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from the September 2014 issue

The Memory of Our Land: Writing in and from Exile

In late May I attended a writers’ conference in Sozopol, Bulgaria, sponsored by the admirable Elizabeth Kostova Foundation. Sozopol lies on the Black Sea, less than two hundred miles south of Constanța, Romania—better known as the ancient city of Tomis, where Ovid spent the last part of his life in exile. (As we sat on the lush hotel patio, looking out at ruins and the water beyond, I did have the uncharitable thought that—aesthetically, at least—Ovid didn’t have it so bad.) Angered by a racy poem, the emperor Augustus banished the cosmopolitan Ovid to this remote area, the most distant corner of the Empire, to live among uneducated people who did not speak Latin and for the most part knew no literature. Separated from his wife, cut off from intellectual and social companionship, Ovid spent the rest of his life pining for Rome, begging to return, and writing about his sorrowful life in exile. His years in Tomis influenced later generations’ approach to the topic of exile, and its notions about the figure of the exile himself.

We tend to assume that writers living in exile were expelled for provocative or adversarial work, and indeed most of the writers in this issue faced persecution for their writing (when they were not silenced altogether). Some, like Ovid, were forced from their countries by the government; others fled in the face of war and destruction; and still others left voluntarily, if under duress. Some write from asylum. But all have in common a departure from some form of adversity in their native lands, and an eventual arrival in a new and very different country. And their pieces here reflect, both explicitly and otherwise, the effects this uprooting has on their lives and work.

Israel Centeno was forced to flee his native Venezuela after he published a novel critical of the Chavez administration. In his “Witness,” a self-exiled detective follows the trail of a missing woman and finds himself in a fairy tale gone bad. Centeno grounds investigation and discovery in two conventions—the detective story and the myth—to bring the story to a devastating conclusion.

Syria’s Osama Alomar contributes a fable about a man who roams the world, carrying only a bag inherited from his grandfather. Upon arriving in a foreign country, he invites the residents to admire the contents, which have shifted unexpectedly in transit. The piece suggests the burden carried by exiled writers, and the challenges of transporting and translating culture.

Iraq’s Mahmoud Saeed, who survived multiple imprisonments in his native Iraq, pens a love letter to Chicago, his home since 1999. In his celebration of Chicago’s cosmopolitan streets and beautiful lakefront (as well as its rugged winters), he conveys both the deep appreciation of his adopted city and an implicit remembrance of what he left behind.

M. Lynx Qualey will be a familiar name to our readers. The critic and editor behind the invaluable Arabic Literature (in English) Web site contributes a thoughtful survey of the theme of exile throughout Arabic literature, exploring how displacement has shaped both the region and its writers, and how it has evolved in step with political and social developments.

In an extract from his autobiographical novel Les Racines du yucca, Chad’s Koulsy Lamko visits a fellow exile. The latter, finally settled in a large, comfortable house after years of wandering and hardship, strikes the narrator as oddly content. Suspecting his serenity is a front, the narrator muses, “Exile is a slow death, a life on reprieve, a life spent waiting. . . . Slowly but surely, exile erases us from the memory of our land.” He understands the man’s stubborn optimism is a sham, but also a necessary lie to keep living.

Poet, publisher, and translator Osama Esber also addresses alienation and loss in his moving “Exile Is Born at This Moment.” Esber left his home, his career, and his business in the ruins of Damascus. Mourning his lost city, he laments: “When blood is exiled, / nothing binds it to the race.” Mohamed Diriye of Somalia might argue with that. In his “The Curse of the South,” a Somali fleeing to Saudi Arabia abandons the South as both homeland and region (“from now on my compass has three points”), but is unable to shed the geographic identity that pulses through his veins.

Hamid Ismailov’s “The Stone Guest” is a mordant tale of an Uzbek in Moscow who receives an unwelcome reminder of his origins when a young nephew pops up asking for help getting set up in the country. The long-settled older man—so assimilated that his friends freely complain about recent Uzbek émigrés in front of him—finds his reluctant hospitality giving way to exasperation and then fury, as the young man and his companion systematically drain him of both funds and patience. Ismailov’s fellow Uzbek, poet Khayrullo Fayz, howls about the relentless displacement of exile: “Urging me to leave too / But where to?”

Journalist Olivia Snaije is based in Paris, long a destination for exiles and home to a vibrant Middle Eastern émigré community. Her interview with Syria’s Samar Yazbek and Rosa Yassin Hassan and Iraq’s Inaam Kachachi addresses issues of writing and location, disruption, and home. Although Yazbek states “Home is my language, my country, my soul, and my life is in my text,” she acknowledges her sorrow at not being able to return to her “destiny,” Syria. Hassan observes, “I left Syria but it hasn’t left me,” and speaks of the exile’s “intensifying feelings of powerlessness.” Kachachi left Iraq voluntarily “because I can’t live [there] as a woman,” and has lived in Paris for thirty years, longer than she lived in her native country; nonetheless, she continues to think of Iraq as “chez moi,” and echoes Hassan when she says, “Iraq still lives in me.”

Cuban Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo details his history as a disenfranchised Havanan writer. Banned from publication since 1998, accustomed to thinking of himself as “an island within an island,” Pardo Lazo took advantage of the easing of travel restrictions to fly to the US in 2013. He has never returned, and now finds himself an inadvertent exile, viewing his country and its literature from a different vantage point.

Unfortunately, the despotism and abuse of power that led to Ovid’s exile still exist these two thousand years later. So long as there are repressive and intolerant governments, violence, war, and economic and social collapse, writers will continue to confront and to challenge, and to suffer—and survive, and document—the consequences. As these writers demonstrate, there is no typical exile, and no standard response to deracination. We hope our readers will find that these varied perspectives on the topic enhance and expand their own. And we trust that they will provide some sense, for those of us who have never been forced from our homes or countries, of the many elements of rebuilding life, identity, writing, and home.

© 2014 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.

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