BOOK REVIEW / Miles away from home alone: Border Lines: Stories of Exile and Home - Ed Kate Pullinger Serpent's Tail pounds 8.99
Saturday 14 August 1993
Vienna was awash with exiles in those days, from Iraqi Kurdistan, from Chile, Argentina, eastern Europe, Iran . . . None could accept that residence in the land of exile was anything other than an interruption in the normal flow of their lives. Meanwhile years, decades, went by, friendships blossomed, children were born, grew to adulthood and had themselves to confront the experience of being children of exiles, torn between competing homelands.
The editor of these short stories by 18 authors promises 'a huge range of experience' on this theme. She casts her net wide, and some experiences are a bit thin. Barely half are memorable, but those that are serve their purpose: you want more, of both the writer and the writer's homeland. Janette Turner Hospital most successfully combines the experience of real geographical exile and an individual's existential uprootedness in Litany for the homeland. A childhood encounter in her native Australia with a rough kid from the wrong side of the tracks shakes a young girl's assumptions of home and place, and imbues her with a lifetime fascination for outsiders. Throughout her adulthood, in another hemisphere, she spots these characters, beckoning from beyond the pale, spiriting her home. 'They whisper: no little man from Customs and Immigration stands at the doors of memory or imagination demanding to see your passport.' In the margins of life, she concludes, you are ignored, but free. That is your homeland.
Several stories of isolation and heartache are weakened by their failure to address the fundamental question of whether or not you are free to go home, and if you are not, what it is that stops you. This has to be something bigger than just a reluctance to go back to mum. A woman adrift in a north European city; an encounter with a busker on the Central Line; a woman returns to an emotional void and leaves, lightened. These episodes explore psychological alienation but lack the political thump that makes you care.
My favourite is Leena Dhingra's La Vie en Rose, a bubbling celebration of Paris by a young Indian woman who has lived there since she was four and has appropriated it as her home. Now about to leave, perhaps for ever, she revels in her city and the life she has led with her parents, who were forced from India by partition in 1977.
She describes the little flat they inhabit, which is crammed with lovely old books assembled by her intellectual father and festooned with fabulous cashmere shawls which her mother collects from Parisian flea markets. 'The flea market was a veritable Aladdin's cave - full of shawls, all gradually finding their way to our small apartment. We slept over them and under them. Four trunks of shawls with a mattress over them made a bed, and my sister and I each slept on one of these. Shawls also served as blankets, as covers and my mother put them to their proper use by wearing them.' Her mother's obsession sums up a lifetime of exile: it is a gesture of both affirmation and yearning.
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