Mother, tell me where do the exiles go?
Don’t feed me back my desires chewed up and half dead
On nights like these when we sorrow like rivers
Let us dip our greedy cups into its flow
Swirl my troubles like fine wine until they turn sweet
Until drunk, we stumble in the dark
For a ditch to pour out the stones in our hearts
Let me go.
Bristol, 7 November 2021.
I have spent the past few days reading about Ai Weiwei and his new book, and discovered an incredibly rich interview he did where he spoke about his father Ai Qing (who, with him, was sent to a forced labour camp for 19 years in rural North West China), and about exile, individualism and individuality, and ego and non-ego:
IB: In China there is a lot of mythology surrounding poets. One of the pervasive themes is that of exile, the individual who refuses to compromise his or her integrity and as a result is banished by the state. I’m thinking of Chinese poets like Qu Yuan, Li Bo, Du Fu, Su Dongpo, Bei Dao, your father, you, and I think the contemporary poet Woeser can be understood in this light.
Ai Weiwei: Yes, you know some are exiled and others are self-exiled. When you see some people they are like a monk … China has always been troublesome with regard to freedom of the individual, especially poets. In China, the poet and the artist were the elite of society. They were always the focal point — their behavior reflected the soul of the land. That is why exile has been so highly respected throughout Chinese history. They understood exile as a natural condition. So much Chinese poetry is about shanggan (傷感, the experience of being emotionally wounded), shangxin (傷心, to have a wounded heart), likai jia (離開家, leaving one’s family), likai ren (離開人, leaving the world of people). All of these themes speak to the experience of exile, what the Chinese call chujingshenqing (觸景生情).
Exile normally means you are forced out of your home unwillingly — this is what I mean by external exile. I would say internal exile means you have lost your sense of belonging in your heart no matter where you are. You could be at home, really any location you are familiar with, but you have a sense of not belonging to the environment, not belonging to your own given conditions, political conditions, or even your own fate.
As a child, you can easily sense that your parents don’t belong where they have settled. There is nothing that relates to your mom or dad. You know you can’t establish a future there. If you have a place with a future, you can plant a tree. Five years later you see that the tree has grown. If you have a pig, you can feed the pig and watch it grow. However, in these kind of military camps, like today’s refugee camps, you don’t get any sense that there is anything growing. Today and the next year on the same day — it is all the same. The people who moved in five years ago and those who move in today are the same — it is all the same. They enter into the labour camp and they all become identical.
I remember sitting with a group of visual artists who would go on to create the virtual reality experience for my piece Stampin’ in the Graveyard, asking me what image they might be able to play around with as a key anchor to the show—the answer came to me as clear as day. I immediately saw myself sitting on an airplane seat, looking out the window in the twilight, there is a voice speaking behind me, and as I breathe onto the cold pane of glass, the names of my ancestors are scrawled there as if by an invisible finger.
When I was six years old, at the wake of the riots in Jakarta, my family and I fled first to Singapore, and then to America. I don’t remember much from that time, just vague memories of long drives, motels, the laundry machine, a young blonde girl asking me what I was doing (building a snowman) and understanding exactly what she was saying and not knowing what to answer back. Unlike many of the stories you hear, we left America and came back.
There are moments in my life, where I feel that I sliced away a part of my soul to throw to the dogs so the rest of me can get away. I think somewhere in some small corner of the sky, a piece of me is still floating in an empty airplane, neither here nor there, not coming or going.
Exile is a state of mind, a violence of the imagination.
It has been almost two years since I have been back home, and by home I mean where I came from in the beginning. Unlike in Singapore, where the sales floor I worked at would fill with a hubbub of Malay and Bahasa, I have also gone so long without speaking my native language, to the point that it became a peculiar taste in my mouth even as it remained familiar to my ears. Even then, I don’t despair, I don’t feel as if I’ve lost anything, just that I’ve changed. And I look forward to this homecoming with curiosity and ease.
Where do I belong? I belong wherever I put down my feet. I am a woman and not a bird.