Alan Gilbert’s question about exile is an interesting one. His seems more interested here in the idea of an exile in one’s own land. And this is interesting, of course. Yet conversations I have had with college students on three Ohio private liberal arts colleges over the last three days have made me think even more about how our contemporary society of a new kind of exile is coping with the idea of exile.

The “new” part has to do with communication in the technical sense of the word: how we get from one place to the other. When a Jamaican took a boat to London in 1950, and started to write poems about exile, she, in many ways, was experiencing a kind of separation from home that was about not having easy access to return. She was constantly aware of her distance, her alien status in the new space, but most importantly, of the fact that she could not easily get back home.

For her, exile was compounded by how difficult it may have been to get news from home, to eat food from home, to know what was happening in her country, and much else.

But she was not an exile in the way that a refugee escaping political persecution might have been when landing in another country of refuge. That forced exile, while sharing many of the elements of the “voluntary” exile, had another kind of complication, that of an troubled relationship with home.

For many Americans, the desire to expunge all memory of the old country amounted to a new expression of home. Rejecting all other loyalties, the pledge offers, they embraced America—starting from scratch, embracing exile.

But none of these circumstances change the psychological implications of exile. And for writers it can become a challenge of trying to define home. If one is impressed by writing that seems to be so grounded in landscape and a rootedness in history and place, it is easy for the writer who has a sense of being from somewhere else, at some level, to not resist a sense of insecurity or uncertainty about what to write about, what language to use, how to locate him or herself.

One young man was a Nigerian. He was born there. But his family moved to Cuba when he was a child. He was in his teens when they returned to Nigeria. He spoke Spanish. Now he was in the US as a student. Home was complicated for him. Nigeria? Cuba? Was he now in exile in America? Exile from where? And were he to write, what would he be? He does not speak any Nigerian language. Does that mean he cannot be a Nigerian and that he does not have a right to his Nigerianness? He was not sure.

Another student was a young women who was born in Haiti. She grew up in the US, but visited Haiti (home) often growing up. She said that had she a choice three years ago, she would have chosen to go to live in Haiti. Now she is glad she did not. She is American. She is conflicted about her "Haitianness".

I met students with stories about their sense of exile with connections to Jamaica, to Puerto Rico, to Belize, to Pakistan, to Iran—they all had stories. I could identify with their stories. These were students who were seriously writing and hoping to write well. But this sense of “home” was complicating their idea of their art. The alienation was not caused by being different in overt ways in America, but in their own internal wrestling with this idea of place, of home.

Of course, I had a lot to say to them about this. I understand this complication. I suspect that while this is not a new story it is complicated by the fact that these students have greater access to their “home” spaces than someone might have twenty or thirty years ago. The internet has effectively turned exile into something quite different—something that can be confusing. Many read routinely the newspapers of their different “homes”, they were in direct contact with relatives through Skype and facebook, they had chances to travel there, they could find all the food from their spaces as they could want.

But their most pressing question was whether they had a right to write about those places. They wondered if they had a right to even write about their American home.

I told them a little story that had helped me understand the problem better and be comfortable about it challenges some years ago when I was writing a memoir of sorts about ideas of home called A Far Cry From Plymouth Rock. “Home”, someone had told me. “Is where you want to be buried.”

And here, one must conceive ideas of what it means to be buried as functions of belief systems in which the buried immediately encounter a host of the dead, those who have gone before. The fiction we must construct asks the question, who will be there to give you water to drink? Who will welcome you? Who will recognize you? It is not a perfect exercise, but it starts to speak to the idea of how as artists we must somehow resolve our relationship to that which has made us who we are—the matter of where we come from, not in terms of nationality, but in terms of the things that feed our discourse—those who came before, those we don’t even know, perhaps, but still those who will find in us something of themselves.

At some level, all writers are in exile. The condition of the writer is one of being at once inside and outside of experience. This alienation allows us to tell as if we are not there and yet we are there. The students I met are, in a sense, ahead of the game with their sense of troubled alienation of being conflicted about home.

Originally Published: April 5th, 2011

Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...