Explorations of Exile, Bilingualism and Identity in the Autobiographical Works of Nancy Huston and Eva Hoffman

Essay, 2008

15 Pages, Grade: 2.0



The postmodern notions of exile and displacement are contested among scholars as their applications constantly undergo further transformation and modification. Especially the effects of globalization, including economic mass migration and other transnational population movements, have contributed to add a multiplicity of variations to their original denotation. Whilst in Greco-Roman Antiquity exile was coined as label for an individual banishment from a centre of civilization, in a postmodern context it refers to both a voluntary or involuntary human condition. Yet, beyond doubt, one must clearly distinguish between the different exilic experiences of various groups such as refugees, expatriates, émigrés, emigrants and so on because they differ in modalities and circumstances: it is obvious that enforced political displacement under harsh conditions and to an undesired place has a much more traumatic impact on self- identity than, for example, a planned migration for economic reasons. Yet exile was never a unitary category as it can refer to specific social and political conditions. Even though it is often used as an umbrella term, the motivations or direct causes to leave one’s country of origin can be as manifold as the various exilic realities in the host countries. Still, what all exiles have in common is the fact that they leave behind their home country in exchange for a life abroad. Nevertheless, in this context there are two questions that are crucial: has the exile chosen to leave or was s/he forced to do so? And is s/he part of a safety net or does s/he come to the host country unprotected? (Hoffman, 1999: 40)

Notwithstanding the complexity of the term exile, this analysis will primarily focus on the exilic experiences of Nancy Huston and Eva Hoffman as represented in their autobiographical works. Huston, on the one hand, left Canada in her early twenties to live in Paris where she partook in a University exchange program. Once in Europe, she never returned to live in Canada again and subsequently published over 25 novels as well as various other texts and articles of which the majority was written in French. “Losing North” is a collection of autobiographically inspired essays on the topics of exile, bilingualism and identity that gives an abstract account of Huston’s voluntary exile and her self- observation as a foreigner in France. Hoffman’s memoir, “Lost in Translation”, on the other hand, records the 1959 immigration of Hoffman's Polish-Jewish family to Vancouver and their struggle to establish themselves in America. In her account Hoffman carefully depicts how she “translates” her Polish childhood and early adolescence into an English adult identity. In contrast to Huston’s case, Hoffman’s exile was not her own choice but that of her parents who felt the hostility towards Polish Jews emerging during this phase of Communist rule in the war-ravaged, impoverished Poland. On the face of it their individual motivations and reasons for a life in exile appear quite dissimilar, and yet the two authors will come to share essential perspectives and observations reflecting on the impact exile had on their individual lifelines.

Indeed, the kind of exile the two authors have experienced in their lives can be stated as surpassingly privileged, some scholars might even argue they can’t be called ‘true exiles’. However, due to the process of globalization, cross- cultural movements are more common than they used to be resulting in redefined notions of home and exile. Hoffman even claims advanced means of travel and communication have made the phenomenon the norm rather than the exception, usually involving an element of voluntarism (Hoffman, 1999: 42). This argumentation suggests a shift of meaning, away from the term’s perception as mere political expulsion or banishment to a global phenomenon of transnational movement. Consequently, this discourse aims at the analysis of “metaphorical” exile or alienation through displacement as a postmodern human condition and it will intentionally avoid the political side of it while still acknowledging its tremendous scope. Instead, a comparison of the two author’s lifelines, their transnational experiences and their psychological predicaments in exile will demonstrate the critical and creative role that migration, exile and displacement have played in their personal development and achievements as contemporary writers.


The concept of exile is based on the assumption that an individual belongs to a place and/or a community, and that this sense of ‘original context’ to a certain extent constitutes self-identity. Losing home or the deprivation of this ideal sense of belonging is an experience Eva Hoffman undergoes as a young adolescent when she is forced to leave “Cracow, which is to [her] both home and the universe” (Hoffman, 1989: 5). Even though Hoffman was born only two months after the end of WWII her childhood home appears much protected and in order. This is due to her parents wanting ‘something better’ for their offspring, especially for Eva who is “clever and talented” (Hoffman, 1989: 15). Retrospectively, she will highlight V.S. Naipaul’s thesis of the two kinds of homes in the life of an individual: firstly and most importantly, there is the childhood home which is equal to one’s origin and is given and nonexchangeable. Secondly, there is the home of our adulthood, an abstract an individual chooses to create. Yet, the arrival at this hard-earned, achieved space of belonging is a gradual one and the notion of it being temporary is omnipresent (Hoffman, 1999: 58) Indeed, Hoffman clearly expresses her attachment to Poland as her place of origin when she refers to it as “the country of [her] childhood [that] lives in [her] with a primacy that is a form of love. [..] All it has given [her] is the world, but that is enough” (Hoffman, 1989: 74-75). Consequently, she feels alienated and lost when she arrives in America after emigrating from Poland.

Still, her already shaky sense of identity is completely weakened when she comes to know her name will be pronounced and spelled differently in English. Hoffman recalls “these new appellations, which we ourselves [couldn’t] yet pronounce, [were] not us [...] they [made] us strangers to ourselves” (Hoffman, 1989: 105). Moreover, she feels “less attractive, less graceful, less desirable (Hoffman, 1989: 109)” after the passage because she has been uprooted involuntarily and needs to renegotiate her self-identity as a consequence. Said (2000: 177) argues “in a very acute sense exile is a solitude experienced outside the group: the deprivations felt at not being with others in the communal habitation. […] Exiles are cut off from their roots, their land, their past.” It is Hoffman’s search for a new adolescent identity and her need to integrate that leave her feeling like an “off-centered person who wants both to be taken in and to fend off the threatening others” (Hoffman, 1989: 110). Her loss of her home country and familiar environment produces a feeling of “disadvantage and inferiority” (Hoffman, 1989: 114) towards her new surrounding. In the English context she seems to have lost ‘polot’, loosely translatable as ‘panache’, a quality most admired in Polish culture and “a word that combines the meanings of dash, inspiration, and flying”:

“I am enraged at the false persona that I am being stuffed into, as into some clumsy and overblown astronaut suit. I am enraged at my adolescent friends because they can’t see through the guise, can’t recognize the light-footed dancer I really am” (Hoffman, 1989: 119).

Yet, Hoffman’s sense of dislocation and estrangement is a pattern typical for exiles. Kristeva even pictures the exilic experience as “a moving train, a plane in flight, the very transition that precludes stopping. As to landmarks, there are none” (Kristeva, 1991: 8).

Unlike Hoffman, Nancy Huston’s self-analysis regarding the wherefores of her voluntary exile is rather pragmatic and she clearly distinguishes her own case from that of people who leave their home country due to coercive political or economic factors:

“No bombs. No persecution, no oppression […] no danger driving me into exile, forcing me to flee, shoving a foreign language, culture or country down my throat. No, I am privileged; these things must be clearly announced from the beginning” (Huston, 1995: 231).


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Explorations of Exile, Bilingualism and Identity in the Autobiographical Works of Nancy Huston and Eva Hoffman
University of Southampton  (School of Humanities)
Cultural Flows
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Identity, Autobiography, Bilingual Authors, Exile
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Kathrin Marisa Leimig (Author), 2008, Explorations of Exile, Bilingualism and Identity in the Autobiographical Works of Nancy Huston and Eva Hoffman, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/167447


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