Exile. I’ve been pondering the concept quite a bit of late. Merriam-Webster has two definitions of the word: (1) the state or a period of forced absence from one’s country or home; and (2) the state or a period of voluntary absence from one’s country or home.
There is only one word of difference between the two definitions: “forced” versus “voluntary.” And I ask myself, who has ever voluntarily been in exile?? Is an exit voluntary simply because no one is physically pushing you out?
Tiffanie Drayton’s Black American Refugee elucidates how the United States’ relationship to Black people is abusive. Her book follows her journey of leaving two abusive relationships, one with her partner, and one with America, and returning to her home in Trinidad. Did Tiffanie choose exile?
In the autobiography of Assata Shakur, she details the witch hunt carried out by the US government and its security forces, that came very close to taking her life on more than one occasion, which led to her fleeing to Cuba. Did Assata choose exile?
Blue by Emmelie Prophète details the lives of (fictional) Black women who are trying to escape life in a country with the misfortune of being a former colony and not a former colonizer. But she laments that all that is truly achieved are lonely funerals that loved ones on both sides are too distant and too poor to attend. Do they too choose exile?
So what exactly is a “voluntary” exile? Maybe it is choosing personal liberation over hollow promises of opportunity; choosing a hard life over no life at all.
But are these really choices at all?
Another interesting detail of Merriam-Webster’s definitions is the use of the phrase “country or home.” While the dichotomy of “forced” versus “voluntary” exile leaves me disconcerted, I am at the same time affirmed by the explicit distinction between “country” and “home.” The type of exile I am most intrigued by is the type that afflicts those for whom country and home are not synonymous.
What makes a country a possession if not a feeling of home? What allows for ease of tongue in the utterance of the phrase “my country”? Is it the seal and color of a passport? Is it the culmination of one’s life experiences within a particular border? And what makes a home if there is no country on which it stands? Is it the language of one’s dreams? Is it the smell of a favorite dish ?
Maybe exile is the empty space in the Venn diagram of country and home. Maybe exile is the absence of the privilege, bestowed on so few, to see no delineation between country and home, between passport and pass the plate, between mother tongue and motherland.
It seems to me that there is no choice when it comes to exile. It seems to me that there is only a force, from within or without, but usually both, yearning for a reality in which home and country, and liberation and dignity can all coincide.