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Far From Home: Exile in Fiction

Far From Home: Exile in Fiction

In my novel, Holy City, Will Seems returns from living “in exile” in Richmond, to his family home in Southside, Virginia, to face the two great tragedies of his past which have laden him with a guilt that both drives and suffocates him. He is incapable of living in exile any longer, and yet home promises little relief. Furthermore, his time in Richmond makes him an outsider both in Richmond and in Southside, where people are suspicious of anyone with a foreign perspective. So the notion of exile is at the center of the book. 

The following titles also focus on the concept of being compelled to live abroad, away from home. Each has been powerful for me over the years. 

Lord Jim (1899), by Joseph Conrad

This novel is a beast. It pulls no punches, and displays some of Conrad’s greatest strengths, namely his unflinching psychological exploration, and also his ability to analyze the razor thin boundary between cowardice and heroism. Conrad’s depth, here, is what most interests me, and it showcases his role as a modernist in a world where one seems cursed to live with oneself, where the past must catch up with someone, despite their best efforts to begin again.

In Lord Jim, we follow Jim, who has grand notions of a glorious life at sea of bravery and adventure. He comes from a good family in England and has a noble demeanor. In a moment of confusion and cowardice, Jim, along with the rest of his rough crew, abandons a ship carrying Muslim pilgrims who are going to the Holy Land, leaving the pilgrims on board. The situation seems hopeless; the ship is going to go down, they’re certain. Yet, the ship and the pilgrims survive, forcing a trial against the crew of the Patna, Jim’s ship, for abandoning her before ensuring all passengers were safe. 

It is Jim’s very upright demeanor, his potential, his idealism, that make this trial so difficult for him. The rest of his crew are immoral, and it doesn’t crush them the way it does Jim. He can’t believe he behaved in such a way out of fear, and now the world knows it. So, he decides to disappear in the far reaches of Southeast Asia, hoping to begin again, and even displaying great courage, becoming “Lord” Jim to the natives of the area where he makes a home. However, his life must catch up with him.

My Antonia (1918), by Willa Cather

Jim Burden moves out West to Nebraska after his parents die to live with his grandparents. He meets a Bohemian girl, Antonia, on the train West, a girl who becomes his neighbor in rural Nebraska as well as a charismatic force in his life. We meet many such characters, usually from Eastern Europe, who populate the countryside and adapt to the American landscape while attempting to retain traditions from the Old World. Perhaps most poignant, however, is Jim’s decision to go to college in a city and then move to New York, thereby returning to a part of the country that is well developed, a world away from the nascent and rough Nebraska of his formative years, and also away from Antonia, who embodies it. Yet we see that he is never happy. He marries a woman he doesn’t love, and time has passed him by. This a quiet and dark book that highlights the dangers of chasing progress instead of following the heart without any cliché or moralization.

Sanctuary (1931), by William Faulkner

One of the darkest books I’ve read, Sanctuary remains fresh every time I read it. The book depicts several characters who are dispossessed from their homes. Horace Benbow, our unlikely, and often well-intentioned yet unlikable hero, has left his wife for what appears to be no good reason, and he finds himself getting drunk with an odd lot at a dilapidated antebellum home where moonshine distillers now live and operate. This may sound like stereotype of Southerners, but don’t be fooled. What ensues is one of the most troubling abductions in fiction. Temple Drake, a girl of seventeen, is taken to Memphis by a peculiarly disturbing gangster and held captive in a brothel. Both she and Benbow are in a kind of exile—his by choice, hers by force. Temple is given the opportunity to tell the truth and put the right man—the man who abducted her—in jail, and yet she does not, opening a depth to the book that complicates heroes and villains, victims and aggressors. Everyone appears to have some mark on them, some deficiency, and the underworld has its way with the legal system.

The Quiet American (1955), by Graham Greene

This novel, a mystery that explores jealousy, alienation, and the harm caused by idealistic innocence, is brilliant, like every Graham Greene novel I’ve read. It involves Fowler, the jaded British reporter–our narrator–and a younger, much more naïve, American named Pyle, who meet and become friends in 1950s French Vietnam, where the French and Vietnamese are at war. Amid their acquaintance, their philosophies clash, largely along European-American lines, and much is to be said about how such geopolitical views are personified by certain characters. Our protagonists struggle over Fowler’s young Vietnamese lover, Phuong, just as they joust over what should happen in Vietnam, and we find that the story also develops into a murder mystery.

One complicating factor, for Fowler, and a reason Phuong cannot marry him, is that he has a religious wife back in England who refuses, to grant him a divorce. In essence, he is living in Vietnam with no hope of returning to live in England, and is essentially in exile in a country he loves but that is divided, much as he is. The narration and structure are pristine, entertaining, and incisive. 

True Grit (1968), by Charles Portis 

The bestselling novel is both a page turner and a book any writer can admire, and it features a young Mattie Ross, fourteen years old, as the hero who sets out to avenge her father’s murder by a duplicitous ruffian the law seems unwilling to chase. She thus exiles herself on a chase to find the man, hiring Rooster Cogburn, a wild character himself, and accompanied by LaBoeuf, a ranger from Texas who has been after the same man for separate crimes. Not only does this rethink the notion that a Western must have a male hero at its center, but Mattie’s exile is one of trial and consequence that demands everything from her and marks her body, suggesting that justice—or at least vengeance—is never free. 

Outer Dark (1968), by Cormac McCarthy

This is another novel that will likely trouble the reader deeply. Outer Dark is set in Tennessee, apparently around 1900, but we are disoriented with the setting. A brother and sister have a child together, and the brother, Culla, leaves it in the woods to die. Both brother and sister chase after the child, or Culla chases Rinthy, his sister—it’s often hard to tell just what he is chasing—and also runs for his own life to escape some of the most frightening pursuers in fiction. In this layered journey, the two seem to keep missing their quarry and each other, and everyone appears to be lost and apparently beyond hope in a world utterly without purpose, where justice is as menacing as infanticide. It is a world where home does not shelter and protect, but rather harbors incest and shame.

Revenge (1979), from Legends of the Fall, by Jim Harrison

Jim Harrison patiently weaves this novella to give it the magnitude of an epic. An American man, Cochran, is left in the Mexican wilderness to die. He recovers with the aid of some unlikely people, and he uses all his energy to arrange an opportunity to take revenge against the man who orchestrated his downfall. He seems to take on the characteristics of the hard landscape of Mexico, where life is dangerous and death is plentiful. Yet he is motivated by love, the opposite of the cold bloodedness he needs. The passion he has for his lover and the calculation of his desire for vengeance wrestle for dominance, and he must return to America in order to find the man he wants to kill. Exile is important to this novella; even though it is about revenge, it is also about shedding pain, focusing on what is essential to complete a task, and returning to that painful source to defeat it. Much like Holy City’s protagonist, Will Seems, Cochran could continue recovering without revisiting the past, but he decides instead to confront it. 


The Sympathizer (2015), by Viet Thanh Nguyen

One of the most original narratives about exile, especially in recent years, is The Sympathizer. Told in the intoxicating voice of a Vietnamese Communist sympathizer who is writing his confession to a person he addresses as “the Commandant,” this novel explores just how alienated one can become even within him or herself. Physical exile is also explored many times in the book, as “the sympathizer” leaves Vietnam for America, spends time in the Philippines, and is also detained. This is a spy novel that is deeply psychological, and it takes on themes of loyalty, insanity, and patriotism. The winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize, it’s no wonder this novel was made into the miniseries that is getting so much praise at the moment. Its convoluted narrator wins us over with his confession–his voice reminiscent of the endearingly insane first person narrators we find in works by Dostoevsky and Bolaño–and yet repels us with his convoluted duplicity.

Bearskin James McLaughlin

Bearskin (2018), by James A. McLaughlin

The most contemporary of the books on this list, Bearskin is a fantastic crime novel that has that rare balance of poetic observation and compelling action. Rice Moore leaves a life of crime out West involving the drug cartels and attempts to find refuge on a nature preserve in the mountains of Virginia. However, when he begins to notice black bear carcasses on the preserve—poached for their gall bladders—he decides to do everything he can to stop them. He teams up with an unlikely partner and finds that it’s not so easy to disappear. Like Lord Jim, his past catches up with him, and he must fight that much harder to make it out alive. 

Rice’s character is, in some ways, simple; he’s a loner, a guy who can handle himself and has seen a fair amount of action, someone we might expect to become a hero. And yet, his dedication to protecting the nature preserve and the bears adds a layer of sensitivity and sincerity that is refreshing.