The Literature of Exile

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Written By Pinang Driod

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Exile has always served as a powerful engine for fiction. To find yourself displaced, whether self-imposed or inflicted by a state, is to be simultaneously inside and outside; you gain intimate proximity to your new society while still standing at a distance from it, seeing things real insiders can’t. Isn’t this what writers do as well, when they enter the minds of their characters? The exile will always be at least slightly alien to her adopted culture. At the same time, her knowledge of that new place and its people is immersive; she is not a tourist and she can never really return to the person she was before she left home. This duality is also the novelist’s superpower, whether it’s Vladimir Nabokov or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie using their insider-outsider eyes to describe America in Lolita or Americanah, or Marjane Satrapi in Persepolis looking back at her youth in Iran. The Libyan British writer Hisham Matar does this too in his new novel, My Friends. Ben Rhodes wrote an essay this week about the book, and the ways it captures the in-betweenness of exile and the uniqueness of this perspective.

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic’s Books section:

  • Two Jewish writers, a bottle of whiskey, and a post–October 7 reality
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  • Elliot Ackerman on the first draft of the war in Ukraine

In My Friends, Matar invents the story of Khaled Abd al Hady, a Libyan who finds himself stranded in the U.K. after being shot in front of the Libyan embassy in London. His misfortune is based on a real incident that has largely been forgotten: In 1984, Libyan officials sprayed gunfire on a group of demonstrators who had gathered on the street below the embassy. In Matar’s story, Khaled, living in London as a student and attending the protest, is seriously injured, then left in an impossible situation after he recovers. Muammar Qaddafi’s repressive regime makes it too dangerous to go back to Libya or even tell his parents what happened. Returning to school is difficult because of Libyan spies. “Be invisible as a ghost,” he tells himself. “You are now a danger to those you love the most.”

Khaled recounts his story three decades later, after another rupture in his life: the Arab Spring in 2011. This is the moment when he could go back, and yet he doesn’t. All those years away have changed him; he’s not quite British, but also no longer Libyan. While Khaled’s friends choose to join the fight for their country, he opts instead for safety and the existence he now knows. “My friends never stopped wanting a different life,” he explains in an imaginary conversation with his family. “I have managed, Mother, not to want a different life most of the time and that is some achievement.” His sense of estrangement has become a new kind of home.

The novel reminded me a lot of Matar’s extraordinary memoir, The Return, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2017. This, too, was a story of loss. Matar’s father was a famous Libyan dissident imprisoned in the country in 1990, whose ultimate fate had become a mystery after he lost contact with the outside world. In 2011, after the uprising, Matar returned to try to uncover if his father was still alive or what trace of him might remain. His prose is beautiful, but his quest is unsatisfying. “Joseph Brodsky was right,” he writes. “So were Nabokov and Conrad. They were artists who never returned. Each had tried, in his own way, to cure himself of his country. What you have left behind has dissolved. Return and you will face the absence or the defacement of what you treasured.”

Still, there is a strange benefit to this alienation; it’s the thing that makes Matar a writer and makes his books such a gift to us, the readers. As Rhodes puts it in his essay, “The literature of exile offers a different window through which we can see ourselves, because the exile, like the writer, stands apart.”

Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Marka / Getty.

Exile Changes You Forever

What to Read

The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic, by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny

In 1995, hundreds of suitcases and trunks were discovered in the attic of the recently closed Willard State Psychiatric Hospital, in upstate New York. The facility held more than 50,000 people during its 126 years of operation, and the items abandoned in the attic—belonging mostly to long-dead patients—represented only a fraction of the hospital’s population. But the authors vividly animate life inside Willard by choosing the owners of several trunks to be the focus of their stark, haunting book on institutionalization in the first half of the 20th century. We learn about Lawrence Marek, an immigrant from Galicia who lived at Willard and worked as an unpaid gravedigger for decades until his death in 1968, and Rodrigo Lagon, an immigrant and an activist for the cause of an independent Philippines who was committed by his employer in 1917 and died at Willard in 1981, having never secured his freedom. The authors demonstrate how the facility, and other mid-century institutions, rarely provided actual care for patients, who were merely warehoused, their psychologies and desires largely ignored. — Ilana Masad

From our list: Six books that might change how you think about mental illness

Out Next Week

📚 Disillusioned: Five Families and the Unraveling of America’s Suburbs, by Benjamin Herold

📚 Martyr!, by Kaveh Akbar

📚 The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon, by Adam Shatz

Your Weekend Read

A stylized photo of Bill Ackman
Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Ilya S. Savenok / Getty.

Bill Ackman Is a Brilliant Fictional Character

Taken together, these recent posts of Ackman’s are like a novella, an exquisite piece of satirical fiction in digital epistolary form. They have the voice of an absurdly self-regarding unreliable narrator, a hot-headed, self-righteous, born-rich billionaire investor who considers himself intelligent and virtuous, persecuted by villains as he fights for justice and the honor of his defenseless goddess wife—and reveals his foolishness and awfulness and possible derangement in the course of a week-long public tantrum.

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