In conversation with Cristina Sandu



Cristina Sandu was born in 1989 in Helsinki to a Finnish-Romanian family who loved books. She studied literature at the University of Helsinki and the University of Edinburgh and speaks six languages. She currently lives in the UK and works as a full-time writer. Her debut novel, The Whale Called Goliath (2017), was nominated for the Finlandia Prize, the most prestigious literary prize in Finland. The Union of Synchronized Swimmers, which won the 2020 Toisinkoinen Literary Prize, is her first book to be published in English.

Courtesy of Rights & Brands

I just finished The Union of Synchronized Swimmers and was blown away by your stunning prose. What was the inspiration for the book?

After my first novel, I wasn’t quite sure what to write next, but I was slowly working on some short stories about women who had moved to a new country. Some of these stories were inspired by my relatives who had left Romania and migrated to the US; some were told by people I met when living in different countries where I’ve studied and worked. Then, a friend, while we were having beers in a bar in Prague, told me an anecdote about a Soviet team of swimmers that disappeared during the Olympics: I used that anecdote to bring all the short stories together. 

This is your second book, and the first to be translated into English. How does it feel to be able to bring the book to a new and wider audience?

It feels great. I started translating the book so a few of my friends, who are great writers and readers but don’t speak Finnish, could read my draft. I didn’t imagine the book would end up being published in English in several countries. I write for a small readership; some 6 million people in the world speak Finnish, and out of those I wonder how many read me ... This hasn’t bothered me. I love my language and would never stop writing in it, but being translated into English feels like a form of travelling: the words meant for my little country are spread to other continents. I have received feedback from people in Canada, the UK, the US; photos of my book in foreign cities, gardens, on a beach somewhere I’ve never been. It still puzzles me.  

On the subject of translations, I believe you speak six languages. What are they and how did you learn so many? 

I grew up in a bilingual family, speaking Finnish with my mother and Romanian with my father. In Finland everybody needs to learn Swedish too, as those are the two official languages of the country. In addition to that, I learned French and English at school, and Spanish by myself mainly out of passion for Latin American literature. 

I love the book's cover design, it's beautiful. How did that come together?

The credit goes to the publishing house and the designer, Tree Abraham. I think I just told the editors, when asked if I had any wishes about the cover, that I’d like there to be some swimming. They did a wonderful job. 

What do you like to do when you're not writing?  

I love walking and have recently started hiking. This has made me discover the northern part of Finland and that beautiful place where Finland, Sweden and Norway meet: it’s just boundless barren land and cold blue water. I also like to watch movies, swim, travel...

Are you currently reading anything? What's on your must-read list for the coming months?

I just finished Un cementerio perfecto (A Perfect Cemetery) by Federico Falco. He’s the best contemporary short story writer I’ve read; his prose is precise and unique. His stories seem to develop naturally, as though not planned, just going to whichever direction the characters take them. 

I plan to read Nostalgia by Mircea Cărtărescu next. I’ve had this book in my shelf for a long time but feel like now is the right time to read it, maybe because I miss Romania and Romanian language, as I haven’t been able to travel there for a while. I know this novel/story collection is about some rather absurd things taking place in Communist Romania – I’ve heard there’s some Russian roulette in it, as well as an architect who builds an organ inside his car. The book was originally published in Romania in 1989 in a censored version. I also want to read some more short stories from the amazing Mavis Gallant. I have her Paris Stories on the shelf. One can always turn to Gallant when in need of advice about writing. 

The Union of Synchronized Swimmers


It’s summer behind the Iron Curtain, and six girls begin a journey to the Olympics. But will they return?

In a stateless place, on the wrong side of a river separating East from West, six girls meet each day to swim. At first, they play, splashing each other and floating languidly on the water’s surface. But as summer draws to an end, the game becomes something more.

They hone their bodies relentlessly. Their skin shades into bruises. They barter cigarettes stolen from the factory where they work for swimsuits to stretch over their sunburnt skin. They tear their legs into splits, flick them back and forth, like herons. They master holding their breath underwater.

Then, one day, it finally happens: their visas arrive. But can what’s waiting on the other side of the river satisfy their longing for a different kind of life?

The Union of Synchronized Swimmers is available for purchase in paperback format from Book*hug Press and Indigo, and in e-book format from Kobo. Check GoodReads for additional retailers.