Towards the end of this wide-ranging and absorbing collection of poetry and prose written by and about people living away from their places of birth, we find what seems as good a definition as any of exile. Describing the ‘Middle World’ or ‘MOR’ (his name for the place), South African Breyten Breytenbach suggests
exile itself will become the habitat. And in due time, when there’s nothing to go back to or you’ve lost interest, MOR will take shape and you may start inhabiting the in-between.
This idea of exile as an uncertain space, somewhere almost numinous, appears again and again throughout this anthology, which stretches from Biblical times, through Ancient China, Greece and Rome, to the age of colonisation and finally to our own times. Poems represent more than half the pieces; unsurprising, not just because the collection is compiled by a poet, but also because the sense of exile as a dream space is perhaps best evoked through verse. Writing in 1839/40 about a Poland that no longer existed as a political entity, poet Adam Mickiewicz states:
I have a country, homeland of my thoughts,
where my heart has innumerable kin:
a land more fair than what I see before me
The prose sections do afford poignant moments, specifically the reportage-style memories, such as Ethiopian Martha Nasibú’s account of her itinerant childhood – enforced by the Italian authorities. It is the poetry, however, that for me best grasps the in-between ‘habitat’ of exile. In his afterword Naffis-Sahely makes clear his decision to feature ‘non-Western poets who deserve far more attention in the English-speaking world than they have thus far received’: he has no interest in what he calls ‘the fetishization of privileged cliques who took to “exile” like some take to resort holidays’, and names Stein, Hemingway, Pound and Joyce as absentees from his book. ‘If you’re going to stare into a mirror, you might as well do that at home, especially if you are fortunate to have one’, he says. And when you read ‘Iraq’ by Adnan Al-Sayegh, it’s difficult to disagree. A poem of eleven lines, written by a poet who escaped a death sentence in his homeland, captures the sense of ‘exile’ far better than hundreds of pages of prose that doesn’t address the exile state:
Iraq disappears with
every step its exiles take
and contracts whenever
a window’s left half-shut
and trembles wherever
shadows cross its path.
Maybe some gun-muzzle
was eyeing me up an alley.
The Iraq that’s gone: half
its history was kohl and song
its other half evil, wrong.
(Translated from Arabic by Stephen Watts and Burgui Artajo)
Reviewed by West Camel
THE HEART OF A STRANGER: AN ANTHOLOGY OF EXILE LITERATURE
Edited by André Naffis-Sahely
Published by Pushkin Press (2019)
West Camel is a writer, reviewer and editor. He edited Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2015, and is currently working for new press Orenda Books. His debut novel, Attend, is out now. www.westcamel.net.
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