cover image Letters of Transit: Reflections on Exile, Identity, Language, and Loss

Letters of Transit: Reflections on Exile, Identity, Language, and Loss

Charles Simic, Edward W. Said. New Press, $18.95 (135pp) ISBN 978-1-56584-504-6

The five distinguished contributors to this volume agree that a homeland tends to be a nostalgic, imaginary place, not a real one, and that the home once lost can never be recovered. They also share a penchant for classifying the minute differences between refugees, exiles, immigrants and expatriates. Novelist Bharati Mukherjee adds another term: the assimilationist ""mongrelizer"" such as herself, who happily submerges oneself in a melting pot, while nonetheless retaining a sense of ethnic pride. Poet Charles Simic, originally from Belgrade, rejects the idea that exile or displacement means the permanent loss of any sense of home: he fell dizzyingly in love with his new country, and is amusing about his early attempts to assimilate--wearing ""jeans, Hawaiian shirts, cowboy belts."" Aciman beautifully captures the role that imagination plays in one's experience of ""home"" by exploring how a tiny park in a traffic island on the Upper West Side of Manhattan came to powerfully evoke the cities of Europe for him. Eva Hoffman's essay on the ""new nomads"" of the information age is the most theoretical and least satisfying piece. The real heart of the collection is Columbia professor Edward Said's memoir, inspired when ""an ugly medical diagnosis suddenly revealed the mortality I should have known about before."" His experience of receiving a colonial education just as the colonial system crumbled, of loving the world opened to him in his education while being stung by teachers' constant invocations of his difference, is moving, deeply introspective and honest. (May)