By Mónica Jato, University of Birmingham

In his landmark The Anatomy of Exile (1972: 27), Paul Tabori defined as an exile ‘a person compelled to leave or remain outside [their] country of origin on account of well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality or political opinion [and sexuality, we might add]; a person who considers [their] exile temporary (even if it may last a lifetime), hoping to return to [their] fatherland when circumstances permit […].’ His definition encapsulated two distinct elements that were to shape work in the field of Exile Studies in the next decades: on the one hand, the historical and material grounds that made exile compulsory for those individuals or communities whose safety was threatened and, on the other, the perception of exile as transitory and of eventual return as either an impossibility or a feature project. But far from being a stable concept, as presented in Tabori’s remarks, ‘exile’ is full of contradictions and tensions, multiple nuances and dimensions. Two main factors might have contributed to this trend. Firstly, the fact that the word ‘exile’ belongs to the same constellation of terms as ‘refugee,’ ‘asylum seeker,’ ‘migrant,’ ‘displaced people.’ Adding more confusion to this convoluted semantic field, some refugees do not consider themselves ‘exiles.’ Why? Perhaps, as Luisa H. Malkki (1995: 513) states, because the latter connotes a readily aestheticizable realm or, in Edward Said’s words, ‘a touch of solitude and spirituality’ (2000: 181), whereas the former suggests a bureaucreatic and international humanitarian realm. As a second factor, and despite being one of the most painful human experiences, ‘exile’ is an increasingly popular phenomenon these days, based on its seductive figurative dimension, which turns it into a theoretical and analytical tool. Furthermore, the term’s appropriation by postmodernism has emptied it of political meaning and content, reinforcing the tendency to conceive exile as a trope and to popularize the image of the alienated or marginalized intellectual. So where does this leave us? It seems that ‘exile’ is in its element when it enters the perilous waters of dualities: individual-community, local-universal, dependency-freedom, native-alien, history-metaphor, inner-outer. Is there a way to come up with an encompassing definition that embraces its metaphorical dimension while, at the same time, not undermining its historical and material anchoring? Maybe one must conclude that is not desirable to restrict it to a list of characteristics that fix its meaning. For this reason, Sophia McClennen’s approach seems the most appropriate to tackle the problem (McClennen 2004). Her main argument consists of examining, instead of a list of mutually exclusive binaries, the dialectical tensions that revolve around the four essential components of the exile condition: nation, time, language, and space. To do this, she borrows from Hegelian dialectics ‘the interpenetration (unity) of opposites,’ and from Friedrich Engels and his ‘The Science of Dialectics’ she takes the idea of ‘process,’ denoting the unstable and indeterminate nature of cultural production in exile. From these philosophical foundations, it makes no sense to speak of a cultural identity in exile based on a series of exclusive binaries.

(Adapted from Mónica Jato and John Klapper, Fractured Frontiers: The Exile Writing of Nazi Germany and Francoist Spain. Camden House, 2020, pp. 48-54)


Malkki, Luisa H., ‘Refugees and Exile: From “Refugees Studies” to the National Order of Things.’ Annual Review of Anthropology 24 (1995): 495-523.

McClennen, Sophia, The Dialectics of Exile: Nation, Time, Language, and Space in Hispanic Literatures (Purdue University Press, 2004).

Said, Edward, Reflections on Exile and Other Literary and Cultural Essays (Granta Books, 2001).

Tabori, Paul, The Anatomy of Exile: A Semantic and Historical Approach (Harrap, 1972).

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