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Letters of Transit: Reflections on Exile, Identity, Language, and Loss
"A thoughtful and diverse collection with a distinctly literary bent."--Kirkus Reviews
The award-winning writers included in this collection of essays originally delivered in The New York Public Library's lecture series "Letters of Transit" have all written powerfully on exile, home, and memory. Now, in these essays, they offer moving meditations on these themes. André Aciman traces his migration from his home in Egypt to Italy, France, and the United States and compares his own transience with the unrootedness of many moderns. Eva Hoffman examines the crucial role of language and what happens when your first is lost. Returning to the political themes of his earlier work, Edward Said offers a personal exploration of his conflicting allegiances. Novelist Bharati Mukherjee analyzes her own struggle with assimilation. Finally, Charles Simic remembers the comedy of bureaucracy he experienced as a sixteen-year-old "displaced person" in Paris after the war, and his thwarted attempts at "fitting in" in America. Letters of Transit is a wonderful introduction to the works of these extraordinary writers.
From Kirkus Reviews:
"In these distinct and forthcoming original essays, five prominent writers offer their meditations on exile and memory. The authors represented in Aciman's (Out of Egypt: A Memoir, 1995) collection are a varied lot, a not atypical sampling of men and women who have found their way to the US from around the world: Aciman, an Alexandrian in exile via Paris; Eva Hoffman, a Pole in exile via Canada; Bharati Mukherjee, a Bengali in Berkeley; Edward Said, a Palestinian exile via Egypt; and Charles Simic, a Yugoslav exile of 1945 vintage. These voices of exile are unusually eloquent ones. All five authors are non-native speakers who write professionally in English. For them, the common duality and instability of exile are heightened by the very nature of their work. Aciman puts it well: 'their words . . . are the priceless buoys with which they try to stay afloat both as professional thinkers and human beings.'
"The five essays differ in tone and style. The collection begins with Aciman's lyrical and imaginative essay on a park in New York that reminds him of the places of his past, or his 'shadow cities,' and reaches its gravest moments in the heavy seriousness of Said's reflections on his professional and personal journey in America, with frequent references to Adorno. Hoffman examines the contradictions inherent in nomadism and diasporism, referring to her own life and those of other East European literary figures such as Nabokov, Kundera, Milosz, and Brodsky. Mukherjee, coming from a different perspective, writes about the process of immigration in the US as 'the stage, and the battleground, for the most exciting dramas of our time.' Aciman made the right choice in closing with Simic's poem 'Cameo Appearance' and his droll essay on his youthful exile and on the speed with which exile teaches the arbitrary nature of an individual's existence.
"A beautifully written collection of essays by five distinguished authors. . . . Readers will be moved, delighted, and finally enraptured by the powerful theme of exile and memory, the great leitmotif of the twentieth century."
--JAMES CHACE, Bard College, author of Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the World
"Letters of Transit collects five lucid and moving meditations on the theme of exile. All of the contributors eloquently trace the loss as well as the partial compensations of refashioning themselves in another language and culture. `The personal is the political' is one of our era's most dubious catchphrases; but as these personal essays show, in the experience of exile, it is given a wholly different and darker inflection."
--MICHAEL ANDRÉ BERNSTEIN, UC, Berkeley, author of Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History
"Here, in these searching essays, is the modern Odyssey of exile, less optimistic than Homer's, yet strangely Homeric, too. Like Odysseus, each of these writers can lay claim to a home by telling a personal story well, even if that home and the language of the story has been borrowed. These letters of transit are naturalization papers, replete with adventure, eloquent and brave."
--ROBERT FAGLES, Princeton University, translator of The Iliad and The Odyssey
"These reflective essays by writers working in exile, each moving in its own way, beautifully represent what must be a majority view among transplanted intellectuals: that one's first language constitutes one's person, one that no second language, no matter how thoroughly mastered, can ever fully replace. Happily these five professional authors complicate their case with the very brilliance of their contributions."
--PETER GAY, Yale University, author of My German Question and Freud: A Life for Our Time
"A rich collection that is utterly captivating all the way through, and, at every turn, enlightening."
--LYDIA DAVIS, author of End of the Story and Almost No Memory
About the writers included in Letters of Transit:
André Aciman is the author of Out of Egypt: A Memoir. He was born in Alexandria and lived in Egypt, Italy, and France. Educated at Harvard, he teaches at Bard College. He has written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, and Commentary, and is the recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is currently working on a novel entitled Over the Footbridge.
Eva Hoffman was born in Kraków, Poland, and immigrated to Vancouver, Canada, at the age of thirteen. Educated at Harvard, she worked at The New York Times and has written widely on cultural and political subjects She is the author of the memoir Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language, for which she received the Academy of American Arts and Letters Jean Stein Award, and Exit into History: A Journey Through the New Eastern Europe. Her most recent book, Shtetl, was published in 1997, and received the Bronislaw Malinowski Social Science Award from the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences.
Bharati Mukherjee is the author of The Middleman and Other Stories, which won the National Book Critics' Circle Award, Jasmine, The Holder of the World, and most recently the novel Leave It to Me. She is the co-author with her husband, Clark Blaise, of Days and Nights in Calcutta, a journal of their year-long visit to India, and The Sorrow and the Terror. She is Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley.
Edward W. Said was University Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and an influential cultural critic, political commentator, and writer on music. Born in Jerusalem, he left Palestine during the turmoil that led up to the creation of the state of Israel. His books include Orientalism, The Question of Palestine, Musical Elaborations, and Culture and Imperialism.
Charles Simic is a highly regarded poet, translator, and teacher. A native of Yugoslavia, he spent his formative years in Belgrade during World War II, immigrating to the United States when he was sixteen. He has won numerous awards including the prestigious MacArthur Foundation genius grant and the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for The World Doesn't End. He is Professor of English at the University of New Hampshire.
140 pages. Published by The New Press, 1999.
Hardcover. $18.95. ISBN 1-56584-504-8.