The very-subscribable (hint, hint!) NY Review of Books has been churning out some excellent Bolano essays. I couldn't finish 2666, haven't gotten around to Savage Detectives, and I'm not a fan of the short stories I've heard (yes, heard) so far, but dammit if this doesn't hit the nail square on the head.
Probably all of us, writers and readers alike, set out into exile, or at least a certain kind of exile, when we leave childhood behind. Which would lead to the conclusion that the exiled person or the category of exile doesn’t exist, especially in regards to literature. The immigrant, the nomad, the traveler, the sleepwalker all exist, but not the exile, since every writer becomes an exile simply by venturing into literature, and every reader becomes an exile simply by opening a book.
Almost all Chilean writers, at some point in their lives, have gone into exile. Many have been followed doggedly by the ghost of Chile, have been caught and returned to the fold. Others have managed to shake the ghost and gone into hiding; still others have changed their names and their ways and Chile has luckily forgotten them.
I read this, I think of how Nabokov never stopped writing about Russia, even though he left when he was a child. I think back to Wole Soyinka's We Must Set Forth at Dawn, and the image of him driving across the country upon his return to Ibadan after spending time in Leeds for school. I think of the latest generation of African writers, the ones we'll surely be talking about for years to come – Dinaw Mengistu, Nnedi Okorafor, Petina Gappah. I think of how the bitterest, most cynical Nigerian immigrants felt warm with hope when Nigeria came back from behind to win Brazil, as though that piece of good fortune could somehow transfer to the country's more intransigent problems. I think of my friend's father who was full of anger at his home country that he never taught his daughter, my friend, her native language.
Later on in the piece, Bolano says that “Exile, in most cases, is a voluntary decision” for a lot of writers. That's certainly not true for folks like Soyinka or Chris Abani or Ogaga Ifowodo or a whole host of writers from Somalia and apartheid-era South Africa, but it is for a lot of us modern African immigrants. This is probably due to the cruel irony that the people who most desperately need to leave are often the most trapped, be it in refugee camps or slums or fleeing from village to village in conflict-torn areas. Many of us self-flung across the world aren't forced from our countries because we feel like our lives are in immediate danger. We live in self-imposed exile for the short- and long-term goal of having a better life, however grudgingly we admit that. We're all travelers, with minds like a haunted house, floorboards creaking with cultural sensitives, and expectations of who we will become like silent screams bouncing off the walls in our heads. Maybe that's the point of literature – a way to make sense of this crazy concept of home.
Photo from Latin American Herald Tribune