"I want us to trade our skins and our experiences": Swedish Whiteness and "Immigrant Literature"
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"I want us to trade our skins and our experiences":
Swedish Whiteness and "Immigrant Literature"

Introduction

"Jag vill att vi byter skinn och erfarenheter" (Khemiri 2013a) ["I want us to trade skins and experiences" (Khemiri 2013b)], proposes the best-selling author Jonas Hassen Khemiri to Sweden's Minister of Justice Beatrice Ask in his open letter. The letter, which challenges the Minister to walk through Stockholm's streets in a non-white, non-Swedish stereotyped body of an "immigrant," was shared 120,000 times on Facebook and viewed more than 250,000 times on Dagens Nyheter within 24 hours of publication.

This paper seeks to explain the letter's particular effect in relation to the disputed concept of Swedish whiteness, arguing that the letter draws power from the synergy of its socially charged topic, and even more from the iconicity of the writer's non-white body and the public discourse on "immigrant literature." While highlighting the widely read essay as a performance of non-whiteness, the paper also considers the initial mass-media reception of authors representing "det etniske gennembrud" (Leonard 2008, 33) [the ethnic turn] in Swedish literature, namely, the image of Alejandro Leiva Wenger and Johannes Anyuru in addition to Jonas Hassen Khemiri, all three of whom are engaged in public dialogue on the issues of structural inequalities and everyday racism in today's Sweden. Their reception mirrors the proccesses and expectations around the contentious categories "immigrant literature" and "immigrant writer," both pivotal for Khemiri's open letter. The paper argues that concepts of whiteness and non-whiteness [End Page 266] in modern Swedish society serve as a constant reference point for these contested cultural categories. It will be argued that (1) the authors have been commercialized and racialized as non-whites; and (2) they themselves have turned (non-)whiteness into an effective strategy for drawing attention, gaining commercial success, and securing literary and even political authority. This analysis understands "immigrant literature" as a discourse where both fictional and nonfictional texts build a circuit with a subversive quality to challenge rigid identity constructions. Khemiri has an outstanding celebrity status among these three; therefore, the focus lies on him.

There is an undeniable connection between the categories "immigrant writer" and "immigrant man." In mass-media reception, Wenger, Anyuru, and Khemiri were repeatedly set in relationship with the otherwise negatively connoted "immigrant man." The non-whiteness of an "immigrant writer" is mainly connected to the ethnic affiliation of the author, specifically to his racialized body, which becomes a sacralized object for purposes of the enrichment and revitalization of the national self-imaginary. The longing of the Swedish cultural world for an "immigrant novel" was not just a wish to learn about marginal social reality, but a desire for a voice of color, a very much racialized desire. Khemiri, as well as Wenger and Anyuru, actively participated in this category-building, gaining authoritative voice on sociopolitical topics by profiling themselves as non-white "immigrant writers" and by using their literature in order to challenge concepts of "white" and "immigrant" identities.1 They, on the one hand, distance themselves from the racializing and marginalizing label "immigrant" and, on the other, reduce themselves to this same non-white body and offer it to the public for a demonstration of the violence of racism.

White Swedishness and the Non-White Immigrant Literature

In her doctoral thesis "Förtvivlade läsningar" (Desperate Readings), later published, Elisabeth Hjorth approaches Swedish "immigrant [End Page 267] literature" from a postmodern, deconstructive perspective, emphasizing first its political role as literature of resistance of essentialistic identities, and second, the ethical responsibility of the reader "in the sense of having to deal with the uncertain, refraining from the language of power, and allowing oneself to be deconstructed" (Hjorth 2015, 253). The ethical and political responsibility of minority literature and its actors—the writer, the reader, and the literary critics—can only be explored against the backdrop of the emergence of the new ethnoracial Sweden, and in their relation with the concept of Swedish whiteness. The departing point of this article is the immigrant writer's function as a multifaceted cultural icon...


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