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Three Expatriate Writers-
a Chinese, a Japanese
and an Afghan

Abdus Selim

“You're a stranger, destined to be a stranger for ever, you have no hometown, no country, no attachments, no family, and no burdens except paying your taxes,” writes Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian, a Chinese political refugee or expatriate writer. He adds, “You no longer need to take on any town as your hometown, nor any country as your country, nor any woman as your wife. …You have lost all memories, the past has been cut off once and for all.” Gao was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2000, the first Chinese ever to receive such an honour. Being a political dissident he had to leave People's Republic of China and settle in Paris, France. Gao now writes both in Chinese and in French but has he really lost all his memories by cutting off his past once and for all? I have doubts.

Gao Xingjian, Kazuo Ishiguro, Khaled Hosseini


I read Gao back in 2000 when he was awarded the Nobel Prize when I came to know he was essentially a playwright. Being a drama freak I have so far translated more than 20 plays into Bangla including Gao's Nocturnal Wanderer, all of which have been staged.

It is said that Gao's relationship with Beijing started to go downhill when he wrote the play Bi'an (The Other Shore) inspired by the European concept of freedom and individualism after he had visited Germany and France in 1985, and eventually in 1987 he had to go into exile in Franceluckily for him he learnt French language and literature in the Beijing Foreign Language Institutebeing convinced that his plays would never be allowed to be performed in China. His being an expatriate, in fact, has made him extraordinarily nostalgic can be proved from his writing of a play in 1989 called Taowang (Exile) set against the background of the Tiananmen incident of the same year. Another evidence of his nostalgic writing happens to be Duihua yu fanjie (Dialogue and Rebuttal), the play he wrote to express his love-hate relationship with Chinese language. To me the height of Gao's melancholic feelings resulting from his homesickness have perhaps been reflected in the words that I have quoted at the beginning of this essay.

I cannot exactly recollect when I read Kazuo Ishiguro, another expatriate writer from Japan, first. It was perhaps his The Remains of the Day, a novel written in 1989 that won the man Booker Prize the same year. I read the novel during the 1990s and frankly, it was not at all a pleasant reading for me and I was not persuaded to read any more of his literary works. I lost my appetite for Ishiguro mainly because, what Neel Mukherjee wrote in his review in The Times on the writer's very recently published collection of short stories Nocturnes, “... Kazuo Ishiguro is the undisputed genius of vagueness, threshold states and constantly shifting surfaces.”

As I mentioned, Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan. His parents migrated to Britain when he was five. Though like Gao Ishiguro too is an expatriate, his status as an immigrant is different from Gao. It was in fact Ishiguro's parents who migrated to England in 1960, and that too was not for any political reason. Ishiguro was brought up and educated in England and he had no nostalgic feelings for his birthplace Nagasaki, a historically famous place in Japan where one of the first atomic bombs was dropped during the Second World War. But I have an instinctive feeling Ishiguro implicitly suffered from a sad and very affectionate feeling for the past while writing his Booker Prize winning novel The Remains of the Day, for the very theme of the book “is set in post-war England, and tells the story of an elderly English butler confronting disillusionment as he recalls a life spent in service, memories viewed against a backdrop of war and the rise of Fascism.” After I read the above mentioned review of Nocturnes I once more got interested in Kazuo Ishiguro and after a long correspondence with an affectionate foreign link of mine I managed a copy of the book which is also subtitled ‘Five Stories of Music and Nightfall’. As usual the reading was tough for me although the writer explored ideas of love, music and the passing of time in his quintet of first-person narratives that Ishiguro termed as a unified, organic project from beginning to end. True that in none of the five stories he showed any feelings of nostalgia, faintly I tasted the flavour of typical English aristocratic boredom. But that does not mean Kazuo Ishiguro has no message to give us, ones that I instantly find very urgent and meaningful are those of man's failures and un-fulfillments of lives having to settle for second best. Perhaps this settling for second best is the result of being an expatriate or maybe in a broader sense, the inevitability of most human beings.

I read The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, an Afghan given asylum by the United States government, in 2004 and I liked him right away. There were three main reasons for that I: firstly, he wrote against religious fanaticism, secondly, he was extremely nostalgic, one of my favourite subjects and lastly, he never looked for re-rooting himself and did not enjoy living in the United States. My liking for Hosseini was reconfirmed when I read his second novel A Thousand Splendid Suns written in 2007. Hosseini himself said in one of his interviews that his writings link the intimate and personal with the broad and historical. No wonder when he is intimate and personal he feels sad and affectionate for the past, but when he is broad and historical he invites many to look beyond the post-9/11 stereotypes about his birth country.

All three expatriate writers -- Chinese, a Japanese and an Afghan-- are from the East. They have settled in three different countries of the world, Gao in France, Ishiguro in Britain and Hosseini in the United States. Except for Gao, the other two write in English. But somehow I have a feeling they all are typical products of the East overtly or covertly nostalgic, very sensitive to lives of men, their relationships and existence, and perhaps most of all, man's not being able to have a consummate life on this earth. But there is also diversity among them; Gao is trying to find a new home in Paris, Ishiguro has immersed himself into English culture and Hosseini cannot get out of his homesickness.

Abdus Selim is Assistant Professor, English Department, North South University.


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