Displacement is a common condition of our time. Not everyone can live and die in the same place where they were born.
I used to be amazed by Czeslaw Milosz’s calling himself a refugee in his private correspondence, despite publicly viewing himself as an exile. To me, a refugee’s displacement is more violent and more irretrievable than an exile’s. While both are forced to uproot themselves, refugees are usually fleeing a famine or war that has destroyed their home. Exiles, on the other hand, are ejected—by governments or by themselves—because they cannot be reconciled with the political climate. They are a threat to the existing order, and further dwelling in their home country is untenable. Whether exile is self-imposed or government calculated, there is a deliberateness to the exile’s flight that contrasts with the capricious expulsion of refugees. Both can be equally brutal, but the dynamic is different.
Milosz’s case was particularly complicated. After escaping Czarist-controlled Lithuania as a child and then living in Nazi-occupied Poland, he chose to work for the post-war Communist government in Poland. His writings, though, made him a threat to the regime and he ultimately defected to Paris in 1951. Nine years later he moved to the United States as an immigrant, for a professorship. A decade later he became a naturalized citizen.
I was similarly surprised by Vladimir Nabokov’s claim that he was an American, even when he had gone back to reside in Europe. Nabokov had fled the Bolsheviks, living in Prague, Berlin, and Paris before the advancing Nazis precipitated his move to the US. Like Milosz, Nabokov became a citizen and wrote his masterpieces and became an English prose master. Beyond question, both writers were exiles.
Exiles exist in peculiar conditions shaped by their intimate associations with their past. They define their existence within the context of the political situation back in their home country, living in reveries, brooding over memories. They long for their lost homeland, even as their personalities, writings, ideas, and actions are irreconcilable with their home countries.
Milosz and Nabokov were great survivors, examples of success in living a full life and accomplishing magnificent work despite the adversities in their banishments. In some ways, though, they are exceptions to the norm. Most exiles have no choice but to remain obscure, pining for their former lives that were marked with purpose and certainty. Now displaced, many are unable to integrate a new language or culture, or even earn their keep.
The ties to the home country and culture remain powerful. Though Nabokov refused to step foot in Russia again, he chose to spend his last sixteen years in Montreux, Switzerland at a hotel at the side of a lake, around which many Russian thinkers and artists had clustered. Milosz eventually returned to Poland late in life, and ultimately died there, claimed by both Lithuania and Poland as a returning hero. Russia’s perception of Nabokov remains decidedly mixed.
For many years I refused to be an exile, claiming that I am an immigrant, someone who chose to move to a new country voluntarily. This is indeed my true identity, though very often a migrant’s identity can be fluid and blurred, just as Milosz could consider himself both an exile and a refugee, and Nabokov could view himself as both an exile and an immigrant. Unlike refugees and exiles, immigrants make the choice themselves. This sense of agency and volition allows for a continuity between their present lives and their past. Such a continuity can provide a sense of certainty and direction.
That is why I used to insist on identifying as an immigrant. It was my choice to turn my back on China, outraged by the Tiananmen massacre and unwilling to serve the brutal regime. I believed I could start anew as an individual without relying on any group or any country. I took my displacement as an opportunity for creation. I could move elsewhere to fulfill my ambitions, but I could remain connected to my homeland as my source of inspiration.
But China has made me an exile. Since leaving China more than thirty years ago, I have not been allowed to return. Even when my parents were dying, the government refused to grant me a visa. Even when literary organizations in China have given me awards, I have never been able to collect them. This forced separation from my native land and from my past has put me in a peculiar situation, which is closer to an exile’s than to an immigrant’s. Despite my assertion—to myself and to others— that I was a voluntary immigrant, I have been treated as an exile by the Chinese government. Exile has become a reality in my life, whether I acknowledge it or not.
The Chinese government has even taken advantage of these fluid identities in their tactics. On the one hand, they have forbidden me to set foot in my native land, treating me as an exile, so that my work might lose vitality. On the other, they have also publically labeled me as a pure immigrant so that they can diminish my writings to Chinese readers as the works by an American author who no longer has anything to do with China. My identity has thus never been fixed in the public perception.
Now I can see why Milosz and Nabokov remained flexible about their displaced identities. Each had to adapt to his unique circumstances in order to carve out a manageable artistic and political life. I have no choice, ultimately, but to accept myself as both an immigrant and an exile.
Awkward though it may be, it enables me to fuse my past and my present. If I’m capable and lucky, I can write about both America and China with a deeper and broader perspective as a first-generation immigrant. I can also view both societies with the skeptical eye of an exile. Of course I will have to be content to exist in the margin, forever displaced.