Book review: Exile Cultures, Misplaced Identities

Review of Exile Cultures, Misplaced Identities, by Paul Allatson and Jo Mc Cormack (Eds.) 2008. Critical Studies Vol. 30. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi.

This review has been published in Journal of Iberian and Latin American Research, 17:1, 121-127.

Exile Cultures, Misplaced Identities questions Edward Said's idea that exile always engenders sadness and estrangement, and asks if there are other ways of experiencing and imagining exile. Its thirteen case studies present a broad array of exile experiences, questioning how we can possibly define exile if it comes in so many different forms.

This kind of deconstruction has the potential to leave the reader feeling displaced and fragmented themselves, yet I finished the book with a sense of having a much deeper understanding of the concept and the lived experience of exile. Exile Cultures, Misplaced Identities has an integrity throughout that is a credit to the editors' careful construction of their topic and their sage avoidance of both radical deconstructions and grandiose theoretical claims.

The book covers exiled populations in China (Uzbekistan), India (Tibet), Japan (Manchuria), France (Algeria and Italy), New Caledonia (Vietnam), the United States (Cuba)), Australia (Hungary), Germany (internal) and Mexico (Italy).

Three of the chapters are sociohistorical treatments of exile populations; one is by an Australian artist discussing her Hungarian father's photos, and the remaining ten examine how exile populations are discussed in literature and poetry, or how these forms are influenced by having been written by exiled authors.

These chapters are very effective in conveying a sense of the emotional experience of exile, but I would have liked to see more chapters that look at exile populations in their own right, rather than filtered doubly through somebody else's eyes.

The editors themselves problematise the fact that so much of our understanding of exile comes from intellectuals, who often hold privileged places in their host societies and whose understandings are often influenced by a Western education.

While this bias is unescapable in a scholarly book, and four chapters are written by exiled individuals, more engagement with the worldviews of exile populations would enhance the book's claim to challenge our preconceptions of exile.

The introduction by Paul Allatson and Jo McCormack raises pertinent questions about why exile has emerged as a motif of modernity in the West, yet exiles are from, and are exiled to, locations all over the world. Allatson and McCormack suggest that we are living in an 'exilic age' in which nomadism, cosmpolitanism, statelessness, and borderlessness engender a mood of estrangement in Western cultures, whose literature focuses a great deal on extraterritoriality.

This is an interesting take on a large body of literature describing the experience of modernity as one in which people seek stability and rootedness at the same time as they covet the freedom and opportunities that globalization brings.

Exile is perhaps the ultimate manifestation of this paradox, as exiles have movement forced upon them, which can be psychologically devastating but which, in some circumstances, provides new opportunities and ways of seeing the world.

The shock of this forced change, and hostility in places of settlement, can motivate the exiled person to adopt cosmopolitan values, or it can reinforce nationalisms and fundamentalisms.

The types of exile discussed in this book differ greatly, problematising the idea that exiled people are displace from one geographic homeland to which they desire to return. Cooke describes how the Chinese state conferred upon the Monguors the official name of Tu, placing them in a kind of internal exile because they do not have control over their own cultural reproduction.

Goodman's excellent chapter describes how the Salar have been living in China for centuries, but are still recognized as exiles by themselves and by the Chinese state. However, they have no desire to return to Uzbekistan, and have been quite successful economically and socially since the reforms of the 1980s.

Other chapters demonstrate the ambivalence involved in return. Oha's treatment of the poetry of Tensin Tsundue, a Tibetan refugee living in India, describes how the process of displacement and creates anxiety over – and flexible use of – language. He is neither fully Tibetan nor Indian, and if when he returned to Tibet for a visit, he found that it was becoming increasingly influenced by the Chinese presence, especially of the language.

Writing on the return of children of Japanese lineage to Japan from Manchuria, Ward argues that these children are doubly exiled because they are neither home in China, where they are treated as foreigners, or in Japan, where they are expected to exhibit Japaneseness because it is in their 'blood' but where they lack cultural and linguistic competence. Repatriation to the homeland may become a political possibility yet be culturally impeded by the passage of time.

What kinds of experiences exiled people have depends to a great extent on their ability to enact agency. Vanmari describes how North Vietnamese people went to New Caledonia voluntarily to work, but were made exiles by the outbreak of conflict at home and by their mistreatment in their new place of residence. He wishes to break the silence surrounding colonial exploitation.

Browitt writes that the novelist and Colombian exile Alivio Díaz Guerrera arrived in New York with little money but enough class position to find work as a correspondent. He had more agency than the characters he writes about, but he comes across as a 'displaced, disenchanted intellectual exile' (p.225) whose anxiety over his loss of class position is transformed into moral conservatism as he struggled to come to terms with new values.

In France, McCormack writes how Algerian exiles lived in camps for decades and were made to feel like outsiders, both for their cultural differences and because the Algerian War was a taboo subject until the late 1990s. Since then, 'memory wars' are reshaping understandings of the past.

Memory is also influential in whether people stay exiles or become immigrants. Lorenzo, a Cuban exile herself who grew up in South Florida, writes how shame and nostalgia were used to memorialize Cuba and denigrate majority population or Cubans who assimilate.

Wyndham outlines three myths about the Cuban presence in the United States: that the departure was forced by Castro, that the opportunity to return would come quickly, and that when they returned they would be able to reconstruct the old Cuba.

As first generation realize they will grow old and die without seeing Cuba again, these myths fragment and sorrow ensues. Their children, with no direct experience of Cuba and facing permanent life in the United States, are rendered more as immigrants than as exiles.

The book's Coda suggests that perhaps the moment of departure is the only common denominator that exile populations share, but what stands out to me across all the chapters is the continuing emotional effects of displacement, regardless of how successful exiles have been in carving out places of belonging.

Yet, as Ghosh points out, Said also saw a positive value in exile as an enriching motif of modern culture. If exile is the ultimate example of modernity's contradictions, it makes sense that the displacement inherent in it also engenders new possibilities for cultural production.

Thus the term exile can be critically deployed to shed light on the creative aspects of displacement as well as its psychological traumas.