Exile and identity: How does exile impact writers?


James Colasurdo, Staff Writer


 Originally teaching a class together at Saint Martin’s University, titled “Chasing the American Dream,” SMU’s Jeff Birkenstein, Ph.D and Robert Hauhart, Ph.D found themselves collaborating and co-editing what is now a third published book “European Writers in Exile.”

 “At first, we didn’t create the class thinking we’d create books on unrelated topics,” said Birkenstein, “but many times one project leads to another.” After publishing their other two works before: “American Writers in Exile” and “Social Justice and American Literature,” Birkenstein said that he had people asking about European writers in exile. Starting from American stories of exile and literature to European ones based on questions they received, this felt like the next logical step. The book contains essays about famous authors not only from Hauhart and Birkenstein, but also from writers all around the world.

 “European Exile” writers include writings about many notable authors such as James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, and Joseph Conrad. One may think of exile only in the strictest sense: where citizens, and in many cases, political leaders, are forced out of their country by political enemies. However, as Hauhart notes, there are three main types of exile: “Political, social, and voluntary.” Furthermore, the book is unique in the sense that as Hauhart states, “the way it analyzes how exile impacts how authors write.”

 One writer was Conrad, a Polish-British writer, who was politically exiled from Poland, which at the time was controlled by the Russian government. On arriving to England, Conrad anglicized his name (from Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski) and wrote exclusively in his second language, English, for the rest of his life. Though he followed events in Poland, he never wrote about them.

Another example is Kafka, a German-speaking Bohemian Jewish novelist, and short story writer. Kafka is acclaimed as one of the major figures of the 20th century and experienced immense social exile his entire life in Prague, (then a part of the union known as Czechoslovakia). Kafka’s social exile resulted from the time period he lived in, where segregation, discrimination, and anti semitism were all common. Hauhart, who wrote the section on Kafka in “European Exile” writes, “Introverted and insular to nearly the point of self-annihilation, Kafka’s neuroticism manifested itself in illness, somatic complaints, and alienation. His immersion in the imaginative, brooding stories he created coupled with the evasive self-denying life he led, produced a literature of exile without Kafka ever leaving his home, his country, or his culture–a pure exile of the mind.”


 The last main type of exile is voluntary. In almost a polar opposite way to Kafka, Birkenstein, in his essay about Joyce, states, “Estranged from his home country and, especially, his city of Dublin, because of what he thought to be the stultifying effects of British colonialism, the Catholic Church, and excessive provincialism, he nevertheless wrote about nothing but Ireland.” The concept of self-exile for Joyce was there from the beginning, as seen in his play titled “Exiles” in 1918. Joyce had left Ireland in 1912.

 No matter the type of exile, there are many borderline philosophical questions that can be asked concerning the subject: “Self-identity and nationality are complicated. What happens when your identity is uplifted?” asks Birkenstein, “What does nationality mean? What does it mean in the context of literature?” For instance, in regards to Joyce, there is much debate over whether to view him as an Irish writer or a metropolitan writer, but “no doubt we can land comfortably somewhere in the middle, which is to say that Joyce was indisputably Irish and, just as certainly, influenced by his long life living on the European continent.”

 From there, Hauhart states that one of the main objectives of the book is to analyze, “What kind of an impact does exile have on writers?” Hauhart notes that while writers such as Joyce, Conrad, or Kafka may not reflect on their experiences of exile right away, ultimately, writers respond to experience. Maybe not until much later on in their lives, but if the myriad of writers presented in the book can attest, eventually a topic as pivotal as exile as will be written about.

 Hauhart mentions that one of the main messages he wants the audience to come away with is for “readers to learn something new about writers.” Particularly, “their lives and the exile they went through.”

 From analyzing their experiences, one can relate them to people today who are exiled. The concept of exile today, specifically exile of the political nature, is a hot-button issue. Hauhart notes that in the United States, there is an immigration crisis. While exile is sometimes voluntary, it is often forced. “From South and Central America, refugees are escaping the country. Lots of the countries are police states,” Hauhart said, referring to the many corrupt and totalitarian governments that have risen in those countries.

 Additionally, while we may have the feeling that we are disconnected from the issue, Hauhart states, “Many students and faculty have parents that fled from another country.”At Saint Martin’s University, faculty members such as professors Irina Gendelman and Viktor Kogan are among them.

 Birkenstein mentions that the collaboration was fruitful, not only because of Hauhart, but from “extensive communication with scholars around the world.” If there is one lesson that Birkenstein thinks is meaningful from the experience it is that “you never know what collaboration will lead to.”

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