17 / 2003
Jernej Mlekuž

A "Small" Contribution to Questions of "Returnhood": Life Narratives of Migrants Returnees from Veneto - Journeys with No Return?

The text has two not too ambitious aims.

With the help of an analysis of concrete migration situations and contexts expressed in life narratives of two international migrants - returnees from (the river Nadiža) Venetian Slovenia (the western brink of Slovene ethnic territory in the north-east of Italy) the text attempts to answer or better say enlighten the question to how much is the physical moving (returning) as well a social movement (returning). It seems that the text does not dissect and analyse too detailed the life stories; it rather leaves that to the interpretations of the readers.

Beside searching for answers to the mentioned question the text is (as well or above all) an authentic and a “unique” “document” of the after war history of (re)migration processes, capitalist development, social excluding etc. as well of the Venetian Slovenia as of the “capitalist” Europe. Migrancy as a sum of migrant’s subjectivities formed through their experiences of numerous and contrastive places has, as says the geographer Lawson (2000, 186), analytical power. The narratives of migrants on oppositional experiences of migration and other co-dependent phenomena and processes in the course of migration have a theoretical power that exceeds the uniqueness of individual narratives or stories. The ambivalence of the narrative places on the surface the contradictoriness of migration, capitalist development, inequality and exclusion etc. of which only those from the margins can speak.

The text also mentions the method as the method is linked up tightly with the objectives of the text. Namely, we must understand migration as an act in time; we must not look for causes for it only among those that present themselves as directly significant or deciding for its establishing (for example as a result of deciding between advantages and disadvantages of defined places). Those causes as well are in some way connected with the migrant’s past and future. The causes for migration should be understood as part of the entire migrant’s life – migrants’ biography. That is why the text presents a large part of migrants’ biographies, which do not mention “directly” the very act of returning to the “source” place. We cannot perceive properly the act of returning if we have not the insight into the motive(s) of the initial departure, of the “social image” of the individual in the “host” society, the “source” society, and of many a thing concealed. Thus, for example to the question why they have returned, Mario replied that because his daughter was to enter primary school. He and his wife wanted her to visit school in Italy. However, Mario’s narrative about Switzerland tells us he did not feel too good in the host country; he was troubled by the exclusionism and superiority of the Swiss, which he describes extensively. Just as well, he tells us in the part of his narrative, which refers to Switzerland that he never intended to stay permanently in that country.

However, more than searching for causes for migration/return the stress is in the text on the social context of the return. What does that mean? It is about social circumstances in different environments, which defined the act of migration/return. At this point, a fair sight into the migrant’s biography is extra profitable. Luigi’s return, which was “unexpected” and which seems even imposed from the side of the “important others” is at least for Luigi even today somewhat “contradictory”. Namely, he returned to a country, which he avoided deliberately for several years, and which he resented many a thing. Thus, more between lines, Luigi emphasises that he did not become particularly accustomed to the “original” environment: after eighteen years of living in Italy, he still has more acquaintances in Belgium; he is inconvenient with “Italian mentality” and with many things in general, connected with this state, which he does not describe with pretty words. After his return, he visited Belgium several times and still does so. In addition, he never actually returned: his son is in Belgium, his sole descendant, and from Belgium, he is receiving his pension. Mario’s return meant on the other hand a final parting, a rigid cut with Switzerland. Although Mario did not return without “consequences” of the emigrant environment, he never took Switzerland for his own. Spontaneously, with no external initiative, he spoke for hours and hours about the injustice, he experienced in that “excessively rich” country.

Any quick (and superficial) glance at the text reveals that the two narratives are different: Mario accentuates the confrontation mainly with the state and the “host” society (Switzerland) while Luigi points out the “conflict” with the original country (Italy). In addition, the return too has a different social connotation. In Mario’s case it seems it has for long been expected while in Luigi’s case the return seems to have been imposed from the side of “important others”.

The life narratives of Mario and Luigi tell us that migrations, journeys are not merely “cold” (unconcerned) movements through space, that they are not only physical motions that lead to sensitising of boundaries, transformation of culture, society, community and spirituality. They are as well acts of imagination where the home and the aim of the journey are constantly being newly conceived and thus forever changed. Is thus returning (howsoever) possible?

Jernej Mlekuž, geographer, ethnologist and cultural anthropologist, Inštitut za slovensko izseljenstvo ZRC SAZU in Ljubljana.