As part of my ongoing research, I’m fascinated by how much of old and new literature is made by writers living in exile and/or the Diaspora. Not all exile is motivated by political circumstances but involuntary departure from one’s native land and eventual settlement in a new country characterizes many exilic experiences. To talk about exile and the Diaspora is to talk about language because movement often involves the body and language. According to George Steiner, the aspect of other languages or multiplicity in exile and Diaspora literature is what makes writers such as Nabokov, Beckett, Borges, Oscar Wilde, Ezra Pound, and so on, extraterritorial. On this list I will add the African counterparts like Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ama Ata Aidoo, Ayi Kwei Armah, Chenjerai Hove, Okot P’Bitek, Susan Kiguli… in fact, all the African writers whether at home or elsewhere. This makes me laugh because if there’s one thing that African writers have in abundance, it’s the knowledge of other languages other than the ones they choose to write in. To name all of them here would mean you’d never reach the end of this blog and that’s not my intention. Extraterritoriality is also present in Native American literature, in writers such as Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, Gerald Vizenor, Simon Ortiz, Lawrence Gross, and so on. They’re so good at integrating multiple registers and voices that if you’re not used to it, if you don’t have a multi-lingual background, it’s likely to jar you and leave you pining for straightforward narratives. Good news: you can learn how to read it. You can become versatile in it as you allow your mind to open.
While I’m still on the issue of language and exile, I had quite forgotten that most early European writers knew more than one language. It’s common to read German authors (same goes for early philosophers) who knew Latin and Greek, English writers who were fluent in French, and Irish writers who had an addition of English and Italian. Language crossover seems to have been naturally expected if one wanted to pursue the works of the mind or spirit. I’ve always been curious about the linguistic fluency among Popes and Cardinals. How that would imply competence in leadership as well. The ability to communicate in many languages has long been a prerequisite for these folks. The education system helps since in Europe, for instance, most kids are schooled in at least two languages other than their own, so by the time they’re adults they can comfortably shift from one to another. Also, at a time when education was confined to homeschooling, which only the wealthy could afford, being educated meant fluency in more than one language. We see this in Nabokov, of course, Flaubert, and other writers from affluent families. But this should not undermine the ordinary person who would grow up to become a writer in a country like Spain. This writer would also be speaking Basque, Catalan, or Gallego in addition to Spanish. It shocks me therefore that for most Anglophone and Francophone Africa, when cultures that are originally multilingual try to emphasize learning English or French in schools, they’ll severely punish any student caught speaking another language. Instead of encouraging unity/totality/diversity, they focus on separation. This eventually affects everyone in the community when time comes to mobilize all the members for something in which unity is required. Citizenship, for instance, governance. If one has been sowing seeds of separation early on in language, how do you expect people to turn around and do otherwise?
I think the bilingual or multi-lingual minds contained in early literature contributed a lot to making the works timeless and good. That’s probably why I keep going back to old literatures, how delightful they really are compared to new literature written by monolingual writers. The same case can be made for new contemporary literature by bi-lingual or multi-lingual writers having a leg up on that written by monolingual authors. This is my speculation and will in good time test the hypothesis. Perhaps I’m privileging multi-lingual authors and their works in the name of making a point for extraterritoriality and the multi-lingual mind. But think of what draws us to translations. If not the traces of the original language still layered in the translated text, the fusion and coexistence of two or multiple languages manifesting differently and perhaps making the translation more alive, If that is not part of the charm, then what? Even if something may be lost, something else is gained and the spirit persists, above all, in a good translation. The ghostness and purity of what emerges speaks about how we exist in any language, what it’s like to move through it and live in it, find life in art, forever and ever, Amen.
Like a translated body or text, exile and diaspora literature generally smells of what’s carried over whether it’s written by Jewish authors, Iranian, Caribbean, Indian, African, Native American, or Eastern Europeans. On the one hand, you may find works filled with cultural baggage that’s just too heavy or painful to lay down. On the other hand, there may be a lot of fluidity and lightness in spite of the nostalgia, loss, absence, trauma, and longing for home. Funny thing is when these two camps write; one from weight and the other from lightness, the themes that evolve out of their works are the same, that is, alienation, mourning, yearning, disruption, unfixed identities, survivance, estrangement, and so on. These themes are continuing presences in all exile and diasporic writing no matter what the culture. In The Memory of Our Land: Writing in and from Exile, Susan Harris says, “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.” Some critics have said that Lolita is analogous to Nabokov’s longing for the Russia of his youth. As a coping strategy, Azar Nafisi advocates the “Republic of Imagination” as the safest place to create a portable home, a future that one can never have. Writing for her is a way to stay connected with a world/life that’s becoming increasingly distant, to look through reality using the alternative eyes of imagination. Chenjerai Hove before his death in July 2015 also spoke about the creative energy that comes out of the exilic condition. On npr he said that when you leave your native land, the elements of longing become part of the creativity. You miss home more intensely and start to notice things that never interested you before; bird sounds, rivers, the landscape… you realize how beautiful your country is and how you’ll always carry a part of it with you.
Words without Borders dedicated its September 2014 issue to Writing Exile. Enjoy and send me more reading recommendations on creativity and exile, extraterritoriality and language, Diaspora writing, and so on.