Introduction to Vi Gale: The Immigrant Story

Behind the Poetry

An interview with one of Oregon's better known women poets.

Portland: Swedish Roots in Oregon, 2001, 28 p.

In 1923, when Erland Håkansson was 35 years old and his wife Maria was 31, they decided to do what so many Swedes had done before them: sell practically everything they owned and emigrate to the United States. Up until then they had lived with their two children, Viola, aged six, and Harry, two, in a small village in Dalarna called Noret, near Dala-Järna along Västerdalälven. The exodus followed the familar pattern of the more than one million emigrants before them: relatives driving them to the train station with a horse and carriage, train to Oslo, ship to New York, admission through Ellis Island, slightly modified names, and then a long train trip across the United States to a new life in the Swedish community in Clatskanie, Oregon. None of them spoke more than a handful of English words.

Life in Clatskanie was also a fairly typical immigrant acculturation experience: while the father worked as a logger among Scandinavians in the Oregon woods, the children went to school and did their utmost to get rid of whatever trace they had of their native language. As Vi says in the interview: “We did not get any points in those days for our ethnicity, I’ll tell you. If anything, it was something we were really heckled about. We wanted to leave it behind as quickly as possible.” During World War II, the entire family became US citizens, and Vi’s brother served in the US military. During the same time, Vi moved from Clatskanie to Portland, where she met, married and eventually settled with her husband James Gale.

Vi Gale began writing and publishing short stories and poems in the 1950s, and in 1974 she started the small publishing house Prescott Street Press. In the late 1970s when I first met her, and learned of her Swedish background, I became interested in the evolution of her writing career. I knew she only wrote in English and that she did not work actively as a translator, but why had that happened? Where did the Swedish fit in? Was Vi Gale an American author who had just happened to have been born in Sweden to Swedish parents, and who knew Swedish, but whose formative influences had been primarily American? Or should she somehow be considered a Swedish-American author? I knew that she had written poems about her Swedish childhood, and on subjects which could be considered Scandinavian, so there was at least a certain ethnic dimension to her work. In addition, even though I knew she had never returned to Sweden, I wanted to find out what kind of ties she had kept to Swedish culture and literature.

Curious about all this, I decided to interview Vi Gale about it, and what follows will, I hope, shed a little bit of light on some of the forces that have helped shape her almost fifty years of writing and publishing in Oregon.