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The research team: Tuire Valkeakari, Maarit Laitinen, Mari Peepre (back row) and Silja Kudel, Mark Shackleton (front row)

    A new Helsinki University project on migrant and minority literatures

    Mari Peepre

    From the friction of cross-cultural contact comes a tremendous creative energy. Immigrants to a new culture must negotiate a foreign way of life.

    Most of us will never know what it is like to arrive in a new land and learn to call it home, to watch our children shrug off traditional beliefs, and to realize that the bountiful new land we sought out is a mirage. Immigrants and minority cultures live in a world defined by such struggles.

    The migrant experience produces tension, trauma, and triumph - all occurring between generations and between the cultural communities. The pressure inherent in such dramatic cultural shifts can cause tension and even destruction through cross-cultural violence. It can provoke ambivalence, fear, and confusion as some immigrants despair of bridging the cultural chasm and remain marginalized on the peripheries of society, often pushed out by locals who cannot readjust to a multi-cultural presence. But from Vancouver in Canada to Adelaide in Australia, this process also fuels tremendous acts of creation, which act as the force behind a compelling new literary genre. This literature addresses the real, everyday experiences that immigrants go through as they acculturate into a new society. Why do some minorities integrate quickly while others remain on the peripheries of society? How do newcomers affect the society they move into? What can we learn from the cultural production of migrants and minorities?

    Cross-cultural contacts: migrant and minority literature in English

    A newly formed research team at the University of Helsinki is setting out to investigate the wealth of experiences and expression arising from cross-cultural contact around the world. The project came into being largely because of the growing desire of students to explore the contemporary issues which are so clearly reflected in one of the most dynamic bodies of modern literature: that written by migrant and minority authors. Since we believe that one of the best ways to comprehend change in a society is to read its literature, the English Department has set up a series of new courses and initiatives to explore the dynamics at play in contemporary literary expression. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. The project on migrant cultural experiences was officially launched this spring, with Docent Mari Peepre assuming project directorship, Dr. Mark Shackleton acting as senior researcher and PhD students Tuire Valkeakari, Silja Kudel, Maarit Laitinen, and Auli Ek rounding out the research team.

    The aims of the research project are ambitious, since the work will be multi-disciplinary in nature and necessarily shaped to the specific interests of the scholars and graduate students it attracts. It will set out to study cultural "border zones": the term refers to that contact space within which an immigrant culture and that of the host society shift, adapt, and mix. Immigrants inhabit this space as they undergo a process of acculturation into a new society - or, in some cases, experience exclusion or ghettoization. The study will focus on two main topics: Migrant Minorities, who have recently moved from Third World countries to live in four English-speaking nations (Great Britain, Canada, the United States, and Australia); and National Minorities such as Aboriginals and Black peoples, who still face obstacles to full integration long after they have lost direct contact with their heritage cultures.

    The literature which arises from these border zones is rich, vital and complex. In fact, many scholars claim that the best literature written in English today is being produced at just this juncture where cultures are interacting and where creolization is occurring. Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry, Hanif Kureishi and Toni Morrison are perhaps the best-known stars of this literary tradition, but their work represents only a small fraction of the creative surge arising from the immigrant experience. This writing reflects the human realities of life in the border zones - which varies from the agonies of homesickness, rejection, and isolation to the promise of "success in the new land," and coming to terms with a new selfhood. The physical hardships of immigrant parents often creates emotional distress for the next generation, which is driven to both excel in the new culture and at the same time maintain the traditions of the old one.

    With these human issues in mind our project will study the literature of the border zones, and will analyze how cultural communities and races interact to construct a cross-cultural identity. It will investigate the interdiscursivity of literature produced in these zones and will show how that writing reflects shifting social, economic, linguistic and cultural influences.

    The results of this study will be directly relevant to contemporary Finland. Each new immigrant contributes to the process of cross-cultural change: both our identity, and our image as a homogeneous community must react to new social realities. As we have painfully realized in Finland, cultural interaction can often be characterized more by hostility to newcomers than by hospitality. Studying the literatures of countries which have historically experienced cultural mingling and creolization may help us in understanding and negotiating for ourselves the volatile issues surrounding cultural identity.