Jun 1, 2001
23 Min read time
Exile has long enjoyed a special place at the literary table. Bereft of the soul, estranged from the family, banished from the community, expelled from la patrie, lost in the diaspora—such tropes have formed a sturdy axle of poetry and novels for centuries. But something has changed about displacement since the explorations of Dante, Conrad, Nabokov, and countless other paladins of exile.1That is the sheer scale and reasons for human migration. These qualities are transforming the tone, essence, and sensibility of the diaspora, and its political meaning.
The UN agency responsible for refugees estimates the total number of displaced to be 27 million as of 1995, up from one million in 1951. That current figure surely underestimates the numbers of "internally displaced persons," dislocated within their own country. And it does not count at all those who have migrated "willingly," to seek work or escape despair, a mass that makes the true count closer to one hundred million, nearly one in every fifty people on earth. The magnitude is also conveyed by country statistics: those newly uprooted in 1999 alone included 350,000 Afghans, nearly one million Angolans, 400,000 Burundians, 600,000 Chechens, 280,000 Colombians, 1.2 million in the two Congos, 100,000 Kashmiris, 500,000 Indonesians, 200,000 Sierra Leoneans, and one million Kosovars. (Large fractions of those people were able to return to their ravaged villages, and so they are no longer counted as displaced.) Because civilians are now the primary victims in warfare—nine times more than soldiers, a reversal of the ratio prevailing during World War I—the experience of displacement is not merely loss of home and town, but one of relentless, menacing violence.
Who represents these people in our culture, our literature, our politics? Recording the pain of displacement has been the work of the individual exile, expat, and émigré, who is, with few exceptions, someone possessing the refined ability befitting a successful author whose condition of removal from the homeland is often voluntary. "To concentrate on exile as a contemporary political punishment, you must therefore map territories of experience beyond those mapped by the literature of exile itself," writes Edward Said in the title essay from Reflections on Exile. "You must think of the refugee-peasants with no prospect of ever returning home, armed only with a ration card and an agency number…. Negotiations, wars of liberation, people bundled out of their homes and prodded, bussed, or walked to enclaves in other regions: what do these experiences add up to? Are they not manifestly and almost by design irrecoverable?"
Such a refugee literature—tales from the camps, so to speak—has scarcely appeared, and in this Said's assertion that the refugee experience cannot be recovered may be sadly astute. But we do have a literature of exile, of compelled migration, to examine for clues to the special social and political character of that experience. It pivots on two domains of consciousness that appear to dominate displacement—memory and alienation. These two feed on each other, the recollections of what is lost and the alienation from what is found.
The latter—unfamiliarity, the hardships, the racism one might face—besets nearly all displaced people in greater or lesser severity. For the intellectual, like Jewish-German philosopher Theodor Adorno, this alienation is pervasive and consuming, as Nico Israel recounts in Outlandish, his exploration of Conrad, Adorno, and Rushdie. "'Every intellectual in emigration,' [Adorno] writes in an early aphorism, … 'is, without exception, mutilated.'" (This fromMinima Moralia, his influential 1951 work, written from the dystopia of Los Angeles.) "'His language,' Adorno continues, 'has been expropriated, and the historical dimension that nourished knowledge, sapped.' The situation is exacerbated by the presence of factions within the diasporic émigré community; because 'all emphases are wrong, perspectives disrupted,' their attempts to organize politically seem futile…. The public sphere demands absolute conformity ('an unspoken oath of allegiance to the platform'), while 'private life asserts itself unduly, hectically, vampire-like, trying convulsively, because it really no longer exists, to prove it is alive.'" This sullen rendering underscores the struggles common to diaspora communities coping with this alienation: maintaining one's language and culture, remembering a history that makes sense of the displacement, and seeking the safety found in homogeneity-inducing politics. Each of these acts depends on a form of memory.
The unjust estrangements of exile have been, from the early twentieth century, a source of moral stature—replacing an earlier association of exile with shame—and are now burnished by the improbable cloth of postmodern theory. "Exile used to be thought of as a difficult condition," writes Eva Hoffman in her fine essay, "The New Nomads," in Letters of Transit. "It involves dislocation, disorientation, self-division. But today, at least within the framework of postmodern theory, we have come to value exactly those qualities of experience that exile demands—uncertainty, displacement, the fragmented identity. Within this conceptual framework, exile becomes, well, sexy, glamorous, interesting. Nomadism and diasporism have become fashionable terms in intellectual discourse…. And these days we think the exilic position has precisely the virtues of instability, marginality, absence, and outsiderness." What Adorno found quite distressing—mutilatingalienation in all its forms, from homeland, new land, fellow exiles, family, self—is now celebrated as what Hoffman tartly calls "our preferred psychic positioning." It's another small step to appreciate, as Said observes, Georg Lukács's argument that the novel "created out of the unreality of ambition and fantasy, is the form of 'transcendental homelessness.'" One could say precisely the same of twentieth-century visual art, moving as it did from fixed human and spatial relationships to the jarring disconnections of cubism and beyond.
So the condition of displacement is relished through both the increasing self-identification of intellectuals and the public's more conventional sympathies with the predicaments of homelessness. This latter image of the refugee, however, occasioned by the horrifying number of cases and the worldwide reach of the news media, has likely replaced as a heroic form the older, romantic notion of the individual exile, which has become associated with privilege. Nowadays it is the refugee to whom we attribute the qualities of fatefulness, tragedy, and loss.
• • •
This image is nowhere more dramatically presented than in Sebastião Salgado's sublime photographs in Migrations. Salgado is remarkable in his ability to capture the horror of expulsion in beautiful images. His 360 photographs are consistently jolting. An image of a young African woman cradling her husband, an intravenous medical device attached to his arm being all that reveals the emergency setting, is lovingly composed: it disturbs only when you realize the man is dead, the woman almost impassive. Several photos are broad-lens landscapes of migration, the enormous refugee camps in Central Africa, great valleys set against a turbulent sky; in its timeless artistry, one is reminded of the dramatic settings of a Delacroix or the peasant repose of a Brueghel, but instead it's the plastic-sheet tents of late twentieth-century families fleeing a historic genocide. A family of Mozambiquans, a few belongings balanced on their heads, stand to watch their refugee hut go up in flames as they start their return, the burning a ritualized severing of the past. Children play behind barbed wire among ruins of cities; men and women huddle against the cold of the Balkan winter; a long line of Rwandans in search of water trudge along a road in the misty morning light averting their eyes from the bloating bodies in the ditches below.
It is easy to be seduced by such photographs, this combination of beauty and heart-breaking stories. The danger of such imagery is that it can convey the indelible impression of "the refugee" as a universal figure of suffering, the passive victim, a set of tearful eyes catching our gaze in an undifferentiated mass. In the discourse of popular journalism, this is certainly the rote form. Stephen Harrison's Whispered Prayers, a photography book about Tibetan refugees living in South Asia, treats this romanticized type as the norm: the Tibetans, abused by the Chinese, are set in sepia-toned portraits with accompanying text that is a unrelenting testament of victimhood. This is not to say that Tibetans are not victims, or that the photos—which are quite beautiful—are not worthy and representative. The absence of historical context is notable, however, and the depiction of the displaced as helpless victims, while often true, shrouds a far more complex reality.
Salgado has his share of beleaguered women and children and tableaux of helplessness. His photo of the Benako camp in Tanzania is typical in this regard. The refugees in this photograph are from the Rwandan genocide of 1994, and their deplorable living conditions (he has several of these dream-like images) recall the chaos as well as the pathos of sudden and violent expulsion—these people had to leave so quickly they took nothing with them. But his work moves beyond easy sentimental gimmicks to confront more troublesome questions of migration—for example, he returned to this area to capture another period of horror when the camps became enmeshed in the Congolese civil war.
Or consider the photo of the Kurdish women carrying sticks on their backs. It is finely composed, displaying his exceptional use of light. The text signals the bare facts: these are women from families driven from their villages in the Kurdish areas of Turkey, forced out by the Turkish army in its pursuit of the rebels, the PKK; the women's home village was likely razed. The story in the photo tells us a few other things: that these young women, probably mothers, must forage far from the village for firewood, with a supply that could scarcely last a day and night; that they must do so in harsh and unfamiliar terrain, in competition with other young women from the village in which these have sought refuge. They are not counted as refugees, because they have not crossed a border, and it's improbable they are counted as "internally displaced," because they are not urbanized; they will not, therefore, receive international assistance. In a sense, then, they and their tragedy do not exist. In a few other photos, Salgado does not blink from the complexities of the civil war. He notes, for example, that the camps of Kurdish refugees in Iraq are used by the PKK as military platforms, an increasingly common situation, as we know from the Palestinian camps and the Rwandan Hutu camps in the Congo. Victimhood should not be confused for innocence, or the will to strike back.
Another photograph, taken in the Sudan in 1993, shows boys who hide during the day and walk hundreds of miles at night toward refugee camps in Kenya. The photo, apart from being extraordinary visually, is noteworthy for three other reasons. First is the plain fact of it being the Sudan: like the Kurds of Turkey or the Yanomami and Marubo people of Brazil (or many others neglected because their plight is inconvenient for the major powers), the people of Sudan have suffered social cataclysm, war, and displacement in a black hole of the world's attention span. The second aspect of this photo is that these are young boys. Why are they running, why not with their families? Because they will be enslaved as soldiers if they are caught. The third telling quality of this photo, and virtually every photo in the book, is that displacement is almost never a solitary affair—boys escape with other boys, whole towns are uprooted and move en masse, refugee camps house tribal enclaves, and so on. The experience is social, communal.
Among the more gratifying emphases in Salgado's choices is the series on what may be called economic refugees. The movement of people from outback to metropolis is a very old phenomenon, well known in the United States, but today the scale is monstrous and the scope is global. The features of exile and displacement are every bit as insinuating in these cases as from overt political causes: the experience of moving from a village in the Amazon to São Paulo is as startling as moving from, say, East Jerusalem to Amman, and probably more so. A few years ago, while researching a book on Turkey, I witnessed this in the shantytown of Esenyurt on the outskirts of Istanbul, where Kurdish families from southeastern Anatolia were living in ramshackle huts, disconnected from their agrarian culture and vulnerable to police brutality, industrial pollution, and frequent privations that rarely beset them in their native villages.
Another neglected mode of migration is the guest worker. While such people have earned considerable attention where they reside and work in large numbers over many years—Turks in Germany, for instance—the use of temporary, imported labor is growing swiftly without much care for the political and social side-effects. In Cyprus, where my family and I spent several months last year, we were quickly confronted, due to our need for a nanny, with the fact of an enormous population of guest workers from the Philippines and Sri Lanka. We discovered that the governments in Manila and Colombo encourage and facilitate the brokers who bring in thousands to places like Cyprus to be housemaids and other low-skilled laborers. For these people, rights are virtually non-existent; they are separated from their families for years, can be expelled at any time, are frequently abused, and have no chance for permanent residence. This realm of economic displacement is one of the ugliest dimensions of globalization, not least because its denizens are nearly faceless and voiceless. This is common to Europe and America, a dirty little secret because the gatekeepers of the public realm are the principal beneficiaries.
Time and again with astonishing precision Salgado captures the nightmarish passage of displacement, the chaotic scurrying of survival, the terrible beauty of violent disorder. What he does not show, or perhaps cannot—it would then be a different collection altogether—is the progression of migrant consciousness from this mad dash to the relative settledness of the refugee camp or metropolis. It is the post-exodus stillness that has produced the vast, inward literature of exile. And in this stillness a metamorphosis occurs, a rapid evolution of the senses that both reveals and occludes the abandoned "homeland."
Most often, this change hinges on a fresh articulation of nationalism. Edward Said provides the broad sweep: "Nationalism is an assertion of belonging in and to a place, a people, a heritage. It affirms the home created by a community of language, culture, and customs; and by so doing, it fends off exile, fights to prevent its ravages…. All nationalisms in the early stages develop from a condition of estrangement." Nationalisms of all kinds are constructed, as Benedict Anderson argued in his influential Imagined Communities, and legions of historians and social scientists have investigated the hammering and sawing of national myths, which have provided the most stubbornly durable political mindsets for the past two centuries.
This relationship between diasporas and nationalism, well established over time (think of the Irish in America, or the Jews across the globe), is all the more significant today because of the magnitude of displacement. The throngs of Angolans in South Africa, Liberians in New York, or Albanians in Italy—all displaced by traumatic civil wars—are just three examples of a restless political consciousness in exile that appears as a seminal matter of international relations. Modern communications, particularly the Internet, enables what Anderson calls "long-distance nationalism," the capacity of diasporic groups to participate in the political life of their homelands as never before. So these twin developments—enormous flows of dispossessed people, and the ability to stay in touch once departed—may alter the very concept of nationalism, its composition and practice. Because the exile's predicament is typically so dissimilar from life in the homeland, the expressions of nationalism will likely be something new and different, possibly sui generis to the diaspora. But what would the features of this diasporic nationalism be?
Since Cicero and Ovid, exile literature has been drenched in nostalgic longing for the lost place and the people left behind. In coming to terms with his own exile, Said describes Conrad's powerful rendering of "the loss of home and language in the new setting, a loss that Conrad has the severity to portray as irredeemable, relentlessly anguished, raw, untreatable, always acute." In Letters of Transit, writer André Acimen recounts his early years in New York: "I had come here, an exile from Alexandria, doing what all exiles do on impulse, which is to look for their homeland abroad, to bridge the things here to things there, to rewrite the present so as not to write off the past." A 25-year-old Tibetan man in Harrison's photo essay: "Inside my heart, there is always a place for my family, an empty place, a black spot. Whether my life is good or bad, that black spot is always present in my heart. It is a dark and foreboding place. There is fear and longing there. I have a recurrent dream that I go back to Tibet and am so happy to see my family." These sentiments spring in part from the alienation the exile feels in new surroundings, and are given form and positive meaning by memory.
• • •
Language, culture, and history are core constituents of memory, the emotional channel to the homeland. Language is a given, however tenuous its stamina in the diaspora. Culture is often replicated in small ways, as Acimen noted, or as larger projects of a migrant community—"Little Havana" or "Little Bombay." While culture is fitfully replicated as patchwork,2 history is fabricated from whole cloth. And the construction of historical memory by exiles can be a many-splendored thing: radiant with longing, lush in sentiment, painted in dichromatic strokes. It is in this realm that politics enters forcefully. For history, like culture, is a social activity, but more plastic; collective memory is molded by the experience of leaving the homeland, the conditions of the place of exile, and the hopes for return or revenge.
The dreamscape of exile is quite different from the nation-building ideologies forged by the likes of Napoleon, Bolívar, or Atatürk (although it's noteworthy that many such national sires came from the periphery—Napoleon from Corsica, Atatürk from Macedonia, Hitler from Austria, Arafat from who-knows-where). But the quality of dreaming about nationhood, the emotional and mental capacity of humans to visualize a homeland populated by ethnic, religious, linguistic kin in a framework of ethics and purpose, may transcend the points of origin and departure. We have long thought of nation-building as a process of law and politics, social movements and armed struggle, conquest and submission, and stages of "modernization." But nations and nationalism are also infused by fantasy—indeed, one might say that fantasies are thesine qua non of nationhood, the emotional tie that binds. In her brilliant exploration of this idea in States of Fantasy, British critic Jacqueline Rose turns the concept from the typical association with deeply private whims to the firmer ground of historical agent: "Fantasy—far from being the antagonist of public, social, being—plays a central, constitutive role in the modern world of states and nations." While she traces a number of meanings of the interplay between nationhood and fantasy, her core idea is to show how political categories are meaningful only if provided with the enlivening tonic of human dreams: "Playful, perverse, savage—to call justice a fantasy … is to say no more or less than that it is the supreme target and embodiment of our social aspirations, our most exacting ideal. Or, to put it another way, there is no ideal without fantasy, no short cut through the trials of fantasy to the realization of our political dreams."
Rose's formulation is, I submit, even more applicable to nationalism-in-exile. (Two of her three examples, studied through novels, are Israel and South Africa, whose national ideas were shaped significantly in exile.) Beyond the individual's perception of strangeness or loneliness or longing—the province of literature—is a group dynamic; for most migrants move in groups and live in the same or similar groups in the new place. This collectivity is a powerful sculptor of the group's identity in all respects, but it is particularly consequential in molding communal memory—a new or reconstructed history—of the national essence, the causes of the expulsion, the claims to legitimacy, and so on, because this (unlike language or culture) is new, this predicament of displacement and dispossession, and it begs for self-satisfying explanation. "Fantasy is a way of re-elaborating and therefore of partly recognizing the memory which is struggling, against all odds, to be heard," Rose writes, using Freud as her springboard. "Loss, historic deprivation transmute themselves into necessity, one which soon … would entrench itself beyond all negotiable reach."
How this appears is rather straightforward, though the exact contours, which surely depend upon the details of displacement, have not been probed sufficiently. Both Cypriot and Kurdish refugees I interviewed invariably described their loss through a memory of bucolic perfection. "We had walnut trees and goats and pasture in our village," was a typical tale of woe from a Kurdish woman whose family was driven out by the Turkish army. The Cypriots said similar things, and the loss always focused on land, fruitful and beautiful land. Whether these memories were strictly accurate or embellished by time and nostalgia, or by a need to uphold, as Adorno put it, "an unspoken oath of allegiance to the platform," is impossible for me to say. But the similarity of these dozens of stories is no less striking, and the phenomenon appears to be confirmed by the growing academic field of diaspora studies.3
One of the rare empirical works in this vein comes from anthropologist Liisa Malkki in her influential 1995 work, Purity and Exile, a study of Hutu refugees who had fled Burundi and a 1972 bloodbath engineered mainly by the rival clan, the Tutsi, who controlled the state apparatus. She gathered the stories of two groups, those Hutus who lived in a refugee camp, and those who lived in a Tanzanian city. The first group, far more than the second, had constructed over time "mythico-history": "it was unmistakable that history had seized center stage in everyday thought and social action in the camp," she writes. "The Hutu mythico-history represented an interlinked set of ordering stories which converged to make (or remake) a world." It was, she argues, "constructed in opposition to other versions of what was ostensibly the same world, or the same past. The oppositional process of construction also implied the creation of the collective past in distinction to other pasts, thereby heroizing the past of the Hutu as 'a people' categorically distinct from others…. It seized historical events, processes, and relationships, and reinterpreted them within a deeply moral scheme of good and evil."
The Hutu's "construction of shared, collective past (operating simultaneously as charter and as a 'destiny') was essentially also the creation of a national past" that was primarily filtered through the experience of genocide and flight. Burundi was remembered as an ancestral home, with all the usual flourishes, but mainly a social milieu differentiated by stories of good and evil associated, respectively, with Hutu and Tutsi. The camp, the process of constructing the mythico-history, Malkki observes, "represented a period of tests and lessons, a process of purification, which would make the Hutu as 'a people' worthy of regaining the homeland." She also studied Hutu refugees living in a nearby Tanzanian city, who had integrated somewhat with the locals; they were far less prone to construct the fantasies about Burundi than were their ethnic brethren in the camps.
Are these refugees political actors in their homeland struggles? Malkki cites the case of the Hutu massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1961 and the 150,000 displaced into surrounding countries; some 25 years later, a Tutsi insurgency was made up a "sizable part" of the forces exacting revenge. She learned subsequently (and told me) that a number of the Hutu refugees she interviewed did in fact return to Burundi in the 1990s to become politically active.
Diaspora communities have played a significant, and frequently destructive, role in the civil strife besetting Ireland, the former Yugoslavia (Serbs and Croatians, particularly, and now Albanians), South Asia, the Middle East, and West Africa, to name only a few of the obvious cases—and this list is growing. But we do not understand how and why these communities abroad act as they do, how their consciousness about the conflict is formed, and why it is so often reactionary. As the complex history of nationalism shows, fantasies do not have to be retrograde. Moreover, we know that exile need not be a melancholic nightmare—it is often a liberating experience, not just for the financially secure but for many who seek to escape provincialism or barren prospects. And, of course, only a fraction of the displaced tend to be politically mobilized, some as an expression of their own group isolation in a new country in which they are marginalized.
Leadership in the diaspora provides pivotal political guidance: think of the difference between Nelson Mandela (in "prison exile" on Robben Island) and Jorge Mas Canosa (in exile from Cuba in the comfort of Miami), and their respective ideologies of forgiveness and vindictiveness. At the more prosaic level, leaders in small-scale diaspora communities routinely shape the construction of memory and nationalism, often as a bidding process between competing elites or political groups. But attributing the differences in exilic experiences to variations of leadership is not satisfying. Too many other factors influence the fantasy as well as the politics of exile—the nature of the homeland regime and its opposition, economic conditions and cultural coherence in the diaspora, the continuities of time and space.
What does seem clear is that the formation of nationalism and political activism in the diaspora is a distinctly social enterprise. "Exiles feel," Edward Said writes, "an urgent need to reconstitute their broken lives, usually by choosing to see themselves as part of a triumphant ideology or a restored people. The crucial thing is that a state of exile free from this triumphant ideology—designed to reassemble an exile's broken history into a new whole—is virtually unbearable." Here again we see the vital link between the alienation of exile and the reconstructed fantasy-history that makes it "bearable," and possibly redeemable. Because exile literature has focused so sharply on individuals, and privileged individuals at that, the more common and politically powerful experience of refugees in refugee camps and in settled diasporic communities has not been represented and therefore is scarcely understood. The dynamics of this remarkable, growing phenomenon, which is altering the expression of nationalism and the course of global politics, remain a thicket unexplored. Yet, neither literature nor photography nor critical theory—the longtime media of displacement—are likely to guide us reliably through it.
1 The words exile, émigré, migration, and displacement all have different meanings or nuance, but I generally consider in this essay involuntary or forced migration as being what's at issue, and I use these terms somewhat interchangeably. The term "diaspora," as Nico Israel explains, is the Greek transliteration of the HebrewZa'avah from Deuteronomy, translated yet again into English asremoval, "associated with a curse, with a perpetual otherness amid others, with blindness, madness, and defeat (Deut 28:28), with a spreading that weakens."
2 For three different explorations of the importance of culture in the diaspora, see Isabel Alvarez Borland, Cuban-American Literature of Exile (University Press of Virginia, 1998); Hamid Nacify, The Making of Exile Cultures: Iranian Television in Los Angeles(University of Minnesota Press, 1993); and Victor Montejo, Voices from Exile: Violence and Survival in Modern Maya History(University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), the last an ethnographic study of Mayans driven from Guatemala by political repression argues that their survival was enabled by clinging to, and replicating, cultural practices as refugees in Mexico.
3 This has received relatively little attention from scholars. Three exceptions are: William Safran, "Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return," Diaspora 1 (1991); Martin Sokefeld and Susanne Schwalgin, "Institutions and Their Agents in Diaspora," conference paper, "Locality, Identity, and Diaspora," University of Hamburg, 10-13 February 2000; and Peter Fritzsche, "Nostalgia as Exile: The Culture of Displacement and the Narrative of History," in Mapping Modernities: Nostalgia, Public Space, and Utopia (Rio de Janeiro, forthcoming). The journal Diaspora(University of Toronto) occasionally addresses these themes.
While we have you...
...we need your help. You might have noticed the absence of paywalls at Boston Review. We are committed to staying free for all our readers. Now we are going one step further to become completely ad-free. This means you will always be able to read us without roadblocks or barriers to entry. It also means that we count on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, help us keep it free for everyone by making a donation. No amount is too small. You will be helping us cultivate a public sphere that honors pluralism of thought for a diverse and discerning public.
June 01, 2001
23 Min read time