Writers' conference in Paris ponders literature and exile

News Stories, 29 June 2011

© UNHCR/W.Spindler
Writers discuss the role of Paris as a city of refuge during a conference on exile and literature organised by the City Hall and UNHCR.

PARIS, France, June 29 (UNHCR) For hundreds of years, Paris has been a powerful magnet for writers. Although most have come here of their own accord, attracted by the city's reputation for intellectual and artistic excellence, for some the city has offered a refuge from persecution at home.

In the wake of World Refugee Day, and to mark the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention, UNHCR and the City of Paris organized a writers' conference entitled "Exile and Literature" in the grand setting of the "Salle des Arcades" in Paris' magnificent Hotel de Ville (City Hall).

Opening the conference on Monday, Deputy Mayor Pierre Schapira told the public, "Paris will always be on the side of freedom and human rights." The city recently joined the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), an association of 37 cities and regions around the world committed to offering persecuted writers a safe haven where they can live and work without fear of being censored or silenced.

"We have joined ICORN to allow writers to continue to create and to write, and for us it is essential that they do it here, in Paris," said Schapira.

"We appreciate the protection that ICORN gives to refugee writers," said Philippe Leclerc, UNHCR's representative in France, noting that "France, and Paris in particular, have for many decades received and accommodated a number of refugees and stateless persons who have developed their artistic work here and contributed to France's cultural legacy. A number of them have become French citizens, such as Joseph Kessel, Romain Gary and Eugène Ionesco, just to name a few."

Writers who took part in the conference included Congolese novelist Alain Mabanckou; Afghan Atiq Rahimi, winner of the prestigious Goncourt Literary Prize in 2009; Palestinian poet Elias Sanbar; "Persepolis" author Marjane Satrapi; Cuban writer Zoé Valdés; Egyptian-born Paula Jacques; and cartoonist Mana Neyestani, who has been welcomed by the city of Paris as the first participant under the ICORN programme.

For some of these writers, exile was a consequence of their literary activities, as they fell foul of the powerful or became victims of intolerance in their own countries because of what they wrote. For others, the relationship between exile and literature is more complex, with exile becoming a theme, a source of inspiration or even a constant motif in their work.

"Exile makes you lose your world," said Palestinian poet Elias Sanbar, "but it can also make you discover the world… Exile can be generous."

Others have a more unambiguous view of the experience of exile. For Cuban novelist Zoé Valdés, "exile is not a gift, it is a pain, a sentence, a condemnation." Similarly, Iranian-born Marjane Satrapi, whose work "Persepolis" has been made into an award-winning animated film, says that she would return to Iran tomorrow if she could. "Few people leave their country because they want to, just like that," she explained.

For many writers, literature offers an inner sanctuary that allows them to deal with the pain of exile. "A writer, whatever his or her nationality, creates his or her own imaginary universe," said Paula Jacques, while for Alain Mabanckou, "the power of fiction is that it transforms the reader into whoever the writer is writing about, so we become that person."

An interesting discussion revolved around a writer's choice of what language to write in, with some adopting French after moving to France, while others continue to write in their first language. For Atiq Rahimi, who has written books in Dari and in French, "the chosen language is a language of freedom."

The "Exile and Literature" conference was organized by the City of Paris and UNHCR, with the help of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (International Organization of French-Speaking Countries), the Centre Pompidou Library, Le Magazine Litteraire and L'Histoire magazine.

By William Spindler in Paris, France