Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Finnish event in Köln

Finally - an update worth mentioning here, in this blog about Finland. Lots of schoolwork has been keeping me busy, but there was an event recently that I had to take some time out to attend. The “Minderheiten- und Migrantenliteraturen im Europäischen Norden”, or Minority and Migrant Literature in the European North seminar took place on campus on Friday the 20th of May. The program consisted of six lectures and a reading: Sami Literature, Kven and Meänkieli Literature (in German), Literature of Roma and Travelers, The Domestic Other : Roma as a Structural Literary Element of Finnishness, the Birth and Death of the Swedish Immigrant Writer, Migrant Literature in Finland, and a reading by Alexandra Salmela from her novel titled 27 Eli Kuolema Tekee Taiteilijan (27 or Death Makes an Artist) The presenters were from various universities around the Nordic areas, including one from my own UTU! Most of the attendees were, as far as I could tell, Köln students who were either majoring in Finnish studies or had done some time abroad there.

The theme was literature from the perspective of the Other – not only Sami and Roma writers but also from immigrants. The author, Alexandra Salmela, was born in Bratislava and is about my age, and talked about her journey from Eastern Europe to Finland. She came across as a really straightforward and down-to-earth, clearly uncomfortable to even call herself an author after one book, and obviously not the kind of blown-up academic that goes around fetishizing her own status as an outsider. I liked her immediately, and when I talked with her afterwards, she even thought she knew me from somewhere. I said that unless she'd been spending a lot of time in Turku over the last year, it wasn't likely. But we got along immediately and her Finnish was incredible – fluent and without any accent that I could detect. Earlier, there was a question and answer session in a combination of Finnish and German (the event proper was thankfully in English), and one of the students asked how she had learned the language so well and so quickly, if she knew any magic tricks that they could acquire to suddenly become fluent – and she said that she had simply used the language as much as possible. I smiled when she told how she had gone through her daily life making at first lots of mistakes, but without letting that stop her until the mistakes became fewer and fewer. She said to ask native speaking friends for help when needed, and to always use the language, every day if it was possible. There weren’t any tricks or miracles, only persistence and the desire to improve. I felt reassured that my own methods were right on the same track as hers.

One lecturer talked about how she was studying the “broken” Finnish of immigrants (such as some short stories of the guest author). Afterwards I laughed and said that I never would have considered that the imperfect version of a language, a source of embarrassment haltingly spoken by me and my immigrant friends would have ever been a subject of academic study. I asked if she had ever looked into writing that’s not intended to be published on the mass market, such as blogs or pamphlets or advertisements in immigrant neighborhoods, since finding someone who would publish imperfect language seemed unlikely (except in the case where it’s used by a native speaker on purpose, such as Linna’s Tuntematon Sotilas or Twain’s Huck Finn). It occurred to me that my own blog might at some point end up a source for someone’s thesis about Finnish immigration, and if you, dear reader, are researching me, I hope you find something useful here, and that you ace your paper. But like pamphlets and advertising, this blog will continue to just serve its purpose as an outlet for and a record of my own experiences.

Of course the topic of racism was also briefly touched upon, and there’s no question that Finland does have its share of open and blatant racists that would have only seemed appropriate in my own country back in the 1930’s. I also mentioned that in spite of those issues, much of the discrimination seemed to be linguistically instead of racially based. African and Middle Eastern immigrants who learn Finnish at least have the opportunity to find work as bus drivers or cashiers at the markets, but if you don’t have a very good command of the language, as has been told directly to me time and time again by everyone from the university to job training sites, you can forget about it. Pale skin alone doesn’t guarantee you a job, and my unemployed Finnish friends would argue that neither does linguistic fluency! But unlike skin color, a insufficient command of Finnish is one problem that a person can work to get themselves out of, and with the effort and application required to learn a language, hopefully remove that albatross from around one’s neck. Not only did Salmela achieve that goal, but went on to be nominated for a Finlandia literature prize for her first novel. If that’s not an example of an immigrant’s success story in a supposedly closed society, I don’t know what is!

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