What is la rentrée littéraire?
17 October 2013
Anthony Flint reflects on his visiting fellowship
18 November 2013

Susan Ossman: On writing about expatriates

On Writing About Expatriates

My book Moving Matters began as a reflection on my own experience of living in France, Morocco, the USA and the UK. Was I an immigrant? A nomad? A cosmopolitan? All of the above? Immigrants are portrayed as caught between two homelands: the cosmopolitan seems at home everywhere, and the nomad floats, eternally homeless. So what about those flesh and blood people who cross borders with come difficulty, yet manage to settle down for long periods of time in one place after another? I set out to interview and spend time with serial migrants to find out.

Collecting stories of migrants seems straightforward. But in fact, both theoretically and practically it was a challenge. Most studies of migration identify those they study by characteristics like ethnicity, citizenship or type of employment. To focus on a particular life path challenged this. Identifying serial migrants took time. I had to listen to people’s stories or work through extensive networks to find out who fit the definition I’d adopted: someone who had lived in at least three countries for at least three years. I was especially interested in people who had not moved within the context of an organization: for instance, diplomats or people who have worked for a single multi-national corporation. And so the only way to find the people I would interview was through networking and going to places where there are many people on the move: world cities like Paris, London or New York, and regions where there is a lot of migration like the Arab Gulf States and Quebec.

This was exciting research; the stories themselves are fascinating, compelling and often dramatic. Some people left their birthplace to further their education, others for a job. Still others fled war or were political exiles before settling in as immigrants and then, compelled by lack of papers or motivated by for love or a job or adventure, they moved on. This third move is critical because it breaks the home/host dynamic that shapes the dilemma of the immigrant. After feeling caught between two places, the third move offers a kind of release. But it also introduces new questions. When you settle down in a place it becomes a part of you. How do you reconcile so many ways of life, habits acquired in diverse settings? Notions like hyphenated identity or hybridity or the fragmentation of the modern subject don’t help them to make sense of themselves. Indeed, adopting such ideas can increase the difficulty of making sense of their experiences. I see the struggle with the “accumulation” of diverse versions of the self as a defining problem for the serial migrant.

So while discourses about problems of “integration” are common in discussions of migration policy and popular political discourse, serial migrants were more concerned about dealing with the multiplicity of ways of life they had incorporated themselves. But while objects may be carefully selected to bring along in one’s travels, the ways of life one has adopted can be difficult to discard or hard to maintain in new settings.

Susan Ossman will present her book Moving Matters: Paths of Serial Migration at the Library on November 13th.