Migrants. Immigrants. Emigrants. Refugees. Aliens. Asylum seekers. Exiles. Asylees. Nonimmigrant. Émigré. Illegal aliens. Legal aliens. Deportees. Expats. Displaced people. Diaspora.
The Age of Refugees
Migrating – and population movement in general – is a human condition. We all move with a desire to live fulfilling lives, to survive, and to better ourselves. For such a common human practice, the English language certainly has a multitude of words to label the person who has moved. Each of these words conjures up distinct images – negative, positive, or both. Each word represents a different experience of living in the world. I invite you to sit with each one, to understand the layers of meaning and experiences attached to each concept.
In this article, I argue that in this age of refugees, when mechanisms of global politics and nationalisms aim to silence refugees, the exile strives to regain dignity by claiming a position of difference, a loyalty to ideals, and often also an activism.
My intention in this article isn’t to argue that all refugees should call themselves exiles. Not at all. Instead, I suggest we pause to consider how our terminology and categorization of individuals and groups limit people’s potential. It is in that context that I suggest that the exile exerts a modicum of control over what is otherwise a bleak in-betweenness. Having claimed this space, however, what impact on society does an exile have?
Many of the terms in the list above reflect different ways humans who have moved are categorized by institutions and civil society. Some, such as “alien,” violently mark someone as perpetually different and not belonging. “Asylum seeker” or “refugee” are used in legal documents for a person either approved for permanent residence because of well-founded fears of persecution, or in limbo somewhere, often in refugee camps, in an extended state of waiting. Unlike migrants, who move to better their socio-economic status, refugees and asylum-seekers move in order to survive. At-risk writers invited to Norway and elsewhere through ICORN (International Cities of Refuge Network) or PEN to be guest writers are locally and institutionally categorized as refugees.
I have yet to find someone who is comfortable being identified as a refugee. This is partly because many of those who fled their homes never imagined having to take refuge somewhere else. At home, they were not only comfortable, but often privileged by their education, occupation, and class standing. But their discomfort is also due to recent changes in how refugees are viewed. In his essay “Reflections on Exile,” Edward Said suggests that “the difference between earlier exiles and those of our time is, it bears stressing, scale: our age – with its modern warfare, imperialism, and the quasi-theological ambitions of totalitarian rulers – is indeed the age of the refuge, the displaced person, mass immigration” (2000:174). This is significant because the scale has led to a change in how refugees are viewed. In our contemporary global context, refugees have become not only a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented proportions, but they are also maligned by media, politicians, and everyday people. Refugees are no longer wanted – despite a long history of refugees who have made extraordinary contributions to the societies that accepted them. The contributions of exiles to art, music, science, literature, education, technology, medicine, politics and so on is well-documented. I quote Edward Said again because his contributions as an intellectual, exile, and astute social critic have forever changed how we see ourselves. He says that “Modern Western culture is in large part the work of exiles, émigrés, refugees. In the United States, academic, intellectual and aesthetic thought is what it is today because of refugees from fascism, communism, and other regimes give to the oppression and expulsion of dissidents” (2000:172, my italics). Despite all the potential – despite the fact immigrants and refugees of all types have overall only added to the betterment of society – the exact opposite is currently being claimed across Europe and the US. Refugees are increasingly viewed as job-takers, as a strain on welfare systems, as potential criminals or rapists or terrorists – as “takers,” not “givers.”
Yes, the refugee is a humanitarian crisis, but this crisis is exposing the limits of our own humanity. The refugee reveals the most human and inhuman in us all. Liisa Malkki remarks on this when she states that “’the refugee’ – apparently stripped of the specificity of culture, place, and history – is human in the most basic, elementary sense. The refugee as bare humanity stands, we imagine, for all of us at our most naked and basic level” (1995:12). Thus stripped, the refugee belongs nowhere. If it represents our most bare humanity, it is one that is isolated and unmoored from any nation. The refugee threatens constructions of the nation by belonging to none. They are a “crisis” because they do not fit anywhere into nation-states, or what Liisa Malki describes as “the natural order of things” (1995). Tragically, instead of seeing potential and offering the socio-political tools needed to thrive, we greedily shut doors, erect walls, and ban entry. Perhaps that is also why the refugee has become so frightening a figure to many Europeans and Americans: in confronting us with our (true) naked humanity, the refugee also exposes the flimsiness of the (artificial) concept of “nation.”
Having fled their geographical homelands, refugees lose their identity to become the quintessential Other. They inhabit a between-ness that cannot be resolved, not even with citizenship, since they are perpetually marked by their difference: their foreign accent, skin-tone, culture, traditional practices, and foods. Furthermore, refugees are fixed within those categories, even when they wish to move on. Once labeled, the “refugee” becomes a universalized category of difference (e.g. whether from Sudan, Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Eritrea, or Palestine) vis-a-vis the state and civil society.
Thusly categorize, they are silenced.
On Exile and In-betweenness
Against this bleak and controversial backdrop, we consider conditions of exile. In the literary imagination, exile refers not only to a person but also to a state of mind that is wrapped up in reference to a different place and time. Many people experience a degree of exile—the psychological and philosophical aspects of exile – at various points in their lives, of feeling outside the natural order of things. But those feelings, even profound and sometimes profoundly alienating, tend to be momentary and typically not rooted in an actual inability to return to a homeland.
There is something particularly solitary about the exile, a different kind of threat to our concept of nation and belonging. The exile may be sitting here, but their gaze shifts from proximate to distant and back again, sometimes focusing on what is unrecognizable about their homeland or their host country, other times seeing their identity deeply reflected in the ideologies and everyday practices of either place. This is what it means to be displaced or in exile – to be somewhere not of one’s choosing, to be set apart in time and space. To belong nowhere and yet conscious of the myriad forces that set it apart.
One of these exiles is a political exile – at one time a threat to a nation’s regime or status quo and forced to leave. By pushing them out, by making their lives impossible and unlivable in their homeland, these exiles are politically and socially banished from civic participation and therefore no longer a threat to the regime. Despite or because of this exclusion, an exile remains loyal to the homeland – but not to the prevailing regime – as well as to universal ideals such as freedom of speech and democracy. An exile’s loyalty often includes a hope for return, when conditions (i.e. the regime) change. This hope is what Cathrine Brun refers to as “active waiting.” She explains that “as long as waiting is meaningful, people willingly wait” (32) even if there is no tangible expectation of return. When asked by my students whether Tutul, publisher of Shuddhashar, wanted to return to Bangladesh, his reply was instant: “My bags are packed.” In many ways, this hope keeps exiled writers and activist going: a hope that circumstances will change, that the world will become safer and more just, and that the regimes in their homelands will be replaced by more hospitable, fair, equitable, and democratic ones. Exiles are therefore not only waiting and hoping; they sometimes are also striving to find ways to influence the world – there and here.
Hope is also what keeps many exiles writing: a hope that their words will make a difference. Perhaps, in knowing the extent of what can be lost, exiles are the most hopeful among us. The rest of us live with the assumption that everything will remain the same – that what happened to them will never happen to us. That’s not hope. That’s simply denial, and it is what causes us to see exiles and refugees as Others – as everything that we are not and will never be.
Amid these musings of conditions of exile, I argue that identifying as an exile is a subversive act because it denies categories ascribed by others. Despite overarching structures – policies, circumstance, conflict, violence – that circumscribe one’s ability to act as one wishes, an exile claims a status of being outside, of not “home,” and of residing in a place not of one’s choosing. This claim of being outside doesn’t diminish feelings of appreciation to a host country for opportunities to be safe and start again, or of recognizing that perhaps one’s children may have better opportunities in the future in the host country. If exile is subversive, it’s not entirely, or perhaps not even partly, directed to the host country. It is, however, subversive to the larger socio-political structures that define and limit possibilities through acts of categorization and ascribed characteristics, including extremely negative stereotypes. It is also within those spaces of subversive acts that exiles rewrite the narrative of themselves, their homeland, and potentially effect change around them.
Just as exile is inseparable from memory, it is also a statement of one’s relationship to where one currently is sitting, and whether one is sitting alone. In the poetic and philosophical imagination, the exile is solitary; the exile sits apart. Perhaps in an existential sense that is true for most, as it appears to be a common theme in this issue of Shuddhashar. But it doesn’t reflect all options for exiled life. How does one get from a solitary state of exiled existence to an activist and participatory state?
Political scientist David McKeever provides some ideas. In his research on exiled Egyptians living in England, he makes a case for how they continue their activism while in exile. He suggests that while “activists find they retain limited access to the closed political opportunity structure of their sending country [they] are offered a range of opportunities by their new host country” (2020:5). In his view, although “politics can change people… sometimes (when they work together) people can change politics” (2020:5). His argument presupposes two elements, which are relevant to understanding other exiles. First, the exiles he researches were, he argues, activists in Egypt prior to exile. Second, he demonstrates that a necessary strategy for their continued activism is that they work as a collective to exert pressure on the Egyptian regime, as well as on their host country. One can see a similar practice among Jewish and Hindu diasporas, which contribute to political change in Israel and India, respectively, through lobbying and financial flows. You don’t have to be in the homeland to influence its political trajectory; you just have to have the right socio-economic resources and strategies to make a loud enough noise. In the Egyptian case studies by McKeever, however, the activists were exiled, not part of a diaspora that has accumulated social capital and wealth and can come and go at will. The exiled activists had to find new networks of influence.
McKeever’s examples appear to differ considerably from the majority of exiles included in this special issue and other at-risk writers and artists that are guests in host countries through ICORN or PEN or other international organizations. To start, one might want to ask to what extent the at-risk writers/artists were activists in their home country, or if they got into harm’s way for other reasons. That is, activism shouldn’t be an assumed characteristic of exiled writers. Even if they previously wrote to critique their government or societal norms, they may not – or may no longer – consider themselves as activists. They may see themselves as writers, but they might not consider themselves as exiled activists with an ideological commitment that motivates them.
Second, being exiled writers – even from the same country of origin – does not in itself create a collective. These are individuals who lived their own lives and may have considerable differences in their critiques about their homelands. Therefore, even though a collective activism is the most effective in exerting change, it isn’t an easy one to actualize. The exiled Bangladeshis, for example, are a diverse group of people who may have known of each other prior to exile, but they don’t form a collective. Perhaps that is disappointing, since the majority appear to wish similar things (democracy, tolerance and equality, science-based education) for Bangladesh. They certainly wish to have the option of returning. Yet building a collective among exiles or between exiles and those who remained in the homeland seems improbable, since solidarity is thwarted by unfortunate suspicion and inter-group boundaries.
As a transnational group, exiled writers and artists from various countries and backgrounds also do not form a collective, despite common ground in a desire to promote freedom of expression, among other things (including a propensity to write). This is also disappointing since the trauma of exile, the love of writing, and the experience of isolation could foster a valuable allyship. In addition to very personal and often individual experiences of suffering, I suspect that there are other more insidious factors that get in the way of creating a collective of allied exiled writers and artists. Although they may be collectively categorized as refugees or asylees, they are not a uniform group, and they have varied experiences of difficulties and ease in navigating their host country. Some have more social capital because of English writing and speaking abilities, education, or locally useful employment skills and qualifications. Their national background, skin color, and gender also impact their ability to integrate or gain access to local resources. In this context, it’s helpful to note Emilie Lund Mortensen point (2019 and in this issue), in her study of Syrian refugees, that women and children receive preferential treatment by humanitarian organizations. This is because men are both assumed to be better equipped to handle challenges and because Black and brown men (especially from Arab or Muslim countries) are stigmatized as dangerous (i.e. potential terrorists) and oppressors of women. But the other graph that effects exiles’ experience is skin color, which often dredge up erroneous assumptions about education and intelligence. Mounting evidence reveals the effects of colorism on people’s opportunities and ability to succeed in society. This is often true even among people from the same social group, family, or heritage. These various factors, I believe, inhibit opportunities to form a collective, even despite what are some deeply shared experiences of exile and visions for a better future. Even though all exiles suffer, when some have easier access to opportunities in the host country, it psychologically creates a barrier. This is not an insurmountable barrier, but overcoming it requires self-reflection, a willingness to be vulnerable (yet again), and a critical analysis of the local system that privileges some more than others.
Revisiting the Categorization of Humans
As I write this, the US is holding elections in a few days, after a long and painful election season. The entire world has witnessed the terrible effects that divisive politics has had on the fabric of our society. We see that strategies of divide and conquer, othering “outsiders,” and fear-mongering are incredibly effective, even though history should have, by now, taught us why respect, humility, and unity are clearly better qualities in the long run. So perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that we subdivide and categorize people into groups in order to render them less powerful, as less threatening to all “we” think we have. “Refugees,” now mostly relegated to camps in nowhere lands, is an example of nationalistic attempts to exclude. In fact, just a few days ago, our President announced the lowest refugee quota since the Refugee Act of 1980: a mere 15,000 for 2021, which excludes most from certain Muslim-majority countries. After all, “they” are obviously not “us,” and never can be.
In such a context, the self-identified “exile” refuses categorization by claiming a space in-between. Through subversive acts of writing – often denied to them in their homelands – the exiled writer can reveal humanity in all its messy complexity. I rejoice opportunities to hold up that mirror! But what might happen if exiled and at-risk writers formed collectives in order to amplify each other’s voices – diverse as they may be – and create a bigger impact on the worlds in which they live? I imagine the creative and unifying potential that can come from a collective of exiled writers and artists who have personally experienced real threats from autocratic regimes, censorship, blasphemy laws, oppression, and violent suppression. To me, that collective is a worthwhile path forward. I am confident that any society that helps unify and amplify those creative voices will become better for it. But in doing so, we need to be prepared to share, to offer the socio-cultural tools that we take for granted (and greedily keep to ourselves), and to move over in order to create space. Anything less than this denies the human dignity of exiles as well as our own humanity.
Brun, Cathrine. 2015. “Active Waiting and Changing Hopes: Toward a Time Perspective on Protracted Displacement. Social Analysis, 59:1, 19-37.
Jackson, Michael. 2002. The Politics of Storytelling. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen.
Malkki, Liisa H. 1995. Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory, and National Cosmology among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
McKeever, David. 2020. Exiled Activism: Political Mobilization in Egypt and England. Milton: Taylor & Francis Group.
Mortensen, Emilie. 2019. “Being Care-ful Among Friends: The Ambiguities of Friendship in Exile”. Etnofoor, 31:1, 29-47.
Said, Edward W. 2020. “Introduction: Criticism and Exile.” In Reflections on Exile and Other Essays. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Pp. xi-xxxv.
Said, Edward W. 2020. “Reflections on Exile.” In Reflections on Exile and Other Essays. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Pp. 173-186.
Lisa Irene Knight is professor of religions of South Asian, cultural anthropology, and chair of the Department of Asian Studies at Furman University, South Carolina, USA. She published Contradictory Lives: Baul Women in India and Bangladesh by Oxford University Press.