Book review: 'One-Way Tickets: Writers and the Culture of Exile'

For leading modern artists — James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, George Balanchine — abandoning home seemed a prerequisite for excellence. But exile did not begin with Victor Hugo railing against the tyranny of Napoleon III from the safety of England’s gloom. Jeremiah wept by the waters of Babylon, singing the Lord’s song in a foreign land. Banished by Augustus from imperial Rome, Ovid wrote plangent poetry bemoaning his expulsion to the barbarous Black Sea.

“We are everywhere,” proclaims Alicia Borinsky, author of One-Way Tickets: Writers and the Culture of Exile, counting herself among the displaced of history. Born in Buenos Aires to Jews from Eastern Europe, Borinsky, a poet, novelist, and critic, lives in Boston. Despite mention of her relocation to New York during Argentina’s “Dirty War,” One-Way Tickets is not a memoir. Nor is it a systematic history of literary exile, nor a focused reflection, like Ha Jin’s 2008 book The Writer as Migrant. Instead, Borinsky offers anecdotal remarks on literary exiles she has met or feels some kinship with. They include fellow displaced Argentine Julio Cortázar, as well as Russian-born Vladimir Nabokov, Ukrainian-born Clarice Lispector, Polish-born Isaac Bashevis Singer, Dominican-born Jean Rhys, and Cuban-born Reinaldo Arenas. Most vivid is her profile of Witold Gombrowicz, the Polish émigré who swaggered into Buenos Aires cafés reveling in his detachment from the locals. Thomas Mann, Salman Rushdie, J. M. Coetzee, and Richard Wright are absent from the book, though Oscar Hijuelos, a native and resident of the United States, is included. So are the tango and Eva Perón, despite their tenuous connection to exile.

One-Way Tickets makes scant distinction among exiles, immigrants, expatriates, and refugees. Its quirky divagations lack a clear argument, except that exiles are “ill at ease,” a term not easily translated into most mother tongues. If, as Borinsky notes, death is “the ultimate one-way ticket,” we are all exiles.  

In the decade since its revival, Trinity University Press has maintained a delicate balance between the local and the global. One-Way Tickets is a cosmopolitan contribution to the list.

One-Way Tickets: Writers and the Culture of Exile

By Alicia Borinsky

Trinity University Press

$24.95, 230 pages

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