Sydney Writers’ Festival 2015 – On Home and Exile

sydney writers festival

It’s pouring. We wait outside the Philharmonic Studio on the wharf for the session On Exile and Home where an organiser pokes the bulge full of water in the canvas roof and a waterfall cascades over the edge. The water splatters on the concrete and sprays us.

Inside it’s dry, except for my socks.

Moderator Michaela Kalowski starts by asking the panellists how they think of exile. Zia Haider Rahman, Tommy Wieringa and Assaf Gavron tease out the idea in rapid fire. There’s the literal meaning, the metaphoric, ostracism, geographic, class based, exile from self, loneliness, linguistic…

Rahman adds that exile can be seen as separation even when you don’t know from what.

Zia Haider Rahman

Zia Haider Rahman

I miss the next bit of conversation because I’m watching him closely and thinking about why he might say that. To look at him sitting comfortably up on the stage, stylish in a smart cut blazer and collarless jumper, speaking quietly and confidently, his chin tilted up, looking towards the ceiling as if he’s weighing up what’s being said, it’s hard to believe he can possibly feel unsure about anything.

Assaf Gavron

Assaf Gavron

He listens as Assaf Gavron tells us about his Jewish parents. They were British and had moved to Israel before Gavron was born in 1968. Gavron says he was extremely conscious of growing up in an immigrant household. His parents stood out with their strong English accents. He is very conscious that as the Jews came home to Jerusalem from exile, it has caused the exile of others. Gavron says he has a need to continually leave Israel but he always comes back, but he lives with the sense of not belonging completely.

Tommy Wieringa

Tommy Wieringa

Rahman nods and smiles as Tommy Wieringa talks about leaving the Dutch Indies at the age of ten when his parents moved back to Holland. Weiringa felt he didn’t belong until he found a book on the nature of the new world thrust upon him, and through the birds, plants, trees, animals he started to develop an affinity with his new home.

Rahman says quietly to the ceiling. “The yearning for homeland presupposes that we belong somewhere.”

The room is silenced.

Rahman tells us he was a refugee from the Bangladeshi War. He and his parents escaped to Britain when he was very young and he grew up in council housing. Now a human-rights lawyer, Rahman has a few material processions in storage and no place to call home. He wrote his novel, In the Light of What We Know, between New York State and France, and refuses to live in England. novel zia

The panel draws a distinction between the personal and national ideas of home and homeland. But I can’t stop thinking about what it must feel like to believe you don’t belong anywhere and of the quote by Edward Said that Rahman included in his novel,

“Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement.”

I can’t tell you about the rest of the session. My mind is whirling through the raw brutality of what exile means to Zia Haider Rahman. It creates a fullness deep in my throat I can’t seem to swallow.

For if exile creates a rift between a human being and a native place, between a self and its true home, how much worse must it be for Rahman, a man who believes he has neither a native place nor a true home, a man who may not know what he is separated from.

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5 Responses to Sydney Writers’ Festival 2015 – On Home and Exile

  1. Exquisite and haunting. Thanks for sharing, Karen; your words are fantastic.

    • Thanks for reading, Dawn. Writers’ festivals are great at introducing new ways of seeing the world and how it works. The one in Sydney is huge and brings some great writers from all over the world. I’m going to get Rahman’s novel from our little local bookshop to read. It will be an emotional ride, I suspect.

  2. shawjonathan says:

    Thanks for writing that, Karen. I love the way you capture his way of looking at the ceiling and then coming out with something from the heart.

  3. Thanks for reading, Jonathan. He is a remarkable man. I can’t wait to start on his book.

  4. This is even more sad than the book. I loved the strakness of the rich novel.

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