Against labels

Pajtim Statovci grew up in Finland. But when he published his first novel, it was his Kosovar heritage that shaped the news coverage.

In 1992, during the Yugoslav Wars, my family fled to Finland. Because I was only two years old at the time I don’t have any memories whatsoever from life back in Kosovo, the country I was born in. I learned to read at an early age, and books and stories quickly became my passion. For as long as I can remember, writing stories is what I’ve wanted to do in life. It makes me extremely happy and proud to be able to report that my childhood dream came true. I am a writer today.

When I was a child I never thought that home was somewhere other than Finland. I never asked my parents whether we would be moving back to Kosovo one day, and I never felt out of place. I never experienced any emotion of dislocation or otherness because the world I lived in was the only world I knew. When I started going to a Finnish school and having conversations with teachers and other students this changed drastically, and I realized that I was different from my peers – a refugee, an immigrant, an asylum seeker. Until that point I had no reason to think of myself as an outsider, to refer to myself as an immigrant, to think about where my home was.

During my school years I was frequently confronted by questions regarding my background, my ‘real home’, such as: ‘What is it like to live in a foreign country? Under such pressure, between two different languages, two different cultures, between religions?’. Or: ‘How does it feel when there’s a war in your home country?’ Answering these kinds of questions made me exceptionally uncomfortable, I truly feared them, and eventually I got into the habit of avoiding new people as I knew that the questions would start pouring in once I told others my Albanian name. I always felt that because of my background I was seen as less fortunate, that in the eyes of others I was traumatized, ruined for good, that my world was somehow shattered.

The way I saw it, there was no war in my home, no pressure in my existence, no violence in my past. Switching between Albanian and Finnish and knowing about both Finnish and Albanian traditions felt completely natural. It was painless, effortless, because I knew nothing else. This was my world, I had nothing else to compare my reality to. I quickly realized these questions offended me because they presumed that my life is somehow torn apart, divided in two, burdened with elements that don’t mix.

When my first novel My Cat Yugoslavia was published in Finland in August 2014, the media started referring to me as an ‘immigrant writer’. Because I have written a novel about an Albanian family living in Finland as an ethnic Albanian living in Finland, many assume that I am my protagonist, that I own a pet snake, that I am or have been in an abusive relationship and that my father is dead, just like in the story I’ve written. It made me laugh at first, and I wasn’t surprised, because as a student of literature I was aware of how debut novels are typically perceived.

Once I even got a call from a journalist who had interviewed me the day before. He said they weren’t happy with the pictures they had taken during the interview and suggested we take new ones. ‘Since it’s such a warm day, could you come out with your pet boa?’ he asked. I told him with great resentment that I don’t have a snake. I’ve never had a snake. My Cat Yugoslavia is just a book, a work of fiction, and I don’t keep a talking cat as a companion either.

I gradually became increasingly irritated by the label I was given, and I became more and more offended by the headlines about me and my work: ‘Experience Finland Through the Eyes of an Immigrant’, they’d say, ‘This Is What Being a Foreigner In Finland is Like’, or, ‘To a Migrant Finland is Cold and Racist’.

Being labeled like this made me extremely sad because what made me pursue a career in fiction was the ability to tell stories – fates free from labels, stereotypes, prejudice and oppression. It proved that I’m still being seen through a filter, that what I feared the most as a child is still happening and present in my life, in my career as a writer of fiction. I’m not seen as a creative individual, I am just a face for an audience, a bridge between ‘us’ and ‘them’, an interpreter of worlds. Even though I had written a novel in Finnish, even though I had lived in Finland my whole life, even though I had graduated from a Finnish university, I was seen as someone from the outside, as someone who speaks from the sidelines, as someone who’s in the margins of Finnish society.

The implication is this: that this is not my home, this is not my country, this is not my language.

I’ve been a writer for only a few years, but during this time I’ve been asked countless times about migration, racism, nationality, the situation in the Middle East. ‘What should we do with all the people fleeing the area and coming to Finland?’ Or: ‘Would you care to share your thoughts on how Finland could perform better in assimilating refugees?’ As if I had exceptional insight or an answer to one of the biggest questions of our time because of my background. Needless to say, being an immigrant or a refugee doesn’t make anyone an expert in immigration, nor does writing about an immigrant family.

Placing a person, a writer, an artist, in a category – whether it’s as ‘woman writer’,  ‘immigrant writer’, ‘refugee’, ‘gay’, ‘Muslim’ – jeopardizes what they can do and create, threatens their freedom to express themselves the way they see fit, and endangers the uniqueness of every single story.

Nowadays, when someone asks me about my personal story and the world I was raised in I say that it’s simply beautiful, it is whole, and every language I know and every country I’ve lived in has made my life fuller and richer and more wonderful. That’s what I say, maybe annoyingly so, when someone asks me about my home country. When they ask me about the war I say that even though I’ve experienced loss and grief, I am very lucky because I get to do what I love. I’ve had success early on in my career, I am privileged and very fortunate to have people around me who support and understand me and what I do. I tell them this because it is the truth. I am an artist, I get to be my home, my own language, my own culture.

I am a country.

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About the Author

Pajtim Statovci is a Finnish novelist. His debut novel, My Cat Yugoslavia, was first published in 2014 and won the Helsingin Sanomat Literature Prize for best debut novel in Finnish for that year. It was published in English by Pushkin Press in 2017, translated by David Hackston. His second novel, Heartlines, won the Toisinkoinen Literature Prize for 2016.

Additional Information

My Cat Yugoslavia is available from Pushkin Press.

Photo credit: Giuseppe Milo on flickr.

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