The nostalgic citizen

March 5th, 2013 | Alina Müller

With the increased mobility of people and sustained emigration, what we see emerging is not a global citizen, not even a European one, but a nostalgic one.

The moderator, who was a stand-in for the advertised one, was not doing a great job. The talk was coming to an end and she had barely touched on the subject of the evening: politics, identity and the importance of  place. The panelists, three contemporary writers, were all acting out their discontent with the discussion in their own way: the French Philippe Claudel by being general, the Croatian Dasa Drndic, sarcastic, and the Haitian-Canadian Danny Laferièrre, aloof.  For the last question the moderator turned to Danny Laferièrre:

‘Being Haitian and living in Canada, you must have encountered racism. How did you deal with it?

Laferièrre, leaning back in his chair, replied through his French translator: ‘It’s not up to me to fight racism. That’s their problem. I didn’t go there to sort out their problems.’

The same writer had spoken passionately throughout the evening about the social, cultural and political situation in Haiti, his country of birth. The contrast between that and the engagement with his second home country that his reply suggested was striking. This difference could be attributed to the circumstances which had made him an immigrant in the first place: Laferièrre, then a young journalist, was forced into exile by the Duvalier dictatorship in 1976. One could expect that, throughout his stay in Canada, he would continue to look back.

But this exile state of mind is common among most types of emigrants, even the ones who left their countries in less dramatic circumstances. Many immigrants continue to read their no longer local news, passionately support their no longer local football teams, mobilise to protest against the latest injustice back home and even vote in their countries of origin. (To some extent, I too belong to this group. I have never exercised my right to vote in the local elections in the UK, for example, and I followed the national ones with the kind of interest with which someone might follow the Eurovision song contest. But I was devastated when, in 2010, a far right party won seats in parliament in Sweden, a country which I left 12 years ago).

Over and above technological developments and ease of travel, this link to the country of origin is further strengthened by the good old nation state. In an attempt to reverse the brain drain, open new markets abroad or harness remittances, nation states work hard to keep their emigrated citizens close. Meanwhile, national political parties are becoming increasingly interested in winning the external vote. This drive of countries of origin to maintain a strong grip on the hearts and minds of their nationals even after they’ve long left their territory is facilitated by the lack of interest of receiving countries to capture them. It’s not hard to see how the discrimination, racism and general hostility that immigrants are often met with today can kill even the strongest desire to integrate.

So between emigrants nurturing their sentimental attachment to their home countries, governments taking a growing interest in their diasporas and host countries failing to engage them, what we see is a growing number of people exercising their citizenship, or desiring to do so, in countries where they no longer reside.

The book Danny Laferièrre was promoting that evening is a semi-autobiographical account of his return to his country of birth, 33 years after he left it.

Can it be that we’re all just waiting to do the same?


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