Outward immigration

by Terence MacNamee

During the Nazi period in Germany, there were many writers who emigrated to get away from Hitler; but there were many who didn’t, and just withdrew into themselves. This is known in German literary history as innere Emigration, where “inner” means “in the mind”. The biographies of these writers show that, when one is physically present in a non-nurturing environment, it is possible to survive by being mentally somewhere else.

In a way, this is what the immigrant or refugee does, but in reverse. He comes to a new country, and is physically present and even active there, but his mind is still back in the old country. The circumstances of immigrant life encourage this. The new arrival may be confined to a ghetto on the margins, and have little access to what society in the new country offers in the way of opportunities for social and economic self-development. Today more than ever, the availability of cell phones, internet, satellite TV, and films on DVD, means that he can live in his former world to a great extent by staying in touch with it and getting his information and entertainment from there. You might say that his body has immigrated, but his mind has stayed at home. The emblem of this for me is the exotic-looking fellow walking down the street and talking loudly on a cell-phone to someone in some exotic language, oblivious of the passers-by.

With an allusion to the situation in Nazi Germany, I refer to this phenomenon as “outward immigration”. Those German writers stayed physically at home; mentally they were somewhere else. The new immigrant is physically somewhere else, but mentally he stays back home. Unless we realize this, I do not think we can understand the dynamics of immigration, which is so much a part of life in the Western world now. The only way to preserve your mental health as an immigrant and deal with all the stress of a novel and socially non-nurturing environment is “outward immigration”. I know, because I had to do it myself when, as young man, I left Europe to live in North America.

This is not, however, what people in the host countries want to hear. They want their immigrants, if not to assimilate, then to integrate, that is, to fit in with the local population and start functioning as they do. It is expecting the impossible.

Of course, time passes, for the immigrant too. You see your children grow up in the new environment, and you know you are losing them, because they will now live in that world where you are no more than a ghost or a shadow. At the same time, it is tough for them, because they will feel less and less involved with the world “back home” that is so real to you. They will feel torn between solidarity with you and a feeling of belonging to a world that may not accept them completely because something of the exotic still clings to them in spite of themselves.

Who ever said that immigration was easy – on anybody?