Inkstuds, “It’s more a tolerance.”
If I make it through this winter
In 2011, an internet friend who I did daddy/son roleplay with told me that Tove based Little My and Too-Ticky off her girlfriends. In 2012, I recovered memories of being raped as a kid, I started to transition, and I told my parents to fuck off for a while while I figured things out — but, really, I just used that to buy me time and space while I gathered the courage to tell them to fuck off forever. I knew that when I made this necessary break to save my heart and my life, I’d be leaving my whole extended family. I’d never get to see my baby cousin grow up.
So, picture your girl, newly on estrogen and crying at any provocation. I had broken my computer by leaving a waterproof bottle not quite closed in my waterproof bag. I lived in a sublet in Fairmount, Philadelphia, a house that was half-dimly-lit basement with a concrete floor. I saw Divine Fits play that cold fall at Union Transfer down the way on Spring Garden. I stood in the grand old hall, and remembered when it had been the chintzy restaurant The Spaghetti Warehouse, and how my mom would take my sister and me as kids. Dan Boeckner crooned weird words onstage to a beat, and I imagined myself standing where he was.
Each night, Complex-PTSD and nightmares tore up any semblance of restful sleep. Every book I tried to read before bed seemed to trigger me. I wondered if a kids’ book might help. I walked down Fairmount Ave., full of white Christmas lights. I walked past the looming Eastern State Penitentiary, the ghastly model for the modern prison system, of which Dickens said,
I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.
I went into Book Haven, a used bookstore run by an elderly couple. The store came complete with a puffy bookstore cat. I pulled a book off the shelf.
Inside, strange little descriptive sentences marked the top margins of each spread.
Blank, open space dominated the illustrations. Single objects, or one character floated, isolated, in a vast swath of snow. The old Firrar, Straus, and Giraux edition, with a soft-edged painting by Tove on its cover, possessed a quiet magic that I felt lacking in the brightly-colored, slick reissues.
That night, I sat on my my comforter on the floor that doubled for a bed, and opened the book. Triggers found me here, too. Young Moomintroll awakes in a cold, dark house while his family hibernates, and for the first time, he can’t get back to sleep. Moomintroll tries to wake Moominmamma, but
she didn’t awake. She just curled up in an uninterested ball […] All at once Moomintroll felt frightened and stopped short in the warm darkness by the streak of moonlight.
Moomintroll decides that it’s no use, and he ventures outside on his own. He encounters winter for the first time, since he always slept through it before. He sees a squirrel and calls after it, but it runs away.
“Wait!” he shouted. “Don’t leave me alone!” […]
Now he didn’t shout any more, because he thought how horrible it would be if nobody answered him. He didn’t even dare to lift his nose from the track, which was hardly visible in the dark. He just crawled and stumbled along, and whispered softly to himself. And then he caught sight of the light.
It was quite small, and yet it filled all the wood with a mild red glow. Moomintroll calmed down. He forgot the track and continued slowly […] On the other side of the lamp someone had dug herself a cozy hole, someone who lay looking up at the serene winter sky and whistling very softly to herself.
“What song is that?” asked Moomintroll.
“It’s a song of myself,” someone answered from the pit. “A song of Too-ticky, who built a snow-lantern, but the refrain […] is about things that one can’t understand. I’m thinking of the aurora borealis. You can’t tell if it really does exist or if it looks like existing. All things are so very uncertain, and that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured.”
Tove’s biographer, Boel Westin, said that Tove wrote the book in 1957 after meeting the woman who became her longtime partner, the graphic artist Tuulikki Pietila, who went by “Tooti.” “Too-ticky is the one who gives Moomintroll guidance through the winter and the hard times,” Westin says. “It’s Tooti’s book. It’s a book for her and about her.”
After Midwinter came Tales from Moominvalley and the somber, yearning Moominpappa at Sea. Tove’s mother died in 1970, and she began Moominvalley in November, her swan song to the series. If Moominmamma’s “uninterested” slumber marks the beginning of Midwinter, her permanent departure colors November.
Morrissey singing: “Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head. The sea wants to take me, the knife wants to slit me, do you think you can help me?”
A new character, a small young person named Toft (again, think “Tove”), shows up in November and wonders where the Moomins went, along with Snufkin, Mrs. Fillyjonk, and the Hemulen. Tove wrote
[Toft’s] dream about meeting the family again had become so enormous that it made him feel tired. Every time he thought about Moominmamma, he got a headache […] The whole of Moominvalley somehow become unreal, the house, the garden, and the river were nothing but a play of shadows on a screen and Toft no longer knew what was real and what was in his imagination.
Toft make his way through the thick forest, where
inside there was perpetual dusk […] Toft walked through the forest, stooping under the branches, creeping and crawling, and thinking of nothing at all, and became as empty as the crystal ball.
Toft, finally, gets through the woods.
Toft looked behind him and the Valley was just an insignificant shadow below him. Then he looked out at the sea.
On the last page of the last Moomin book, Tove wrote
Toft saw the hurricane lantern Moominpappa had hung up at the top of the mast. It threw a gentle, warm light and burned steadily. The boat was a very long way away. Toft had plenty of time to go down through the forest and along the beach to the jetty, and be just in time to catch the line and tie up the boat.
Tove penned these words in a simple summer home that Tove and Tooti built together on the secluded Klovharu Island. Tove turned to mostly to novels, short stories, and painting. Westin said
Self-portraiture was almost an obsession for Tove as an author and artist. She wrote no traditional autobiography but one might say that she created a narrative of her self throughout her work.
My friend Coda read my astrological chart this bitter spring. I asked her to because I’m going through my Saturn return, a two-year period that one goes through every 28 years of her life, which marks huge upheavals and self-reflection. I told Coda about the comics I’d done about Candy Darling and Egon Schiele, and the journeys those stories took me on.
“It seems like you pick theses ciphers,” she said, “but they just end up bringing you more pain.”
Coda’s words came back to me as I sat in a coffee shop in Center City Piladelphia and read about Toft stumbling through the woods, and I shook with tears. I got up to blow my nose with a brown paper nakin, and I used another one to cover my face. The Supremes sang “Ain’t no mountain high enough” on the stereo, and glittering strings sounds surrounded me.
I find it easy to write myself as the protagonist in stories that work as “victim-to-victory jams,” as Sia said in a piece about songwriting for Rookie.
The protagonist learns some Hard Lessons, but then she Pumps Herself Up and Takes the Crown and No One Can Ever Keep Her Down. It can be hard for me to just let myself walk through the woods.
I’m going to do it again, anyway. If Toft can make it through the woods, why can’t I…
In October 2013, I stood in PhilaMoCA, off Spring Garden, and ate too much free vegan mac & cheese. Me, Al, Perry, and Zach readied ourselves for our first set as See-Through Girls, the first band I ever played in. My stomach churned. I went to the bathroom, but I get viciously constipated when nervous. Back in the big room, I smiled and relaxed a little when I saw the projection on the screen between bands: the venue showed the 1970s Polish stop-motion version of the Moomins with the sound turned off as a DJ played. I felt like Tove’s ghost had blessed us. Moominvalley glittered, and Moomintroll wobbled around, all soft, friendly shapes.
We got onstage and Al plugged their guitar in, and their growling crunch filled the big, open room full of friends. Zach’s drums pounded a perfectly stupid beat, and I took a breath and got ready to sing.
The other day, I finished drafting this story in longhand. I felt imbued with Tove’s freewheeling spirit and longing for sunshine, so I biked across the Spring Garden Bridge that evening as the sun set over the Schukyll River. I rode to my drummer Zach’s place for his birthday. Zach loves the Moomins too, so I asked him if I could use some of his wife Ana’s drawing paper. I sat on the floor by the coffee table near my friends Addie and Ben, who sat on the futon, and I drew Zach the Groke from Moominland Midwinter. A mom showed up with her two little girls, who Zach used to teach. One, M., sat with us and I asked her if she wanted to play a drawing game. She proposed that we do an Exquisite Corpse, though she didn’t use that name. After M. drew a cat head for the first folded paper run, I kept asking her if she wanted to draw the heads. M., Ben, Addie, and I drew Exquisite Corpses and lined them up in a gallery on the windowsill. Ana came home from work at the bakery, and grabbed markers for M. and her sister. M. pored over big sheets of bristol, and said, “Finally, some color.” She made drawings for everyone, and drew me a flower. Its vibrant scratches let secondary tones rest within the primary colors. Its scratchy, intuitive smart decisions reminded me of a Mickey Z. RAV comic book.
That night, as I have on many nights, I dreamt that I stood by a big Christmas table where all my cousins, aunts, and uncles sat around it. In most of these dreams, I cried in the next room, or screamed at my mom that I hated her, only to break down and say that I loved her, too. In these dreams, I always planned to leave, but I scrambled to gather my stuff (always a big pile of CDs, shit I was trying to hold onto but I knew I didn’t need), and I’d miss my plane. But this time, I walked around the low-lit table where there was no place set for me, and I walked around the table and touched my cousins’ shoulders as I softly said good-bye.
I heavily quoted Tove’s official biographer Boel Westin as she was interviewed for the following two articles, especially:
Mark Bosworth Tove Jansson: Love, war, and the Moomins for BBC Magazine
Inkstuds “Moomin chat” with Paul Gravett, Juhani Tolvanen, and host Robin McConnell
Joselle Vanderhooft Tove Jansson: Out of the Closet for Tor.com
Juliet Rix The Moomins — A family affair for The Guardian
Young Talk episode 2 with me, Sophia Foster-Dimino, Ben Urkowitz, and host Kris Mukai
Tove Jansson Finn Family Moomintroll, trans. Elizabeth Portch, from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Tove Jansson Moominland Midwinter, trans. Thomas Warburton, from FSG.
Tove Jansson Moominvalley in November, trans. Kingsley Hart, from FSG.
Tove Jansson Moomin: The Deluxe Anniversary Edition from Drawn & Quarterly. This collects the complete run of Tove Jansson Moomin comic strips.
W. Glyn Jones Tove Jansson for Twayne Publishers.
Sia “Ten Tips for Better Songwriting” from Rookie Yearbook Three.
Aevee Bee, for believing in me and this story.
Sophia Foster-Dimino, Robin McConnell, Cathy G. Johnson, Book Haven, and See-Through Girls.
Tom Devin, for talking to me about the process of putting together the Moomin books, for his essay in the Anniversary book, and for everything he’s done to bring Tove’s work to a larger audience.
Boel Westin, for her work and words.