PEN World Voices Festival As It Happened: Expats


Kwame Anthony Appiah, Jamaica Kincaid, Marlon James, Colum McCann, and Eric Banks.
Photo: Bruna Dantas Lobato.

The term “expatriate” is overburdened, too close to exile on the one hand and immigrant on the other. At the Instituto Cervantes on Wednesday, April 27, New York Institute for the Humanities director Eric Banks led a discussion on expat literature for the PEN World Voices Festival. The panel featured writers Jamaica Kincaid, Marlon James, Valeria Luiselli, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Colum McCann.

When thinking of the word expat, Appiah described the foreigner who might make money by living abroad, someone who moves to a place where they live cheaply while having no real commitment to the local community. James added, “They’ll be the first to leave when the revolution happens.” The word also presupposes a fatherland (patria) and a strong bond with the center one exited from. Luiselli noted that a better term might imply a sense of belonging in many places at once as well a sense of being a “patriate of elsewhere.”


Colum McCann, Eric Banks, and Valeria Luiselli. Photo: Bruna Dantas Lobato.

Salman Rushdie writes in his “Imaginary Homelands” that straddling two cultures “is not an infertile territory for a writer to occupy. If literature is in part the business of finding new angles at which to enter reality, then once again our distance, our long geographical perspective, may provide us with such angles.”

It is not surprising, then, that so many emigrants are also novelists. As Edward Said suggests, the foreigner’s “new world, logically enough, is unnatural and its unreality resembles fiction.” Uprootedness can also provide a safe, suspended space that allows the writer to take risks, both in terms of content and form.

Perhaps a writer living abroad feels most at home in language. The writing has value because of the writing itself, which exists both inside and outside the national dialogue. The novel functions as a kind of transcendental space, beyond the boundaries of nations. “My audience is the Corinthians and my writing is Paul’s letters,” Kincaid articulated. “The Corinthians will never read it and when they do, they will want to kill me for it. The Corinthians go, but the letters stay.”

To emigrate is to wound oneself, a kind of brutal exercise in memory-making. McCann gave the example of truck drivers who cut their own fingers to stay awake. “Writers do the same,” he said. “We force ourselves into a state of alertness, into feeling pain to stay awake.”


Suggested Reading: Valeria Luiselli's “Building a New World,” from WWB's November 2014 Nonfiction Feature: Writers on Education