This guy, Jim Thompson, and I, have a lot in common.
We're both Americans. We've both spent years living in a foreign culture. We both have a considerable insider's knowledge of those cultures, and we both write noir police procedurals about them.
Helsinki White, Jim's latest, deals, in part, with racism in Finland.
Not something you'd expect to find in a society that most of the world views as nearly perfect, is it?
No. Me neither. But it's there.
Read on. (And, after you've finished, drop in to Jim's page, on Amazon, and read the reviews of Helsinki White. One of them is mine: http://amzn.to/yxHRbl )
Leighton - Monday
Finnish Racism: the Victims Speak
A week ago tomorrow, my latest novel in the Inspector Vaara series, Helsinki White, was released in the U.S. It focuses on the themes of racism and corruption. Early reviews, both from trade publications and advance readers programs have been good, but at the same time thought provoking for me. The review in Kirkus rightly noted that most of my research was simply reading newspapers. Much of the rest was reading hate material from right-wing organizations. Much of it is true crime. I’ve found telling the truth a most effective way of making a point.
Over the past couple years, I’ve come to be viewed as a social commentator, as my novels point out social ills. That role was never on my agenda, and I didn’t realize it had happened for quite some time. Then I noticed just how many reviews used phrases like “the dark portrait Thompson paints of Finland.” I write what most label noir novels, and one aspect of the nature of the genre is to point out social ills. I was taken aback to find that writing bleak novels would lead people to believe that the worlds I created would be taken as a blanket statement of my personal feelings about the culture and country I live in. After all, I’ve never heard it said that Ian Rankin thinks Edinburgh a terrible place and Scotland the pits of hell, or that James Ellroy believes Los Angeles a city beyond redemption and the United States a death trap. Both, as best I understand, love those cities and their countries. We’re writing fiction. Key word fiction. I’m still grappling with why readers and reviewers cast me in a role not assigned to most other crime writers setting their novels in other locations.
I like Finland. It’s home. It’s been good to me. Sure, it has a lot of social problems, but what place doesn’t? Looking back, I felt compelled to write Helsinki White only partly because of the social problems I address, but more so because of hypocrisy, because of the national denial that they exist, because of the spin doctors who have convinced the world that Finland is a Utopia, when in fact, it faces a nearly identical set of problems to those much of Europe and the United States, and economically, these problems have been brought on by financiers and power brokers in the European Union and Finland. Yes, much of the book is scripture pure truth, but like everywhere I’ve ever been, this country is multi-faceted, and there is far more to it than suicide, alcoholism, and the many other ills I’ve ascribed to this society. Those facets are simply stories for other writers, not me. They aren’t the themes that compel me to write. It’s just not in my nature.
I’ve lived in various places, but never felt truly attached to any of them, but that lack of feeling has nothing to do with the cities or countries I’ve lived in, but because I’ve adopted the attitude that I take myself wherever I go, so to a certain degree, where I live doesn’t matter that much. I seldom consider my place in society. Although I’ve assimilated, I don’t think of myself as a Finn. I don’t think of myself as anything. To define a thing is to limit it. Why should I limit myself? I’ve very seldom in my life felt that I belonged to anything, have always felt that I’m an observer more than a participant. An outsider by nature. And I’m comfortable with that. A major Finnish magazine, Suomen Kuvalehti—sort of a Finnish Newsweek—publishes most interesting quotes of the week. I was once quoted as saying. “If foreigners don’t like it here, they know where the airport is.”
And I did say it, but my meaning wasn’t critical or malicious. I was sincere. If you don’t like where you are, go somewhere else. I’ve tired of places and moved on. What’s the big deal? Also, most of the people I associate with are Finnish. The reason: put a group of immigrants together, and more often than not, the main topic of conversation is how Finland sucks. I don’t think it sucks and tirades against it weary and bore me. I have two good American friends. Both are attorneys. Both are thriving. They’ve built lives here and love this place.
But hypocrisy, and particularly the hypocrisy of hate, repulses me. It exists everywhere, but as I write novels set in Finland, I discuss it in Finnish terms. And yes, I think that in some ways I must be a hypocrite, too. We lie to ourselves about ourselves as a way of getting through life. The worst lies are the ones we tell ourselves, and I don’t think I’ve met anyone who isn’t guilty of it. We’re all fucking guilty.
I’ve let myself believe that if I can make it here, other foreigners can too. Of course, I have the distinct advantage of being white. I’ve always been aware that it makes a big difference, but it never hit home to me until this week how this culture can destroy people, flatten them, steamroll them. Especially people of color. It began with an e-mail from a young black man, a 25-year old Nigerian, and ended with a small mountain of correspondence falling into my hands. The man wishes to remain anonymous, because he’s afraid of retribution from racists, but wishes these texts to be published, and so I will, in a series. When you see editing, assume I did it to protect identity. When you see poorly written English, realize that English is usually a third, fourth, or fifth language for the writers, so personally, I think they’ve written very well indeed. I begin with the correspondence that sparked this post. My part in the conversation is irrelevant and so deleted.
Also, these opinions are not my own. At times, you may feel they’re shrill and unsupported. To me, that’s of little importance. What moves me is how these people feel.
Oh James, Many thanks indeed for this. It was all I needed -- and I 'really' needed it.
Will now look forward to the future, plus speed up my plans to move away from Finland. I am here now for seven years and the immigrant situation in the country really isn't getting any better. You and Alexis Kouros (owner of Helsinki Times) are the only foreign-born persons I know who are successfully doing what they enjoy doing in the country. Others, mostly, are either saddened and trapped, or saddened and running away. :)
Have a blessed day!
Please feel free to share my experiences anonymously.
I am currently 30, and came to Finland at age 22. A trained nurse -- studied here in Finland. I am from Botswana.
95% of the guys with whom I started life in Finland have all emigrated to the US, Canada or their home country following graduation in Finland. They all left out of frustration stemming from their inability to get decent jobs that match their studies.
This is a country that just keeps talking about how much it needs immigrants, especially bright ones, but does nothing to retain and respect them when they get here. I have met countless smart and well-educated expatriates across the country whose lives have been turned upside down by the country and its women.
But worst is that Finns don't want to be confronted with the truth, which makes me think they may never get this immigration matter, much less solve it. I have tried through numerous ways to affect the situation with no success. I have written to the right governmental ministries….
I have really tried to affect the situation positively. For instance, despite knowing "integration" is a myth and that Finns mostly use it to cover up their inability to accept and employ the immigrant, I have mostly tried to share the blame equally between the two camps (immigrants and Finns). To be candid, I used to be optimistic about Finland eventually getting the immigration puzzle, but not anymore. I have all but given up as I talk to you. Finns often blame the immigrant's woes on the immigrant's poor knowledge of the Finnish language, but the truth is, the more Finnish you know, the harder life becomes for you in Finland. EDITOR’S NOTE: IT SOUNDS STRANGE BUT IS TRUE, I HAVE REALIZED THIS MYSELF. I am a testimony. As a matter of fact, I was warned by older, frustrated immigrants upon arrival in Finland back in 2005, but I defied them, believing that positivity and hard work will always result in success, unaware that as I was warned, Finland is an exception.
I have lived across 5 Finnish cities. It's indeed a dark country. After sharing a Helsinki apartment with a seriously alienated and mentally sick Finnish guy, I moved to a new house about a hundred meters away from the former one, hoping for a safer living, but only to discover that my new neighbour (or flat-mate) was about as sick as the former. A few weeks after moving in, I discovered that this my new mate had just bought himself a very long and terrifying sword. And I was relieved as I shortly afterward had to move from there to Vaasa where I was offered a job. Lo!, James, my new flat-mate there in Vaasa was, if truth be told, sicker than the two preceding young men in Helsinki. This young man in Vaasa was dangerously troubled and yelled from his room every night, a very chilling cry. Moving to Forssa from Vaasa after half a year wasn't any better. There in Forssa I knew an American man who was disturbingly bullied and used by his Finnish wife with whom he had moved from the States. To wrap up, not long after moving from Forssa To xxxx -- a Finnish guy who shared my Forssa block was found dead in his apartment. So much dark stuff taking place in such a small place.
I have so much to say but would neither like to steal your time nor spoil your day. In less than a year here in xxxxx I suffered two (physical) racial attacks. One was on the bus on my way home from work; the other happened at a bus stop on my way to work.
At my most recent work place (a large hospital), mental and emotional troubles are so prevalent among the staff my employer has stopped offering sick leave pay to those suffering it. A cost cutting measure which forgot to take into account that both mental and physical health are clearly inseparable. Ironically, such injustice is happening in a health care environment.
Indeed, James, you may not imagine this one possible in Finland but not long ago here, being a nurse, I was asked by a patient of mine to call his son and tell him his father was down and dying. I did, and instead of a promise of an immediate last visit from his son on the phone, the younger man was furiously demanding to know why I called him when his father wasn't yet dead, adding that I should call him only after he was dead.
Finland is a dark and heavily imperfect place but where citizens are superlatively pretentious. Back in the Catholic seminary which I attended as a young boy, such an attitude was referred to by seminarians as "washing the cup's outer side, when its inner side is indeed the side in need of sanitary attention".
THERE IS MORE, BUT I THINK YOU GET THE MAN’S POINT. NOW I BEGIN THE SERIES OF CORRESPONCE. EACH LETTER DETAILS THE FEELINGS AND EXPERIENCES OF A DIFFERENT INDIVIDUAL.
I am a black foreigner, I have a job, I pay my TAXES. I consider myself as a hard working person and I get along with some Finns, mostly educated ones who don't suffer from low self esteem.
I have realized that most Finns that are racist have very low self esteem and feel big when they put a black person down.They complain that foreigners are here to take their jobs and take money from the state. Well from my experience foreigners especially black want to work and are usually not employed because of the colour of their skin. Give them jobs and you will never see them at KELA or sosu FINNISH UNEMPLOYMENT AND WELFARE OFFICES. They will do any job, and most often they get the jobs that Finns themselves don't want then they complain that they are taking away jobs. One thing that the average Finn doesn't know is that Finns are scattered all over the world, I was shocked to discover that some Finns actually live in the country I come from. And the funny thing is that although they look different they are welcome and free.
Finns need to be welcoming and friendly to outsiders.Above all they need to learn other ways of building self esteem, like teaching their children respect,caring for their old parents,caring for their neighbour, not feeling jealous about what the other person has achieved,being friendlier, spending more time with their children and family not just at joulu or any other holiday, learning more about other cultures.
Don't get me wrong not all Finns are bad and they are some positive things about Finnish people but sometimes they get overshadowed by the bad things.One of these positive things is that they are hard working.
You describe us Finns quite accurately, I think. Many of us, yes, perhaps the more educated ones, and those who have lived elsewhere, have no problem with foreigners, but there is a visible minority who are racist. Like racists everywhere, Finnish racists try to cover their insecurity by bravado and bullying and blaming those who look different.
I feel that there is a section of 'humanity' missing in our society. This is difficult to explain, and I'm not even sure if this is true about the majority or just some people I've met. I've lived in two other countries, and will never return to Finland to live (I hope), and can say I have not met such simpletons anywhere else as so many of us Finns are. It's as if many of us were living some bad farce with few lines and only in a minor role. We are not a fully functioning human being, we are actors not quite familiar with the script, and certainly not able to write the script. Some kind of automatic robots going about our routine actions, saying routine phrases, reacting, not thinking. This is not being human. Being a human is to exprerience life fully, find a connection with others, creating one's life instead of reacting to events like a rag doll.
I respect many things about the Finnish culture, and admit that we have many good qualities, such as the ability to work hard, and persistence, sisu. I'm glad you are living in Finland. People like you wil eventually bring some light into darkness, even against the will of some of the population. Stay positive, keep smiling.
One memory from my past. I was living in a small town before I emigrated. I found most people difficult to get along with, and rather narrow minded. The only one I was able to talk with as a human being talks to another, was a black man. He was working as a doctor. He was wonderful, but I got the impression that many didn't appreciate him.
When I moved to Finland 12 years ago, people always asked: "Are you accustomed to the Finnish culture?”
Culture - where is it? Is it a man running down a woman at the door of a shop? Is it when the kids trample on the meal table? Is it a young man sitting in a bus and an old woman standing? Is it, as well, when adults seem to have forgotten the words "Hello" and "Thank you"?
Feast day is Saturday. Then have to drink to the memory loss. The main streets look like after urinary competitions.
It’s a pity that Finnish nation do not have friends and they do not respect their parents.
Elderly make suicide every other day in Finland. The reason is loneliness and depression.