PEN International Executive Director, Laura McVeigh, in conversation with Maria Amelie, author of ‘Ulovlig norsk’ (‘Illegally Norwegian’)
Maria, your book Ulovlig norsk ‘Illegally Norwegian’ is a moving account in which you write about your experiences first as a child migrant when your family fled North Ossetia and then lived as ‘paperless immigrants’ in Norway. It has been widely read and led to you being named ‘Norwegian of the Year’ in 2010 by news magazine Ny Tid for your contribution to the public debate on undocumented immigrants’ rights within Norway.
Throughout the book you write about loss of identity and the act of trying to create identity. You write about how living as an undocumented immigrant led to a nomadic existence. You’ve even taken on an alternate identity in your name as Maria Amelie.
How important for you is the act of writing in relation to the question of identity?
I wrote the book Illegally Norwegian because of several reasons. The main reason was to show that I became a real person thanks to people around me who treated me with respect. People didn’t care if I had the right papers. They knew that papers aren’t everything in a person.
It is easy to hate yourself when you are an asylum seeker. You are not allowed to work, to go to school and you don’t contribute to society in any way. You don’t get to know people in the host country either. You become just a body that is waiting for a decision about your future. It can take years or just a month, you never know.
My birth name is Madina Salamova, which I disliked since I was young. When we came to Norway I changed it to Maria because it was really more me. During high school I met a fantastic friend who called me Amelie. He died tragically and I just decided to call myself Amelie. So many people think that it is a fake name, but it is the name I use every day. As soon as I get a chance to hold Norwegian citizenship I will erase my old name and take the one that is me.
When did you start writing the book and what moved you to share your story in this way?
In August 2009 I wrote 400 pages based on my diaries and my blog. Then I worked on them for a year and my book was published in September 2010.
I was 26 years old when I finally got a passport and became a real citizen. I left Kaukasus when I was 12. I lived in Moscow without registration for 3 years, than as a asylum seeker without any papers in Finland and Norway. Then I became undocumented in Norway until I was 26 years old. Through my whole life I didn’t have papers. I didn’t have to get used to living without papers - I just never had them.
But when I was finishing my Masters degree I started to think more about the future as an undocumented person. I was worried about my sick parents. I thought what if they die, how can bury them if they officially don’t exist. I thought if I got pregnant what should I do, or if I was raped would I dare go to the police? I wondered if I saw a crime, would I dare to report it, or just be afraid that they would then kick me out.
I also realized that people knew so little about undocumented immigrants. If the press wrote anything it was mostly negative information. I was afraid that someday the police would turn up at my door and deport me and my family. But what was more terrifying is that nobody would know about us, we would be many of the thousands of faceless illegal immigrants who are deported. Nobody would understand that we survived and had an okay life not just because we were resourceful, but because people here helped us and wanted us to stay. People treated us with respect for our situation.
It was the opposite of the system here which just assumed that we should go back to Russia without giving my parents a chance to explain. The people here helped with jobs, finding a home and mostly with just being our friends and investing their time in us.
In Norway, the book really impacted the public conversation about rights, about attitudes to asylum-seeking. Did you anticipate the response from the reading public?
I am really happy that people wanted to read my book, and it has made so many more people understand more about illegal immigrants. If you compare newspapers today and before my book was published it is two different worlds. Every day you can read about children and families being kicked out of the country. There are faces, stories and their voices we hear and sometimes happy endings. Before it was just statistics and how many criminals were deported. But it happened not because my book was so brilliant, but because asylum politics hadn’t changed for many years and in every region in Norway there were people who knew asylum seekers, who were fighting for them without result and who wanted to make this a bigger political issue.
You’ve been described as 'a voice for the voiceless'. Do you believe writers have a role to play in creating social change?
Of course. I wrote my book because I wanted to tell. I didn’t write a political account on the situation. I did what I could best, used my diaries and my own life to explain the unhuman laws of the asylum system. It is important to contribute with that knowledge.
You now speak fluent Norwegian, write in Norwegian and have embraced Norwegian culture. When writing the book did you think in Norwegian as well?
Yes, and I wrote the whole book in Norwegian also. To speak Russian often brings me negative memories. But I love Russian literature so I read whenever I can.
Following the book’s publication, in 2011 you were arrested and denied asylum or residency on humanitarian grounds in Norway. There was a huge public outcry but despite a very high profile campaign you were then deported from Norway to Russia. At that low point did you find yourself already thinking about writing about those experiences as well?'
Yes. I was sitting at the detention jail in Norway and was writing, because otherwise I would have become totally crazy. I have been writing ever since, but more during short periods of time. I was terrified when I was arrested and deported, but then I was happy in a crazy way, because I thought that things I am experiencing are so unique that I have to write about it.
You don’t write about Russia or why your family fled rather you write about the experience of learning to live in a new culture, in finding a new ‘home’. What role do you believe an organisation like PEN can play in helping defend writers’ freedom of expression?
I didn’t write about them because I wanted to write about my life and my situation, and also because I was a child when they fled. Russia wasn’t my story or big part of my identity. The government in Norway arrested me and said in the press that they didn’t find any reasons why I should be afraid to go back to Russia. But I didn’t apply for asylum because of what I was afraid in Russia, but rather because I came to Norway as a minor and my whole life was there.
Also, another important fact: I applied for asylum when my book was published. I was never called in for interview with immigration services. My first ever contact with them was when the police arrested me and put me into an asylum prison. I never got a chance to present my case before the immigration services. And the policeman who escorted me to the jail talked to me a lot in the car, I found out there that as soon my book was published they put a surveillance team on me, there was often a car outside my apartment. So yes, freedom of speech is not something that we have automatically; it is something that we have to work for. PEN reminds us all about what is easy to take for granted.
What are you writing next?
I am writing my next book about what happened after I published the first one
To read an extract from Illegally Norwegian click here.