By Minna Rainio
Even though I am a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota, and don't really think of myself as an immigrant, I find the cultural dynamics described in fiction written by immigrants to be very familiar.
"I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination." (Jhumpa Lahiri: Interpreter of Maladies)
This is how an Indian man who has migrated to the United States describes his life in Jhumpa Lahiri's short story "The Third and Final Continent". I have felt a similar sense of bewilderment when interviewing refugees who have arrived in Finland or when reading accounts by victims of trafficking for prostitution. Their experiences of leaving their war-torn homelands and traveling across the globe with human smugglers have sometimes been beyond my imagination and understanding. Yet I have wanted to hear their stories, engage with them, and share them with a wider audience through my artworks.
Since my artwork and research began to circle around the topics of migration and dislocation, I have found myself constantly immersed in fiction dealing with the same themes. Some of the most memorable and powerful novels I have read in the last few years are - to mention just a few - What is the What by Dave Eggers, Jhumpa Lahiri's short stories, Edwidge Danticat's biographical narratives of the Haitian diaspora, and Dinaw Mengestu's melancholy novel about an Ethiopian immigrant in Washington DC: The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears.
But only after I moved to Minneapolis a year ago did the themes of my work and the fiction I was reading start to feel strangely familiar and somewhat more personal. When reading Jhumpa Lahiri's stories last January I remember recognizing her characters' deep feelings of isolation and disconnectedness - not to mention their bewilderment and frustration with the American way of life. Many of the immigrants in her stories are, like myself, educated middle class people coming to work in American universities.
I finally started to accept my friend's suggestion that in some ways the topics of my art and research could also be rooted in my own life history: living in different countries; experiencing persistent feelings of exclusion and not-belonging; and facing the as yet unresolved question of 'where is home?' I stubbornly protested her idea of my work being based in any way on personal experience, and pointed out that I belong to the privileged elite of globalization; I am an educated western citizen who travels and moves around according to my own free will, and I always have the option to return to my native country. Ignoring my objections my friend calmly continued that even though my socioeconomic and cultural situation is very different, the psychical experience of moving to another country is not necessarily completely dissimilar. Maybe she was right after all.
As the character in Jhumpa Lahiri's story mentions, there is nothing extraordinary in the experience of migration. Whether it is voluntary or dictated by circumstances, every year hundreds of millions of people cross borders and move around the globe. But as Sara Ahmed has pointed out, "[t]he question is not simply about who travels, but when, how and under what circumstances?" It is paramount to understand the historical and political causes and effects of patterns of migration and dislocation.
However, maybe art and fiction can shed light not only on the historical and political conditions of migration, but also give us insights into the inner lives of people who have experienced it. I still maintain my position in emphasizing the difference between my migratory experiences and those who have left their countries fearing for their lives or to escape poverty. Nevertheless, perhaps the acknowledgment of a certain, albeit limited, shared human experience through art - whether it is fictional narratives, film or visual art - will help me gain a deeper understanding of my research topic, which, although so commonplace in today's world, is at times still beyond my imagination.
By Minna Rainio, Visual Artist and Researcher, Visiting Associate Professor, Department of Art, University of Minnesota.