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Since 1st March, 1999
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Flight from Certainty: The Dilemma of Identity and Exile Edited by Anne Luyat and Francine Tolron, Rodopi, $ 22

Asense of displacement has become an integral part of the modern psyche. It may or may not result from physical displacement or dislocation, but it has “led to a flight from certainty and timeless truths, erasing centuries-old landmarks of national and linguistic consciousness, transforming irrevocably both cultural and literary landscapes”, to quote form the introduction to Flight from Certainty, edited by Anne Luyat and Francine Tolron. Mass mobility of labour and socio-political upheavals are some of the reasons behind individuals or groups moving away from their place of origin. The experience has a substantive effect on their perceptions and their creativity. The essays in the book record how people living in different continents have responded to exile.

The first section of the book, called “The Eighth Continent”, looks at the in-between space inhabited by a writer in exile. In the opening essay, Alba Ambert, a Puerto Rican writer living currently in London, explains: “The Eighth Continent is a state that results from having been expelled from the familiar, the loved, from having lost the primordial language. The pain of this loss is quite evident in the writer, who like me, lives the ultimate exile of writing in a language that is not her own.” Gillian Bourras, an Australian writer who was born and brought up in Greece, too feels that she is forever “living in-between, forever re-entering atmospheres, forever adjusting and readjusting”. She concludes, however, that “people who live in-between can make connections of a viable sort.”

There are reasons to agree with her since exile (or immigration) is generally for socio-economic benefits, sometimes political asylum. In both cases it is a privileged position, though there is room for sentimentality for the country of one’s origin.

Nilufer Bharucha, with extensive work on the Parsi diaspora behind her, presents a comprehensive piece on Salman Rushdie. She looks at most of his recent fiction as an “expansive discourse, which seeks to create its own spaces within the context of shifting borders, in the sense of cultural relocations and translations”. Rushdie seems to be a favourite with writers in the section on “The Indian Diaspora”. There is one essay on the Sri-Lankan writer, Jean Arasanayagam (one wonders why, because she lives and writes in Sri Lanka), one on Amit Chaudhuri, and one on the Trinidadian-Canadian writer of Indian origin, Shani Mootoo. Surprisingly, there is not a single essay on Amitav Ghosh, one of the best diasporic Indian writers.

The section on Australia and New Zealand does not mention Fijian Indian writers — the kind of literature descendants of the girmitiyas are producing. Also surprising is the exclusion of Vijay Mishra, well known for his work on diasporic studies, from the list of contributors. The section on Africa is inadequate, particularly for the non-white reader. The Eurocentric bias of the editors is quite obvious at times — a critical stance attacked by writers like Chinua Achebe.

Since the book professes to be about “the dilemma of identity and exile”, a few essays on early fiction by the descendants of girmitiyas like V.S. Naipaul would have given it perspective. The difference between the early writers, many of whom were forced to live in exile, and the later writers, for most of whom exile was a matter of choice, is an important one. Since, as Rushdie has pointed out, the experience of exile/dislocation/displacement, whether actual or metaphorical, has become a part of our lives, a book like Flight from Certainty becomes more relevant now than ever.

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