Opinion / Jan Lundius, PhD
STOCKHOLM / ROME, May 22 2020 (IPS) – It is easy to generalize about migration. Populist politicians often portray migrants as strangers and ”our” homeland as a stable entity, rooted in an old agricultural society. When they do so they tend to forget that most of us are in fact migrants who have left that traditional farming community far behind and if it was not we who did so, it was our ancestors.
Another form of generalization is to mirror the general in the personal, something that is done in novels and films. I believe that virtually every country on earth can present moving descriptions of people leaving the countryside for the city. Reading a novel or watching movie describing this process may help us to realize that behind every migrant, international as well as internal, there is a unique human destiny.
I came to think about this when I several years ago was working with The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), which at that time had its offices by Sveavägen in the centre of Stockholm. From my window I could look down on Malmskillnadsgatan, which was Stockholm´s most prominent prostitution street and a little further away I could see the twin towers by Kungsgatan. For me, who came from a small rural town, it was a powerful feeling to sit by my desk with a view of Stockholm’s metropolitan heart.
By the beginning of the 20th century the Brunkeberg ridge had been dug and blasted through to make way for a prestigous avenue which was going to be named Kungsgatan, The Royal Street. Derelict houses were demolished and the rubble cleared away while Stockholm was transformed into a metropolis.
Along the 1.5 kilometre long Kungsgatan, impressive buildings were erected and eventually dwarfed by the stately Royal Towers, joined with the Malmskillnadgatan through a bridge spanning across the wide parade street. The 60-metre-high towers were inaugurated in 1925 and were at that time Sweden’s tallest skyscrapers. They became a symbol of modern Stockholm, somewhat excessively advertised as an equal to Berlin, Paris, and New York.
Kungsgatan was lined with luxury department stores, fancy nightclubs and extravagant movie palaces. I mentioned that Malmskillnadsgatan was a prosititution street since I associated that street with Kungsgatan, a novel I read the same year as I ended up at Sida’s offices. It was written in 1935 by Ivar Lo-Johansson, member of what came to be known as the Proletarian Authors. In Lo-Johansson’s novel, Kungsgatan, with its big city pulse, glittering neon lights, cars and well-dressed revellers, becomes a bait attracting rural youth to the growing metropolis.
The peasant boy Adrian and day labourer Marta experience a brief and tumultuous love affair in one of Sweden’s many poor, rural villages, where life had been largely unchanged, generation after generation. Marta’s and Adrian’s delicate relationship is broken when Marta’s dreams urge her to the big city. She does not want to waste her life in the poverty of a dying countryside, subjected to the ever-present interest from people she is forced to share her humdrum existence with. Her dirt poor parents trudge along the same trampled paths, day after day, from cradle to tomb. No, Marta wants to get ahead with her life and spend it in accordance with her own wishes and goals. She wants to make money and hopefully help her parents and siblings to escape their bondage and misery. She wants to come back to her village as a ”successful” person, someone who has become wealthy, urbane and sophisticated.
Marta arrives in Stockholm and gets a job in a café, though her meager salary is not sufficient for her to acquire any of the alluring goods exposed in the storefronts of luxury boutiques. Nevertheless, Marta discovers that her good looks attract the city dwellers. Together with a friend she plans to establish a perfume shop, but lack of capital and the realization that her appearance can become an asset, make Marta join the ”joy girls”, i.e. the prostitutes who haunt the Kungsgatan. She is enabled to send a fair amount of money to her poor parents back home and thus increases their prestige in the eyes of the neighbours. However, Marta becomes increasingly bold and careless. The lurking catastrophe becomes a fact when Marta’s pious mother visits her elegant daughter. During a restaurant visit the truth dawns upon the mother, who in the midst of the dining guests breaks down in tears. Shame and despair befall an increasingly desperate Marta. In the past, she managed to choose her clients with some distinction, but she now loses control over her existence, suffers from a severe sexually transmitted disease and eventually succumbs to her misery and dies.
Adrian had arrived in Stockholm somewhat later than Marta. More reserved and thoughtful than his former fiancée he suffers from alienation and initially lacks the sense of belonging he had experienced in his home village. Neverthelss, Adrian also experience a sense of freedom and the thrill of challenging opportunities. He gets a job at a construction site where he is badly treated by bosses and fellow workers, but he successively adapts to the new living conditions. Despite being disillusioned, defenceless and marginalized Adrian realizes that he has become an adult and can actually stand on his own feet, without the support of a socially enclosed peasant community. He discovers socialism and consorts with bohemians and writers.
Adrian sometimes bumps into Marta, though these are difficult encounters. They live in different worlds and to cover up their uncut rural background both have changed their speech and behaviour. They have become helplessly stuck in their respective roles. Despite their ambivalence Marta and Adrian try to restore some of their lost love, through Adrian becomes infected by Marta’s dangerous STD. Both are hospitalized and their respective convalescence becomes long and painful. Adrian escapes this purgatory, strengthened by his experiences: ”All what I perceive is not without meaning, on the contrary, it is the only capital of a poor man like me.” Both Adrian and Marta get lost, though Adrian finds a meaning with his existence, while Marta becomes a bitter loser who cannot go on living.
Adrian’s pursuit of self-insight, his observations and disappointments are central to the novel, while Marta is gradually transformed into a secondary protagonist. It was Ivar Lo-Johansson´s intention to present a woman’s voice against the backdrop of Sweden´s transformation from a mainly rural society into a modern welfare state. Even if Lo-Johansson had experienced what he wrote about, his story is lost in a common template, in particular through his depiction of the plight of Marta. Most of the famous male members of the Swedish Proletarian ”school” failed to identify with the problems of poor women and only a few female Proletarian women authors gained access to a wide readership.
Almost every country may have authors like Ivar Lo-Johansson, describing the fatal allure of growing cities and the stagnant life in poor, rural communities. We have been confronted with hundreds of films and TV series about innocent rural girls lured into prostitution – like the Canadian-British hard-boiled and disconsolate film Eastern Promises from 2007 and equivalent films made in development countries, like the Mexican Las Poquianchis and Lo mejor de Teresa, both from 1976. Proletarian authors from all over the world have also described a development like the one experienced by Adrian, often influenced by internal migration that at this very moment is taking place in countries like China, India or Brazil.
Two examples, among many others, of the importance migration from rural to urbanized areas has had on a country’s culture are The U.S. Great Migration and the Italian Push to the North. Between 1916 and 1970, six million African-Americans migrated out of the rural Southern states to urbanized areas of the North and West. The exodus was primarily caused by poor economic conditions, as well as racial segregation and discrimination. Prior to 1910, more than 90 percent of the African-American population lived in the South, by the end of The Great Migration, less than 50 percent of them remained in the South, while more than 80 percent of African-Americans nationwide lived in cities. Like the Swedish migratory movement mentioned above, The Great Migration resulted in increased cultural activities, particularly within Afro-American communities. In the field of literature it gave rise to the so-called Harlem Renaissance and the American music scene was radically changed by the influx of Afro-American musicians from the South, who brought with them blues and jazz.
Italy experienced a similar movement from south to north when the Economic Boom of northern Italy attracted large numbers of southerners to the so-called Industrial Triangle between Turin, Milan and Genoa. During a great part of the 20th century, southern Italy suffered from a high rate of poverty, mainly due to the poor fertility of agricultural areas, which due to the fragmentation of land properties no longer could meet the needs of farming families, who additionally often suffered from insecurity caused by organized crime. Millions of Italians were pushed to emigrate both abroad, and to the northern part of Italy. Internal migration reached its peak between 1958 and 1963, when one million three hundred thousand southerners moved north.
Migration from southern Italy to the north still continues, though to a lesser degree than before. The last peak was reached between 1968 and 1970. Only in 1969, 60,000 migrants from the south arrived in Turin. Like in the U.S. it has in Italy been common to accentuate a cultural divide between ”north” and ”south”, a notion internal migration has diminished by fostering cultural exchange in both directions, thus contributing to unifying the nation and invigorating the arts.
Migration is an ongoing process that will never cease, we are all shaped by it, something that is mirrored by individual experiences described in tales told all over the world. Culture is based on shared experiences and openness, meaning that it prospers if human mobility is embraced instead of being considered as a threat.
*Jan Lundius holds a PhD. on History of Religion from Lund University and has served as a development expert, researcher and advisor at SIDA, UNESCO, FAO and other international organisations.