Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Authenticity of the Expatriate Writer

I’m back in Israel after being gone two months, and am thinking about self-justification. Why write? Why write about this place?

There is the issue of authenticity. I am not Israeli (OK, I have an Israeli passport but that doesn't make me Israeli). I am not Jewish. I barely speak Hebrew. I will never be Israeli, Jewish, and the chances of my Hebrew improving to any significant degree are, well, slim to none. Here, I am the eternal outsider.

Yet, I believe my perspective is, if not unique, unusual.

Exile and expatriation are conditions that have existed since the beginnings of literature. Physical and psychic distance from one’s native country can give writers/artists perspectives they did not have before. Travelers often comment that they see their own country more clearly or gain new respect/disregard for aspects of their country from another. The Roman poet Ovid, exiled away from Rome, and James Joyce, who lived most of his working life outside Ireland, are two notable writerly examples.

So too, I believe, the alienation and dislocation often described by expatriates living for extended periods in foreign countries contributes to the creative process. Not only does the experience provide fodder for the imagination, but also the eye of the outsider is often one more likely to discern the strange and unusual in what to the native appears commonplace. Certainly some of the most interesting descriptions of the US have come from foreign visitors. From the 19th century, think of Alexis de Tocqueville’s De la democratie Amerique and Charles Dickens’ American Notes. From the 20th Century, think of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Poet in New York and Czeslaw Milosz’s Visions from San Francisco Bay.

I only hope my American eye, my poetry, is as discerning as it takes in the Israeli landscape, or at least on my small portion of it. 

I’ll add that I don’t think my poems reflect a perspective that is necessarily accurate, or at least not always. But my poems emanate from experiences uniquely mine and though filtered through the veil of my American upbringing, culture, prejudices, and religion, I have to believe they resonate, feel authentic, to those to whom I write, which largely means other Americans. 

I take comfort from the idea that sometimes the foreign perspective, at first illegitimate, later appears prescient. Milosz Csezlaw, dissident Lithuanian/Polish poet and exiled to California from 1960 wrote on America (always in Polish) widely. In a book of essays published in 1967 and only re-published in English twenty years later, Milosz wrote to his foreign audience: “the fact that America is still a country of the Bible has, and will continue to have, lasting consequences. . . . America is the legitimate heir to the Judeo-Christian civilization. Therefore, it was just and beautiful that the American astronauts flying over the surface of the moon addressed the inhabitants of Earth with an old message, the beginning of the Book of Genesis.” Fifty years ago, the statement inflamed America’s critics, both domestic and foreign, yet how uncomfortably familiar it seems today. 

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