Annals of Mobility: On the Forced Mobility of Exile


In New York City, where I live, thousands were displaced before and during Sandy: living in cramped quarters with friends or family, limited by downed transit and, in many cases, cut off from the instant, continual communications that we’ve all come to take for granted.  Even so, there were, in my small world, such a wide range of experiences — from horrific to inconvenient to a nice break from normal obligations.  For some, displacement and/or disconnection were traumatic; for others, they were a welcome disruption.

The forced mobility that is most often discussed in literary circles is that of exile—forced separation from one’s homeland.  So much so, that Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka wrote in 2002:

The theme of exile appears to hold great fascination for literary critics, artistic consumers, anthologists and festival directors of all artistic genres; and a week or two had hardly passed after my vanishing trick from my homeland before I began to be bombarded with enquiries about how exile was affecting my writing.

In some cases, an artist will flee by choice—from oppressive conditions, persecution, or threat of death (in which case the word “choice” is really no longer apt); in others, she is expelled by powerful forces.  What do writers-in-exile have to say about their experiences of being moved unwillingly?  Is the range of experience as wide as what we witnessed last week?


In 2011,the city of Paris became an official member of ICORN, the International Cities of Refugee Network, and organized a seminar on the theme of “Exile and Literature.” At, I encountered some interesting thoughts from participant authors, specifically on language.

Afghan filmmaker and author Atiq Rahimi, who fled Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion and came to France as a political refugee: “I tried to write [The Patience Stone] in Persian but it just came out in French.  In this book I broke taboos in Afghan society. It was impossible to write in my mother tongue. So French was a language of freedom.” Palestinian poet and writer Elias Sanbar similarly noted that many Palestinians viewed French as “the language of culture,” but rejected English, the language of colonization: “The idea of going towards French was not a negation of my culture but rather an acquisition.”  He added: “Exile can be generous. You don’t just lose something but you acquire a world and learn to go forward.”

On the other hand, Cuban novelist and poet Zoe Valdés said, “Exile is a punishment and is painful…it’s a pain that is difficult to express.” Art-making becomes a way of expressing that pain: “Human beings have to save themselves using beauty, and this beauty is freedom.” But Iranian author Marjane Satrapi warned, “When you’re in the West, you shouldn’t think you still know what’s going on [at home].”  In other words, when expressing/reconciling with one’s exile, one must respect the reality of distance, both physical and psychic.

In a 2010 NPR interview, Iranian author Asar Nafisi echoed Valdes’s notion of writing as the necessary response to the pain of exile, and also discussed the double-edged nature of the exile experience— bitter and sweet, destructive and constructive, traumatic and necessary:

Literature is the best answer to the feelings that an exilee has of loss and absence […]  As a writer, you always have to look at the world through the alternative eyes of imagination, because you cannot see reality as it is, but in terms of its essence. So you always come to the world as a stranger […] you have to feel a little bit restless, a little bit not at home to begin with in order to be able to write […] you create a portable world that neither tyrants nor nature can take away from you. And I think that, for me, that’s the safest place to be […]

I think you can never take away the pain and anguish of loss and of exile. But at the same time, you feel a little blessed because you can look at one world through the alternative eyes of the others. And always—you look at it through the fresh eyes of a child, of a stranger, of a visitor. And even in the home that you were born into, the language you speak, you find the details and marvels that you had not seen before.

Zimbabwean author Chenjerai Hove also talked, in that same interview, about the artistic value of living in exile:

There’s certain things, when you’re in the country which you actually take for granted. When you’ve left, you begin to hear even the sounds of birds, the rivers and the wind. Everything becomes different and much more intense because you now have an element of longing with you. And that becomes part of the creativity, as well.

In an excerpted essay published at the New York Review of Books blog, Roberto Bolaño, like Nafisi, addressed the notion of exile as a kind of native, metaphysical state of the artist: “All literature carries exile within it, whether the writer has had to pick up and go at the age of twenty or has never left home […] can it be that we’re all exiles? Is it possible that all of us are wandering strange lands?” Bolaño makes the strong, perhaps controversial, claim that, for the writer, exile is generally both voluntary and productive, countering my earlier suggestion that fleeing death is not really a choice.

Exile, in most cases, is a voluntary decision. No one forced Thomas Mann to go into exile. No one forced James Joyce to go into exile. Back in Joyce’s day, the Irish probably couldn’t have cared less whether he stayed in Dublin or left, whether he became a priest or killed himself […] The writer enters the labyrinth voluntarily—for many reasons, of course: because he doesn’t want to die, because he wants to be loved, etc.—but he isn’t forced into it. In the final instance he’s no more forced than a politician is forced into politics or a lawyer is forced into law school […] the lawyer or politician, outside his country of origin, tends to flounder like a fish out of water, at least for a while. Whereas a writer outside his native country seems to grow wings. The same thing applies to other situations. What does a politician do in prison? What does a lawyer do in the hospital? Anything but work. What, on the other hand, does a writer do in prison or in the hospital? He works. Sometimes he even works a lot […] the writer works wherever he is, even while he sleeps, which isn’t true of those in other professions.


Eritrean-Canadian journalist Aaron Behane argues the opposite. Exile, he says, takes a great toll on the writer’s psyche and creative energy.  He wrote, at The Literary Review of Canada, about the ongoing trauma and insecurity that exiles experience in this current age of economic globalization.  It wasn’t always this way, he says.

Due to more or less clear-cut ideological differences, the countries of the West and East had a clearly articulated relationship, in which the writer in exile had a more or less clearly defined role: the countries of the West were curious to know what was going on in the East, and one source was exiled writers […] This paradigm has changed completely in the 21st century […] The East-West dichotomy of the previous century no longer prevails, and democratic countries maintain relationships with dictatorial regimes for economic gain, even in the face of poor human rights records. Canada, for example, invests in Eritrea’s mining industries, while France invests in the Congo and the United States in Egypt. Moreover, the dictatorial regimes that exiled the writers in the first place continue to intimidate them and their families. As a result, writers in exile do not feel secure.

Additionally, the trauma alone can destroy or stunt an artist’s work.

They have nightmares about the torture they experienced in prison. They have nightmares and feel guilt about the colleagues who died right before their eyes. They have nightmares about the miraculous and incredible journey they endured crossing borders—a flight that spared their lives […] Thus it is not surprising that some writers in exile prefer to silence themselves until they overcome their immediate challenges.

Along these lines, Tienchi Martin-Liao, president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, writes at Sampsonia Way about how Chinese writer Liao Yiwu stopped writing poetry after living in prison for four years.

The prisoners’ brutal and hopeless situation ruined his interest in writing poems. He heard and experienced so many tragedies through and in prison that he decided to chronicle the time. Since the perpetrator [Chinese Communist Party] is dictating history, Liao writes down the people’s stories.


At The Guardian, again in 2002, Soyinka wrote about the process of recognizing and accepting his own state of exile:

Indignant, I refused to cooperate: no, I had not gone into exile, I was merely away from home on a political sabbatical […] Going into exile was one thing, I argued, arriving there was another. Who was to tell me that I had arrived?

He then went on to describe the far end of confronting one’s exile, a dark place:

The recognition of frontiers can be overwhelming, and the condition of exile is the daily knowledge – indeed the palpable experiencing – of such frontiers. Some writers are more susceptible to their debilitating effects and succumb.

Citing the examples of Madagascan poet Rabearivello and South African poet Arthur Nortje, he continued:

Rabearivello’s anguish lay in that paradoxical sense of exile: the weight of a distant cultural longing. It overwhelmed him eventually, leading him to commit a very painful suicide. Arthur Nortje too killed himself with an overdose of drugs. Nortje’s poetry is permeated with the visceral protest of a sensibility that tries hard, but cannot reconcile itself with a condition of forced exile.

Soyinka also considered a writer’s relationship to his state of exile as analogous to a coming-of-age, in which one must ultimately separate in order to better “embrace” and “serve” one’s homeland: Referring to Syl Cheney-Choker, of Sierra Leone, he says:

The mother is both his biological parent and the land with whom the poet has a tortured relationship, a tension of unrequited love and unfulfilled expectations […] And yet, within the same poem, “The Road to Exile Thinking of Vallejo”, is the avowal of both umbilical ties of the mother/motherland that nurtured that same poetic persona, and the ironic, separatist consequences. Nothing exceptional, and certainly not unique to this poet, who finds he must also separate himself from that source of inspiration that also translates as the zone of obligation in order to embrace it more fully and to serve it more faithfully.


Forced mobility is difficult; there is no denying it.  But perhaps what we can glean from these widely diverging perspectives on exile is that a continual re-visioning of ourselves in relation to the place we call home—including discomfort, distance, separation, and longing —is an important element of both art-making and our evolving humanity. “Exile is courage,” Bolano wrote. “True exile is the true measure of each writer.”


Sonya Chung, Associate Editor of The Common, is the author of the novel Long for This World (Scribner 2010) and teaches fiction at Columbia University.

Annals of Mobility: On the Forced Mobility of Exile

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