Making a House of Words - Writers in Exile

I'm reblogging my post for Authors Electric, two days ago, on the mixed feelings I have when travelling - the conflict between longing and belonging.  It's a problem for a lot of writers, but it's produced some fine writing. 

“I’m in New Zealand at the moment visiting relatives and friends and re-visiting much loved locations. It's a weird sensation being in a place where I've spent so much time over the years, but yet can never properly belong. There's a sense of both homecoming and exile.

Janet Frame
Janet Frame, one of New Zealand’s best-known writers, wrote that ‘All writers are exiles wherever they live . . . and their work is a lifelong journey towards the lost land.’*1  Perhaps this is because, as writers, we have to stand outside our own experience and look at it objectively in order to write about it. We're always trying to get back to the 'lost land', those moments experienced and gone, at the core of our imaginative lives.

But many of us are also physical exiles. Few people live in the place where they were brought up and the moment you move away from your native territory and look at it from the outside things will never be the same again.  Your mind is always in two places at any one time.  The writer Edward Said - born in Palestine and an exile since 1947 - wrote that what we do as writers is ‘by necessity’, to make ourselves ‘a house of words’ to dwell in.*2

This is what the New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield did when she emigrated to Europe at 18 leaving Wellington behind.  She couldn’t wait to leave such a dull, parochial place, but spent her whole writing life trying to recreate it.

Katherine Mansfield, writing at Menton
‘What is it that I do want to write?’ she asked her journal while living in France. And the answer was New Zealand. ‘Now, I want to write recollections of my own country. . . I want . . . to make our undiscovered country leap into the eyes of the old world.’ Her New Zealand stories, Prelude, At the Bay, The Dolls House, are among the best short stories ever written.*3

Later, when she was dying of TB in her early thirties she decided that it did a writer no good to be transplanted.  Roots, she declared, were vitally important to the depth of our writing.  If we can't connect with them, ‘One reaps the glittering top of the field, but there are no sheaves to bind.’

Since I left my home in Northern England as a teenager, it’s a question I’ve spent a life-time trying to answer.  I’ve scribbled in the damp heat of an African rainy season, the scorching blast of a middle-eastern summer, snow in Scotland, 24 hour daylight in Russia, a rocky sea-shore in western Australia, monsoon in India, trains and ships and planes, an olive grove in Tuscany and currently the windy, cloudy, upside-down plains of southern New Zealand.

Wittgenstein wrote that our most powerful and formative experiences are those of our early years - the primal imprints of the landscape and social networks of our childhood.  These shape our imaginations for the whole of our adult lives. So my roots are firmly struck in the Cumbrian fells.  But I’ve spent my life as a nomad, travelling and living all over the world, gazing nostalgically back.

I recently wrote the biography of a northern poet called Norman Nicholson, born and brought up in Cumbria, who lived until he died in the same house he’d been born in.*4  Would he have been a better writer if he had moved away and gained experience and perspective?  My personal opinion was that he would.  There’s something about being able to stand outside and look in.  But Norman felt that his small town was a microcosm of the world and that he would have gained nothing if he’d lived elsewhere.  A difficult one to argue.  The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh wrote that it took a lifetime to know just one small acre of the planet and that for a poet it was depth that mattered.

When you begin to think about it, there are an enormous number of writers who wrote in exile. Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Edna O’Brien, Katherine Mansfield, Ian Fleming, T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Jean Rhys, W.G. Sebald, Muriel Spark, F. Scott Fitzgerald . . . The list is endless.  So perhaps travel does, indeed, expand the mind and stimulate the creative juices.

I haven’t yet, apart from the Katherine Mansfield biography, written more than the odd poem about New Zealand, but something is beginning to shape itself into words - slowly, tentatively. So, who knows?  I may come back with something more than Whittaker’s chocolate and some beautiful photographs.  As you read this, I will be somewhere in the air over Singapore returning to Italy, en route for England, where I've just accepted another appointment as RLF Fellow in the Creative Writing Dept of Lancaster University.  Another move across Europe, yet another re-location.  The Philosopher Paul Carter wrote in Living in a New Country that, 'once the process of emigration has started, there can be no settling'*5, so it seems that all I will ever have is whatever house of words I can construct for myself."

*1 Janet Frame:  An Envoy from Mirror City
*2 Edward Said:  Out of Place
*3 Katherine Mansfield - The Storyteller
*4 Norman Nicholson: The Whispering Poet
*5 Quoted by Kirsty Gunn in Thorndon (another excellent book about belonging)


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