Writers are nature's exiles
UNESCO Courier, Oct, 1996 by Ismail Kadare
The question that writers living in a foreign country are
most often asked is: "Now that you live away from your home country,
do you write in the same way as you did before?" In other words:
"Did you bring your source of inspiration with you, or do you need
a new one?"
Ingenuous questions are often the hardest ones to answer. As if infected
by their naivety, writers answer them naively.
The best answer would be another question: "In our little universe
on earth, can you really be far removed from your country?"
My answer is: "No."
For a true writer, the world is immediately perceptible in its entirety,
like the view that opens up when you stand at a window. This is so not
only because of television, as might be expected, but for a more profound
reason: the full extent of the world is always present in the consciousness
of writers, whether they like it or not. If it were otherwise, their artistic
vision would be mutilated, severed, and perhaps inoperative. It would
be like using a language without the syntax that is vital if words are
to relate properly to the expression of ideas.
In various layers of our consciousness are the Egyptian pyramids, the
icecap of the North Pole, the winds of Siberia, the scorching heat of
the desert, New York skyscrapers and Tibetan monasteries. It requires
no effort of the imagination to conjure up these images, or others such
as the crucifixion of Jesus or Genghis Khan's caravanserai. They are as
familiar and natural to us as the local post office or the shop around
It could be argued that the human brain spontaneously encompasses the
full extent of the
world and the course of events which have fashioned it over thousands
of years. From earliest childhood, people get used to this scheme of things
as if to exorcise their fears and avoid distress. They often add other
boundless spaces, such as the flames of hell.
Distance and exile are not just a familiar condition for the writer. To
a large extent they are part of the creative mechanism itself.
They are part of the screen of mist without which it is impossible to
draw the dividing line between the appearance of reality and its artistic
reflection, the necessary distance between the creator and life.
Absence has always been part of the creative process.
Before writing existed, before even the concept of "the writer"
existed, there were rhapsodists - travellers who came from afar bringing
stories about unknown peoples in distant lands. They were also the first
Distance stimulated their imagination and encouraged them to modify landscapes
and to invent human beings different from those who had existed, or even
from those who had never existed - in other words, to create characters.
In the end, distance meant that they were not subject to control and thus
ensured the freedom of the creator for the first time.
It could almost be argued that it was in the nature of creators to create
distance in one way or another.
A combination of political and ideological factors and writers' quarrels
and conflicts with society probably influences their choice of exile.
But there is also a mysterious quest which is closely connected with the
Yet there is not the slightest contradiction between exile and a writer's
On the contrary, exile can strengthen cultural identity, and at the very
moment when the latter seems to be languishing it becomes even more real
thanks to the universal dimension it derives from exile.
In general, writers or creators of cultural values who move to a foreign
country are like the travellers of ancient times, bringing from afar the
more colourful and surprising aspects of their own country. As for the
foreign country that takes them in, the immobile country that takes in
migrants, it is at least as interested in their fantasies as in their
view of everyday life, if not more so. Thus, the mechanism works reciprocally:
on either side there is a quest for distance. And on either side that
quest is satisfied.
Looked at from this angle, it could be argued that writers seek exile
when something goes awry in their inner creative processes. Other motives
then become less important. Homer, who in all likelihood did not settle
permanently anywhere, left no explanation of his movements.
Wandering seemed a natural way of life to bards and rhapsodists.
The reason why a second great writer, Aeschylus, emigrated remains obscure,
or at least seems rather poorly justified in purely political terms. An
inability to come to terms with Greece, or indeed with his times, or perhaps
a row with the jury of a drama contest, may have strongly motivated him,
but that alone cannot explain why this genius was forced to leave Athens
at the age of sixty-seven.
Dante Alighieri had the bright idea of opposing the political wrangling
between two hostile clans in his city - with the result that he went into
a long exile (in a neighbouring city). While in exile he wrote one of
the most powerful works of world literature, the Divine Comedy. Perhaps
this was the real reason why he went into exile.
Political turmoil, especially in the twentieth century, has prompted thousands
of writers and artists to leave their countries and scatter to the four
corners of the globe. But even in the fever of politics there is always
something that remains immobile and in abeyance, "like stars during
earthquakes" (as one poet put it). And that is the fever of creation.
This fever partly explains the reasons for exile. It decides the fate
of exiled creative artists. It keeps them alive or it destroys them for
ever. During the communist period, and above all during the transitional
phase before it was swept away, thousands of writers and artists left
the East European countries, some with clearly-defined objectives, others
driven by a collective psychosis, a yearning for a more interesting life.
Although the dust of that storm has now settled and it is easier to see
things more clearly, we are still in no position to identify the real
reasons for a migration on that scale. In any case we shall need a little
more time before we can appreciate the artistic treasures it made possible.
In the nineteenth century, when the Balkan states were in the iron grip
of the Ottoman Empire, their ideologues, leading thinkers, poets and philosophers
left the Balkans and settled in Western Europe. From there, they called
on their compatriots to join them in exile. At that time, exile was an
understandable consequence of repression. But as the years went by it
became clear to readers of the works they wrote in exile that exile was
necessary to those writers primarily so that the importance of the countries
they had left behind could grow within them.
In such a situation, exile becomes sustaining and redemptive. When your
country becomes impossible to contemplate, you are forced to look away.
It is said that the Greek philosopher Democritus blinded himself for that
Somehow there always comes a day when, each in our own way, we replicate
that age-old and definitive act.
© 1996 UNESCO
© 2004 Gale Group
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