Alec Nevala-Lee

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Archive for July 3rd, 2014

“He knew at last that he was home…”

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"He knew at last that he was home"

Note: This post is the thirty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 37. You can read the earlier installments here

I decided long ago that I didn’t want to make my background a central part of my writing. I’m Eurasian—of Finnish and Estonian descent on my mother’s side and Chinese on my father’s—but I’ve resisted, for better or worse, engaging directly with issues of multiracialism. Part of this is out of a dislike of being pigeonholed: there’s a lot of pressure in publishing to categorize authors, mostly as a way of differentiating them in the marketplace, and I don’t fault them for this. It’s hard for an author to stand out under any circumstances, and if your writing is grounded in a particular culture or milieu, it attracts readers who might otherwise have overlooked your work. But it also leads to an unfortunate situation in which an author of Asian descent, say, is expected to write primarily about Asian characters, exceptions like Kazuo Ishiguro notwithstanding. (None of this, by the way, should be taken as a slight against writers who have very good reasons for exploring their personal and cultural histories in fiction; it just isn’t what I ever saw myself as doing.)

As much as I welcome constraints of other kinds, this isn’t a limitation I wanted to accept, because I’ve always wanted to write about as wide a range of characters and situations as possible. (It’s worth noting, of course, that this attitude itself arises indirectly from my multiracial background, which long left me with a sense of not belonging to any group in particular, although that’s a subject for another post.) In practice, in much of my work, you’ll find hints of my background edging into the frame: Asian characters appear prominently in my short fiction, although usually in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself, and you could even argue that the dialogue between east and west embodied in my treatment of Russia is a way of approaching these issues in disguise. For the most part, though, I’ve written fiction that makes it very difficult to tell anything about my own ethnicity. I’m content to disappear from the story as much as I can, and although I’ve sometimes wondered if this has turned into a limitation of its own, it’s the mode in which I feel the most comfortable.

"The city had been erased..."

There’s one big exception, however, and that’s the treatment of Finland in City of Exiles. I’ve only visited Finland once, and Finnish-Americans are among the most highly assimilated groups in the United States, so the impact that this half of my background has had on my life has been relatively subtle. Yet I’ve always found Finland fascinating. It’s a liminal country, lying between Sweden on one end and Russia and the other, and its history has been fundamentally shaped by the presence of its enormous eastern neighbor. The population has never been large or diverse, which is a big part of the reason why it’s been so successful in building a strong welfare state, and although it’s since turned itself into a model nation, it sits only uneasily within the rest of Europe. Its language belongs to its own peculiar linguistic branch; its culture has been shaped by cold, darkness, isolation, war, and the legacy of the indigenous Sami people. And as remote as much of this experience has been from my own life, I still think about it whenever I glance at the sheathed puukko knife on my desk.

When I approached Finland as a location, then, it was both as an insider and an outsider, as well as a writer who saw it as a vein of interesting material that hadn’t been adequately explored in other novels. Karvonen first arrives in Helsinki in Chapter 37, and he regards it with a similar ambivalence: it’s a homecoming of sorts, but only for a man who has been estranged from his own country for a long time, to the point of collaborating with its historical enemy. We’re also introduced to the character of Laila, who plays a small but crucial role in the novel’s third act. Both are defined by their reactions to the memory of the Winter War, one of the bloodiest corners of World War II, and in writing two characters whose motivations are so rooted in history, it’s possible that I was belatedly discovering it for myself. I’m not sure it would have occurred to me to take Finland as a subject if it weren’t for my own family history, but when I look back, it remains one of the most satisfying memories of writing this novel. And if nothing else, I always knew that a Finn would make for a spectacular villain…

Written by nevalalee

July 3, 2014 at 9:23 am

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Written by nevalalee

July 3, 2014 at 7:30 am

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