The paper pain

‘My pain is deciphered and therefore human. She, on the other hand is a muted creature; easier to misinterpret and, finally, dehumanize.’ Ece Temelkuran describes her deep unease at being referred to as an ‘exile’ and how, despite that public role, she shares a fundamental experience with the unnamed refugee.

Across the level ocean of her mind come floating certain refugees in a makeshift plastic boat so crowded with passengers they are stacked in layers and dropping over the sides. She has seen this picture. She has read that larger ships might sail very near, that they might stop to consider the woe and the odds, then keep going. Sometimes bottles of water or biscuits were tossed from the larger ships before they started their engines again. What could she put against the desolation of that moment, watching the ship start its engines again. What is the price of desolation, and who pays. Some questions don’t warrant a question mark.

Ann Carson, ‘1 = 1’, The New Yorker, 11 January 2016

Over the last two years I have become my own home. And recently I gave up the toil of trying to remember what has really happened. Since then, my reference has been my own memory. What I remember, although it sometimes truly is unreal, cannot be refuted. Some call this ‘lonely’; I call it ‘being on my own’. It started when I began to live on the border that my writing has been inhabiting for decades; the thin line that supposedly separates fiction from non-fiction, the line that flows between the real and whatever its opposite is considered to be. Therefore, I swim in an ocean of fears and fantasies – that is what imagination is when you are on your own. I am what I imagine myself now to be. I am what I write. A blurry ocean of the things that happen, the things that might not have happened and things that have not happened.

At home I have a table that I put together myself, bought from the Ikea in Zagreb, in 2016, after the putsch in Turkey and before political and moral insanity took over the entire country, alongside irreversible damage to the human condition. There is a laptop on the table the keys of which I keep pounding and a notebook with black pages that I write on with white ink. Despite the fact that I write other stories about other people on this table, people continue to call me ‘the exile’.

The unreal: I named the table Kon-Tiki. Too weak a boat to cross the ocean of international politics and finally find a shore that I can call home, but solid enough to keep rowing in. Since the day I built Kon-Tiki, I have written articles in English for the papers you read. About truth – mine and yours – and about politics – mostly yours.

The thin line between the real and unreal: My sea is imaginary, unlike the fluid graveyard of the Mediterranean. My boat is only for one, not crowded like the ones filled with terrified children. We all float, they and I, through the indignation, the shame, the bleakness… And to all of us it feels the same: Absurd. ‘Is this my life now?’ ‘Is this happening to me?’

So, we row.

Pages from Shirin Neshat edited by Giorgio Verzotti, Edizioni Charta 2002, for the images: © Shirin Neshat; p. 112 (part.); ‘Rapture, 1999’
Photo via Federico Novaro on Flickr

‘EXILED’ says the giant screen behind me. My name is there, next to it, for some three thousand people to see. I am on stage, at the Lincoln Center, in New York, and I am sitting next to Hillary Clinton, of all people. This is real, it is 2018. What feels unreal is that word, ‘exiled’, next to my name. I had never said it, but it kept appearing next to my name. Did I forget to tell the organization that I don’t want that word to define me? Didn’t I tell them, half-jokingly, as I have done at similar events for the last two years that ‘exile’ has apparently become the sexiest word in my biography, overshadowing all the other things that I manage to do?

I stop the event, which is supposed to be about rising rightwing populism across the world, and start talking about that giant word behind me, ‘exiled’. ‘Why do they hardly mention the names of the Syrian refugees on TV? How many of us believe that bread, a blanket, and clean water would suffice for the survival of human dignity? Not theirs, but the dignity of Europeans. And there are those idiots who believe that if they call them immigrants on the news enough times the boat people will turn from refugees to people who can be deported. Shame is a scarce commodity. Why is it so hard to name their names when they crave it, and why is it so easy to name me the ‘exile’ when I reject that term? Why do you rescue me but not them? Why are you so enthusiastic about me, yet reluctant when it comes to them?’

This is not real. I did not say these words. But I wouldn’t dare to call it unreal. Would you?

The reality: I talked to them, the audience, about their victimhood, as opposed to my assumed suffering. I told them they too would feel like an exile, a refugee in their own country once the political and moral insanity takes over their land as it did mine. And that the words ‘exile’ or ‘refugee’ do not require someone to change location in today’s world – those who are capable of critical thinking will all feel homeless soon.

Or did I tell this to another audience in America? When travelling alone one loses the references of time and space. When drifting in the night the boat loses the point of triangulation.

‘On several media outlets we see that you have been called an exile? Are you an exile?’ This is a Turkish journalist now. Asking me about the word that I didn’t choose to live with. ‘Western mainstream intellectual circles and the media have a certain romanticism towards women like me, women of letters. Probably their distorted and embellished perception has its roots in the mythological image of Europa, saved from the bull. I am now the lady saved from the horrors of the tyrant, the Scheherazade rescued from the hands of the barbarian. This construction automatically bestows upon them gallantry, knighthood. My assumed identity as an exile in a western land turns them into the prince who saves the damsel in distress. How convenient. How cleansing. Not for me, for them. What is most annoying to me is that I have to stick to the role. You are not supposed to talk about anything other than your victimhood, and certainly should not cease to play the damsel in distress. How exhausting. How unsustainable.’

This is real. Entirely.

Here is something unreal:

Dear Ann Carson,

You know very well that 1 is not equal to 1. Because I am certain that you know the one and more importantly you know about the other one. I am the one. And the woman in that crowded boat with a life jacket, the one who stares at the real ocean of indignity that lies before her is the other one. We are not equal; at least that is what the world tends to believe. Therefore, most probably you know the price of desolation and who pays for it. You: the one who is able to see the desolation, that nameless woman in the boat who is suffering, and me: the one with a name that weighs too heavily as I row.

Do you think there was desolation before the word desolation was invented? I am never sure of these things.

Yours faithfully, Ece (not the EXILE)

The privilege of words, the ability to articulate and the opportunity of being published allow my desolation to solidify – as opposed to any other woman literally crossing the literal sea. My pain is deciphered and therefore human. She, on the other hand is a muted creature; easier to misinterpret and, finally, dehumanize. Although I know it is the same pain we suffer; the irritating feeling that something is missing, that something is missing all the time especially when you are supposed to be content. It feels like the sleep a child sleeps in a car that is approaching home, knowing that no one will carry her in their arms to bed. That half-awake uneasiness that keeps scratching the warm tenderness of sleep.

My abstraction is more present than their reality, the ones on the boat, just as Anna Karenina is more present than any living woman has been or will be. They will have to wait to tell tales of their sorrow until a grandchild is born to listen, just as the survivors of all tragedy have done throughout human history. Pain skips a generation to be learned. I don’t have to wait. My story in fact cannot wait. It has to be served to the media, to the audiences now, while it is fresh. When the story of my country falls from the headlines to the third page, I will disappear. They will expect me to disappear. Another woman suffering in another language, ‘the tragedy of the month’ will occupy the stage then. She will present sentences with a different syntax to explain that she is more than an exile, that she is a person with a longer story. ‘Life is a bigger journey’, she will say. ‘And what you call “exile” is only a part of it.’ Mine and hers is a boat that is forced to drop anchor in a particular point in time, expected to stay still, unlike other, real boats that are expected to move and keep moving to another shore.

As for the question of who pays for the desolation, I mean, if you want the reality, mostly they calculate the price according to the number of words. The silent get nothing, naturally.

Ece Temelkuran took issue with the trope of the exile and talked about her strategies to cope with political pressure and isolation at Watch your mouth: the 31st European Meeting of Cultural Journals on 2 July 2021. Watch her discussion with Russian investigative journalist Irina Borogan and Hungarian editor György Kerényi.

Being branded as an ‘exile’ is a geographic domain where you can talk to the living yet prefer to converse with the dead. A mare clausum, a closed sea, so to speak, where the dead ones of my ilk understand who I am better than the living. One of the souls buried in this fluid graveyard is Joseph Brodsky. He truly was a crazy person. Do you know the story about him? Before he fled the former USSR and long before he became the Nobel Laureate, he was sent to a labour camp. The prisoners were supposed to cut wood for a certain period of time every day. Once Brodsky started, however, he did not stop. It is said that he cut wood for ten hours before the guards forced him to stop. From then on, he was never forced to cut wood. The prison decided not to raise the bet. He must have been like Rosa Luxembourg who applied to herself a stricter discipline than her prison’s regulations in order to feel like she could seize control of her time and her existence. Years later, in Grief and Reason: Essays (1995), Brodsky wrote (in English) that he was no different from other ordinary refugees and rejected being placed in the more privileged level of homelessness, that of the exiled writer/poet. Once again, he drew the borders of his existence but this time he probably learned that it isn’t as easy as cutting the wood for ten hours. You can escape prison by building your own prison, and you can escape the word prisoner by terrifying the guards, but protecting your- self against the word ‘exile’ is another story. The word sounds so compassionate that it makes your rejection look like an interesting yet unnecessary rebellion. The word is so accommodating that only a few understand why you are trying to burn such a shelter located in the neighbourhood of the privileged – especially when you are homeless. Brodsky never wrote the sentence but he could have; in my mare clausum, when I speak to him he repeats the sentence ‘I am my own home. I became my home.’


Hannah Arendt is another soul I frequent whenever I am made to struggle with the word ‘exile’. She spoke and wrote about the audience that expected her to talk about herself, her victimhood. She tried to joke whenever she spoke, a tactic that always causes uneasiness for audiences because it violates the limits of the ‘lady in distress’ act. The word ‘exile’ expects you to carry a face that has forgotten how to laugh. She was at home though as long as she wrote, at home with her mischievous laughter. She was her own home too.

Simone Weil, Breyten Breytenbach, who was called ‘exile’ at the same age that I was, Julio Cortázar, and many others have fought with the word and resisted the perceptions of audiences that made them lonelier than they actually were. The word put them in a separate place where silent refugees aren’t permitted.

How can I explain all this in a TV or radio soundbite? I hear Hannah Arendt in a rare TV interview, saying with her silences, ‘How primitive these questions about the condition of the exile are! How stupid.’ Maybe the next woman who will be branded as an exile, who will replace me on this stage where one is expected not to laugh, will hear the same in my silences as well. And I will whisper to her, ‘I am my home. Aren’t you? Well you will be. You will be very soon.’

In this unreal sea, this sea where I frequently lose my bearings, the sea that might easily swallow my Kon-Tiki, the real hits me at seemingly irrelevant, certainly insignificant and always unexpected times. For example, at a hairdresser in Zagreb. The worst thing that can happen to a person with curly hair is to need a haircut in Europe where curly hair is always a deviation, impossible to untangle. My hair should be cut when it is dry because there is a different mathematics to curly hair (it’s a long and boring story). So, here I am, trying to explain to the over-confident hairdresser the algorithms of cutting curly hair. He does not give the tiniest shit. I feel like an alien; I am an alien. And now I am an alien with curly hair. The prolonged conversation begins to embarrass me and to the audience in the hairdresser I start looking like a mad woman obsessed with her hair. All the eyes, those blank stares shrink me to a helpless soul. I am scaled down to reality, a refugee. It is not like being on stage where I can articulate my rejection of their branding of me and sound human. I am mute now. Like the woman on the boat, I am rowing and rowing across the level ocean of my mind. So, for a long time I have been cutting my own hair.

‘I have a longer story’, I whisper. ‘I am a human.’ I am not the one. I am one. And the difference between those two claims is more than about ‘the’. It is about a damn lifetime. And one always – both on land and on sea – is equal to one.

Louise Bourgeois, Femme Maison (Woman House). 1984. Photogravure, with chine collé
Image via MoMa

This essay first appeared in Lost in Media: Migrant Perspectives and the Public Sphere, edited by Ismail Einashe and Thomas Roueché and published by Valiz in cooperation with the European Cultural Foundation, 2019.

Published 18 February 2020
Original in English
First published by Valiz / European Cultural Foundation / Eurozine

© Ece Temelkuran / Valiz / European Cultural Foundation / Eurozine



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