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Letters of Transit: Reflections on Exile, Identity, Language, and Loss Hardcover – May, 1999

4.7 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 135 pages
  • Publisher: New Press (May 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1565845048
  • ISBN-13: 978-1565845046
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 5.7 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,143,818 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
"Letters of Transit" is a collection of five essays originally presented, in somewhat different form, as lectures sponsored by the New York Public Library from November, 1997, through February, 1998. Andre Aciman, the editor and author of both the Foreward ("Permanent Transients") and the first of the essays ("Shadow City"), focuses on the theme of being an "exile" (as opposed to being an "expatriate" or a "refugee" or an "emigre"). Aciman suggests, in his Foreward, that "[w]hat makes exile the pernicious thing it is is not really the state of being away, as much as the impossibility of ever not being away." He goes on to elaborate, in his ensuing essay, that the exile is not just someone "who has lost his home; it is someone who can't find another, who can't think of another." Aciman, impressionistically explores the way in which living in a new city (New York) can vividly reincarnate the memories of cities in which the exile has lived previously (the "shadow cities" of his title). Aciman's essay is fascinating, perceptive and insightful; it is a wonderful short piece which illustrates why his much-praised memoir, "Out of Egypt", has become a minor classic of the genre.
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.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a very important book from 5 writers who have suffered the unease that comes from being "neither fish nor fowl", something I've always felt as a Jew, but never related to other immigrants, expatriates, or those in exile. This book also draws in writers and their craft, the work that comes out of "homesickness", the instinct to "memorialize in prose". I read this book in a light trance, feeling if but for a moment as if I lived somewhere. Anyone looking for where they come from or even where they got to should read this book.
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Format: Paperback
This is a great book for those who want to be able to place Exile, Identity, Language and Loss in some kind of coherent context. It allows the reader to be able to understand his/her own behavior and the behaviors of those around them. It can also be applied to novels written in the various genres that deal with immigration and exile--to understand the motivation of the authors regarding plot and character development.
There is not, however, based on just one perspective. We read five different authors' point of view and their personal experiences, which allows for a range of inquiries.
I highly recommend this book.
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Format: Hardcover
There were several elements in 'Letters of Transit' that, prior to reading, I thought would be interesting subjects, most of which are neatly encapsulated by the subtitle, 'Reflections on Exile, Identity, Language, and Loss'. Of these, I was most curious about Language - these writers are all working with a foreign vocabulary, and, aside from admiring their success and fluidity, I'm also fascinated by the singular worldview that springs from this bilingual aptitude, coupled with the often traumatic event of exile and a search for a relevent identity. This collection, originally presented as a lecture series at the New York Public Library, hinted at a unique opportunity to peer into experiences to which I would not normally have access except through the filter of translation.

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.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In putting together these essays, Aciman shows again his sensitivity. Anyone, who has been removed even temporarily from his roots or transplanted permanently to a different culture, will find a lot to identify with in these diverse testimonies. And those who have not will have a chance to better understand the saga of expatriates.
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