Russalka as an immigrant?

When I was reading “Russalka or the Seacoast of Bohemia” by Joanna Russ, I couldn’t help but think of it as a story of imperialism, and immigration. It might seem like a stretch, or it might be due to my own biases, but the young Russalka reminded me a lot of myself, and the (actual, above sea-level) land they speak of in the story is to her what America was to me.

Russalka comes from a nation where there is apparently not much/not very easy access to education and opportunity – much like the case in my home countries of India, and Jamaica. Those places are seen as “third-word”; they are lesser than the land in the north (in Jamaica’s case…directly north). This is pretty much how Russalka’s underwater home is depicted in comparison to the land, where there is so much wealth, and supposed access to education and opportunity. That’s why Russalka gives up her family’s wealth and even her own voice to go to land (much like how many immigrants give up a lot of wealth, and the “voice” that they have in their home countries just to go to another country in hopes of achieving something). However, it isn’t until Russalka reaches the land that she finds out that unfortunately, it was just a cliche case of the grass seeming greener on the other side. I, as an immigrant, faced the disappointment (played out in the story through Russalka’s obvious discomfort when she was on land) that Russalka faced. I came to America hoping to achieve so much because back in my countries, there was all this talk of America being a land without poverty and with tons and tons of opportunity. I didn’t realize until I got here how much I had to sacrifice, and how much more I had to keep on giving if I were to get anything out of being here.

As highlighted in the story through the physical differences between Russalka and the prince, there is a huge culture difference/shock for immigrants who move to America from other countries. We (immigrants) are seen as “foreign” or “alien” and ultimately end up being “white-washing” or having to give up our culture and assimilating ourselves into the dominant culture of this country if we want to have a shot at living comfortably. There is just no way that we can stick to all of our cultural beliefs and expect to live the kind of life we came here to live. And the story speaks to that. We see the metaphorical death of Russalka’s culture and her passion for it the moment she is turned into a frog and trapped. Later, there is a complete disconnect, represented through her literal death in the tale.

Furthermore, the story (when read this way) also speaks to the over-exaggeration that goes on during discourse of “third-word” countries. Many times, there are extremely good resources in those countries (like the sea universities mentioned in the story) but they lose their value due to the inhabitants’ lack of respect, and also due to the overbearing power of wealthier nations.

I think that were Russalka a man, she would have been depicted a lot differently than she was in the story. She seemed kind of pathetic and ungrateful for giving everything up to move to land. Many female immigrants face this problem – they are viewed as (by members of their society, family, etc.) as foolish or selfish for wanting to go to a distant land in hopes of achieving some goal. However, if a man were to do the same, he would be glorified and praised for taking such a huge risk in pursuit of his dreams.

I guess, overall, the story basically speaks to the way our society operates – much like many of the other stories that we’ve read in this class. Either that, or I just read everything to be that way now.


About sponnada

I am an Indian immigrant woman on a quest to be free.
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