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Anyone at home?

In pursuit of one's own shadow By Zinovy Zinik

Zinovy Zinik is a novelist who fled the Soviet Union in the 1970s and ended up living in Britain. He has written an article containing a number of thought provoking observations about a writer who leaves one culture to live and write in another. “People are becoming more and more enclosed in themselves, less tolerant of outsiders, of those who don't belong to their tribal cultures. Their tribal integrity remains remarkably intact, the singular sense of belonging is undisturbed by the plurality of the world outside.” For an émigré living in Asia, the idea of tribe is implicit in political, social and economic life. It is the predominant, moving force that is used to bind and unite people toward common purpose.

If you aren’t considered part of that “tribe” then the chances are high that your views will be forever excluded from whatever debate is held. As it is accepted that members of the tribe are the ones who can legitimately debate tribal matters. After all what would an émigré bring to such public discussion? The fear is the outsider exposes contradictions, inaccuracies, myths, lies and asks potentially embarrassing questions. Tribes are fragile constructs, which like religion, don’t fair well under the microscopic analysis of the tools from the Enlightenment.

At the same time, the émigré writer often walks a no-man’s land between cultures and like the DMZ separating the two Koreas, it can be a hostile, lonely, bewildering place, a place in between. Zinik writes, “While the native author deals with moral ambiguities by proxy, using his characters, the personality of the émigré writer is part of his fiction's plot – he himself has to decide on which side of the border his mind is.”

I am not so certain that he must choose one side of the border over the other. Or one tribe over another. What he should do is this. He must be prepared to expose the lies that are packaged as truths on both sides. He must find the commonality of the human condition that transcends the tribe and the border. He should not take sides or draw judgments. Characters through their actions are enough to allow others to judge themselves about the qualities of the person and their ultimate worth and value.

“Unlike ordinary mortals, the writer, with his polyamorous, multifarious mind, is capable of holding the centre in this world of mental confusion and lost identities. He can create an illusion of unity amidst this chaos by turning it into a coherent story. In that, he is not very different from the founder of a new religion. The difference between writing and religion is that the purpose of every religion is to deliver the believer from spiritual despair and bring tranquillity to his soul and peace to his mind. Writing, at its best, disturbs the spiritual smugness of the reader by representing situations where borders, political and moral boundaries, are crossed, where ethical taboos are transgressed. Ambiguity is a precondition of drama.”

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