By Sonia Cancian, University of Minnesota Visiting Scholar Spring 2008
The love letter, with its expressions of love, longing and desire written between confidants and lovers living apart, is a document that for centuries has been regarded as the ultimate form of the art of letter-writing.
The love letter, with its expressions of love, longing and desire written between confidants and lovers living apart, is a document that for centuries has been regarded as the ultimate form of the art of letter-writing. Yet, we rarely associate love letters with migration.
In fact, when we think of migration we often forget the lovers separated in the process; instead we recall parents separated from their children, siblings separated from each other, or friends writing to stay in touch across borders.
What about lovers? Surely, they too were separated as a result of migration, both in past and current movements around the globe. When lovers wrote letters to stay connected, what did they say? And, how did the writing of love letters help them to navigate their relationship at a distance and bridge the inescapable distances that threatened to sever their love? More broadly, how did the experience of migration make migrants’ love letters different from other love letters?
My research utilizes love letters. As I discovered, one of the first tasks awaiting a migration scholar interested in studying such rare and extraordinary documents is the simple challenge of locating them. Few, if any, are available in public archives such as the IHRC and the possibility of finding these documents in private family archives requires much more than simply asking migrants or loved ones left behind if they have kept them.
Next comes the challenge of making sense of the letters once they have been found. These are complex documents—fragmentary, highly subjective, silent on key issues, providing little if any context.
Yet, once these rare documents are located, read and analyzed, they do open an amazing new gateway for understanding migrants and their migrations. They allow us to gaze through intimacy at transnational love relationships being negotiated, modified and challenged by migration and separation. They urge us to enter the hearts and minds of individuals whose emotional energies, frozen in these writings, force us to experience migration through the language of longing and desire, of nostalgia and demand, of elation and frustration, of creative imagination and hard realities—all occurring while these emotions were being experienced daily, and in the moment of a distant past. Through these letters, we experience the emotional charge of communication as lovers practiced the art of writing, articulating creatively their reflections, confidences, needs and demands to distant lovers.
In love letters, lovers created worlds of their own. These worlds were not merely family-centric, as the scholarship on Italian migration movements often suggests. By examining love letters in tandem with migration, we are including the voices of women and men as lovers, reformulating our definition of migration as a process of imaginative and personal change and pushing the boundaries of the usual immigration history paradigm of families and communities in motion.