Volume XIII, Number 1, Spring 2017

"Two Languages and Two Selves of the Mixed Heritage Protagonist in a Pair of Finnish-American Migrant Novels" by Roman Kushnir

Roman Kushnir MA, is a doctoral student in English studies at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. He is currently working on his PhD on Finnish American literature. His dissertation focuses on the construction of identity in modern Finnish American Anglophone fiction. He pays special attention to the roles of both material and non-material cultural practices in this construction.


The semi-biographical novels A Finntown of the Heart (1998), and A Finntown of the Soul (2008) by Patricia Eilola, a third-generation Finnish-American1 writer, tell about the author’s mother’s life from childhood till young adulthood in Minnesota in the 1920s-30s. The migrant protagonist Ilmi Marianna has mixed Finnish and American heritage although initially she does not know about that and considers herself Finnish. The texts follow the process of her growth, learning and looking for identity in the USA. They particularly focus on the roles of the protagonist’s languages (Finnish and English) in this process. The novels are set in the historical period when the American school system put an emphasis on the Americanization of the migrant children (Taramaa 133), also through the means of language such as “Speak English” campaigns which are described in Eilola’s texts. The books revolve around the protagonist’s bilingualism and position in-between two languages. On the one hand, throughout the novels the protagonist actively learns English to belong to the new country. Her story both begins and ends with the English language. In the prologue to A Finntown of the Heart, on her way to the USA Ilmi sets her goal in life – “to go to the land of the literate. An English land” (Eilola 1998 xii). She thus considers learning English her “destiny” (ibid.). In the end of A Finntown of the Soul, she, now a young adult, falls asleep and lets herself “float away again into the land beyond pain, still an English land” (Eilola 2008 323). On the other hand, her mother tongue, Finnish, is also important for her. Ilmi has to live a dual life and have two selves: she speaks Finnish at home and in her ethnic neighborhood, and English at school and in other places outside her ethnic community. She also has both Finnish and American names as she is simultaneously Ilmi Marianna and Marion. This has a profound impact on the protagonist’s sense of self.

In what follows, I will analyze how her position between different cultures is manifested in her identity with the help of the protagonist’s Finnish and English. Firstly, I will focus on how her languages accentuate her divided self and what William Edward Burkhardt DuBois (1982) defines as “double consciousness”. Ilmi can live in two different worlds but she feels that she does not truly belong to any of them. Secondly, I will concentrate on how her English and Finnish gradually help the protagonist to overcome this alienation, to reconcile with her conflicting Finnish and American selves and to accept her hyphenated Finnish-American identity. This allows her to find her place in both the mainstream American society and Finnish ethnic community and finally feel the sense of belonging.

Theoretical framework

In my paper, I will draw on the concepts of the roles of language in ethnic identity formation and negotiation, especially in the context of migration. Language can function as an index of ethnicity or as Gloria Anzaldua puts it, “[e]thnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity – I am my language” (2951). According to Wsewolod Isajiw, speaking an ethnic language is a part of observable behavior which is important for the retention of ethnic identity as language has been often considered one of the most socially significant ethnic patterns (36; 49). Manuela Matas Llorente adds that ethnic and linguistic differences are intimately related (71). At the same time, language is also connected with negotiation and renegotiation of migrants’ identities in the new country. Many narratives of American ethnicity make central the linguistic encounter between anglophone America and a non-anglophone migrant group (Rosenwald 341). On the one hand, by learning English the newcomers seek to belong to the USA and to construct their new American selves. Edward Steiner considers English the most vital force in the process of Americanization and assimilation of the migrants (73). In order to construct a new identity, the settlers also may distance themselves from their mother tongue. As their ethnic language can be looked down on by the mainstream society as something inferior, therefore, the migrants can try to dissociate themselves from their ethnic group by rejecting their ethnic language (Tse 195). On the other hand, according to Roger Bromley, the negotiation of multiple languages is an essential component in the migrants’ experiences (73). The settlers oscillate between their mother tongue and the language of their new country, and may use both in constructing their identities, and presenting themselves in one or another way depending on the situation.

In Carol Boyce Davis’ words, “the re-negotiation of identities is fundamental to migration” (3). The question of a migrant’s identity becomes a complex issue which can be characterized by what DuBois called “double consciousness” (Llorente 69): “this sense of always looking at one self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (DuBois 45). This concept can be applied to the experiences of the protagonist in Eilola’s novels. Ilmi looks at herself through the eyes of mainstream American society and considers her Finnish heritage something inferior. This leads to the confrontation between Ilmi’s two different cultures, and causes the feeling of alienation and non-belonging. However, she gradually re-negotiates her identity to reconcile with both Finnish and American heritage.

Languages and the Divided Self

The protagonist is a true “in-between” character who is positioned between Finland and the USA not only her migrant status, but also by her birthright. A daughter of her Finnish mother and the mother’s American lover, Ilmi does not know the truth of her origin until reaching young adulthood in the second novel. However, even without knowing about her true father and American heritage, the main character feels that she does not completely belong to her Finnish family and ethnic community. She does not look Finnish in contrast to her junior half-sister and other Finnish girls. Although it is neither the mainstream American appearance: “I knew that I was hardly prepossessing: I did not have either blonde hair or blue eyes. My complexion tended toward creamy olive rather than pink. I was way too skinny, my hair way too thick. And that was not even to mention the freckles” (Eilola 1998 22). She also has troubled relations with her Finnish stepfather (whom she initially considers her biological father) and wants to move out of the isolated Finnish diaspora. At the same time, she also feels alienation from her new American world. This alienation from both worlds and its effect on Ilmi’s identity is illustrated by her position between Finnish and English.

When the protagonist, then a six-year-old girl, enters the USA, she for the first time realizes the potency of languages as the markers of identity. As she can speak only Finnish and does not speak English, she feels the sense of alienation in her new country where her mother tongue cannot help her anymore. Ilmi also realizes that her journey to the USA is not only a travel from one country to another, but also from one identity to another, and the languages will be a prominent part of that journey.

We had begun one kind of journey, but another even more difficult one lay before us, for every time we opened our mouths, we confirmed the fact that we were not Canadians and certainly not Americans. We were Finns […] Even now, it is difficult to explain that second journey, which has had only a little to do with borders and trains and countries and much more to do with ourselves and others’ perceptions of us. Dimly, deep inside, I knew it would be a difficult path to tread, a path with the signposts all written in the wrong language because – for all of my admittedly young life and for all of Ma’s many more years – all of our thoughts and feelings had been formed into shape by our words, and our words and thoughts had all been in Finnish. (Eilola 1998 x)

For the first time in her life Ilmi looks at herself through the eyes of the other, the American ticket master who does not understand Ilmi’s mother’s Finnish and looks down on the migrants who do not speak English. “[T]he look on the ticket master’s face had made it clear that we had been found wanting. In his eyes, we had been the less” (Eilola 1998 x). Because of her inability to communicate in English Ilmi assesses herself from the position of this American: as something inferior. This alienation from the American society impacts the protagonist’s further childhood experiences in the USA. She also does not want to belong to her Finnish community, so she feels the dual alienation, being “neither here nor there”. This is illustrated with the help of Finnish and English. The American world is too far from Ilmi because of its difficult language, the Finnish world is too narrow for her because of its linguistic isolation from the mainstream American society. As a result, she feels that she does not fit into either.

[…] I had never felt as if I fitted in anywhere – not into this new country with its bewildering though richly beautiful language, […] certainly not into the circle of Finnish family and friends, for I wanted with all of my heart to move out of their narrow boundaries into the great world, the English-speaking world. (Eilola 1998 45)

However, Ilmi wants to overcome the alienation from the USA as she truly wants to belong to and to be accepted by this “English-speaking world” of her new country. To fulfill her desire, she actively learns English both in school and on her own. She begins learning as early as on her way to the USA: “Somehow I will learn to speak English, a word at a time if necessary. And I will keep adding words every chance I have […]. I already had a start: I knew six…no, seven English words by heart” (Eilola 1998 xv). Later she quickly becomes a fluent bilingual, and her progress in acquiring English is far more significant than most of her Finnish peers’. Ilmi believes that her achievements in learning the language in school will help her to “become an American”. She views her school in the following way:

It was the source of learning, yes, but it was also the source of inner change so that I who took every word of my class work seriously was gradually turning into an American. Becoming an American, speaking English, doing what Americans do had always been immeasurably important to me. (Eilola 2008 68)

She also seeks to construct her new American self by hiding her Finnish heritage. Ilmi initially shares the view of the mainstream American society that considers the migrants’ heritages and languages inferior, something that prevents their successful Americanization. She does what Tse defines as dissociating from ethnic group by rejecting ethnic language (195). For instance, Ilmi prefers to speak English when it is possible as she has contempt for her mother tongue in contrast to her new language: “I was certain that a ‘ruusu’ [Finnish: a rose] or ‘ruusunnuppu’ [Finnish: a rosebud] could never smell nearly as sweet as a rose” (Eilola 1998 27, original italics). She also tries hard to eliminate her Finnish accent. Ilmi keeps practicing to avoid it in her English speech together with her Finnish friend who also values the new language over the mother tongue and longs for acceptance by the American world: “When Eino and I were together, we never lapsed into Finn […]. Not only did we honor English, we tried to enunciate clearly in order to eliminate even the brogue, the Finnish lilt that lurked insidiously on the fringes of words” (Eilola 1998 73). This is in line with what Llorente writes about accents: “they constitute undeniable marks of a person’s belonging to and simultaneously being estranged from a given cultural and value system” (70). Llorente also emphasizes the importance of accents in the context of migration: “In the case of immigrants, when speaking the language at all, their accent often contributes to delimit their place in the realm of America’s cultural displacement” (ibid.). Thus, Ilmi tries to erase her mark of belonging to the Finnish migrant community in order not to be placed as a Finn in the mainstream American society.

In constructing a new American identity, the protagonist goes as far as to change her name or, in other words, to literally replace her Finnish-language self with the English one. Her English teacher, impressed by Ilmi’s achievements, encourages (practically forces) her to find a new name in order to make it correspond to her fluent English and to present Ilmi to the visiting superintendent as already Americanized. Yet again the protagonist looks (down) herself and her Finnish heritage through the other’s eyes.

“To have your name as director of the play on the program as…,” she shuddered, “Ilmi Marianna…is to controvert the very basic presumption of the Speak English campaign. Besides,” she set her jaw, “the name is ugly.”
I shrugged my shoulders and agreed. It was. But so was I. […]
“We change your name.” She leaned back and awaited reaction.
I smiled, the solution waving before me like a flag, rising like a rocket, exploding into my psyche like Fourth of July fireworks. How devastatingly simple! We would simply change my name. (Eilola 1998 23, original italics)

Ilmi Marianna willingly agrees to become Marion as she feels the desire to deny her “ugly” Finnish self in favor of her new “beautiful” American self. “The prospect of change had taken on a magical element for me, as if in becoming “Marion”, I could shed an old-country skin and don one that was new and fresh and untried and beautiful and full of hope for a similar future” (Eilola 1998 27). Nevertheless, the protagonist soon finds that the new name does not make her life easier.

Despite the change the main character still retains her Finnish name and thus is simultaneously both Ilmi Marianna and Marion. This accentuates the protagonist’s feeling of the divided self, Finnish and American, and at the same time neither Finnish nor American. Ilmi begins to feel as if there are two different persons co-existing in her: “Life had begun to move too quickly. For all her faults, I knew ‘Ilmi Marianna’. I was unfamiliar with this new ‘Marion’, with what she was doing, with where she was going” (Eilola 1998 45). She is caught between the new American world and her old diasporic Finnish world. Ilmi wants to belong to the USA but she admits that she cannot erase her Finnish heritage: “they were asking too much. They wanted me to become Marion when most of me is still Ilmi Marianna” (Eilola 2008 9).

Languages and the Hyphenated Identity

Although the protagonist initially longs for the wholesale Americanization and despises her Finnish heritage, she also comes to see the beauty of it. This leads to the conflict between Ilmi’s Finnish and American selves when her mainstream American view of the superiority of English clashes with her appreciation of the ethnic mother tongue. For instance, this conflict is highlighted in the episode when the main character in her childhood sings a Finnish song together with her family.

I knew I should be translating [the lyrics] […] into English, as prescribed by the Kinney School’s “Speak English” campaign. But when I took over the soprano part and Ma tried a kind of muted alto, I could not think in English. The beauty of the music was intrinsically Finnish, and it made me proud to be, too. So we sang away the miles […]. (Eilola 1998 17)

As Ilmi grows up and gets to know about her mixed Finnish-American heritage, she reconciles her Finnish and American selves, and accepts the hyphenated identity which allows her to be “both here and there”. This acceptance of her dual self is represented through Ilmi’s attitude to her two languages and names. Despite the initial rejection of Finnish and looking down on it (for instance, considering her Finnish name “ugly” and contrasting a beautiful English “rose” to a Finnish “ruusu”), the protagonist comes to the realization that her mother tongue “lost something in translation” into English (Eilola 1998 22). Ilmi sees the beauty of Finnish and feels regret that her English is better than her Finnish due to her earlier rejection of the mother tongue in her childhood. She is afraid of losing knowledge of her mother tongue.

The more the merrier,” she [Ilmi’s mother] said, in Finnish, of course. I don’t know why what she said always sounded better that way. It was as if she were repeating old sayings or epigrams or aphorisms that just fit the situation. It made me wish that in my wholehearted desire to learn English I had not let my Finnish lapse. (Eilola 2008 257)

The protagonist still admires English and wants to learn it to the perfection but she also realizes that her Finnish heritage is not something inferior despite the claims of the mainstream American society and the ideology imposed on Ilmi by her American school. So, Ilmi does not want to detach herself from her Finnish heritage any more as she has tried before. Moreover, she decides to use it to find her place in the USA. Ilmi comes to understand that her position in-between two languages and cultures can be beneficial for her. It provides her with the opportunity to become a cultural and linguistic broker between mainstream American society and Finnish ethnic community. Therefore, she wants to become such a broker: either a teacher or an interpreter. “I’m absolutely committed to furthering my education. […] I hope to finish high school and go on to college and become an interpreter. This way I can make use of my Finnish background and use it to help others become Americanized” (Eilola 2008 120). In the second novel, when Ilmi graduates from high school, she fulfils her dreams of mediation between Finnish and English by starting to work as an English teacher in a country school attended by Finnish and other migrant children. Thus, although Ilmi has initially considered her Finnish heritage an obstacle to her Americanization and a source of inner tensions and conflicts, it in fact helps her to become a successful American citizen and even to Americanize others.

Despite that Ilmi still wants to be American, she also gradually comes to terms with her Finnish heritage and constructs her identity as hyphenated Finnish-American. This is illustrated in the episode when the protagonist’s mother expresses her concern that Ilmi in her desire to become the American “Marion” can lose connection with her Finnish-speaking family whose progress in learning English is far less impressive than Ilmi’s.

“Do you want to be Marion?” Ma asked, but quietly, as if she really wanted to know the answer.
I thought about that question for a long time, too.
“Yes. I think so. Someday. Maybe when I go to high school or college and am more English than Finnish. ‘Ilmi Marianna’ is a mouthful for anyone who isn’t Finnish.”
“And what will habrbren to Margie and me when you become Marion?” she asked, a tremble in her voice.
“I think,” I said, after another long brause, ”that by then it will just be natural – sometimes I’ll be Ilmi Marianna, esbrecially when you are angry with me.” (Eilola 2008 10)

Thus, although Ilmi admits that she wants to become Marion and one day she will be more English than Finnish, she also accepts her dual belonging. She admires her new name as a mark of Americanization but does not reject the old one. When she becomes Marion in the American world, she can (and will) still be Ilmi Marianna for her Finnish family. This is in sharp contrast with Ilmi’s childhood’s dream of “shedding the old-country skin” by shedding her Finnish name altogether. This situation with keeping both the American and ethnic name is typical for migrants in the USA. According to Michael Aceto, many migrants have Anglicized their names or adopted Anglophone name to use exclusively among English speakers but at the same time have maintained their ethnic names for in-group usage (603). However, the protagonist intends to use her American name in her family as well as she plans “to be Ilmi Marianna” only sometimes. This accentuates the protagonist’s desire to be “American Plus Finnish” rather than “Finnish Plus American”.

On the whole, throughout the novels Ilmi learns English to the point of being accepted as an American. Her perfect English makes others to view Ilmi as successfully Americanized. “No one questioned my name anymore. I was Marion. And the only residue of Finnish was a slight lilt I could not control in times of stress” (Eilola 2008 244). Nevertheless, this small Finnish lilt she cannot control indicates that her Americanness has not lost connections with her Finnishness. Ilmi reconciles her languages and her Finnish and American selves. In doing so, she accepts herself as a whole of two parts that have been separate earlier. Now her Finnish and American selves do not conflict but supplement each other in her new hyphenated Finnish-American identity. Ilmi keeps this in mind when she continues her journey farther into what she calls “the land of literate” (Eilola 2008 267) and “the English land” (ibid.). Her process of self-formation follows the pattern described by Isajiw writing about migrants in Canada:

[…] many members of ethnic groups, while becoming ‘Canadian’ in their identity in some respects, also remain ‘ethnic’ in other respects. They do not necessarily define the latter to be contradictory to the former. […] Canadian identity is not necessarily gained to the extent that ethnic identity is lost and, vice versa, ethnic identity is not necessarily retained to the extent that Canadian identity is not acquired. (34)

Thus, with the help of her languages Ilmi negotiates her identity to be American in some aspects, and to remain Finnish in others.


Like many other American ethnic coming-of-age novels such as The House on Mango Street (1984) by Sandra Cisneros or The Woman Warrior (1976) by Maxine Hong Kingston, the books by Eilola tell the story of a hard and painful process of the migrant protagonist’s self-formation. For Ilmi this process is even more difficult than for her migrant peers due to Ilmi’s mixed heritage. She is both Finnish and American by her birthright but feels that she is neither. Thus, she cannot initially find her place in the new country. Ilmi’s in-between position gives her access to both cultures but at the same time makes her experience dual alienation. Throughout the novels a reader follows both the process of her Americanization and the process of her acceptance of the ethnic heritage.

With the help of my theoretical framework of Bromley’s, Isajiw’s, Llorente’s and Tse’s concepts of language and identity, I have demonstrated that Ilmi’s languages are an essential part in both processes. Finnish functions as an index of ethnic identity and a badge of linguistic difference, while English is a marker of Americanness. Her languages become actively involved in the process of negotiation and renegotiation of Ilmi’s identity. The protagonist’s position in-between Finnish and English initially accentuates her tragedy of feeling non-belonging to the mainstream American society or Finnish ethnic community. When she gets the American name, the situation becomes even worse as the main character starts to see herself in terms of two divided and conflicting selves. She longs for Americanization but realizes that she cannot (and does want to) erase her Finnish heritage to become one-hundred-percent American as her school demands. As Ilmi grows up and gets to know about her mixed heritage, she gradually reconciles both selves and comes to terms with her Finnish-Americanness. With the help of her languages and names she re-negotiates her identity to successfully find her place both in the mainstream American society and Finnish community. Ilmi Marianna/Marion accepts the hyphenated Finnish-American identity that allows her to be both. She intends to continue her language education and sees herself as a traveler to the bright future:

I was entranced with the triptych above the semi-circular altar at their Unitarian Church. The left panel showed a homestead farm in the background with a farmer tilling the soil and the iron mines in the foreground. Central to the whole was a young girl, my age, holding books and setting out toward the panel on the right. It could have been a courthouse or a legal building of some sort, but I saw it as a school, the dividing line between those who accepted the farm and the iron mine from those who, with books in hand, traveled on into that new, difficult, and challenging world where they could achieve their dreams. (Eilola 2008 244-245)

Ilmi’s travel continues to the “English world”, and her languages accompany her in this journey. Language is her life, her future and her destiny in the USA, and there is no surprise that Ilmi’s story ends with language: “[…] I let myself float away again into the land beyond pain, still an English land, where I could work as my body allowed me to work, on becoming a literate person, a writer, a teacher perhaps, one who was beloved and would be… always” (Eilola 2008 323).



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This article was made possible by the research grant of Kone Foundation.

1 An intense migration from Finland to North America took place from the 1870s to the 1920s. The newcomers tended to have more difficulties with learning English than other European migrants since Finnish does not belong to the Indo-European family of languages. According to Anita Aukee Johnson (1996: 243), “the Finns arriving in the last waves of European immigration were among the least likely immigrants to learn English”. Nowadays Finnish-Americans constitute a relatively small ethnic group in the USA (approximately 650,000 people). Nevertheless, they are active in the production of their ethnic literature.