Sunday, December 29, 2013

Can a woman be in exile?

The Pacific Ocean outside San Francisco in December 2013.

The title of this blog entry is a question, “Can a woman be in exile?”, and should be accompanied by a subheading: A third of my life lived abroad. In December 2013 I am 28 and a half years old. I moved abroad in August 2004, to Russia, when I was nineteen. Half of nineteen is 9,5 years. In December 2013 I have lived abroad a third of my life – which is currently 9,5 years. I thought about this month of this year and what it signifies many times and many years before it came to be – before now became December 2013. What does it mean to live a third of life outside of the state which represents one’s native country? How does it affect us, how does it change us, and what can we take away from it? The experience of the expatriate is by no means uncommon in today’s globalized society, and yet few, perhaps only the minority, remain abroad for as long – and as interrupted – as I have. Unless you live in exile; unless you have been banished from your native society and your homeland. “Exile” is one of the components in primary texts for my major field in Russian literature – the other is “imprisonment.” Both exile and imprisonment stand in opposition to one and the same common concept: the concept of home, of being at home. Without a notion of home one cannot experience imprisonment as detachment and without a notion of homeland one cannot relate to exile as displacement. Reading my way through the primary texts on my list as well as through critical works [academic articles, chapters in scholarly books, etc.], I have found myself face to face with a problematic question: Can a woman be in exile? It seems at first an inconsequential question. Of course a woman may be banished from her native country in the same way as a man; also she can be ordered to leave and find herself lacking the possibility of return for political, social, religious, or ethnic reasons. In the physical meaning of “exile” the answer to my problematic question seems to be yes, why not? However, there are theoretical circumstances which complicate such a simple answer. While I was reading critical works about Ibsen’s plays – plays which problematize the institution of the bourgeois home and the position of the female within this institution – I came across a very interesting point of view: “Woman is place.” This point of view was supported by evidence of men’s spatial freedom and how men are not only allowed but even required to embrace movement in and out of the home, a movement only made possible and meaningful as long as there is a woman who embodies the place which the man can move either away from or back into. Ibsen’s family home which becomes the fragile stage for social ruptures and internal fragmentation occurring in contemporary society toward the late nineteenth century is the space of modernism from which familial constructions – or lack thereof – departs out into the twentieth century. If woman remains place she cannot be in exile for exile would then require that she was exiled from herself and this almost fantastical out-of-body experience is not one many can claim to have experienced first-hand. What the seemingly innocent statement “woman is place” reveals about the way we think about exile is first and foremost that the discourse on exile as it stands today is extremely gendered.

Woman is place. It would perhaps seem that I was now going to go ahead and disagree with this statement but I don’t think I can. It seems to me that this statement is close to correct, and that there is indeed something gendered about the experience of exile. We can of course talk about equality until our tongues grow numb and defend non-traditional lifestyles and non-traditional familial constructions until we realize that we are trying to paint everything that is seen as non-traditional into a very traditional corner. I would like to say something else. When it comes to exile there are differences between men and women and I think they are partly socially constructed and partially physiologically determined. Woman is literally place as the vessel for future generations through childbirth. Men lack this opportunity to harbor their offspring and in addition a man can never be sure whether or not his children are truly his. In this way the man is cut off from genealogy, and genealogy is another way to sense one’s belonging in a line of heritage which in itself is a kind of place. Or at least a kind of trace which points in the direction of the coveted home. The only way for a man to experience this kind of belonging is through the woman, who thus becomes his place. I read a very interesting article about Sinyavsky’s camp narrative A Voice from the Chorus which discusses the narrator’s exile from three perspectives: 1) exile from the woman (“woman” is here synonymous with “home and family”); 2) exile from the Word (literature in the broad sense but in a more narrow sense it means sacred texts and their implementations in human life through religious rituals); and 3) exile from the Face of God. Through his letters home – sent to his wife who embodies this home – Sinyavsky’s narrator tries to overcome his exile from the Word and from the Face of God through the practice of kenosis, “emptying of oneself for God.” What is most interesting about this argument is that the woman, the wife and the mother of his child, is never seen as anything but a static concept. She lacks dynamism. She does not change. She remains in her place to receive his attempts at coming closer to the Word and to the Face of God, thus signifying a harbor or maybe a safe haven where time does not interfere. Through this view woman has only one dimension – space – but lacks a temporal quality. One could leave this argument as it is and not think about it anymore, but I think it opens up for several crucial questions, for example: What notion of woman is here implied, even necessary, to make the claim for the male narrator’s experience of exile? His biggest exile is from the woman. Could we, in a similar manner, claim a woman’s biggest exile to be from the man? This questions makes everything complicated because there are very few examples of this – this being a narrative by a woman in exile – through which we may be able to illustrate a parallel phenomenon.

Woman is place. I have only three primary texts which I can use to explore a possible answer to my own questions: Evgenia Ginzburg, Nina Gagen-Torn, and Nadezhda Mandel’shtam. Nadezhda Mandel’shtam wrote her work Hope against Hope about exile, alas, this exile was not hers but her husband’s – Osip Mandel’shtam. We can thus not use her narrative further here because neither she nor her husband experienced exile from each other [at least not in the segment of her life which is narrated; they were later separated but this may more rightly be seen as a narrative by the wife of a prisoner and not specifically as a narrative of exile]. When we approach Ginzburg and Gagen-torn we get the chance to observe a striking similarity between the two: they exclude their husbands from the narrative. They are not even reduced to shadows in the background; they are almost completely erased from the life story as it stands. Gagen-Torn includes an awkward scene of a romantic moment between her and her husband in the beginning but leaves this sentimental trope and does not return to it, not even to comment upon whether or not they got divorced or what happened to him. He is absent. She is not exiled from him; hers is an exile of her own. Ginzburg mentions a family home in Kazan and the reader can guess that she had at least two previous husbands – because her two sons have different last names and none of them are Ginzburg – but the husband vanishes only to return in a footnote toward the end when she has found a new man to love [I think the footnote in questions reveals their divorce but I’m not sure]. Neither Ginzburg, we may thus conclude, experienced her exile as an exile from her husband. Rather they were both exiled from the Word and from the Face of God. Or were they? Here once again it is necessary to remind ourselves of the opposite to exile – being at home. Gagen-Torn is visited by her daughters while in the camp and it appears as if they come to her because she as their mother signifies a home. Upon her release from the camp Ginzburg is joined by one of her sons in Magadan and she later adopts a little girl to join her family. In this way Ginzburg seems to indicate that she is place, as is Gagen-Torn, because only where there is place can one raise children. I do not know of any male Gulag narratives in which the narrator adopts children or sends for their biological children to join them in exile after they were released from the camps. Maybe I don’t know everything – but then again nobody can know everything – but it seems to me that the facts described above hints at a fundamental difference between the male and the female experience of exile. Gagen-Torn also writes about how female prisoners would hang up curtains in the barracks and how they would decorate their new “home” with various fabrics. I have not yet read about any male prisoners doing something similar. When Ginzburg sees herself in the mirror for the first time after several years in prison – stopping on the way to the camps of Kolyma – she writes that she could only recognize her mother in her own image. I do not know of any male survivor writing that he saw himself after months of starvation and thought he looked like his father. Ginzburg’s comment gestures toward genealogy, toward the ability to perceive oneself not only as an individual but as a linkage between generations, as a trace through history. If you see yourself as containing a trace of history – as resembling your mother – in the mirror of a camp bathhouse on the way to several years of uncertain existence, can you really access “exile” as it is described by scholars of today? To me it seems that neither Gagen-Torn nor Ginzburg were exiled in the same way as their male counterparts – although exiled in the physical sense of the word – because they carried with them a sense of belonging to oneself and to one’s heritage which was contained within their bodies. Perhaps it all boils down to the normal physiological difference between men and women: men cannot bear children but women can. Can you be without place when you know that you can contain another human life within your body for nine months? Are you not then place in and of yourself? Would it be a bad thing if the discourse on exile is gendered and only covers the male experience? Probably not. But I think we should be aware of what we’re talking about before we get too deep into the discussion.

Woman is place. During my first year in California I had a curious conversation with a man who like me had spent his adult life outside of his native region. He still referred to the town where he had been born as “home.” He asked me what I thought about this for myself and my life. “Home is where I live,” I said, “which means that now home is here.” In every sense of the word this is not exactly true. I still regard Sweden as my home, but I have also made sure to make a home for myself wherever I have lived. Last week, when I was preparing the apartment for the arrival of my fiancé and his father, I made it a home. My fiancé has lived in the same apartment for several years before I came but I was the first to make it a home. A home is a place to where you can return. A home is not simply a space where you keep all of your things. A home is a place on the map on which you can put your fingertip and instantly know how to get there and who – including what – awaits you when you get there. I think that for my fiancé I have become his place. And I do not mind. I don’t think this is something we as women should fight. Maybe because we can be our own place just as much as we can be the place for someone else.


A third of my life I have lived abroad and not one single day did I live in exile. Not even in self-imposed exile. I carried everything with me. I was at home everywhere while I was a foreigner everywhere. Maybe because I’m a woman – maybe because that’s just me. 

3 comments:

Elin J said...
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Elin J said...

Interesting reflection!

However, I think it's problematic to regard all women as "place", instead of just interpreting Ibsens women as "place". I also think it's dangerous to ascribe this role to a woman based on a biological point, as it kind of reduces women to their reproductive organs.
In terms of women being "places" or "mobile", I think it's important to look back at the beatnik-movement, a movement often romanticized by men - the vagabond lifestyle in general has been a romanticized by men for hundreds of years. And often, beatnik-writers are asked the question: "Why were there so few beatnik women?".

Thing is, there weren't few women in the movement. There were lots, BUT, as women are seen as "places", the common view of beatnik women (who broke from that mold) were that they were mad. They were institutionalized and treated for mental illness.
If a man wants to be root less - he's an intriguing vagabond. If a woman wants to be root less - strap her to a gurney.
In a way, I think letting women be defined as places instead of as an agent of will, you reduce her to letting things around her define her instead of her own actions. You reduce her to a partner, to whom one may return. You reduce her to mother, a person children will regard as home. None of these things are bad, per se, but I would hate for a clever girl, such as yourself, to be defined as a place to return to - instead of being defined as a force of thought, agency and will - as it is those things that took you across those great distances in the first place. It's not something that accidentaly happened to you - you made it happen. You chose this this path and made it possible.

No small feat, and something houses never accomplish.

Iulia Flame said...
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