OPINION: The pandemic showed me that neither writing nor life abroad should mean isolation

OPINION: The pandemic showed me that neither writing nor life abroad should mean isolation
For Catherine Pettersson, writing has meant community, even during the pandemic. Photo: Birgit Walsh Photography
The reality of life as an expat is different from the romantic tropes, and the 'exile' of foreignness is often self-imposed. Here’s one experience of letting go of your preconceived notions about going native from the founder of the Stockholm Writers Festival.

When I first moved to Sweden, I had some romantic ideas. Among them, I imagined myself as a writer in exile, drawing on my foreign experience for novels that would feature my new home country as a backdrop. It worked. Kind of.

My first novel had a Swedish protagonist who won the American Green Card Lottery. But, despite my best laid plans, my main character only spent a total of three chapters in Stockholm before moving to Chicago, which is, not-so-coincidently, my hometown.  

Another romantic notion from my early days here: I would not, under any circumstance, seek the friendship of Americans. Exiles don’t roll that way. Nope. I was becoming äkta svensk (true Swedish) and would hang exclusively with the locals.

This notion lasted for about two years until finally, desperate for genuine connection, I broke down and joined the Stockholm Writers Group where I found my people: a group of English-speaking writers with whom I could learn about writing and bond over the pitfalls of foreignness. Like that time I told my Swedish father-in-law he was a tremendous kuk (penis) instead of a tremendous kock (cook), a word which still seems wrong to this day.  

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Years later, although the idea of “writer in exile” is sexy in an Ernest-Hemingway-day-drinking-in-Havana kind of way, it is also destructive.

Yes, writing is lonely. But it should never be done in isolation. Because at one point, to grow, a writer has to come out of the garret and lean on their tribe. There is no other way to learn about craft or about the complexities of the business.

For me, my writers group fulfilled the tribal yearning. But it also made me realize how many other would-be writers I knew toiling away in their own self-imposed exile. So, in 2017, I started the Stockholm Writers Festival. I’d lived here long enough and knew enough people to cobble together the faculty for the first edition. And here we are four festivals later (including a fully virtual one in 2020)…

The irony? By dropping the notion of writer in exile, I’ve woven myself much deeper into the fabric of my new home country. Through the Stockholm Writers Festival, I’ve gotten to know Swedes with whom I have a shared bond, which, after all, is the best way to make true friends.

Now, as we’ve all lived in another kind of exile thanks to the ‘p word,’ (don’t make me write it!) isolation has never been more unappealing.

Given the realities of our current “unprecedented times,” (another phrase I’d rather never see again), this year’s Stockholm Writers Festival will take place online in May. Bringing writers out of their garrets to meet agents and published authors to celebrate the written word. Together.

So, whatever your thing is—writing or basket weaving or whatever—if you’re toughing it out in a self-imposed exile because you think you need to “go native,” my advice to you is this: Don’t. Because as the great exile Ernest Hemmingway said, “You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.”

Catherine Pettersson is the founder of the Stockholm Writers Festival, an annual event that helps emerging writers become published authors. Her novel, A Daughter of the King, will be released in the summer of 2021 thanks to connections she made at different writers festivals.


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