Jun 032013

In a way, we are nothing more—or less—than an encoded memory of our heritage.

It is because these things go so deep, because they are not only passed on to us but are us, that one’s original home is a potent structure and force and that being uprooted from it is so painful. Real dislocation, the loss of all familiar external and internal parameters, is not glamorous, and it is not cool. It is a matter not of willful psychic positioning but of an upheaval in the deep material of the self.

Is it then all pain and no gain? Of course not.

Being deframed, so to speak, from everything familiar, makes for a certain fertile detachment and gives one new ways of observing and seeing. It brings you up against certain questions that otherwise could easily remain unasked and quiescent, and brings to the fore fundamental problems that might otherwise simmer inaudibly in the background. This is perhaps the great advantage, for a writer, of exile, the compensation for the loss and the formal bonus&mdashthat it gives you a perspective, a vantage point.

But the perspective one gains from dislocation is, of course, not only retrospective but prospective. Exile places one at an oblique angle to one’s new world and makes every emigrant, willy-nilly, into an anthropologist and relativist; for to have a deep experience of two cultures is to know that no culture is absolute—it is to discover that even the most interstitial and seemingly natural aspects of our identities and social reality are constructed rather than given and that they could be arranged, shaped, articulated in quite another way.

—Eva Hoffman in “The New Nomads”, in: Letters of Transit: Reflections on Exile, Identity, Language and Loss, Andre Aciman, ed.

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