Exile

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What kind of banishment are we talking about? Above all, who banishes? Subtle traps lay awaiting under the footsteps of the exiled writer: political, ideological, public, linguistic… Deep down, isn’t the writer an exile by nature… and the reader too?

Exile is a word I have always found difficult to understand. As a word, it has a very strong meaning – ban, banishment, deportation, expatriation, eviction, proscription, relegation, transportation… according to the dictionary – and, to my knowledge or full awareness, has never been applied to me, unless I am an exile without realizing so. But this word poses the creator that I am an interesting question. Ban, banishment, deportation, etc. presupposes a relation of power and freedom; power representing both censorship and the official accepted discourse; and freedom symbolizing transgression, personal and individual creation. The creator thus finds him/herself up against the officials, the guardians of power and morals. Banish, deport, expatriate, expel… also presupposes that there is the one who banishes, deports… on the one hand, and the one who is banished, deported… Whilst we can clearly identify the person who is banished, deported… (our infamous creator), the exercise now consists of determining who does the banishing, deporting
In cases like Salman Rushdie or Taslima Nasreen’s, it is obvious that the political and religious powers are the ones to banish, deport, expatriate… The writer is rejected by the very land he/she was born in. Stripped of his/her origins, it is as if they were trying to proscribe the history that the writer had already forged in his/her country. Scored off the list of compatriots, all measures are taken so that the writer no longer has any contact that might allow him/her to continue a relationship of identity between the individual and the collectivity, or the collectivity and the individual. The writer is no longer allowed to delve into this collectivity to forge his/her personal identity, must no longer project his/her personal identity onto the collectivity. Banishment is thus closely akin to physical elimination. Indeed, these two writers still risk their lives right now as we speak, as do writers in certain countries like Algeria, Afghanistan doubtlessly, Iraq, and Nigeria only a very short while ago…
The word, flowing from the tip of the writer’s pen, is thus interpreted to be eminently political. The writer changes status. Formerly a craftsman of language, he/she is now seen as the representative of an ideology judged to be dangerous. That is where the deceit lies: those who banish, allegedly acting in the name of the community, draw the writer into the same arena as them, casting him/her in the role of perfidious traitor. The two discourses are radically opposed, however. The discourse of the banisher is conceived of as emanating from a legitimate power which in fact masks a personal power, whereas the writer’s discourse, originally personal and without pretensions to power, is construed as emanating from an illegitimate power.
Literature thus becomes confused with Ideology. The country that gives refuge to the exile inevitably becomes the site that gives rise to and inspires the writer’s « nauseating » discourse. The writer’s relation to language changes, at least as far as the reader is concerned. His/her work no longer represents the personal exploration of a reality or a given imaginary realm, but instead a precise engagement vis-a-vis an ideological or political situation. The debate about literary engagement is thus clearly posed. Paradoxically, the exile thus has to justify, to take a stance, to explain why he/she supported this or that discourse. He/she cannot reasonably claim that it is just a simple exercise of style. All his/her acts, all his/her words, in all situations, are charged with political intent! The writer is thus trapped, forced to measure him/herself on a plane that was not his/her own! The only way out is to manage to lure the banisher onto literary grounds, or to make it understood that his/her discourse is « personally legitimate » and not « collectively justified. »
There are situations in which the banisher, the one who deports… cannot be explicitly named. Situations of poverty, situations of corruption. This is the case in African countries where the writer, rather than being an exile, becomes an immigrant like the rest. Fleeing the economic situation that has no publishing house to offer, the writer is forced to deport, to expatriate him/herself simply in order to publish, to be heard or read. This is the case in Madagascar where no publishing houses worthy of the name exist. The few booksellers who have managed to survive the economic crisis act as publishers and take no risks: re-publication of famous authors on the school curriculum. But isn’t developing the publishing network a risk for the banisher? Are the banishers likely to develop a network capable of diffusing discourses contrary to theirs? Which is why publishing has never been a priority in poor countries where corruption is part of state ideology. Because the writer’s language can precisely meddle in that ideology, challenging discourses and enlightening certain perspectives.
Exile is thus akin to suffocation, to being cut off. Individual language does not penetrate collective language and in no way influences it. By exiling him/herself free of will, the writer gives the impression of committing a work distanced from the preoccupations of the native land. By publishing in other countries, he/she will always be faced with the following kind of question: « Which public do you write for? » This situation also places the writer in a posture he/she did not necessarily seek. From explorer of language, the writer becomes the bearer of message for a given public, in this case, the public of the native country, a public who does not read the writer’s works at that, as his/her books are too expensive. This also implies that the public in the host country is accessory. Which explains the marginalization of African literature at the moment. The Western public does not feel concerned as it thinks that the African writer’s discourse is not destined for them. Countering no opposition, the banisher has won the battle… Hence the necessity for African writers to be heard in their own countries first. Not in order to conform to that prejudiced belief that a writer necessarily has a given public, but precisely in order to avoid this exile situation which creates a public for his/her work he/she did not seek.
African literature is thus confronted with an ambiguity of readership: the only ones who read it are those who take interest in Africa! Western sympathizers or natives of the continent. Others only stumble across it by chance. Rare are those who read the author as a writing individual, an individual who is not necessarily rooted to a land, preoccupied by the situation in his/her country! This ambiguity is reinforced by the fact that African literature is written, and continues to be written, in foreign languages, French, English, or Spanish. Exile because the author does not even express him/herself in his/her own mother tongue. How can writers express themselves on behalf of their countries given that they invest in a semantic system belonging to another culture? The writer has banished, deported, transported him/herself in another value system. Moreover, in French literature, don’t writers represents Francophonia, the Francophonia which plays a non-negligible role in the political and economic alienation of their native lands? Do they not play the game of the « foreign power » without whom nothing works on their continent? Who, then, is the banisher: the power in the native country which stifles publishing, the writer him/herself who chooses another language, or the country of exile who confines the writer to a clearly delimited Francophone space?
But isn’t the writer, whether African or not, already an exile by nature? Crafter of language, the writer necessarily diverts the academic or accepted sense to create his/her own language, to impose his/her own meaning. Through their very intentions, writers banish themselves from everyday language. Diverting the familiar images accepted by everyone, they offer readers those that they bring back from their internal exile. The writer is thus the one who deports the reader or the collectivity into his/her personal imaginary realm; and the exile is indeed our poor reader, trapped for the duration of a literary journey…
For, exile is the first of freedoms…

Jean-Luc Raharimanana, born in 1976 in Antananarivo (Madagascar), today teaches Modern Literature in the Paris region. He is the author of a play, Le Prophète et le président and of collections of short stories published by Serpent à Plumes: Lucarne (1995), Rêves sous le linceul (1998).///Article N° : 5336

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