Top 10 books about exile

From Colm Tóibín’s story of renewal in Brooklyn to Mourid Barghouti’s desolate experience in Palestine, these stories show some of the many meanings of home and its loss

I saw Beirut in all the other places I have lived: around the hum of London streets, and in the quiet self-containment of a Parisian neighbourhood; at the water’s edge in Sydney on a wintry afternoon as rain and sea mixed and swirled around me and in the razor-sharp sunlight of spring and early morning in Washington DC.

Many miles and 20 years from home, I carried my city with me as I would a worn suitcase that I could not put down, the weight of it like some unspecified regret, a memory that came alive at unexpected moments and left me breathless.

I wanted my characters in An Unsafe Haven to experience their exile in the same way. A Syrian artist unable to accept the worsening situation back home is determined to return to Damascus. An American married to a Lebanese woman struggles to adapt to a society he does not wholly understand. An Iraqi aid worker seeks refuge in Beirut but dreams of going to the west. A Syrian refugee loses track of her family while fleeing the war and is prepared to do anything to rejoin them. Hannah, a journalist, returns to Lebanon after a long exile, no longer certain if she will ever recapture the sense of belonging that Beirut once awarded her.

These characters are not always sure what is missing from their lives, but they helped me understand that home can have different meanings for those of us who, at one time or another, are deprived of it.

1. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The possibility that one can feel doubly exiled is at the centre of this novel. Ifemelu is an educated young woman who moves from her native Nigeria to the US, where she discovers that race continues to influence social status and compromise one’s rights as a citizen. Not news to most of us, perhaps, but while Adichie’s message is undoubtedly political, it is her focus on Ifemelu’s day-to-day life in exile that makes this novel so compelling. At a dinner party in New York, Ifemelu tells a group of liberal intellectuals that her race had never been an issue in Nigeria, concluding: “I only became black when I came to this country.”

2. Selected Writings by Mai Ghoussoub
If exile is an art form, then the late Mai Ghoussoub was its embodiment. Artist, writer, performer and publisher, Ghoussoub left Lebanon in 1979 after being injured while volunteering with an ambulance service during the civil war. Showcasing her musings on politics, war, exile and the arts, on Lebanon and the despair of its people, this collection is testament to a woman whose perspective was always led by her compassion and humour, by an enduring sense of wonder that makes her observations of people in the Middle East and Europe intensely valuable.

3. Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
Beset by homesickness as an Irish immigrant to the US, Eilis Lacey manages to fashion a new and more sophisticated version of herself there which, once she returns home for a visit, is impossible to shake. This is a haunting depiction of what it means to reinvent oneself and permanently suffer the loss of belonging. Tóibín’s writing is austere and seemingly effortless, and is evocative of the depth of loneliness plaguing his characters, no matter where they happen to be.

4. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
Isabel Archer and her suitor Gilbert Osmond are Americans living in Europe. While Isabel, a spirited, outspoken and innocent young heiress, can never be tainted by European decadence, Osmond is portrayed as the personification of old-world guile, cynicism and self-interest. Realising the truth about Osmond only after they are married, Isabel nonetheless remains true to character and chooses to honour her commitment to him. The desolation she consequently feels is not merely at being away from home, but is in the absence in her life of love and ultimately of any meaning. My favourite James novel.

5. Snow by Orhan Pamuk (translated by Maureen Freely)
Great writers perfectly mirror the historical concerns of nations in their fiction, making Snow essential reading for anyone wishing to truly understand modern-day Turkey. Tackling religion, secularism, dissent and women in Islam, this intensely beautiful novel is also a story of love and sacrifice. The poet Ka returns to a virtually unrecognisable Istanbul after 12 years as a political exile in Germany, and decides to travel to the remote city of Kars to try to recapture memories of the Turkey he once knew. While investigating the rise of Islamic extremism and the bafflingly high suicide rates among young women there, he encounters a long-lost love and discovers that the notion of home he had harboured was illusory.

Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer in Jane Campion’s film of The Portrait of a Lady.
Divided life … Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer in Jane Campion’s film of The Portrait of a Lady. Photograph: taken from picture library

6. I Saw Ramallah by Mourid Barghouti (translated by Ahdaf Soueif)
Barghouti returned to Ramallah after 30 years in exile, initially to Cairo in 1967 following Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, then to Eastern Europe 10 years later when he was expelled from Egypt. A poet and diplomat, Barghouti made the emotional journey back home only to discover how much it had changed, to conclude that Israel’s occupation had “created generations without a place … had succeeded in changing us from children of Palestine to children of the idea of Palestine”. Lyrical and deeply moving, this memoir explores the human consequences of enforced exile, the hopelessness, the suffering endured.

7. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
These stories are so beautifully written that one would be forgiven for thinking there was a romantic aspect to exile. First-generation Americans coping with double lives, Lahiri’s characters are inextricably tied to their parents’ India yet are not quite western enough to integrate completely. Images of their daily lives are poignant; a relentless dislocation making any semblance of continuity an illusion to which they will always aspire. Heartbreaking and wonderful.

8. Arab in America by Toufic El Rassi

The attacks in September 2001 had enormous repercussions on life in the US, among them the intensification of discrimination against Arabs and Americans of Arab descent. Exposing the brutal consequences of racism and fearmongering, El Rassi’s graphic novel is fittingly illustrated in black and white and offers a unique perspective on the prejudices that still divide our world.

9. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
Sedaris’s hilarious reflections on what it means to be an American expat in Europe reveal the lighter side of the exile experience. The second half of Me Talk Pretty One Day is devoted to the years Sedaris spent in Paris trying to learn the language and adapt to the culture and, as a result, finding out what the rest of the world really thinks about his country.

10. The Wanderer by Christopher Brennan
On a plaque on the walkway leading to the Sydney Opera House is a quote that, when I first read it, perfectly expressed my own despair at ever achieving a sense of belonging. In this stunning collection of poems, Brennan, the son of Irish immigrants to Australia, reflects on the repercussions of emotional and spiritual exile, suggesting that its consequences are profound even when it is self-imposed and is not tied to place. The plaque reads:

I know I am the wanderer of the ways of all the worlds,
to whom the sunshine and the rain are one
and one to stay or hasten, because he knows
no ending of the way, no home, no goal

• An Unsafe Haven by Nada Awar Jarrar is published by Borough Press, priced £12.99. It is available from the Guardian bookshop, priced £10.65.

Nada Awar Jarrar

The GuardianTramp

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