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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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KESÄBLOGI: From poverty to independent life – social work in New York City

Interview with Geniria Armstrong, Deputy Program Officer, Henry Street Settlement

Text: Heidi Hirvonen
Photos: Henry Street Settlement

HSS yhteiskuva

I take a subway from Greenwich Village to Lower East Side to meet a social worker Geniria Armstrong. She has promised to tell me about her work at Henry Street Settlement, which is one of the oldest and biggest NGOs in New York.

The organization was founded in 1893 by Lillian Wald, a nurse who became a pioneer of social work and public health in the country. Today Henry Street Settlement has over 700 employees and 18 locations around the city. Last year the NGO welcomed more than 1500 volunteers who gave their time and expertise to the Settlement. The NGO is resourced by 92 government contracts and private support from foundations, corporations and individuals. The NGO serves over 60 000 individuals annually through social services, healthcare and arts.

I meet Geniria in the headquarters building at Henry Street. Her bright smile and optimistic attitude are making a good first impression. It is hard to believe, that this woman has been working along with extremely difficult issues over 30 years of time. First I have to ask, how has the field of social work changed in New York. ”Due to the increased demand of homeless services in NYC over the last 10 years, there has been more demand of licensed or skilled social workers than is available. It has become more challenging to attract appropriate, capable staff to work for the homeless population.”

There are more than 8 million people living in New York City. As in all the biggest metropolitan cities of the world, there is also a huge range of disparity of income and inequality in NYC. Henry Street Settlement develops the community by creating new possibilities of every day life for Lower East Side residents through innovative social services. There are programs for young people as well as seniors.


Shelter homes

New York City offers more public housing than any other city in the country. Despite of that, there are not enough cheap apartments available. Nearly 60 000 people are sleeping each night in the city shelters for homeless people. That is why there is a need for Settlement’s work.

Geniria Armstrong is in charge of Department of Transnational & Supportive Housing. The division has four shelter homes. Armstrong is responsible for the management of the agency’s four homeless shelters, including one for survivors of domestic violence.

Urban Family Shelter has places for 82 families with children. Helen’s House supports single adults with their kids. Third street women’s mental health shelter has 79 beds for single women. There is also special shelter home for the victims of violence. There are places for 26 mothers with their children. ”We have the only shelter in New York, which is open 24/7. The staff is living in the same building. This is the reason, why our work is so effective. Most of the clients are women. Women are often victims of domestic violence, even though this is not the only reason they are coming to our shelter home”, Armstrong explains.

The NGO also has a supportive housing facility – 52 studio apartments for homeless men and women. This year Geniria’s division has already served over 300 families – altogether over 600 adults and the same amount of children. 79 families and over 200 individuals have been placed into supportive housing.


Innovative aftercare program

The clients live in the shelter homes maximum 180 days. It is not easy to move from the shelter home to independent living. 60 percent of the clients of shelter homes have been in the system before, some of them were already there during their childhood. Many of the families in the shelter homes were returning to shelter because of a dearth of support systems to help them to face the challenges. ”That is why we have developed a new aftercare program. The program takes from six months to two years. The program will provide supportive services to families leaving shelter to smooth out the transition into permanent housing. It supports shelter residents moving into permanent apartments to help them succesfully settle in their new communities, thereby reducing the chance that they will return to shelter”, Geniria summarizes.

At last I have to ask from Geniria, what gives her the strength and the hope to work with these difficult issues? ”I question myself at times how I retain strength. I truly believe that a change is possible and that if you know better, you can do better. People can grow, develop and thrive, if surrounded by a supportive environment. I gain strength daily by knowing that the work we do at HSS provides support to those we serve. I have the advantage of witnessing our residents achieve success by obtaining employment, education, life skills and permanent housing. That gives me hope. Our most important goal is to look forward and help people from poverty to independent life.”

I believe her. The cycle of poverty can be broken. On my next blog I will tell you about a meeting with another special New Yorker working in the NGO.

Stay tuned!

The writer Heidi Hirvonen studied as a Fulbright scholar at the New York University summer 2016. In Finland she works as a Project Manager at MONIKA – Multicultural Women’s Association, Finland.

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