Home away from home Linda Olsson

My Home Now
ed Gail Thomas and Leanne McKenzie
Cape Catley, $24.99,
ISBN 1877340049

This anthology tells the stories of 47 first-generation immigrants to New Zealand. According to the back cover, “New Zealand is shown in a new and heart-warming way.” I am not sure I agree. It seems as if the new country, New Zealand, is curiously absent in many, if not most, of the stories. With a small number of exceptions, the main character is not New Zealand, but the countries left behind. And those who do acknowledge “the safe and beautiful country” often do so on behalf of the children, the new Kiwis: “New Zealand is a home away from home for me, but for the kids it’s home.”

“There is something inherently right about the country where one is born,” one of the narrators states. The decision to emigrate is never an easy one, whatever the circumstances. It is impossible to erase completely the memory of the country where one was born. It becomes the stick against which all other places will be measured. Irrespective of the reason for leaving, almost all the stories tell of the longing for the birth country, while acknowledging the advantages of the new.

Immigrant stories fascinate, perhaps because, going back long enough, we are all descendants of immigrants. Most families can trace lines from a part of the world other than the one where they live. Often those lines and those ancestors are the ones that define us, make us special. Emigrants are the brave ones, the ones who dare to leave, to take the step into the unknown and begin a new chapter in the family history. Yet first-generation immigrants live in a strange no man’s land, developing ties with the new country while unable to sever those with the old. And often the cultural or racial identity becomes more important than the nationality. As a first-generation immigrant to New Zealand, I think of myself as Swedish first, then proudly acknowledge my French, Finnish and Norwegian ancestry. New Zealand is the place where I live, but it is not who I am.

The stories in My Home Now are divided into three categories: “Seeking a better life”, “Fleeing war and persecution” and “Following love and fate”, but the distinction feels irrelevant. The South African immigrant story ends up under “Seeking a better life”, while the Fijian story sits in “Fleeing war and oppression”. The Chinese/Japanese story sits in “Fleeing war and oppression”, while it could just as well have fitted under either of the other two categories. It might have been equally appropriate to divide the stories into age groups, level of English-language skills or financial means. Many stories have elements of more than one category and eventually it made me question the categories altogether. Perhaps “Seeking a better life” would have sufficed.

The stories themselves are short and simply told and the approach to the subject-matter personal. Seemingly, the brief was very general. This is both a strength and weakness. A more structured approach might have made it easier to compare the stories and have certain central and general issues covered by all narrators. Tighter editing might have removed some of the obvious discrepancies in the literary quality of the stories (and some typos). As it is, some of the most moving stories lose much of their impact due to lack of literary merit. On the other hand, the highly individual style of each story lends the collection an immediacy that is sometimes appealing.

However, another problem with this open approach is the fact that some of the stories relate experiences of complex political situations. The narratives stand unquestioned and unexplained, incomplete and with limited resonance. This is of particular concern in the category “Fleeing war and persecution”. Some narrators make an effort to explain the broader background of the problems of their respective birth countries before venturing into the personal experiences, while some do not. Notes on basic information about the emigrant countries would have been useful. For example, I found the name of Kosova intriguing, and had to read up on it to understand that it is the Albanian version of the Serb name Kosovo, the more commonly used name for an area just outside the city of Pristina.

Certainly, each of the 47 stories in this volume is worthy of being told, and of being read. Yet in this format, each seems too short, too limited in scope and mostly too lacking in literary quality to have any real emotional impact or leave the reader with any lasting impression.

The stories provide almost no criticism of the new country, whether out of respect or because of the scope of the anthology is hard to tell. Many describe isolation and loneliness, difficulties in having professional skills recognised, and struggles with acquiring English language. Several of the narrators tell of later involvement in immigrant services as volunteers. It would have been interesting to hear what suggestions they might have for facilitating the settling-in process.

Lastly, a point on the design of the book. The glossy cover and the good quality of the paper contrast strangely with the poor quality of the grainy black and white illustrations.

It is difficult to recommend this book to any particular kind of reader. It is not a literary read, nor is it a book of fact. The moving and interesting experiences of New Zealand’s recent immigrants deserve recording, but in a shape and form that makes them interesting also from a literary point of view. From a factual perspective, perhaps, it is to be hoped that this volume will stimulate more research into the needs of recent immigrants. Our ability to ensure that immigrants receive the best possible support, and that their skills and experiences are put to good use, is essential not just for their sake, but for all of us who call New Zealand home.

 

Linda Olsson was born in Stockholm and now lives in Auckland. Her first novel, Let Me Sing You Gentle Songs, is reviewed on p16.

 

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Posted in History, Memoir, Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
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