The Evolution of Exile Studies

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The history of humanity is the history of exile. A human activity that extends to ancient times, exile in the modern era has become an increasingly common experience shared by millions of people. Facilitated by centuries of warfare, political oppression, natural disasters, and economic collapses, exile has had an enormous impact on individuals transplanted from one culture to another, on the host societies they join, and the ones they left behind.

In Edwidge Danticat’s 2007 family memoir, Brother, I’m Dying, her Uncle Joseph, who served as a second father to her in Haiti from the time she was 4 to 12 years old before she joined her parents in New York, explains why he has not chosen to leave, despite the incredible violence and political unrest: “It’s not easy to start over in a new place… Exile is not for everyone. Someone has to stay behind, to receive the letters and greet family members when they come back.” It is this tension between loyalty to home, family, and the past, and the desire for a new life with new opportunities that is central to the exilic experience.

Because of the large number of people affected by exile and its wide-ranging impact on both individuals and communities, the exile phenomenon merits comprehensive, multi-disciplinary study. Situated in Miami, a truly natural laboratory of exile, Florida International University is an ideal place where exile and its consequences can be pursued with intellectual vigor and scholarly integrity. The Exile Studies Program housed in the Department of English contextualizes the phenomenon of exile through the lenses of a range of scholarly disciplines.

At the core of the program, the interdisciplinary Certificate in Exile Studies synthesizes and particularizes the rich and often traumatic experiences of transplantation, and helps to bridge geographical divides, ideological divergences, and cultural disparities. According to its Director Dr. Asher Z. Milbauer, "The purpose of the certificate is to give the inhuman phenomenon of expulsion and banishment a uniquely human dimension through the comparative study of literary texts by exiled authors from around the world."

As word of the uniqueness of the program spreads, its credibility is strengthened by the scholarly expertise of its director. The author of an important study on literary exile, Transcending Exile, and the winner of the Sarah Russo Prize for the best essay on exile, “In Search of a Doorpost: Meditations on Exile and Literature,” Dr. Milbauer continues to publish in the field of exile studies, and to present scholarly papers in international academic conferences, most recently the Tenth Annual Conference on New Directions in the Humanities in Montreal.

During the last two years the Exile Studies Program has organized, the Exile and Creativity and the Exile and Totalitarianism lectures series. In addition to highlighting prominent intellectuals in the field, the Exile Studies Symposium, The Burdens and Joys of Inheritance, included not only seasoned professionals but also students in the program: Amy Hughes (MFA) gave a paper on Elie Wiesel and Steven Beualieu (English and ESP) presented on Edwidge Danticat.

Encouraged by the responses from the academic community and by the enrichment of students and graduates, the Exile Studies program and the Center for the Humanities in an Urban Environment have submitted a grant proposal to a number of national and local foundations, seeking support for the establishment of a Summer Institute for High School Teachers. Such a program would establish a connection for students in Miami-Dade schools with the humanities through the exilic experience.

In partnership with the FIU Center for Humanities in an Urban Environment, led by Director Dr. Michael Gillespie, the Exile Studies Program continues its tradition of high-caliber lectures. The program’s spring 2013 lecture series, Exile, the Arts and Patronage, examines the exilic experience of artists. Born in Zurich, Switzerland, the son of Polish refugees and raised in the Bronx, Dr. Leon Botstein has been President of Bard College in New York, where he holds the Leon Levy Chair of Arts and Humanities. His writings reflect an intimate understanding of the perils of exile and emigration, which, in turn, informs his continuous support for Bard College’s long-standing tradition to provide refuge to exiled intellectuals from countries in crisis.

As someone who is no stranger to the experience of an exiled intellectual from a country in crisis, Edwidge Danticat's latest book, Creating Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, defines her own artistic credo: “Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously. This is what I’ve always thought it meant to be a writer. Writing, knowing in part that no matter how trivial your words may seem, someday, somewhere, someone may risk his or her life to read them.” As the first speaker in the series, the former Miami resident and writer will reflect on the relationship between art and exile, and examine the role a displaced artist plays in modern society.

Edwidge Danticat will join the Exile Studies Program to discuss Making Art in Cities of Exile on Monday, Feb. 11 at 6:45 p.m. in the FIU Graham Center room 243 on Modesto A. Maidique Campus. Leon Botstein will join the Exile Studies Program to discuss The Exiled Intellectual and the American University on Monday, Feb. 25 at 7:00 p.m. in the FIU Graham Center room 243 on Modesto A. Maidique Campus. These events are co-sponsored by the Center for Humanities in an Urban Environment and the Department of English.