“Exile” by Bronwyn Mills

Ovid. Wikipedia

          ...Should I come safe to harbour
          terror lurks there too; more hazards on dry land
          than from the cruel sea. Both men and deep entrap me,
          sword and wave twin my fear....

          – Ovid, from “Tristia: Book I, ii,” in The Poems of Exile
My house here looks out upon a tangle of unfamiliar trees, with an occasional and large salmon-colored hibiscus flowering in its midst, and a bit further the rise of mountain slopes, part farmland, pasture, and more demarcating trees. Several meters away, the river races over rocks, boulders, and clutches fallen branches as it hurtles to the distant sea, many kilometers away. It’s white noise, enough to guarantee some aural protection from the earliest risers nearby, but not quite enough to completely blank out my neighbor’s rooster lording it over his feathery harem. On its other side, I see the slow sway of dairy cows bending to feed and the orchards of unfamiliar fruits waiting to be picked. My kitchen garden—part large pots, part small plots—has all the familiar herbs: thyme, rosemary, cilantro, basil, sage, several varieties of mint, and some less known like the tiny leaves I hope will become hyssop when grown. The horseradish. The tall fronds of dill complete with seed. Here, they have different names, though occasionally names in this other language cannot be found. Without the Latin, the search for equivalencies is lost; and this is not a place where Latin is known nor, outside the church, taught.

I am an expat. While this is not first century Ovid’s Tristia (now Costanza) on the Black Sea, and my expatriation is voluntary, this is still the boondocks.

* * * *

Rats! I am spilling my guts—well, my political guts—onto two virtual strangers sitting in the seats behind me on the bus that takes us from my little village to the nearest post office, two towns down. They are, for lack of a better word, gringos. He is teaching English at the tiny language center that like some exotic mushroom, has popped up in the village; she works online for a U.S. company that, to her alarm, has just required all employees to sign as part of their contract that they won’t criticize the current U.S. president, holding three months’ salary as “hostage” to insure that all comply. Dismayed by the political situation, these folks are considering making a home outside the country.
The bus’s engine roars and the vehicle creaks as we try to talk. She complains of the altitude and its effect on her asthma, then brags about bargaining down the taxi drivers here. I try to tell her not to be too much of an ugly American (I am not sure if I was that tactful.) When we reach the bus stop at the second of two towns down, they pad behind me like two stray dogs. They want directions to the post office. They want stamps and envelopes, neither of which the post office sells. (In fairness, you pay the person behind the desk to PUT stamps on the piece of mail you are sending out at that time.) I lead them to the P.O. where they need language assistance. I direct them to the little store a few blocks away where they can buy their envelopes—”Let’s have coffee afterwards,” he says, “We’ll take the 3:15 bus.” I rather hoped they would not.

* * * *

I tend to avoid most of the US expats here: few take the time to learn even the basics of the language of the new country. They take advantage of its national health service, but condemn efforts in the US to offer health care to all its citizens. They are rude: they build big, garish houses which would be out of their range in the US, but bitterly disparage the new country and its citizens who have made such extravagance possible. They drink like fish.

* * * *

All told I have spent over a decade as an expat. In thinking about exile versus expat-dom, however, and in discussion with several friends and acquaintances whose lives fit into one or the other of those categories, I would like to make some finer distinctions, especially in terms of what those conditions might, and do, mean to writers.

Becoming just an expat is largely an act of will. No matter how fed up or discouraged a person might be with their country of origin, an expat is not compelled to leave; they choose to do so. Unlike the title of Thomas Wolfe’s rambling novel, expats can, and often do, go home again. At least annually. The exile does not.
In words which must have seemed like they came out of the blue, I ask a Chilean friend, who has lived here outside Chile for almost 30 years, “Do you consider yourself an exile?” Because his children grew up here and hold citizenship in this country, he has finally decided to become a citizen. Of course, he will not have to relinquish his Chilean passport.
“No, never,” he answers. ” Even during [the worst of times,] I never had any problem entering Chile or leaving it.”

When I came back from Turkey to teach briefly in the US, a student once asked, “where are you from?” I drew a blank. Remembering an earlier conversation in Africa, I thought, has it come to this? Long term State Department staff at the Embassy there told me they had gone from one assignment to the next, so much, that they really didn’t know where home was anymore.

Expats keep bank accounts, memberships, even houses, in the old country whereas, the exile either has deliberately cut the umbilical cord that connected them to their country, or has had it cut for them. And while the differences between the two states of being blur at the frontiers, as a rule of thumb the distinctions continue to hold. Further, in this day and age where the nation state is being questioned and/or reaffirmed in some rather alarming ways, I suppose becoming an expat is just Step One of a process—simply setting up house in a country other than the one where you were born—if this, then that; if not this, then not that but this. Sometimes one stays an expat for a long, long time.

For a true exile, though, going back is far too complicated, even dangerous, to consider. Occasionally, and only sometimes, the threat ends and he or she can return. But that return is not inconsequential. I remember Eduardo Galeano, whose name appeared on the Generales‘ hit list in his native Uruguay and, when he fled to Buenos Aires, shortly thereafter on the Argentine Generales‘ list. He left for Spain asap, muy pronto. Upon returning after both dictatorships collapsed, Galeano agreed to meet with me at this home; and I remember walking through his Montevideo neighborhood, en route to that conversation, thinking half the folks here during the time of the Generales were ratting on the other half—what is it like to come home to that? Unsurprisingly, en route home from Spain, Galeano suffered his first heart attack. Leaving, no matter how much one might deny it, includes not only justified anger, rebellion, and a final “voting with one’s feet” from necessity, fear or both. It also includes a broken heart.

* * * *

          …lying here in this godforsaken region,
              surrounded by a pack of Danubian Slavs…
          I can’t stand the climate, I haven’t got used to the water,
              even the landscape somehow gets on my nerves.
          There’s no adequate housing here, no diet suited
              to an invalid, no physician’s healing skills,
          No friend to console me, or with a flow of conversation [italics mine]           charm the hours away….
                    – Ovid, from “Tristia: Book III, 3,” in The Poems of Exile


Above, Ovid is nursing an illness, and his lament reads like a combination of the grumbles of a whingeing voluntary expat and the keening of a desperate and despairing exile. His expatriation never lightened and constituted the far end of exile—banishment. (Thank you, Julius Caesar.) He struggled to acknowledge Caesar’s goodness, argued that other writers’ transgressions were ignored, or forgiven—why not me, as well?—and he begged for mercy. Anywhere but here!
Truth be told, we do not know exactly what got him in such hot water. However, Ovid went on to insist, rather self-pityingly

                              ….Here’s the reward
          I’ve had for my care and all my sleepless labour:
                    a penalty set on talent.
                    – Ovid, from “Tristia: Book II,” in The Poems of Exile

If we believe Ovid, he was not simply punished for writing dirty books, for indulging in the practice of certain forms of literature—such as farce, as fiction—which did not visit other authors with such censure. (Indeed, what dictatorship and its sycophants understand satire?) Ultimately, Ovid’s censure was, he believed, because he was good, very good; and, we might infer, his less persecuted cohorts were not.

We do know, however, that good writers do get in trouble under inequitable regimes, although during the time of Pinochet’s Chile, I remember being surprised to hear that, with the notable exception of Pablo Neruda—a very good writer, indeed—the creative written word (in published book form) was not censored. When I asked my source about this, I was shocked: “most people don’t read that much any more,” he said. Thus, I might theorize that the more we stray from the printed word and become glued to the screen, its conspiracy theories and “ratings”—the most popular, not the best—the less valuable we consider creative writers and their work. Under our present regime the print media journalists who are committed to demonstrable fact have been quite crudely and ignorantly attacked; but as for those who create novels, tell stories, or write poetry, no problem: they are ignored. POTUS himself does not read.

Not only in terms Ovid’s complaint, there is no one I can talk to here; but if at home no one attends to a writer’s written work and, when forced into exile, that exiled writer’s work cannot be read locally because, no one there knows the writer’s language, that also approaches the hellishness which Ovid so long ago described. As much time as we writers spend alone—something Baldwin speaks of as a sacrifice we must make—the conversation which our encounter with ideas (ours and that of others) gives us and the conversation that being read allows us are both vital. Not that many of us find solace in going to the basement of our building, stripping down to our undies, and in a kind of pseudo-exile, creating our work as John Cheever had boozily done.

Thus, whether exile or expatriation, one must consider what forces—real, self-imposed, or imagined— actually provoke departure; and, perhaps, what causes return if such is possible? However, there is a third and rarer state to be considered—perpetuum mobile. And, though not a writer but a Puertorriqueño graphic artist, Antonio Martorell, once illustrated this state magnificently with a waggishly set up installation in New York featuring several airplane seats arranged to invoke the iconic coming and going of Puerto Ricans junketing between the island and the U.S. perpetuum mobile. While not so uncommon among ordinary expats, this has been the particular fate of Caribbean artists; and among writers in the Anglophone world, such movement has characterized the lives of Kamau Brathwaite, the late Derek Walcott, V. S. Naipaul, George Lamming, Earl Lovelace, and more.

While Brathwaite once confided to me that being in New York City—he taught at NYU—allowed him access to some wonderful aspects of black culture in the US, such situations are a far cry from the mythologized stories of writers and artists romping in bohemian worlds in 1920s and 30s Paris. Perhaps the latter phenomenon has settled upon the popular imagination of usually white U.S. romantics and explains why expatriotism and exile so often has had a French inflection, despite the fact that we know Henry James set up shop in England; Anglophile, Church of England convert, T.S. Eliot, in London, and poet Ezra Pound, in Italy.

Of course not all expatriation is for noble principles; and some of our earlier exiles exemplified that. Pound, in Fascist Italy decided that Fascism was hot and broadcast for Mussolini. Jewish Gertrude Stein, a powerful woman of Paris’ bohemian “Lost Generation,” lived in exile in Paris with her Jewish lover, Alice B. Toklas, and collaborated, some suggest enthusiastically, with the Vichy government. (What price the cost of staying in Paris?)

Further, the list of those artists and writers who easily moved about is long—like Gertrude, a number (not all) had money and privilege— I venture to say, their choice had a lot more to do with being able to go to something rather than away from anything. Indeed, I recently spoke with a Portuguese citizen who avoided military service in his country by going to South Africa, then had to leave South Africa because he got involved with the ANC, then was able to thumb his nose at both prohibitions because De Beers regarded his skills as highly useful to them. Few persons of privilege recognize that as such, and tend to assume that all, high and low, have their same choices.

* * * *

Bob and Sue are an expat couple I know, who are wildly enthusiastic about the new US regime. I am unable to have anything to do with them. Seeing them on the street greeting folks they barely know as if they were long lost friends, I think of all those old movies, in sepia, with courtly Nazi officers wooing beautiful blonde sympathizers wowed by the regimented enthusiasm of the Third Reich—who besides Pound? Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, Knut Hamsun, Paul de Man, Céline— Well, the folks I know are not writers, thank god, but they do prove that being “nice” is not enough, nor an excuse for reprehensible views.
Now that the Commander in Chief has made it ok, they mouth the same ethnic and racial slurs I heard back home…

* * * *

While one powerful force that drives exile and expatriation is politics at home, even that implies not one, but a cluster, of lethal factors. I think of black writers, as a friend has reminded me of the case of James Baldwin, who lived in France for a while; though I am not sure if he thought he was going to stay forever or that he would always return. I can think of precursors to Baldwin, some from the world of fiction as in Claude MacKay’s Banjo, a novel about African exiles in Marseilles (MacKay himself kicked the dust of Jamaica off his shoes, came to New York—not Paris—and ultimately died in Chicago.) There was Richard Wright, who despite his anger at the US, kept in line just enough to retain his US passport. There is my mentor, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the Kenya writer, whose last attempt to return—only for a visit, mind you—precipitated an outright physical attack upon himself and Njira, his wife— an attack most surely politically motivated. It seems he cannot, at least for any length of time, return. There is the aforementioned George Lamming, Bajan writer, who like many Barbadians put in time in England, but has been in Barbados for some time now. Over twenty years ago, Lamming wrote eloquently about the dilemma of expat Caribbeans in The Pleasures of Exile, tracing back to ancestors forcibly exiled from the continent to serve in chains.

Captives for the Slave Trade. Sculpture, Bénin, West Africa. Photo: Bronwyn Mills

I think of Brexiting Britain and the resurgent, ugly nativism of the present U.S. administration: can the US really boast of being an enlightened country when the tired, the poor and the hungry from repressive lands are unwelcome? Amnesty International and PEN International were instrumental in springing Ngugi from a Kenyan
prison where then President Moi jailed him for Moi jailed him for producing a play in his own indigenous language (Kikuyu); but Britain and the U.S., actively welcomed him when he got out. Now, among many others, PEN is supporting Turkish writer, Aslı Erdoḡan (no relation to Tayyip,) with whom I used to chat at a café in my Istanbul neighborhood was incarcerated by the current regime. (Turkey now leads the world in the number of incarcerated journalists put behind bars.) As of this writing, Aslı may now leave to accept international literary awards, but still awaits trial for “treason,” a charge which carries a life sentence. Aslı, who wrote journalistic articles disagreeing with the government, remains in opposition to much of what is going on there; and I wonder if such a bizarre decision is not backhanded push for her to leave. Where will she go, if she does? Will we welcome her? Britain? Perhaps France?

Such are the perils of opening one’s yap; and an obvious and definitive cause of exile is the need to escape a increasingly repressive climate and possible reprisals. Thus, in the case of James Baldwin one might refer to his time in France as temporary exile or, perhaps, just a “step one” that went no further. Coping with the persistent racism of the U.S.—a selective repression—wears one down; and the relief of the self-imposed exile that Baldwin exercised turned out to be a very fruitful time for him artistically. Richard Wright, on the other hand, decided that he didn’t want to raise his mixed-race children in the toxic atmosphere of the U.S.; and he and his family lived out the rest of his life, at least, in Paris.

* * * *

I have just received a long email from a friend larded with facts about the volatile economic situation in the country where we are both expats. Is it time to get out of this Dodge, too? He is exploring the possibilities of resettling in Spain. Medical care is better there; food is cheaper. But the heat in the summers, largely due to climate change, is awful. Are they—am I?—serial expats?

Besides political volatility and/or racial, religious and ethnic factors that offend the ignorant, generate intolerance and the subsequent need to seek respite, there is one very real cause: economics. While my country of origin sneers at “economic refugees,” not acknowledging that a great many of our own ancestors came to its shores for that very reason—a better life for themselves and their children—economics has been a prime driver in the dynamics of exile and expatriating oneself. By economics I do not mean, as the US rich whinge, the constraints of civic responsibility that impede their objectives of getting richer and fatter and having more lustrous pelts. I mean being able to avoid starvation and do one’s work—that kind of economics has driven many an artist and writer out of their respective homelands. In some cases, one does not even have to leave the country. For example, in New England, I first encountered the phrase,” expat New Yorker.” Not even a flight to another nation, but simply the flight from that most expensive metropolis to a place that made room for your creativity and the need to eat. In the vast number of professions, the efforts to refine and develop one’s “toolkit”—professional development—is applauded, save in the case of artists. To develop their art, to expand and experiment, and so refine one’s skills, many could not afford to live in New York. As artists left “the City,” in droves, I, as a journalist who covered theatre and dance, thus saw some fascinating dramatic and terpsichorean experiments, genuinely new—as opposed to trendy—work outside what used to be the center of artistic innovation. Economics, not lack of creative vitality, kept those artists from living in what used to be the capital of U.S. culture, one which every oddball kid from places like the Midwest aspired to flee to, to become an actor, an artist, a writer, etc. Now that city is often to be fled from.

In those old days of Boho romps in hip places like earlier Paris, New York’s Greenwich Village, their then cheaper economy was also a draw; now? Multiply creativity by economic necessity and...
Were I in my own country, I would struggle to survive. I’d have a day job from hell, on into my dotage—dotage, esp. in the U.S., is a handicap—and no time to write. Out of the country I have a better quality of life: the difference between what you want and what you need is like leaving a polluted city, where one constantly wheezes and suffers respiratory assault, pops pills and gulps one’s aspirator, self-medicates. Relief is palpable—oxygen, by golly.
Will my stay become exile? Will I return, or go out of here feet first? Or will my offspring come and haul me off to a “nice” place where I am supposed to make pot holders and sing songs to Jesus?

Indeed, the difference between being an expat or an exile may not be so vast. Preceded by a sense of adventure and yearning for a sustained, new experience you could expatriate yourself temporarily. You could hustle out of Dodge in frustration with the way things are at “home,” or because the hounds of Hell were on your trail. As noted, mitigating or extenuating factors often have a relationship to either extreme and one’s relationship to home. In some sense “exile” and “expat-ism” are not mutually exclusive, though I expect that the idea of the former with its implicit sense of permanence, ultimately suggests integrating oneself into the new country in a way that the expat, sealing him- or herself off from the “foreign” culture around them, does not.

What then? Many artists have already found themselves at the periphery, strangers in their own country. Even further away, in another culture and country, what can one do from those sidelines? Those “making it” may need to chase their chimeras in high profile places; but—or, to paraphrase the title of Lamming’s book—for the writer in particular in that life on the periphery, what are the pleasures of exile? and, I might add, its possibilities with reference to their art?
(To be continued...)
Bronwyn Mills received her MFA under poet James Tate (UMass, Amherst); her Ph.D. (Comparative Literature) under poet Kamau Brathwaite and novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o at NYU; and was an Anais Nin Fellow. Besides New York, she has also lived in Istanbul, Turkey; La République du Bénin (where, on a Fulbright Fellowship, she played hooky with voodoo priests); Paris, France; and Western Massachusetts. She reviewed dance and theatre for the Valley Advocate, was senior editor for the online literary journal, Frigate, and most recently guest edited the Turkish issue of Absinthe: New European Writing (#19). She taught at Stevens Institute of Technology; Kadir Has University in Istanbul; and Abomey-Calavi in Bénin. Books include Night of the Luna Moths (March Street Press) and the fabulist novel Beastly’s Tale (Rocky Shores). She is also a co-founder and contributor to The Wall, a site devoted to the publication and discussion of essays, stories and poems by an international group of committed writers. Now living and writing in a tiny mountain village far, far away, Mills is interested in the palimpsest of language and how it reveals our deepest collective secrets. Read more at bronwynmills.wordpress.com.