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  • Swedish "Immigrant Literature" and the Ethnic Lens:The Representation of Cultural Diversity in Jonas Hassen Khemiri's Ett öga rött and Marjaneh Bakhtiari's Kalla det vad fan du vill
  • Magnus Nilsson

In recent years, overwhelming attention has been devoted to "immigrant literature" in Sweden as evidenced above all by the commercial success and critical acclaim since the mid 1990s of what Wolfgang Behschnitt has called the "second generation" of immigrant writers (Behschnitt). This attention has been occasioned by the emergence of a new national self-image in which Sweden is conceived of as a society, which, because of immigration, has become multicultural i.e. characterized by a high degree of ethnic diversity and marked by a fundamental dichotomy between Swedish and immigrant culture (Nilsson, "Literature and Diversity"; "Litteratur etnicitet"). Above all, this self-image generates interest in "immigrant literature" as an expression of "the new multicultural reality" (Behschnitt and Mohnike, "Interkulturelle" 83; Mohnike, "Doppelte" 150; Nilsson, "Literature and Diversity"; "Litteratur etnicitet"). More specifically, this kind of literature is expected to express the writers' respective ethnic cultures and thus function as a source of information about the non-Swedish ethnic cultures that make Sweden a multicultural society.

The ideological consequences of this understanding of contemporary Swedish "immigrant literature" has been criticized by several commentators (Behschnitt and Mohnike, "Interkulturelle" 87; Motturi 23; Nilsson, "Literature and Diversity"; Nilsson, "Litteratur etnicitet"). A typical example of this criticism can be found in Astrid Trotzig's essay "Makten över prefixen," in which the author argues that ethnicity has become a "lens" through which Swedish writers of foreign descent are [End Page 27] viewed (126). Trotzig brings to the fore several problems with this lens. First of all, she argues that it does not really focus on ethnicity as such, but on certain ethnicities. Not all writers who are immigrants are labeled "immigrant writers," which shows that the ethnic lens is discriminating (Trotzig 107-8). Secondly, she points out that the lens is homogenizing in that it eradicates important differences between "immigrant writers" (Trotzig 109-10). This goes hand in hand with a third problem identified by Trotzig, namely that the ethnic lens establishes similarities between "immigrant writers" by way of creating stereotypical fictions about their biographies. Last, but not least, Trotzig argues that the ethnic lens is "racializing" or even "racist" since it makes the immigrant writer's ethnicity the key to understanding his or her work (Trotzig 110-11). This kind of criticism of the ethnic lens is, however, not only formulated by critics, but also in the works of several "immigrant writers." This has been pointed out by Behschnitt, who argues that Swedish "immigrant novels" often "distort or subvert the same political and theoretical discourses with which critics [...] attempt to conceptualise them as literary phenomena" (Behschnitt 80).

The aim of this article is to describe how cultural diversity is represented in two literary works considered archetypical examples of contemporary Swedish "immigrant literature" (Mohnike, "Blick" 244)—namely Jonas Hassen Khemiri's Ett öga rött (2003; A Red Eye) and Marjaneh Bakhtiari's Kalla det vad fan du vill (2005; Call It What the Hell You Want)—and to show how these representations relate to the view on ethnicity generated by the self-image of Sweden as a multicultural society. I argue that this relationship is best understood as a "critical dialogue," since both authors question the use of ethnicity for understanding contemporary Swedish society and criticize the ideological effects of the ethnic lens.

Cultural Separatism or Assimilation?

Khemiri's Ett öga rött is a typical Bildungsroman (Behschnitt and Mohnike, "Bildung" 222) written in the form of a diary kept by the protagonist— the teenager Halim—and records, primarily, his "attempts to give structure to the diverse world around him and also define a unique category for himself" (Lacatus 98). Above all Halim tries to define his identity as an immigrant, a Muslim, and an Arab. Halim's attempts to [End Page 28] come to terms with his identity are, to a large extent, affected by other characters (Lacatus 98). The most important of these are Halim's father, Otman, and Dalanda, an old lady living in the Stockholm suburb Skärholmen...


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