Friday, 16 March 2007

Beyond ethnicity: the future of the immigrant novel?

I’m trying to make up my mind about a novel that has got raving reviews in the Swedish press and is about to be translated into Finnish, a novel that most Finns can easily relate to, perhaps easier than many middle-class Swedes, that is Susanna Alakoski’s debut novel Svinalängorna (2006).

Finnish emigration to Sweden in the 1960s and 1970s was a mass phenomenon that can in the European context be related to the Irish emigration to the UK: the promise of a better-paid jobs and fast attempts at integration as a white almost invisible minority that nearly “passes”. Almost all Finnish families have some relatives living in Sweden. Since the 1990s it has become popular to write, make films about and discuss the memories of the WW2 children who were sent to Sweden to be protected from bombings. Surprisingly little fiction has come out of the later, purely economically based collective historical experience.

The Finns are the largest ethnic minority in Sweden, but their degree of integration in mainstream Swedish society does not make the theme automatically appealing, or media-sexy. The recent “immigrant novels” in the Swedish language have been written by authors of the visible minorities, for instance Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s Ett Öga Rött (2004) is a strikingly post-colonial portrait of the Arab experience in the Stockholm area with a similar kind of cross-generational emphasis. Both authors enjoy play with immigrant Swedish; Khemiri perhaps more strikingly and innovatively than Alakoski who only restricts immigrant patois to one character, the children’s father.

The name Svinalängorna literally means “pigsties”, the rows of sub-standard communal housing. The novel is based in Ystad, the southern tip of Sweden, a sleepy provincial town with a small population of immigrants – an idyllic location that people would not automatically relate with social misery. The house where the protagonist Leena and her family are allocated in the early 1970s first seems like a paradise for all of them, coming straight from the boat. The flat is brand new, has running water, proper bathrooms, and a fridge.

The paradisical conditions soon deteriorate, and the newly arrived parents face the small-town Swedish narrow-mindedness: the neighbours detest their growing of sunflowers in the communal yard, and the whole mode of living is based on litanies of petty rules. In many ways Leena’s parents still have some kind of village mentality based on spontaneity, whereas the local Swedes prefer the quiet privacy and order.

The cultural differences Alakoski describes are however subtle, and one should also be aware of the regional differences inside Sweden (the South of Sweden being more conservative and affluent than the areas north of Stockholm). In other words, the novel describes settling down in a part of Sweden where encounters with immigrants were not in the 1970s yet a part of the everyday experience of the locals. This makes the reading also more challenging in Finland, as Finns are more used to imagining immigrant life in the big cities, Stockholm and Göteborg. In many ways, the novel is not about traumatic ethnic discrimination, but rather about class and linguistic differences.

Portraying Finnish ethnicity in Sweden is a tough job that easily draws on fixed stereotypes on “the national culture”. Alakoski uses them in obvious ways, highlighting the Finns’ bent on alcoholism, sports and schlager. Perhaps her own memories of being a Finn in Sweden relate just to these three factors, but in the portrayal of the newly arrived immigrant couple, I would have appreciated more nuances that are atypical. Leena’s father has a children’s home background, which the whole family uses as an explanation to why he gets very little done; her mother, during her dry periods, enjoys reading and political debates with friends.

The parents’ personal histories are however often swept away by “Finnfests”, the fanatic watching of Olympic games or the drunken brawl in the rhythm of melancholic tango. These may indeed be the most typical aspects of Finnish collective experiences as a minority in Sweden (understood from the perspective of cultural studies as a slogan by Raymond Williams: “culture is ordinary”), but a Finnish reader, living on the other shore of the Baltic Sea, may wish to object: reading about the most common, which often accentuates in a new country, becomes tedious in the long run. How simplistic can nostalgia get? We’ve seen this so many times we are expecting some off-paths, some other interests than national interests from the characters, too. Often such things happen in the context of immigration: newly arrived immigrants have honeymoon periods with the new culture, they attend courses, become active in the community, acquire new hobbies, tastes of food, even new manners. For instance, in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane (2003), the Bangladeshi protagonist, tied up in her East End apartment, eventually learns how to skate - an unlikely hobby for a middle-aged Muslim woman, and a sign of personal liberation.

In Svinalängorna, the parents’ honeymoon is restricted to short-term enthusiasm about the new apartment; very quickly they fall into the trap of negative thinking: “it is not worth trying, there is no point”-type of despair. The father gets a community-sponsored low-pay job at a metal workshop, from which he is absent during his drinking periods, the mother stays at home with the three children and receives handouts from the local charities. The children are fully clothed by a second-hand clothes bank run by the City Hall, and the social workers do their best to provide for the growing kids’ hobbies. This type of letting go is not typical of Finnish immigrants living in Sweden, many of who have good education and steady jobs.

As a novel, a piece of fiction, one should not expect Svinalängorna to portray more than one family’s story. Alakoski has chosen to narrate a story about marginality and dependence on the welfare state, and her understanding of class differences not only between the immigrants and the Swedes but also between the Swedish working class and the middle classes is her definite stronghold. Crudely put, she makes a better job of class than Finnishness, and the class job is so well done that it should receive also international attention. Particularly the portrayal of the single mother living in Leena’s neighbour, Inga-Lill, and her attempts to upgrade her social status by dating a man who is in a managerial position and owns a boat, is tragically amusing.

Alakoski also understands intimately the psychological processes that take place in a family whose parents are alcoholics; the perspective of the school-age daughter who hurries home from school to see if the parents are still alive, is highly plausible and gripping. In Finland, this genre of literature (childhood traumas on parents’ alcoholism) is of course highly developed, and Svinalängorna could be well compared with the local author Kreetta Onkeli’s Ilonen talo (1996), with whom the novel acquires a peculiar sympathy of souls. Another, less likely comparison could be the Irish-American Frank McCourt’s Angela's Ashes (1996), in which poverty is at another level than in social democratic Sweden but the child’s experience of neglect and despair very similar.

Much of the narration is tragic to the extent of being pitch-black; however, Alakoski saves the novel by creating a truly hopeful ending, which emphasizes children’s free zones of imagination and space for individual growth, even in less stable family conditions. I had many objections to the text, a litany of grumblings, which in the end turned out to be a more fruitful reading experience than reading a novel with which one agrees totally and reads in a day’s sweep.

Svinalängorna was not a page-turner but a long process, filled with mixed emotions, critical questions and comments. It was a learning process that ended in a question that I also as a writer on multiculturalism and immigrants’ experience in Finland daily ask from myself: what is the future of the so-called immigrant novel, and what is the responsibility of the author in imagining alternative, less likely, but yet possible, futures?

1 comment:

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