The Spectrum of Choice in Narratives of Migration and Exile

My response piece for the workshop with Zoë Wicomb:

The Spectrum of Choice in Narratives of Migration and Exile 

6 May 2015

The word migration is often modified by the word voluntary or involuntary, especially in the sociological literature on the subject. I am not a sociologist yet the binary concept of voluntary or involuntary bears weight on my current cultural and literary standpoint, in the middle of writing a chapter on displaced Cuban communities in Florida and the writers representing a diaspora. The literature describes a people in exile, forever reaching for “el alla” and toasting to an imminant or imagined return with “next year in Cuba,” an expression that happens to be the title of Gustavo Perez-Firmat’s memoir, the well-known theorist of Cuban-American hyphenated life. Perez-Firmat and others encapsulated in theory and poetry the expression “life on the hyphen” and “nostalgia discourse,” phrases that capture a sense of loss and longing akin to trauma. Yet, another critic of Cuban identity and migration to the United States stated that before we address issues within expressions of exile and nostalgia we must remember that Cubans migrated by choice, they were not forced. Thus, there is always a tension within the writing of the Cuban diaspora on the issue of voluntary migration, even if it is not directly addressed, there is always the specter of economic opportunism that haunts the narrative. Many of the Cuban-American writers came as children, they inherited their parents’ exile. In the poem “History as a Second Language,” Dionoso Martinez claims that the inheritance of exile made a generation “experts in the mechanics of things we never learned to name.” Martinez, like others, embark on a futile exploration, a self-reflection in an fun-house mirror. The question this leaves for me is this: to what extent are the words “choice” or “voluntary” useful demarcation of the migrant experience? Does their limitation cloud our understanding of exilic narratives?

The pain that demarcates the sense of longing and nostalgia in Cuban-American writing parallels the Argentines that fled for their lives and write from Canada, or in the case of Roberto Bolaño, from Chile to Mexico and Spain, to flee a dictator and save his life. And yet, despite the dire conditions in which he fled, he approaches exile with the flexibility that it is always a choice:

“Probably all of us, writers and readers alike, set out into exile, or at least a certain kind of exile, when we leave childhood behind. Which would lead to the conclusion that the exiled person or the category of exile doesn’t exist, especially in regards to literature. The immigrant, the nomad, the traveler, the sleepwalker all exist, but not the exile, since every writer becomes an exile simply by venturing into literature, and every reader becomes an exile simply by opening a book” (Bolaño, Exiles).

The writing of the people who choose to leave, like those fleeing communism in Cuba is as saturated with sadness and guilt as those who had no choice, like those fleeing the Holocaust. I do not want to deflate the status of the refugee, their’s is a struggle unable to be fully understood by those that have not experienced it. Just simply that commonalities in expression and in poetry, the re-creation of a lost home space, means that there is more to the experience than the impetus to leave. There is more than choice, not-choice. I want to have a new understanding of the words/concepts choice and decision. I immediately think of all the gray areas, Operation Pedro Pan where parents sent their children to be orphaned in the United States based on a rumor that the Cuban government would send them to boarding schools in the USSR, or perhaps black artists and civil rights activists forced to live in exile from being unfairly hunted by the FBI or simply because daily living in the United States was impossible. When we consider those bodies of people who cannot achieve full citizenship or humanity in their home country, and are compelled to leave so they can exist it blurs the boundaries of choice. The nuance emerges between the verb compound to live versus to have a life.

This nuance appears in my personal history. My mother left a comfortable middle-class life in Colombia in the 1970s because she won a visa lottery. She “chose” a path where every decision going forward would have the gravity of one whose survival instincts are operating at full height. Her two sisters and a couple of cousins followed– all women in a family of many males I joke you not. I never understood why the three women who raised me gave up their degrees, their social positions, and their assuredness for a world where assumption would work against them. Everything that ever happened to me and my cousins was filtered through a framework that started with “Well, in Colombia…” and ended with something that, to them, made more logical sense. Then as I got older and started reading about a different Colombia, I realized the power of fiction, of spherical representation of place. They have this watershed moment they speak of, the moment they realized that they would never return to live in Colombia. There is a sadness in these moments that produce that second generation guilt among my cousins as we inherit narratives like specks in or eyes or a streak of gray hair, what Carolina Hospital aptly calls, “second-hand memories.” They chose to come to the United States…I think. They have to believe it was an artless, privileged decision because if it wasn’t, their bright and shiny sphere collapses. Like Atlas, I inherited the burden of this sphere and, in the same posture, I can’t see what it is I am holding up.

I personally know an anthropologist working with migrants in Italy and Tunisia. When she describes the migrants she is careful to note that not all of them fit the category of refugee, what emerges in out mind when we picture people on a flimsy boat in the mediterranian. Many of the migrants come from somewhat decent conditions back in their home country. Similar those coming from Cuba, we have a tendence to flatten out migrants, not realizing that the person being stereotyped could have a university degree. Many of the migrants she works with come from families that have money and resources, so that they can afford to make the journey. It is something misunderstood and perhaps even unimaginable to those who are assured their visa will be granted, who have the human right of mobility. They chose to migrate for the experience; because they are from disreputable places they must take alternative routes to do so. And before they go home, they have to get there several months worth of the world. I asked her why they would risk their lives and a prison sentence and all their money to do this. She replied that it is because there is nothing to do for many of them back home. Many of them are acting on the desire that comes from boredom, but not boredom in the privileged Westerner sense. Boredom that comes from an emptiness in youth, lack of fulfillment in job, career, provisions that result in a feeling of humanity.

Science has finally caught up to poetry. Behavioral epigenetics tells us that trauma passes itself down in a strangely Lamarcan way through generations. We inherit the anxiety of our those who came before us as something called methyl groups wrap or unwrap certain genetic strands giving us our parents and grandparents fears, or rather, their reactions to fear. This set of heightened awareness, what therapists might call neurosis, come from a set of survival skills that the nest generation might not need, but somehow belongs to them. It is now a scientific reality that I could inherit feelings, or pain, that I know nothing about—simply because transcription is being blocked. The past, these experiences are never biologically transcribed and then we live with that lack of transcription, the inability to understand the feelings being expressed in the body. Does this also apply to a nostalgic longing for place? I did not make the choice to migrate to the United States, but perhaps I am a migrant by default. As behavior genetics intersects with psychology, I wonder what is the place of criticism in understanding second generation narratives of exile and whether or not their inherited expressions of collective longing exist independent of the sociological categories voluntary or involuntary.


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