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Letters of Transit: Reflections on Exile, Identity, Language, and Loss Hardcover – May, 1999
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From Publishers Weekly
The five distinguished contributors to this volume agree that a homeland tends to be a nostalgic, imaginary place, not a real one, and that the home once lost can never be recovered. They also share a penchant for classifying the minute differences between refugees, exiles, immigrants and expatriates. Novelist Bharati Mukherjee adds another term: the assimilationist "mongrelizer" such as herself, who happily submerges oneself in a melting pot, while nonetheless retaining a sense of ethnic pride. Poet Charles Simic, originally from Belgrade, rejects the idea that exile or displacement means the permanent loss of any sense of home: he fell dizzyingly in love with his new country, and is amusing about his early attempts to assimilateAwearing "jeans, Hawaiian shirts, cowboy belts." Aciman beautifully captures the role that imagination plays in one's experience of "home" by exploring how a tiny park in a traffic island on the Upper West Side of Manhattan came to powerfully evoke the cities of Europe for him. Eva Hoffman's essay on the "new nomads" of the information age is the most theoretical and least satisfying piece. The real heart of the collection is Columbia professor Edward Said's memoir, inspired when "an ugly medical diagnosis suddenly revealed the mortality I should have known about before." His experience of receiving a colonial education just as the colonial system crumbled, of loving the world opened to him in his education while being stung by teachers' constant invocations of his difference, is moving, deeply introspective and honest.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Kirkus Reviews
In these distinct and forthcoming original essays, five prominent writers offer their meditations on exile and memory. The authors represented in Aciman's (Out of Egypt: A Memoir, 1995) collection are a varied lota not atypical sampling of men and women who have found their way to the US from around the world: Aciman, an Alexandrian in exile via Paris; Eva Hoffman, a Pole in exile via Canada; Bharati Mukherjee, a Bengali in Berkeley; Edward Said, a Palestinian exile via Egypt; and Charles Simic, a Yugoslav exile of 1945 vintage. These voices of exile are unusually eloquent ones. All five authors are non-native speakers who write professionally in English. For them, the common duality and instability of exile are heightened by the very nature of their work. Aciman puts it well: ``their words . . . are the priceless buoys with which they try to stay afloat both as professional thinkers and human beings.'' The five essays differ in tone and style. The collection begins with Aciman's lyrical and imaginative essay on a park in New York that reminds him of the places of his past, or his ``shadow cities,'' and reaches its gravest moments in the heavy seriousness of Said's reflections on his professional and personal journey in America, with frequent references to Adorno. Hoffman examines the contradictions inherent in nomadism and diasporism, referring to her own life and those of other East European literary figures such as Nabokov, Kundera, Milosz, and Brodsky. Mukherjee, coming from a different perspective, writes about the process of immigration in the US as ``the stage, and the battleground, for the most exciting dramas of our time.'' Aciman made the right choice in closing with Simic's poem ``Cameo Appearance'' and his droll essay on his youthful exile and on the speed with which exile teaches the arbitrary nature of an individual's existence. A thoughtful and diverse collection with a distinctly literary bent. -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
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Top customer reviews
Unfortunately, the book did not live up to the expectations I'd placed on it, although that doesn't mean it isn't without its good points. André Aciman, editor and contributor, writes an evocative essay that dwells much more on the Reflections and Loss portions of the subtitle - a memoir of a particular place that acts as a metaphor for all feelings of loss and displacement. Eva Hoffman concentrates on the modern connotations of exile, which some may believe to have certain benefits, but that this self-untethering may also disguise other painful, yet more valuable, truths. And Charles Simic ends on a slightly lighter note - not humorous, though - of the relief he finally found in assimilation. I would not want to insult these writers by claiming close kinship with them and their experiences, but their descriptions of exile match up well with thoughts I've had about my own life as I've moved around.
The other two writers, Bharati Mukherjee and Edward Said, infuse a palpable concern for current events into their stories, which makes it difficult for me to objectively evaluate their contributions. I don't think it is surprising that these authors are still heavily concerned with events in their country of origin, or in the immigrant process - but these lectures were given over ten years ago, and the nature of the debates has altered over the years, especially after the events of September 2001. Reading these essays reminded me of in what ways I look at the world differently from only ten short years ago, and there is certainly value in having that brought to my attention, regardless of either writer's position on these topics. However, that doesn't outweigh the dated feeling, and both writers come off sounding somewhat stale.
The collection ultimately fails, both for dating itself and failing to cohere around the implied goal of its subtitle, although each essay is a quality effort, interesting and effective in its own way. As the conditions that cause exile are still with us today, and it seems as though they always will be, it would be noteworthy if the organizers of the first lecture series were to revisit this subject again, a decade later, with different voices.
Similarly, Bharati Mukherjee's essay, "Imagining Homelands", provides thoughtful elaborations on the nuances and connotations of the words "expatriate", "exile" and "immigrant"; she draws fine and interesting distinctions among these words and carefully entwines these distinctions with an elaboration of her own life experiences.
The strongest essays in this collection, however, are those of Eva Hoffman, Edward Said and Charles Simic. All three of these writers provide classic insights into the experience of "exile, identity, language, and loss" which are worth careful thought and consideration. All three suggest (as does Mukherjee when she describes herself as an "integrationist" and a "mongrelizer") that the exile can only ultimately be redeemed by rejecting irrational devotion to the narrow and myopic tribalism of nation, ethnicity, religion, and ideology which so often encumbers the exile community; that redemption comes only through freedom, reason and syncretism. Thus, Simic writes, in concluding his essay, "Refugees", that the poet "is a member of that minority that refuses to be part of any official minority, because a poet knows what it is to belong among those walking in broad daylight, as well as among those hiding behind closed doors."
Hoffman's essay, "The New Nomads", is clearly the best of this collection. She carefully delineates the universality of the exilic experience, an experience which can be found in the Ur-text of Adam and Eve's exile from the Garden of Eden. She then discusses the way in which exile can magnify the impulse to "memorialize" the past. The result, she suggests, is that exile distorts the vision of the past, tending to make it an idealized "mythic, static realm" which forever impedes the ability to deal with the present (what Hoffman perceptively characterizes as the "rigidity of the exilic posture"). She then provides an interesting discussion of A.B. Yehoshua's provocative essay, "Exile as Neurotic Solution", wherein he postulated that there were many opportunities for the Jews (prior to the creation of the modern State of Israel) to settle in Palestine more easily than in countries where they had chosen to live, but it was the one location they avoided. In Hoffman's words, "[i]t was as if they were afraid precisely of reaching their promised land and the responsibilities and conflicts involved in turning the mythical Israel into an actual, ordinary home." The ultimate result of the "memorialization" of the past and the "rigidity of the exilic posture" is that exile communities often cannot function in the locus of the larger society; rather, they conceive of themselves as perpetually "Other".
Edward Said's essay, "No Reconciliation Allowed", describes the dislocation of the exile in vivid terms: "a Palestinian going to school in Egypt, with an English first name, an American passport, and no certain identity at all." Thus, he finds himself in a secondary school where only English is permitted to be spoken, even though none of the students is a native speaker of English. While his entire educational experience is Anglocentric in the extreme, he is also trained to understand he is a "Non-European Other", someone who can never aspire to being British in any true sense of the word. While Said has been criticized recently for allegedly misrepresenting his past, he is quite forthcoming in this essay in acknowledging his admiration for "self-invention". In some sense, Said's essay and the narrative of his life reflects his theory, specifically the notion that we can (and do) use language instrumentally to construct social realities (in this case the reality of his life).
While somewhat uneven, as all collections are, "Letters of Transit" ultimately provides a rich, varied and deeply insightful range of readings on what it means to be an exile.