Conference December, 1997

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Literature and Exile

Exile as an intense and often prolonged experience has been a phenomenon affecting individual writers and writing at various stages of history. Its extensive transnational scale, bringing into its fold significant sections of writers and making exile both an individual and a collective experience is perhaps characteristic of the upheavals of the 20th century.

The traumatic nature of the experience of exile is widely recognised. While the generation of voyagers in Europe wilfully set forth on journeys to the outside world, those who went into exile had no choice. They were forced to distance themselves from their home, their countrymen, from familiar milieus and to face the travails of starting life afresh, of often bitter struggles for economic survival as well as of challenges to their sense of the self and of identity. Often persecution by the dictatorial regimes or oppressive circumstances from which they were fleeing haunted them even in the land of exile, compelling them to wander from land to land. Writers and writing suffered an added deprivation, the loss of the linguistic community that had sustained their activity and fuelled its creative development.

The painful experience of exile found literary articulation varyingly in nostalgia, deep pessimism, futuristic optimism, a sense of writing not for the present but for the generations to come. For some who did not choose the path of physical exile, a retreat into an inner world, an inner emigration, manifested itself in literary constructions apparently not related to the realities of the world outside. Another category of writers who voluntarily left their homelands and chose a self-imposed exile were drawn by the need to find an economic and literary environment in which they could write. However, the experience of otherness in an alien cultural environment as well as the confrontation with new realities, with different ways of living and dying, also made possible new ways of seeing and injected fresh and creative perspectives into writing. The barriers of language could sometimes be overcome by translation or by collective ventures between exile writers and representatives of the land of exile (theatre directors, film makers, actors, script writers etc.).

The seminar would look at various 20th century literary texts written in response to or in conditions of exile, it would attempt to investigate the varying articulations both in terms of the restrictions imposed in exile and in terms of the creative possibilities opened up by this experience. It would engage with the discourses constructed by and around the texts with a view to focusing not only on the dangers of exile, on the loss of traditions, of cultural communities, on the manifold forms of violence to which exile writing was subject but also on the challenges thrown open before exiled writers who transformed their experience from an impingement on their selfhood in to a positive act of cultural significance.

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