There and back again


I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.

Has there ever been a sentence as fragrant with nostalgia, with longing, with loss, as the opening line of Isak Dineson’s Out of Africa?

Those few simple words carry us to a place where the writer once felt at peace, a patch of earth lost to her. Once I had a home, far away, now only memory. She didn’t belong in Africa. We feel that. She doesn’t live there any more and may never return. She has even left her name – Karen Blixen – behind.

Many of us know how she feels.

Exile is nothing new. For generations, people have moved from the places that feel like ours to places that feel like somewhere else, from homes and families we love, to hope or a new job or safety. Waves of emigration and immigration, of exile and return, of exodus and diaspora, ripple all over the world and through history. Without them, we wouldn’t be who we are.

We move away. We move towards. People do that. We leave because we must, because fear or misery or failure force us out, because work or love or curiosity or adventure lead us elsewhere, because life can no longer be the way it was. Ever again.

Sometimes we have no choice. Sometimes we choose, we hope and plan and create a new future somewhere else. Sometimes we follow our hearts.

I lived away from the city in which I was born for several years. It was no great hardship. Nobody forced me. I didn’t even really go that far. I’d always pictured myself living in Montparnasse or Manhattan. Instead I moved from Melbourne to Sydney, then to an island off the coast of Auckland; partly for work, mostly for love, like so many. It’s beautiful in New Zealand. People say hello when they sit beside you on the bus. We set off fireworks on Guy Fawkes Night, and ate fish and chips on the beach. I wrote two books and lived by the sea.

But I never settled. By the time I’d been away from home for eight years I felt as if my heart was shredded. The land looked wrong – gorgeous, but wrong. The leaves were too green. The light fell differently in the treetops. Even the sea gulls’ cries were wrong.

Of course, nothing was wrong – it just wasn’t my place. I didn’t belong there. People at home were growing up or growing old without me. I missed them, I missed the way the sun slants through dry grass, the smell of eucalyptus after rain. Familiar restaurants. Hot north winds before a cool change. Magpies. Markets. Bluestone. I felt like an exile.

So I came home. But now I miss there, too. Wherever I am, I’m homesick.

Exile is a word we most often connect to those people who suffer forced departure at gun point, under bombardment, or weighed down by hunger and poverty; people who seek refuge, who wake each morning to a view of razor wire and dust. But it’s also a feeling, a way of perceiving the world, a story that might be told of many of us. That’s not meant to trivialise the experience of those who are violently expelled or flee to safety: rather, it might help us to understand it a little better.

Janet Frame once wrote:

All writers – all beings – are exiles as a matter of course. The certainty about living is that it is a succession of expulsions of whatever carries the life force… All writers are exiles wherever they live and their work is a lifelong journey towards the lost land.
Exile is when you feel you’re in the wrong place, or you aren’t too sure where you’re supposed to be, or the place where you belong is closed to you. Exile is about degrees of discomfort, being unsettled or out of place or foreign.

Memories blur, burdened with nostalgia or grief or joy. Languages get mixed up, hilarious jokes about old TV shows fall flat, we misunderstand each other and speak loudly, waving our hands about as if that helps. We are strangers. We gaze around in wonder. There’s so much to learn and explore, so much to remember, that it’s hard keep past memories intact.

We leave, we journey away, we start a new life, we forget, we reminisce, sometimes we return. We turn our exile into an adventure or a story or a song.

We can’t all be Susan Sontag or Gertrude Stein in Paris, writing and reading, conjuring greatness out of exile with Ernest Hemingway snoring drunk on the sofa. Even under the best circumstances, exile can feel like punishment – otherwise it’s not exile. It may feel as if you’re the original scapegoat, a poor creature symbolically burdened with a community’s shame and guilt and sent out into the desert to die. And once you’re out there, stumbling around in the heat, your mind goes. Perceptions shift and shimmer, you forget where you are and where you aren’t, you look about for something familiar, something safe, and there’s nothing but alien landscape – no matter how lovely.

Now, when I’m at an airport, I can never remember whether I’m leaving or going home. My geographical locus has shifted. Or vanished. I don’t know where I am.

So many exiles long to go home. But many never do, never can. For some it’s simply impossible; it costs too much or it isn’t safe; or perhaps looking back is too risky, too filled with grief. ‘Exile is a dream of a glorious return,’ wrote Salman Rushdie (and he should know). ‘Exile is a vision of revolution: Elba, not St Helena. It is an endless paradox: looking forward by always looking back. The exile is a ball hurled high into the air.’

For some, those happy expats watching the Melbourne Cup in a New York sports bar, the new life is so fabulous that going home never enters their heads. ‘I wanted to forget that we had inevitably to return home,’ wrote traveller Ella Maillart in 1937. ‘I even lost the desire to return, and would have liked the journey to last for the rest of my life.’

The exile who does return finds a changed place, a city she hardly remembers, a circle of familiarity shattered, roots unearthed. A friend in Malta once told me that those who come back after emigrating in the great post-war exodus speak a different language: the Maltese of their grandparents. Those who stayed speak a modern language, changed and influenced by Europe and North Africa, as Maltese always has been. They can barely comprehend each other. One asks: ‘How could I ever have left?’ The other asks: ‘Why did you come back?’

For those who do return, the process can be fraught. At best it’s shockingly simple to slip back into an old life. For others, like Karen Blixen, returning is a double exile. People greet you with a smile, but don’t invite you in. You’re different, you’ve changed – they’ve changed, or maybe they haven’t. Life is not as it was. It has gone on without you.

To this day, if I fly into Melbourne on Qantas and they play that bloody Peter Allan song, I weep: with pain, with guilt, with relief, with all the heartache of the exile.

Home is not what it once was. Neither are we.

I am from there, I am from here.

But I am neither there nor here.

I have two names, which meet and part…

I have two languages.

I forget which is the language of my dreams.

– Mahmoud Darwish