The Roots of the Banyan Tree

By Depestre, Rene | UNESCO Courier, October 1996 | Go to article overview
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The Roots of the Banyan Tree

Depestre, Rene, UNESCO Courier

A wanderer who found himself at home in exile

Does the idea of exile that our civilizations share with Antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the baroque, classical and romantic eras, make any sense in the age of the Internet?

In the past, exiles were people who were wrenched from their native soil and cut off from their childhood and mother tongue, and experienced the heartache of mourning and nostalgia in a foreign land. Exile was regarded by the political authorities as a public punishment and civic death. It was a tool of the penal code which forced individuals to leave their homeland (or their adopted home) and forbade them to set foot there again. Their appetite for life and their integrity as citizens soured into an endless season of bitterness and distress as their uprooting became an incurable disease. Excluded by historical forces from the land of their birth, scarred and humiliated by the loss of their roots, exiles were non-persons whose lives were totally absorbed in the desperate quest for paradise lost.

Today we have a broader perception of the world. The alchemy of exchange and the proliferation of contacts between civilizations are accelerating as never before. The witchcraft of fundamentalist dogmas, the flotsam and jetsam of sects, mental impoverishment - the various forms of barbarity that now flourish are doomed to fail because of the cross-fertilization of values and approaches which is everywhere gaining ground in the relations between the planet's people, fields of knowledge and commercial activities.

Such a decisive change, such an enlargement of the scale of our experiences, invite us to take a fresh look at the concept of exile, together with most of the other traditional cultural landmarks that we regard as permanent fixtures. The process of globalization is bound to phase out the belief that only stay-at-homes have an identity. As people and goods move around at dizzying speed and ideas spread like wildfire from one civilization to another, the situation of the exile ceases to be cut-and-dried.

Irons in the fire

As for my own story, half a century after leaving Haiti in 1946, a lifetime's wandering has led me to find an original answer to the drama that exile can bring to a writer's life. Far from Jacmel, my native plot of West Indian soil, I have learned to stay firmly outside those closed pockets of ethnicity, those tensely inward-looking and backward-looking groups, that exiles of all kinds (and emigres in general) tend to form in their host societies. I have always been wary of the effects of group psychology and the nostalgic prickliness that hold back migrants' natural efforts to fit into the values of their adopted homes. Thanks to my insistence on keeping two irons in the fire, the sun of home (which I have lost), and the sun of abroad (which I have gained), I have managed spontaneously to be French in Paris, Brazilian in Sao Paulo, Czech in Prague, Italian in Milan and Cuban in Havana. These different roots, added to my Haitian heritage, have produced the selves, vibrant with all the world's poetry, that have prepared me to experience with joy and wisdom the age of multiple identity and cultural ubiquity that is knocking on our door.

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