What is a migrant letter?

What is a migrant letter? 

Liz Stanley, University of Edinburgh, UK

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2014) ‘What is a migrant letter?’ Whites Writing Whiteness  www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/blog/migrant-letter/ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate if quoting.

1. Some Forbes Letters Extracts:

2. Are all letters written by migrants ‘migrant letters’? At what point does someone stop being a migrant and become a settler? Are there important differences between being a migrant, a sojourner and a settler? Can someone (a migrant, a sojourner, a settler) write ‘migrant letters’ to some people but different kinds of letters to other people? And what happens to these categories of letters when someone moves their habitation back to their former country but carries on writing to the same array of people? These and related questions are important in understanding ‘whites writing whiteness’ in their letters in the South African context, for they raise crucial matters concerning the fundamental ontological character of letter-writing in the settler-colonial context.

3. On one level it is self-evident what a ‘migrant letter’ is: a letter from a migrant ‘abroad’ to a someone ‘at home’ (or vice versa), written in a context of semi/permanent absence, with such correspondences forming a transnational ‘third space’, having varied contents with a dualistic stance in looking backwards at shared origins and old relationships and affective bonds while coming to terms with new circumstances. Such ideas have been explored in a number of insightful and influential contributions (cf Fraser, Richards, Fitzpatrick, Gabaccia, Liu, Gerber, Elliott et al, Cancian). However, an interesting question arises concerning the degree to which this understanding of the migrant letter has been shaped by specificities of the sources drawn on. That is, it rests upon discussions of letters specifically identified as migrant ones, although most migrants will also have written many other letters, some to people ‘at home’, others to family, friends and business connections in the new context. When the migrant letter is explored in this broader context of settler-colonial letter-writing, and when both ‘ends’ of migrant correspondence can be considered – two major lacunae in the literature – something more complex comes into view.

4. The article explores and problematises definitional features of ‘migrant letters’ outlined above in relation to a number of aspects of the letters received and draft letters sent that are present in the Forbes Family collection, which contains some 50,000 documents written from 1850 and emigration by some family members from Scotland to Natal (and subsequently Transvaal), through to 1930. The majority are letters but also include diaries and business papers of various kinds. Significant numbers of the letters are from family members still in Scotland, and there are drafts of the letters sent to them by the South African end of these correspondences too. As a result, this collection provides the breadth and depth necessary for exploring in a methodologically robust way how migrant letters shape up when located within and explored in connection with the greater entirety of a family’s letter-writing.

Last updated: 1 May 2015


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