Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Varieties of Exile

"In the third summer of the war I began to meet refugees."  So begins the opening sentence in Varieties of Exile, a compelling short story penned by the immensely talented Canadian writer Mavis Gallant.  I recently came across it this past month, discovering it in a hefty 1180 page anthology of Canadian Literature that I am currently sipping and savouring in my nightly reading rituals.  The particular tome I am perusing focuses on the English-language literature of Canada and not the equally captivating and wonderful worlds of Aboriginal and French-language Canadian literature.  (Concerning the latter, I have on my mind to next read Récits de voyages, the travel accounts of Jacques Cartier.)

What Gallant touches upon in this irresistible story is a keen uncovering of the phenomena of 'otherness' and the sense of being 'out-of-place' in one's physical, psychological, social, and cultural milieus.  In fact, the 'story behind the story' of Varieties of Exile, is the large number of refugees Gallant herself witnessed arriving in Montreal throughout the duration of the Second World War.  Indeed, the subject of exile is a shining leitmotif that Gallant has woven throughout much of her literary work.

To me, what is especially interesting about Varieties of Exile is the oblique way in which Gallant explores refugee-related themes such as displacement and alienation.  For example, the dialogue Gallant creates between her characters is not direct but a muted, Proust-like, and fully nuanced pattern of interpersonal exchange.  Also, Gallant portrays her characters with an intriguing kind of reticence that serves as a deeper sign and signification within the narrative, bringing the reader beyond what is said explicitly and to actively make a link with the human experience of ambiguity and uncertainty.

Alas, art meets the vicissitudes of life.  Having just finished reading Gallant's powerful prose, I cannot help but reflect on how some of the thematic elements in her story undoubtedly resonate with the plight of the 59.5 million people displaced by war, intrastate strife, and human rights violations last year, alone.  David Hollenbach, SJ, who serves as Director of the Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Boston College, has written a skillful synopsis of the current refugee crisis that examines, pointedly, the obligations toward refugees that arise from our common humanity.  Numbered among these millions are our sisters and brothers of the Dominican family who daily share in the wearying precariousness of displacement, as displaced persons themselves.  Sister Maria Hanna, OP has chronicled the violence, civil unrest, and humanitarian challenges that she and the people of Iraq are presently dealing with.  I highly recommend reading her letters of July 22nd, 2015 and of January 15th, 2016 as well as this on-the-ground account by multimedia journalist Lauren Bohn.

Prayer, along with fasting and alms giving, are traditional Christian practices during Lent.  Consider joining us in praying for the needs of refugees, and for peace, in loving solidarity with our Dominican sisters and brothers who are currently ministering to the displaced and dispossessed in Iraq, and beyond.  There is a prayer below that you can use.

-- Sister Elizabeth Marie