Life between two cultures: Siri Hustvedt


Text: Heidi Hirvonen
Photo: Paula Kukkonen 2007

”The only way to understand each other is through dialogue. We should be more open to each other’s stories.” – Siri Hustvedt-

The world famous writer Siri Hustvedt has invited me to her home in Brooklyn and promised to tell about her life and work.  In Finland Hustvedt is best known for her novels The Sorrows of American (2008) and The Blazing World (2014).  The new essay collection will be published in December.

The Sorrows of American reflects in part Hustvedt’s family experiences and memories.

”I wanted to make it clear from the beginning that I took material from the memoir my father wrote for his family and friends. He gave me permission to use that material in the novel before his death in 2003.”

Hustvedt was born in the United States, but her mother was born in Norway and did not move to the U.S. until she was thirty. Her father’s grandparents were immigrants from Norway. Hustvedt grew up speaking Norwegian, and her connection to Norway remains close. She travels to Norway regularly and she has many cousins and relatives in the country.

”I think my mother felt displaced, although she said very little about her feelings. Living far away from her mother and siblings couldn’t have been easy, and years went by between her visits. My father was an American, but he spoke English with a Norwegian accent, and he was raised among farmers of immigrant stock who spoke Norwegian and English. My father was given an American name, Lloyd, although his father’s name was Lars. In immigrant communities the naming of children was a big deal – it was a sign of a decision to assimilate or not,” Hustvedt explains.

”My mother is now 93 years old. She told once, that when she will die, she wants half of her ashes buried next to my father’s grave. I have to take the other half to Norway to be scattered near her parents’ graves.  I think this is an excellent metaphor for the dual identity every immigrant experiences,” the author says.

Stories of our parents and grandparents

Immigrant women´s situation is a topic which interests us both. There is huge difference between voluntary immigration and asylum seeker´s situation.  Europe is struggling with refugee crisis. Globally women and children are in the most vulnerable position within the refugee process. T+raumas are common, and they can activate later in the new home country.

Siri Hustvedt has written about intergenerational traumas, personal and collective. There are many traumas in the The Sorrows of American: the 1930´s Depression, the Second World War and 9/11.

” I believe that each one of us carries the stories of our parents and grandparents. Those stories are both conscious and unconscious. Epigenetic research has shown that stress can cause changes at the molecular level after DNA replication (methylation, for example), which are then inherited by generations that follow. Much research needs to be done, but this may partly explain why the children of trauma victims may also suffer symptoms of trauma. There is no question that traumatic experiences are linked to developmental delays and mental illness. Trauma symptoms such as flashbacks are memory disturbances that can interfere with memory formation and therefore learning.

Hustvedt taught writing to psychiatric patients in the hospital for four years. She saw that writing about painful memories can have a therapeutic effect. In 2015, she was appointed a lecturer in psychiatry at Cornell Weill Medical School in New York City, where she holds a seminar in narrative psychiatry to psychiatric residents and junior faculty in the psychiatry department.

”One day in 2011 after I had stopped working with patients in the hospital,  I received a package in the mail. I opened it and inside I found a memoir that had been written by one of the patients in my class in the hospital. He had written the story of his life as a trader on Wall Street and the break down that landed him in the hospital.  The book was published by a major New York press, and I appear as a character in his book. On the title page, he had written: “Dear Siri, thank you  for saving my life and helping me to become a writer.” 

The books of Siri Hustvedt have been translated to over 30 languages. She has written poems, novels, and essays. Hustvedt has a PhD in English Literature.

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