Literature of Exile

Many people do not realize that Jesus was quoting directly from the Book of Leviticus when he said to love one’s neighbors as oneself. This context lends an important layer of meaning to his words. Often his saying is reduced to an encouragement to “be nice” to others. While not a bad admonish as far as it goes, that interpretation tames a radical pronouncement. The phrase as thyself indicates utter acceptance of and care for others. Although the word neighbor may lead some to think only of those living nearby and living in a similar manner, the context of Leviticus makes it clear that the saying specifically and pointedly includes Others, those who are not like us, those who are not from where we are from. The passage in chapter 19 of Leviticus that Jesus quotes reads, “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” About a page later, the chapter elaborates:

And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.

These are words the world needs to hear today. We are in an age of mass migration, mass refugee, mass exile. Every year countless people are uprooted. Fleeing or expelled from their homes, with or without documents, they leave behind families, property, food, language, identity, culture, everything they know and love, to escape war, oppressive economic regimes, totalitarian political regimes, environmental disasters, unchecked crime, and lack of opportunity, to arrive as strangers in the homelands of others. May they be loved and love in return, for we all were or are or may become exiles in one sense or another.

John Simpson, The Oxford Book of Exile (1995)In The Oxford Book of Exile, John Simpson documents something of the depth and breadth of the literature exile. He begins with the exile of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, presenting selections from Genesis and from Milton’s rendition thereof in Paradise Lost. Simpson then presents the passage in Aeneid where Aeneas, urged by the ghost of his wife, leaves fallen Troy, carrying his father (the moment represented in the sculpture pictured above) and leading a great number of other refugees into a “long exile”; and then the passage in Josephus’ history of The Jewish Wars that describes the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the beginning of the Jewish diaspora. Historically, the literature of exile Simpson catalogues stretches from antiquity to the twentieth century; geographically, it reaches from East to West and from North to South. Formally, these texts include poetry, fiction, memoir, journalism, and speech. Simpson eventually includes the exiles of Ovid from Rome, Muhammad from Mecca, Puritans from England, Native Americans from tribal lands, slaves from Africa, Tibetans from Tibet, dissidents from the Soviet Union, Jews from Nazi Germany, Palestinians from their homes, and Latin Americans from regions torn by war. The writings Simpson covers are by and about diverse groups of people whose exiles vary drastically: those driven from their homes for reasons of politics, religion, economics, or war, those fallen from power, those seeking escape from boredom, those who form communities in exile, those facing exile within their own countries and even within their own minds, those relieved by the experience of exile and those distraught by it, those whose exile ends in death, and those who eventually arrive home.

Claudio Guillén proposes that even in all its diversity the poetry of exile performs two distinct, but often related, tasks. Sometimes the poetry of exile operates solely or primarily in “the direct expression of the sorrow” of exile, while other times the poetry of exile “learns from” exile. Most of the time, he suggests, the literature of exile moves from the one function to the other (272, 278). Both tasks make sense. Exile writers certainly need to count, protest, and mourn the injustices and losses they suffer. But, when they can, they also need to make something new or renewed out of their experiences, writing words of beauty and healing, for their own sake as well as for the sake of others.

Poster of Edward Said, Photo by Justin McIntosh (2004)

In “Reflections on Exile,” the Palestinian theorist and exile Edward Said affirms the same two movements. He is adamant that we should not romanticize exile, asking readers to think not of famous writers in exile like Joyce and Nabokov but “instead of the uncountable masses for whom UN agencies have been created.” He feels that treatments of exile in literature (and in religion) too often “obscure” the historical fact that exile “has torn millions of people from the nourishment of tradition, family and geography.” He even goes so far as to assert that anything accomplished in exile is “permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind for ever” (173-75). Still, he too concedes, “there are things to be learned” in exile. The experience of exile can allow people to see the world from a new perspective. “The exile knows,” Said writes, “that . . . homes are always provisional. Borders and barriers, which enclose us within the safety of familiar territory, can also become prisons, and are often defended beyond reason or necessity. Exiles cross borders, break barriers of thought and experience.”

For Said, exile also contains connotations of “solitude and spirituality.” To elaborate on these, he quotes at length the twelfth-century monk Hugo of St. Victor on the blessedness of having no attachments. Hugo writes, “he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land.” Said responds that such a stance “makes possible originality of vision.” One becomes free “not by rejecting” but “by working through attachments.” Loss has its meaning in and only in the context of “love” (181-185). To lose that which one does not love means little, if anything. But to let go of that which one loves, to relinquish “attachment”—which in the spiritual tradition to which Hugo belongs means not affection but a sort of clutching and clinging—in and through love and in order to move to still greater love, that means quite a bit.

The topos of exile has long been a focus within the study of literature. Recent work on the literature of exile (including the texts listed below) deals with the ubiquity and resulting variety of the theme and experience of exile in literature across culture and history, the particular role that exile plays in twentieth century literature, the particular role that exile plays in Jewish literature, and the distinction and relationship between inner and outer experiences of exile. As with Guillén and Said, of particular interest is the way in which the experience of exile can (to put it crudely) be both a blessing and a curse, that is, inflicting pain but also leading to new ways of thinking. To note both edges of exile is certainly not to suggest that the blessing somehow makes up for the suffering of or excuses the injustices leading to the curse but rather that both may often be part of the experience of exile as represented in the literature of exile.

In contemporary literature in the United States, Li-Young Lee writes a poetry of exile that demonstrates both of its edges. In an early poem, Lee describes how his experience of exile has permanently shaped and shaded his view of the world:

all of my visions and interpretations
depend on what I see,

and between my eyes is always
the rain, the migrant rain. (Rose, 69)

The way he sees and understands the world is clouded, dampened, by what he has been through. But it is also nourished, watered, by that as well.

Li-Young Lee, Behind My Eyes (2008)In a more recent poem, he describes the experiences of exile more specifically, presenting a list of traumatic images: a child fleeing with parents, leaving behind a city “on fire,” slipping past “mobs,” moving “among . . . the numb, the haunted, the maimed, the barely alive,” and, finally, arriving in “a country at war, / with itself and anyone / who looks like you . . .” (Behind My Eyes, 66-67). These details come from his and his family’s firsthand experience, his parents leaving China just before the Cultural Revolution, then the family escaping Indonesia, where he had been born, during the rule of Sukarno, and finally arriving in the United States as refugees in the middle of the Vietnam War. At six years old, Lee was “an Asian come to a country at war with Asia” (The Winged Seed, 12). In presenting these historical images, “After the Pyre” testifies to the historical reality of exile, documenting and protesting injustices of the global twentieth century. But it also interprets that experience. “It turns out,” Lee writes, that “what keeps you alive” while fleeing into exile eventually “keeps you from living” while in exile.

Both of these poems demonstrate the tensions of exile. While exile takes place externally, with bodies moved from place to place, it also takes place internally, shaping one’s way of seeing and being in the world. While it keeps one physically alive (as opposed to remaining behind to die), it also keeps one from fully and truly living. While it may keep one from fully and truly living, it may also allow one to discover or create new artistic and spiritual possibilities. Lest one think of Lee as a gloomy poet, I should be quick to note that, elsewhere, he celebrates life, love, joy, family, nature, art, the sacred—all that is good and beautiful. But just as those poems explicitly present the good possible in exile, so these more sorrowful ones demonstrate it simply by existing, by being beautiful, profound, well-formed, and written in exile.

The literature of exile serves many functions. It allows writers in exile to testify to loss and to create something new. It allows readers in exile to hear their own stories told, offering solidarity, comfort, hope, and validation of their experiences. The literature of exile also allows those who are not themselves presently experiencing exile in the literal or geographical sense to better understand and care about those who are.


Books by Li-Young Lee

Li-Young Lee’s books of poetry include Rose (1986), The City in Which I Love You (1990), Book of My Nights (2001), and Behind My Eyes (2008). He also has written a prose poem memoir, The Winged Seed: A Remembrance (1995), and published a collection of interviews, Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee (2006), and a volume of selected poems, From Blossoms (2007).


Bibliography on Literature and Exile

Berg, Nancy E. Exile from Exile: Israeli Writers from Iraq. Albany: State U of New York P, 1996.

Bevan, David, ed. Literature and Exile. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1990.

Bolaño, Roberto. “Literature and Exile.” Trans. Natasha Wimmer. 12 Jan. 2011. Web. 22 July 2014.

Boldor, Alexandru. “Exile as Severance.” Diss. Louisiana State University. Aug. 2005.

Damgaard, Peter. Visions in Exile: Inroads to a Counter-System of Contemporary Chinese Literature. Diss. Faculty of Humanities, University of Copenhagen, 2012.

Edwards, Robert. “Exile, Self, and Society.” Exile in Literature. Ed. María-Inés Lagos-Pope. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1988. 15-31.

Englund, Axel, and Anders Olsson, ed. Languages of Exile: Migration and Multilingualism in Twentieth-Century Literature. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 2013.

Glad, John, ed. Literature in Exile. Durham: Duke UP, 1990.

Guillén, Claudio. “On the Literature of Exile and Counter-Exile.” Books Abroad 50.2 (1976): 271-280.

Gutthy, Agnieszka, ed. Exile and the Narrative/Poetic Imagination. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2010.

Ingleheart, Jennifer, ed. Two Thousand Years of Solitude: Exile After Ovid. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011.

Lagos-Pope, María-Inés, ed. Exile in Literature. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1988.

Rosenfeld, Alvin H. The Writer Uprooted: Contemporary Jewish Exile Literature. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2008.

Said, Edward. Reflections on Exile and Other Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2000.

Simpson, John, ed. The Oxford Book of Exile. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.



Sculpture of Enée et Anchise by Pierre Lepautre (1697); photo by Miniwark (2006).

Poster commemorating Edward Said; photo by Justin McIntosh (2004).


One thought on “Literature of Exile

  1. Pingback: Literatura y Exilio :

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s