February 08, 2015
The twentieth century brought upheaval and displacement for people all around the world. Two world wars, the de-colonisation of much of Africa, and the West’s rise as a dreamland of education and industry gave many people reasons to seek a new life in a new country. Migrants and their children began to form communities, finding joy, pain, love, and loss in their new homelands. Among these exiles and their children were remarkable writers, who documented their journeys, hopes, dreams and fears as exiles in a foreign land.
The novelist Sam Selvon was amongst the first Caribbean immigrants who came to Britain in the 1950’s. After the Second World War, emigrants from the Caribbean colonies were curious to see ‘the mother land’ which many had fought for. Selvon was the first novelist to describe these experiences in his novel The Lonely Londoners. He wrote in pidgin West Indian English, and represented the great diversity amongst these immigrants. One character is nicknamed ‘Five Past Twelve’ because his skin is darker than midnight. He loves to cause trouble, comfortable in his position as an outsider. There are many degrees of blackness that separate him from the character Bart, who is so light-skinned that he pretends to be Latin American. In contrast to Five, Bart is ashamed of his race. When he falls in love with a white girl, the girl’s father rejects him, despite Bart’s denial of his origins. To the father, black is black, and immigrants are not welcome. In Selvon’s experience, Britain isn’t a welcoming motherland, but an exclusive society where the British ‘just don’t like black people, and don’t ask me why’ (p.20).
V.S. Naipaul was Selvon’s contemporary. His novel In a Free State shows the reader a wide-ranging picture of 20th century human migration in three parts. In the first part of the novel, titled One Out of Many, a poor Indian servant called Santosh leaves his simple life in India to follow his master. As soon as he gets on the plane, he is marked out as ‘other’ by being completely bewildered at everyday Western things like airplane toilets and drinks trolleys. From then onwards, a deep sense of alienation dogs him throughout his stay in America. Through his eyes, the reader sees the Western world as a strange and frightening place, where even the idea of wearing shoes in public sends him into confusion. Despite this extreme culture shock, Santosh gradually discovers the freedom that comes with living in America. He becomes a true exile, adapting completely to his surroundings and finding a new home amongst another minority- African Americans or hubshi. When Santosh first arrives, he thinks they are savage, wild creatures; by the end of the story, Santos has married a ‘hubshi’ in order to obtain a green card and stay in America.
Another Indian exile narrative comes from Daljit Nagra, with his poetry collection Look We Have Coming to Dover! Nagra’s parents came from Punjab to England in the 1950’s, and he uses hybrid language to tell the stories of the modern Indians who have made their own distinct culture within Britain. The poem Our Town with the Whole of India! describes a multi-cultural town in England with Indian traditions, food, radio, dress and religious festivals, with the odd Western brand thrown in, like ‘Pizza Hut’, and ‘Bacardi’ (pp.12-13). Nagra shows us a culture clash that seems to end in harmony. He contrasts this impression with the poem In a White Town, in which the speaker is a boy embarrassed by his mother, who is so Indian that she apparently stinks of curry. The boy, desperate to fit in and attacked by racist Skinheads, hides his mother, and his own heritage, from the world.
Some migrants in the 20th century left their homes, not for dreams of riches, but to escape the horrors of anti-semitism in Europe. W.G. Sebald, a German immigrant to Britain after the Second World War, wrote about his country’s own dark history in the Emigrants, after being perturbed by Holocaust pictures shown to him as a child. This novel, rather than confronting the horror of the Holocaust head-on, places it like a giant hole at the centre of the narrative, only briefly referring to it in the mention of ‘special trains’. Instead, Sebald tells the stories of Jewish people who go halfway across the world to escape; and of others who feel so connected to their German roots that they keep returning at their own risk. He describes Jewish careers, minds and characters destroyed by prejudice. These are forced exiles, one of whom is so ‘incurably homesick her whole life long’ (p.69) that she cries during every visit. The characters are haunting, mainly because Sebald includes real photographs and reports his stories with such detail that he paints a vivid and relatable picture of a people who can’t escape their past.
From this great movement of people, from this exodus, has come new writers, new voices in literature, which cross the cultural divide and bring out the common human longings in all of us. These different writers show us chapters of the same story, of exile and displacement, of loss and loneliness. Their characters, based on real lives and experiences, cross the seas and the skies for many different reasons. Whether motivated by greed, fear, curiosity or just a desire for new horizons, these characters all have a dream: to make a better life in a new country. What unites them is the universal human need to belong, wherever they can; to carve out an identity in a new place from which most of them will never return. However, this dream of freedom can come at a great personal cost, and is sometimes utterly shattered. Some of these exiles are forever ‘other’, excluded from a society which refuses to understand them, or tortured by memories of home. Others, like the writers above, overcome hardship, racism and culture shock to find their own unique voices.
Nagra, D. (2007), Look We Have Coming to Dover!, London, Faber & Faber.
Naipaul, V.S. (2002 ), In a Free State, London, Picador.
Sebald, W.G. (2002 ), The Emigrants, London, Vintage.
Selvon, S. (2006 ), The Lonely Londoners (ed. S.Nasta), London, Penguin Books.