On my way to Helsinki to take part in a festival about digital narratives, my thoughts go back to my roots. Finland is part of where I come from. But Finland is not part of my self-lived narrative which makes it a bit complicated.
Finland is the silence, that was part of my childhood, like a fourth sibling. A shadow, never challenged or exposed to light.
This silence, that somehow grew bigger with time and with loved ones, who passed away with their secrets tightly held within.
What is the effect on the generations to come, if we don’t talk about our roots. If we don’t pass on our ancestors’ history?
I grew up knowing our finnish-swedish history was not a subject. It simply wasn’t. Best forgotten, never discussed.
My grandmother had nine siblings. I never met them. They were “over there.” In the small village in the Finnish countryside. Some, already buried, others left behind. They were poor, probably farmers or handymen.
Like my granny, who left them to find work as a maid in Sweden. My grandmother spoke Swedish, but some words and expressions she used were in dialect.
As a grown-up, I have learned that there are many such dialects among the Finnish-Swedish minority in Finland. They are fascinating languages, if I may say so. I just didn’t know that as a child.
My mother never spoke dialect. The silence, the shadow of shame, prevented the language to be passed on to her, and to us – the third generation.
Thus a language was lost, a culture forgotten and a hole was created in our family history.
A hole, hard to mend when time has passed and those with knowledge as well.
The small bits that I have found, trying to lay our family puzzle, show me many broken family ties and a lost culture. And my own children will be even further away from this.
They are not even bearing the memory of a great grandmother fidgeting with her thumbs, repeating Finnish-Swedish words over and over. A great grandmother who firmly believed both in God, but also in gnomes and trolls.
Reclaiming without being able to talk to living persons – being referred only to archives – is almost futile. And this is the great sorrow for us, and our children – that the loss is permanent and that part of our identity will always be that big, silent shadow of shame, created during a time when a human was to an even higher extent than today, defined by class, origin and language.
We see the tendencies to shame groups of people today as well, but there has certainly been a movement forward in this part of the world.
Reclaiming does take place – but it is never easy.
And the individual is often left feeling like an outsider – looking in. Not fully belonging in their own history.
I know that is how I feel.
Thank you for sharing this interesting part of your history. Makes you wonder why your Grandmother did not want to talk about her family. Unfortunately I also think that it is very common for a new generation to forget a country or a culture of origin when the parents move abroad. Even without a stigma, it is easy to get absorbed with the new country and stop celebrating traditions, then loosing contact with family and friends and finally gradually forgetting the language. With the globalization and digitalization of today it is our generations’ responsibility to keep asking our parents, aunts and uncles, and if possible our grandparents, about our history and background and pass it on to our children, otherwise each coming generation may end up living in their own islands rootless and without ever knowing their history.
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I think you are right – sometimes it’s easier to just dive into a new culture and not keep hanging on to your own. Especially, if you marry someone from the other country – like my granny did. When I think about her, I am surprised at how little she ever told about herself. She was a typical woman of her time, not demanding a place of her own. When we visited and had dinner together, she would remain by the stove, sitting on a small stool (one of those combined with a ladder), eating while cooking. She didn’t want to sit by the table even when we begged her to. And she never talked about herself. I only ever heard about her siblings when she mentioned that one or the other had passed away. Thinking about it as a grown-up, it is pretty sad. Perhaps, the class journey that my mother made – being the first one in the family to go to the university and the fact that we, as children, were far better educated than both my grandparents put together, had someting to do with it. They had a lot of mixed feelings about this, as I recall it. They were working class, and my mother had become middle class, and she married into a middle class family as well.
I also think that it was hard talking about being from Finland during the 20th century. There had been a lot of rasism against Finnish people in Sweden. Finnish persons were labeled as a lesser sort of humans based on rasist theories developed by Herman Lundborg (d.1943). Thus, you didn’t say you were from Finland. And my grandmother was marked by the war. She could look into my eyes and sigh, saying that I was lucky. I would be safe in case of war. Of course, she was thinking about the concentration camps and the selection of people worthy of life only depending on looks and origin. That silences you. And makes you afraid of telling others who you are. And it is inherited. Fear and silence often are, I think.
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Thank you, that explains a lot. So sad, and a the same we should be so grateful for how far we have come. That women today, at least in our part of the world, have choices and can choose to speak up and not be invisible or silent. And we should keep fighting for those women in other parts of the world where they still can not speak freely or make choices of their own.
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