8 Books About The Pain of Being Exiled From Your Home
Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, author of ‘Call Me Zebra,’ recommends books about the banished and displaced
Call Me Zebra is a novel about dislocation, about being unmoored from one’s home, and about how literature can be a lifeline in exile. In the aftermath of her father’s death, Zebra, born Bibi Bibi Abbas Hosseini, decides to retrace the journey she and her father made from Iran to the United States via Catalonia years ago. As she moves across the Western Mediterranean, her political anger fuels the production an epic text of protest writing she calls “The Matrix of Literature: A Philosophy of Totality,” a manifesto that will connect the threads of all the literature she has been steeped in throughout her life. Zebra asks the reader to think alongside her about how we can account for and navigate that which has been erased through revisionary histories?
This list of books about exile, fugue states, banishment, political prisoners and the displaced — some of which make an appearance in Zebra’s manifesto — are all, in one way or another, a meditation on the idea of home and hearth. They share a central question: How does dislocation shift our experience of identity, community, and language?
Considered together, these books offer us nuanced insight into our fragile human condition and remind us of those whose stories are at risk of being forgotten; they guide us to think of writing as testimony and historical record and provide us with the time and space to consider the psychic and material imbalance of our world. Each of these books is a gesture toward restoring the balance just that little bit. Here are eight books about exile.
Disoriental by Négar Djavadi
Told with clear-eyed propulsive prose, this kaleidoscopic novel is about an Iranian family foraging for a life in France, trying to piece together the shattered parts of their ancestry and identity. I was instantly drawn to the narrator’s father, Darius Sadr, who spends his life “bent over a ream of writing paper” and whose destiny is “joined to the staircases of the world…and to the indifferent gazes of the passers-by.” I’ve completely fallen in love with his absurd, embittered logic and with his daughter Kimiâ’s wild, untethered voice. Disoriental is told from Kimiâ’s perspective as she sits in the waiting room of a fertility clinic in Paris with the possibility of the next generation of Sadr’s looming on the horizon. This electrifying novel is as much about the tricks of memory as it is about art and politics and the ways in which we are left alone to contend with the tragedies of history that come at us in waves.
The Brothers: The Road To An American Tragedy by Masha Gessen
Masha Gessen, who I consider to be one of the most courageous journalists of our times, retraces the cultural and historical roots of our current political climate with astonishing precision. She fearlessly takes on the big issues: terrorism, LGBTQ rights, that horrifying, belligerent duo, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, and the disturbing ways in which the bodies and psyches of migrants and exiles are unjustly taxed. In the process, Gessen reveals to us the complicated collective tapestry of our lives. The Brothers is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the deeply disorienting history of the rise of nation-states and the ways in which the old laying down of borders informs acts of terrorism today. The book opens with a detailed map titled “The Tsarnaevs’ Journey: Every few years the Tsarnaevs traveled thousands of miles in search of a better life,” immediately refocusing our attention on the long tiresome journey that lead to the nightmare in Boston on April 15th, 2013.
Last Evenings On Earth by Roberto Bolaño
The first short story collection in English by the beloved Chilean author, Roberto Bolaño, contains fourteen stories, each told from the perspective of an exiled writer on an impossible quest to survive the everyday at the margins of society, far from home. The measured tone of these stories is exquisitely counterbalanced by the ineffable shadow of trauma and loss that Bolaño expertly casts over his deliberate, almost clinical sentences. The opening story is set in Girona, on the outskirts of Barcelona, and as someone who took refuge in that strange city’s labyrinthine network of cobblestone streets to write, I was, as I always am by Bolaño’s writing, immediately seduced.
The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen
With contributions from Vu Tran, Porochista Khakpour, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma and other refugee writers, this collection of essays, beautifully curated by Viet Thanh Nguyen, gathers seventeen different narratives of flight, displacement, and dislocation. Poignant and timely, these essays ask us to live with our eyes wide open during a time of geo-political crisis. Also, 10% of the cover price of the book will be donated annually to the International Rescue Committee, so I hope readers will help support this book and the vast range of voices that fill its pages.
The Smell and Notes from Prison by Sonallah Ibrahim
Sonallah Ibrahim is one of the most influential Arab novelists of the twentieth century. Beautifully translated into English by Robyn Creswell, That Smell is a modernist masterpiece told from the perspective of a political prisoner who wanders through the streets of Cairo, adrift and estranged, in the aftermath of his release from prison. Ibrahim’s writing is deceptively simple, a record of the minutiae of his days as the ghost of his former self spies on what used to be his life. He smokes cigarettes, showers, visits family, old lovers, and his mother’s home, but behind these relatively banal acts is a politically charged mind struggling to re-enter the world after a long exile in prison. This edition includes Ibrahim’s Notes from Prison, originally written on cigarette paper and smuggled out of jail, along with an essay about the process of writing of That Smell, which was quickly confiscated and banned by the authorities.
Adrenalin by Ghayath Almadhoun
Syrian-born, Stockholm-based Palestinian poet Ghayath Almadhoun’s intelligent, relentless, and formally precise poems explore identity, nationality, nation-building, war zones, history, love, death, friendship, and injustice. This is political poetry at its best and the translation from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham is spectacular.
The Complete Works of Primo Levi edited by Ann Goldstein
I came to Levi’s work early on through his slim novel The Wrench and more recently, If This Is A Man and its companion text, Survival in Auschwitz. Levi’s sensitivity is extraordinary, his writing breathtaking; the scope of his literary influences is immeasurable, his erudition as a chemist and writer unparalleled. He is a writer full of heart and wisdom. It is a gift to us all that his complete works, a collection of fourteen of his seminal books, are now available in English, a herculean effort that was in the making for sixteen years. To raise the bar even further, the collection is introduced by the Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.
What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera
Born in Sri Lanka and raised in Nigeria, San Francisco-based writer Nayomi Munaweera’s lyrical transcendent novel draws us into the lush, verdant landscapes of Sri Lanka and the undulating streets of San Francisco. The narrator, Ganga, has a dark and secretive past that threatens to erode her life. Many year after she was forced to leave her idyllic childhood home and immigrate to America with her mother, Ganga marries a charismatic man to whom she never reveals her disquieting past. Soon enough, an accidental pregnancy causes her to unravel and to commit a terrible final act. Munaweera’s work has been compared to that of Jhumpa Lahiri and Michael Ondaatje. Atmospheric and vibrant, her prose pulses with wisdom, sweeping us off our feet image after image.
About the Author
Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi is the author of Fra Keeler (Dorothy, a publishing project) and Call Me Zebra (HMH). She is the winner of a 2015 Whiting Writers’ Award, a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree, the recipient of a MacDowell Fellowship, and a Fulbright Fellowship in Fiction to Catalonia, Spain.