One of the greatest privileges is the ability to live your life in safety, without ever having to leave the place you call home. This is becoming a rarer privilege for many writers today. This week I read Poems of exile: in the maze of homesickness, a recently published collection by 37-year-old Bangladeshi poet and blogger Tuhin Das, translated by Indian publisher and Bengali translator Arunava Sinha. I stop at these poignant lines: “Driven into exile by force, / I am out of breath now.”
Between 2013 and 2016, I was one of many journalists who reported, in helpless horror, that secular Bangladeshi writers, bloggers and editors were attacked by Islamist extremists. More than 40 people were murdered, including popular atheist bloggers Ahmed Rajib Haider and Avijit Roy. Das’ blog posts and poems have been widely read by Bengalis in India as well as Bangladesh, and in 2015 his name appeared on a hit list along with many others. I remember the relief when I read that he found refuge as a visiting scholar in Pittsburgh, USA in 2016, where he still lives.
Das is just one of many writers who have become recent exiles from countries like Turkey, Hungary, Syria, China, Somalia and Ukraine. As human rights watchdogs warn of the threat of growing autocracy around the world, fugitive writers are often the canaries in a coal mine, one of the first signs of a troubled nation. British-Somali poet Warsan Shire, who now lives in Los Angeles, noted in her poem “Conversations about Home (at a deportation centre)”: “No one leaves home unless /home is the mouth of a shark / you’re just running for the border / when you see the whole town running too.
Such works carry poignant echoes of the previous century, when writers across Europe, and especially those who fled Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia, left their homeland between the 1920s and 1940s.
A few sought greater creative freedom, as in the case of James Joyce. “You talk to me about nationality, language, religion,” says Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s 1916 A portrait of the artist as a young man. “I will try to fly these nets.” For Dedalus, as for Joyce, Ireland had become “the old sow eating her farrowing”. Leaving in 1904, Joyce traveled through Europe during the First World War, settling in Trieste and Zurich before settling in Paris in 1920. Others, however, were forced to flee from vicious regimes.
In February 1933, Thomas Mann left his native country to give a lecture on Wagner in Amsterdam; he was traveling in Switzerland when his family in Munich warned him that he was unsure of returning. The author of The magic mountain, Buddenbrook and other major novels would remain in exile in Europe until 1939, when he emigrated to the United States, along with dozens of other German writers, from novelist and memoirist Lion Feuchtwanger to philosopher Theodor Adorno.
The same year as Mann’s robbery, Hannah Arendt was arrested for researching anti-Semitic statements made by Hitler’s government. She was briefly imprisoned and fled to Paris, but was interned with other refugees in a camp in the Pyrenees in 1940 during the German invasion. In 1941, she and her husband managed to escape to America, where she would finally write about totalitarianism, and about the “banality of evil”, the expression she used while covering the trial of Adolf Eichmann. , one of the architects of the Holocaust.
The life of these writers who escaped the worst fates was not easy. Most, including Joyce, Mann and Arendt, changed towns and moved from one country to another several times before finding refuge. But in exile they would find the camaraderie and freedom to write, as Arendt did, about fearless totalitarianism, or an escape from the claustrophobic environment of their home country, as Joyce discovered in during his years abroad.
We are now heading into a second age of exile. In India, writer Arundhati Roy is one of many warning that democracy is weakening, with many journalists, writers and human rights defenders jailed, often on flimsy charges. “We are burning down our house,” she said recently. Podcaster and writer Amit Varma described the situation — economic as well as social — as “worrying” on his show, The visible and the invisible this March: “I have spoken to so many people who, like me, in the 1990s made a conscious choice: we will stay in India. And without exception, they have all left or are planning to leave.
The number of writers who have been forced into exile over the past 10 years is enough to constitute a small nation on their own. Many of my favorite authors, from Chinese writer Ma Jian to Turkish novelist Elif Shafak, have adapted to life as near-permanent exiles. “The novel challenges all kinds of dictatorships,” Shafak said in 2019. “It’s a democratic space.” Sometimes the only free country left to writers is the land of the spirit and the page.
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Summer books 2022
Over the last week of June, FT writers and critics shared their favourites. Some highlights were:
Economy by Martin Wolf
Environment by Pilita Clark
Fiction by Laura Bataille
Story by Tony Barbier
Policy by Gideon Rachman