Exile, Literature and the High Price of Freedom

In Growth Markets by Olivia Snaije

Authors exiled from Iran, Cuba, Afghanistan, Egypt, Algeria and the Congo discuss oppression, inspiration, and freedom

By Olivia Snaije

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The International Cities of Refuge Network is an association of cities and regions around the world dedicated to the value of Freedom of Expression.

PARIS: In January of this year Paris mayor Bernard Delanoë signed an agreement for the city to become the 32nd member to join ICORN, the International Cities of Refugee Network, making the capital a haven for writers facing persecution. Last week, to mark the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the City of Paris organized a seminar on the theme of “Exile and Literature.” Held in the beautiful City Hall on one of the hottest days of the year, the mayor’s office hosted an impressive roster of writers including Iranian author Marjane Satrapi, Cuban novelist and poet Zoé Valdés, and Afghan filmmaker and Goncourt-winning author Atiq Rahimi.

The first event addressed the writer’s relationship to language and offered a variety of views from across the Francophone world. Congolese novelist Alain Mabanckou and Palestinian poet and writer Elias Sanbar (who grew up in Lebanon) pointed out that they both spoke French as children — Mabanckou at home in a former French colony and Sanbar as a child in a in a French “protectorate.” Egyptian-born author Paula Jacques noted that she was educated in French, as were the Egyptian elite and bourgeois classes at the time.

Oppression and Freedom

patience stone by Rahimi

In contrast, Atiq Rahimi, learned French out of necessity: he fled his native Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion and arrived in France as a political refugee. Rahimi’s The Patience Stone, for which he won the Goncourt Prize, was his first book written in French, something he described as an “accident.” “I tried to write it in Persian but it just came out in French,” he said. “In this book I broke taboos in Afghan society. It was impossible to write in my mother tongue. So French was a language of freedom.”

Sanbar underscored that many Palestinians viewed French as “the language of culture” and identified themselves as Francophiles, all the while rejecting English — the language of their former colonizers. “The idea of going towards French was not a negation of my culture but rather an acquisition,” he said.

Jacques agreed that the political context in which one writes is tantamount, adding that in Algeria, where French was seen as the language of the oppressor, the relationship was even more complicated.

Mabanckou recounted how in the Congo most people speak seven to ten languages, but most of them are not written languages, something that makes abstraction impossible. “In French you can go on for two hours about an abstract notion,” he said. “My French is an invention to express my country.”

Inspiration and Transformation

Most of the writers agreed that their homeland was an endless source of inspiration. “I’ve written ten novels that take place in Egypt, I can’t do otherwise,” aid Jacques.

“It’s strange,” added Sanbar, addressing Jacques. “When I read Paula Jacques’ novels, her French was grammatically perfect but I was hearing Egyptian Arabic.”

“All my stories take place in Afghanistan, this is what inspires me,” said Rahimi. “But for Afghans, they are not Afghan stories. Afghans say that my writing has a French accent now.”

For Mabanckou the power fiction holds is that it can transform the reader into the nationality of the writer. At the same time, “When you write, you rise above nationality and go past geography. Imagine a Congolese boy in Brazzaville who reads Swann’s Way and enters a certain bourgeoisie even though he has never been to France. It’s as if Proust had taken him by the hand to show him.”

Sanbar remarked that his world is not marred by nostalgia, which he finds stifling. “I speak of things that are lost, but not to regret them but to express tenderness,” he said. “Exile can be generous. You don’t just lose something but you acquire a world and learn to go forward.”

In the end, said Jacques, “Exile determined my destiny, but it was [the French] language that determined where I went.”

Pain, Anger and Integration

The second event, focusing on the theme of the experience of exile and the enduring link to one’s homeland, was far more emotionally fraught; Iranian-born writer Marjane Satrapi, Cuban’s Zoé Valdés and Iran’s ICORN recipient and political cartoonist Mana Neyestani spoke openly about the pain of exile.


Satrapi opened by explaining that the her popular graphic novel series and film Persepolis was largely motivated by a desire to remedy “Western ignorance” of the political situation in Iran. The constant questioning of  “where are you from” became so loaded, that she decided to explain the Iranian revolution by telling her personal story. Her exile in France afforded her enough distance to express the anger she felt about her family’s experience: “I’m not a sociologist nor an historian, but at least I know what I lived,” she said. “Afterwards many people recognized themselves in my story. It was difficult because I became a spokesperson for this generation.”

Valdés too felt anger — and pain — particularly after arriving in France. “I was angry inside and outside,” said Valdés. “Exile is a punishment and is painful…it’s a pain that is difficult to express. With time you change but your past is always there and you have to live with it.” The emotion of having to leave a beloved country has to be translated into something beautiful. “Human beings have to save themselves using beauty, and this beauty is freedom,” she said.

“When the pain is too great we have to take it with humor or poetry because the reality is simply too awful,” continued Satrapi. Few people leave their country because they want to…I would go home if I could,” she said, adding “It hasn’t always been easy…but you can’t go around moaning all the time. So first you have to bury half of yourself and then you learn to take pleasure in eating smelly Camembert and little by little you integrate. It has been long and painful…as time goes by I’m more and more convinced that this question of nationality is obsolete. I have a human identity.”

Neyestani, who fled Iran after three months in prison and numerous death threats, said that the official censorship, which led to self-censorship, made him feel as if he were already in exile even while living at home. “I thought I would be the last person to leave,” he said.

Writing in exile has certain pitfalls, chief of which is the illusion that you can still accurately represent your country even while living across the planet.

“When you’re in the West, you shouldn’t think you still know what’s going on [at home],” said Satrapi, whose own work still revolves around Iran. Her last book, Chicken with Plums, was more a love story than a historical or political tale as before.

Exile, is itself, a state of mind that is natural to many writers. Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka once observed “half seriously” that the true temperament of the writer is “a creature in a permanent state of exile,” since his or her real vocation is the eradication of the barriers of reality. For writers, the goal is to help readers cross that imaginary borders — between people, nations, language and cultures.

DISCUSS: Book Publishing and Freedom

About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about translation, literature, graphic novels, the Middle East, and multiculturalism. She is the author of three books and has contributed to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Global Post, and The New York Times.