Making a House of Words: Writing in Exile by Kathleen Jones

I'm in New Zealand at the moment, visiting relatives and friends and re-visiting much loved locations. It's a weird sensation being in a place where I've spent so much time over the years, but yet can never properly belong. There's a sense of both homecoming and exile.
Janet Frame
Janet Frame, one of New Zealand’s best-known writers, wrote that ‘All writers are exiles wherever they live . . . and their work is a lifelong journey towards the lost land.’*1  Perhaps this is because, as writers, we have to stand outside our own experience and look at it objectively in order to write about it. We're always trying to get back to the 'lost land', those moments experienced and gone, at the core of our imaginative lives.

But many of us are also physical exiles. Few people live in the place where they were brought up and the moment you move away from your native territory and look at it from the outside things will never be the same again.  Your mind is always in two places at any one time.  The writer Edward Said - born in Palestine and an exile since 1947 - wrote that what we do as writers is ‘by necessity’, to make ourselves ‘a house of words’ to dwell in.*2

This is what the New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield did when she emigrated to Europe at 18 leaving Wellington behind.  She couldn’t wait to leave such a dull, parochial place, but spent her whole writing life trying to recreate it.

Katherine Mansfield in exile
‘What is it that I do want to write?’ she asked her journal while living in France. And the answer was New Zealand. ‘Now, I want to write recollections of my own country. . . I want . . . to make our undiscovered country leap into the eyes of the old world.’ Her New Zealand stories, Prelude, At the Bay, The Dolls House, are among the best short stories ever written.*3

Later, when she was dying of TB in her early thirties she decided that it did a writer no good to be transplanted.  Roots, she declared, were vitally important to the depth of our writing.  If we can't connect with them, ‘One reaps the glittering top of the field, but there are no sheaves to bind.’

Since I left my home in Northern England as a teenager, it’s a question I’ve spent a life-time trying to answer.  I’ve scribbled in the damp heat of an African rainy season, the scorching blast of a middle-eastern summer, snow in Scotland, 24 hour daylight in Russia, a rocky sea-shore in western Australia, monsoon in India, trains and ships and planes, an olive grove in Tuscany and currently the windy, cloudy, upside-down plains of southern New Zealand.

Wittgenstein wrote that our most powerful and formative experiences are those of our early years - the primal imprints of the landscape and social networks of our childhood.  These shape our imaginations for the whole of our adult lives. So my roots are firmly struck in the Cumbrian fells.  But I’ve spent my life as a nomad, travelling and living all over the world, gazing nostalgically back.

I recently wrote the biography of a northern poet called Norman Nicholson, born and brought up in Cumbria, who lived until he died in the same house he’d been born in.*4  Would he have been a better writer if he had moved away and gained experience and perspective?  My personal opinion was that he would.  There’s something about being able to stand outside and look in.  But Norman felt that his small town was a microcosm of the world and that he would have gained nothing if he’d lived elsewhere.  A difficult one to argue.  The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh wrote that it took a lifetime to know just one small acre of the planet and that for a poet it was depth that mattered.

When you begin to think about it, there are an enormous number of writers who wrote in exile. Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Edna O’Brien, Katherine Mansfield, Ian Fleming, T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Jean Rhys, W.G. Sebald, Muriel Spark, F. Scott Fitzgerald . . . The list is endless.  So perhaps travel does, indeed, expand the mind and stimulate the creative juices.

I haven’t yet, apart from the Katherine Mansfield biography, written more than the odd poem about New Zealand, but something is beginning to shape itself into words - slowly, tentatively. So, who knows?  I may come back with something more than Whittaker’s chocolate and some beautiful photographs.  As you read this, I will be somewhere in the air over Singapore returning to Italy, en route for England, where I've just accepted another appointment as RLF Fellow in the Creative Writing Dept of Lancaster University.  Another move across Europe, yet another re-location.  The Philosopher Paul Carter wrote in Living in a New Country that, 'once the process of emigration has started, there can be no settling'*5, so it seems that all I will ever have is whatever house of words I can construct for myself.

*1 Janet Frame:  An Envoy from Mirror City
*2 Edward Said:  Out of Place
*3 Katherine Mansfield - The Storyteller
*4 Norman Nicholson: The Whispering Poet
*5 Quoted by Kirsty Gunn in Thorndon (another excellent book about belonging)

Kathleen Jones is a poet, biographer, novelist and professional nomad who lives mostly in Italy or England.  You can find her books at and her blog at 'A Writer's Life'  She tweets as @kathyferber  and has a Pinterest page here.


JO said…
I wonder if there's a difference between being an exile and being a nomad? I'd put myself in the nomad corner, so it's interesting to read your construct of exile as a different way of thinking about writers away from all that is familiar and comfortable.
Bill Kirton said…
Very interesting, Kathleen, and as thought-provoking as usual. When you listed some of those who'd spent most of their writing lives 'in exile', it started me thinking about those who'd also written in a different language. The obvious two for me were Beckett, of course, and Ionesco. Both did wonderful things with their adopted language - very different from the things they'd done with their own.
Dennis Hamley said…
Kathleen, that was a wonderful post. Until the last seven or so years I have been very far from a nomad and I feel strong British (not necessarily English), and Irish, strong in the past, not so much now. Now I'm developing roots in New Zealand, fresh, new, admittedly very late but true and strong none the less because I feel an affinity for it far beyond that of the mere visitor. I wanted to write about Ireland once - and I did, though not very satisfactorily. Will I ever write about Kiwiland? Anyway, we will be there for two months over January and February. I hope you've just had as good a time as we will! So does the writer need to be an exile? My first reaction would be to say no because our trade is empathy. But we're detached observers and evaluators as well, so in a sense we're all exiles, all of the time.
Mari Biella said…
A very interesting post, Kathleen, especially for someone who's been living in Italy for altogether longer than she likes to remember! Despite living here for a long-ish time and developing family, work and personal ties to the place, I've never felt myself to be truly Italian - at all - and still feel very British.

Being an outsider does allow you to stand outside a given time and place and see it objectively, and sometimes with some considerable insight. On the other hand, there is much to be said for developing a very deep knowledge of a particular place, and possibly we can never know any place as well as the one where we spent our formative years. So perhaps both approaches are valid. But in the end I'd agree that writers tend to be exiles anyway, wherever they happen to be.
Lydia Bennet said…
what an exotic life you lead! I suppose different writers get inspiration and motivation from either deep roots and close focus or the whole exile/nomad thing. I love to travel but I have very deep roots in the north east of England.
Kathleen Jones said…
Thanks for your comments, everyone. I'm a very jet-lagged nomad at the moment, having been travelling for almost 48 hours. Interesting, Jo, on the difference between nomads and exiles. Perhaps that needs another blog post!
Such a thought-provoking piece about a concept so alien to me. Thank you! I'm not a traveller and could certainly not be an nomad. I find being away from home quite disturbing and it takes me a day or two to recover. This has always been the case and I recall turning down invitations to visit Spain and Iceland,because the thought of weeks away made me feel ill. Only having family abroad has made me travel out of England. I sometimes wish it were different and have to hope that my life isn't less for not having travelled.
Kathleen Jones said…
Pauline, you're like my mother who wanted to be 'rooted in one dear, perpetual place' (Yeats, Prayer for my Daughter). Travel is not for everyone and belonging is very precious.

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