Place, Sentimentality, and the Dispossessed Amy Shuman Folklore research on place could be described as a tension between naturalization and sentimentality and politics of ownership and heritage based land claims. So, on the one hand, we understand attachment to or appreciation of the land, or the homeland to be a “common human emotion” (Yi-Fu Tuan, 1977:158) and on the other, we regard the place to be not only a constructed, but a contested category. This tension exists not only in our scholarship but in the politics of place. Rather than dismiss the natural, in favor of the constructed, as seems to be the tendency in contemporary folklore theories, I’d like to bring the elements of the tension into conversation with each other. In particular, I want to consider: Naturalization/sentimentality produced by very different kinds of attachment to the land, especially the attachment that groups express under siege, when their homelands are threatened, and attachment expressed as a spiritual or natural bond with the land. In either case, the people-land connection is a significant source of sentimentality. Sentimentality is often portrayed as an indulgence or even a veneer of emotion that obscures accountability and/or critical thinking. The role of the Romantic legacy of folklore (Abrahams, 1993) as well as Romanticism generally, in generating sentimental attachments to place. Naturalizing as a political strategy, indeed a particularly effective political strategy. Competing concepts of cultural erosion and relocalization, the first suggesting that globalization and progress have diminished cultural diversity and the second observing renewed local identity formations, often in response to hegemonic threats or incursions. The post-colonial production of heritage based land claims The companion roles of time and space in the meeting between tradition and modernity—especially the chronology of lost or eroded culture mapped onto the attempt to claim or recover places. In this regard, I consider the ways that time is represented as speed (progress as speeding up the erosion; that make places more confined, restricted (in terms of entry) or smaller and compressed (in terms of access through media) Shifts in the study of folklore from the transmission of folklore across continents to the dispersal of dispossessed people across continents It is in this vein that I have undertaken my study of refugees seeking asylum in the United States. Not only the refugees themselves but also the immigration bureaucrats have a Romantic concept of the homeland, and the deployment of this concept can have huge consequences for an asylum seeker petitioning to stay in the U.S. Folklore has always been as much about displacement as it has been about place. Just as the temporal dimension of our research includes fragments and forgetting, the spatial dimension of our work has always included ruins and the traces of a physical past. Whether about the transmission of folk tales and legends by travelers to different lands or about contact zones between diverse groups, folklore research has always investigated the movement of lore beyond its imaginary place of origin. At the same time, origins, Ur forms, and claims for authenticity based on identification between peoples and places have been a predominant occupation of folklore scholarship. Today folklore research has shifted away from both the search for origins and the static identification of people with place. Instead we are preoccupied with place as a cultural imaginary. In my presentation, I focus on one dimension of that cultural imaginary of place: the sentimental hold of the homeland. In a study of refugees applying for asylum status in the United States, I document how the asylum process requires applicants to produce complex and contradictory forms of sentimental attachment to place. For this presentation I focus on one dimension of my research on asylum seekers: how refugees reconstitute home as part of the asylum application process. I will make three observations at the outset. First, to be successful in their applications, the refugees need to describe a home that they cannot safely return to. They need to describe their lives before, during, and after their homes were disrupted, and they need to understand and explain the political forces that displaced them. Second, their survival in the United States depends upon a newly constituted network of compatriots who are preferably but not always from the same family, tribe, or trusted circle from their homeland. The obligations refugees have to each other are a matter of constant renegotiation. And third, the refugees have several cultural imaginaries of home and homeland. After filling out the forms required by the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Service (B.C.I.S), applicants have a face-to-face interview with an asylum official who reviews the case. As is typical of such interviews, Mr. Y., A Chinese asylum seeker, was asked to explain his political affiliations and the activities that had made him a target of persecution in China. Mr. Y., a published poet in China, responded by reading a poem he had written about his experiences, a poem that he said had prompted his arrest and torture; he concluded by saying, “I am not a traitor. I love my country, and I will always love my country.” He was turned down for asylum, and the asylum official explained that Mr. Y. had no evidence that he had experienced persecution or could not return to China. He appealed the decision, and in a follow-up interview with the same official, when asked for proof of persecution, Mr. Y. began to cry and said, “You will take away my last piece of dignity.” He unbuttoned his shirt and showed the official his scarred chest, the proof of the torture he had said he had experienced. The official, who then did grant asylum asked, “Why didn’t he show me the scars in the first place?” Mr. Y. passed not only the test to prove he had suffered political persecution but also an unarticulated test of his loyalties. Political asylees are distinguished from individuals fleeing economic deprivations (who are not eligible for asylum status) in part by their professions of sentimental attachment to a lost homeland. I have written elsewhere about memory and forgetting in the asylum applicants’ trauma narratives and about the ways that asylum narratives both map onto and are differentiated from the immigrant narratives of the 19th and early 20th century. They are expected to have stories more like those of immigrants fleeing religious persecution than those fleeing economic hardship. The earlier immigrant narratives provide a template of hope and prosperity that is deferred for asylum applicants Some applicants for asylum are the relatively innocent victims of civil or inter- ethnic wars that leave them homeless. Other applicants are individuals whose political actions have made them the targets of persecution or imprisonment. They have somehow escaped and are searching for safe haven. Mr. Y. was, as it turned out, the ideal asylum applicant in the eyes of the B.C.I.S. He had a sentimental attachment to a lost homeland, and he regarded the United States as a safe haven (rather than as a means for a better livelihood). Mr. M., a native of Sierra Leone, is a good example of an asylum seeker who has relied upon a network of other refugees in the United States. He initially landed in Texas, after stowing away on a ship. In Texas, he heard that there were jobs in Columbus, Ohio, where he is now. Asylum applicants cannot work legally for the first six months, so they have to have some sort of support network to sustain them. Fellow refugees from the same tribe or community feel an obligation to shelter others, and Mr. M. has benefited from that, but his situation is always precarious; he moves from one place to another every few months. Also, he is never exactly sure if people from his country are from the same side of the struggle as he—whether they are friends or enemies. The Somali community in Columbus, Ohio, provides an example of the third dimension of refugee conceptions of place. The Somali population in Columbus has grown from a few dozen families in the late 1990’s to twenty thousand in 2004. The most frequent explanation for the sudden growth and the choice of Columbus is that members of a particular tribe dispossessed by the Somali civil war have all come to Columbus. When interviewed about their tribal affiliation, however, most Somalis in Columbus say that they do not want to discuss tribes at all, that they are not telling their children which tribe they come from, and that their goal is create a new Somali identity without tribal distinctions. Some say that they themselves do not know which tribe they come from. The Somalis in Columbus are primarily refugees rather than asylum seekers, that is, they received their refugee status in refugee camps before coming to the United States, and they don’t have to prove, as asylum seekers who make their applications in the U.S. do, that they were persecuted. They don’t have to claim a tribal status. What is interesting in the context of concepts of place is that the Somalis in Columbus are working to erase a dimension of their ties to their homeland. Constantly measured against the constancy of people and place, the uprooted refugees of ethnic, national, and international conflict live with fragments of lost pasts that cannot be recovered and memories of places that cannot be returned to. This is not what Marx meant when he referred to the homogenization of the world as one outcome of capitalism, in Hardt and Negri’s terms, the idea that ”traditional cultures and social organizations are destroyed in capital’s tireless march through the world to create the networks and pathways of a single cultural and economic system of production and circulation” (2000: 327). These effects of capitalism are unmistakable, but at the same time, the before and after story about the meeting of tradition and modernity is, as folklorists have documented, more complicated. For one thing, the story is told retrospectively, and the traditional is invented later to describe what is perceived to have disappeared. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has written about this both as a disciplinary issue, which she describes as “eleventh-hour ethnography,” the attempt to recover a subject that has almost disappeared, and as a dimension of cultural consciousness. Thus, in an essay on Klezmer music, she cites Rabbi Chaim Solovecik’s use of a distinction between self- conscious and self-evident culture---in self-conscious cultural accounts, particular practices are identified as traditional or authentic; self-evident culture is what people do “naturally,” rather than as an effort to preserve traditions or claim legacies. We might add an additional characteristic of self-conscious culture, and that is that it is produced in response to a threat. Self-conscious productions of heritage are not the only response to threatened groups, but they are an available strategy in the context of capitalism, and within the narrative describing the erosion of traditional culture as a consequence of modernity and progress. Also, in perhaps the most important challenge to the narrative of progress eroding traditional culture, scholars such as S. Visvanathan have pointed out that capitalism’s tireless march is not, as it promises, all inclusive. Would that it were. But as Visvanathan says, it will never be possible to have a world in which everyone had a pair of Nike’s. Instead, the companion to capitalism and modernity is the black market. Political scientists (who once predicted for the increased homogeneity in world culture and the gradual elimination of cultural differences) are beginning to revise their assumptions about assimilation to account for the renewed and increasing vitality of ethnic groups and local cultural coalitions. What folklorists can contribute to these conversations is an understanding of the role of sentimentalizing, romanticizing, and naturalizing in relocalization.
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