Tessa Morrison, MPhil/PhD candidate at the Institute of Modern Languages Research, School of Advanced Studies, University of London, writes on Prof. Saúl Sosnowski‘s (University of Maryland) talk for CLACS earlier this year.
On 16th February 2016, CLACS welcomed Saúl Sosnowski, a leading scholar on Latin American Literature, to speak about elements of his current team-based research project entitled “Exile, Transnational Migration and the Transformation of Public Culture.” Professor Sosnowski, who has published extensively on exile literature, turned his sights on this occasion to los retornados – those citizens of Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay who returned from exile after the military dictatorships in each country.
At the beginning of the talk, the seemingly simple question was posed: what happened when they got back? Sosnowski and his team had interviewed over one hundred returnees to try and assess how well they had integrated back into their home country’s society, how the re-integration process had been affected by each country’s policies towards returnees (or lack thereof) and how returnees, in turn, had affected public policy, focussing particularly on scientific and technological research. In each case, there were variables that affected the outcome: the duration of the dictatorships; the intensity of their policies; and public attitude toward exiles. National reactions between the four countries thus varied from a rejection of those became to be seen as foreigners to full acceptance of the returnees. Of the four countries, Paraguay, Sosnowski stated, “is always the most dramatic” – at a time when the country afforded little priority or funding to research, lacked academic diversity and had a lower literacy rate (62%), not only were the returnees not welcomed back but there also lingered an oft openly-voiced longing for Stroessner and his rule. By comparison, Uruguay, the country that had imprisoned the most and killed the least, designed the best policies for returnees and paved the smoothest path to reintegration. Where progress was made, it was found to be more efficient where exiles and insilios (the term coined for those who stayed) cooperated. However, many interviewees spoke of a communal and communicative breakdown between those who left and those who stayed. Several times during the talk, Sosnowski echoed the sentiment that had been voiced: “we didn’t ask them and they didn’t ask us”. The return was not easy and often did not produce the immediate relief the returnees had envisaged but despite having lived for many years overseas, many still considered the country they had left home and retained an allegiance to their nation-state.
Despite commending the actions Uruguay took to welcome the returnees back, even before the end of the dictatorship, Sosnowski conceded that most interviewees recognised their familial situation and home life as their main motivation to return, rather than government initiatives. He explained that the returns were not massive but rather occurred in “faltering waves” as exiles returned after having experienced another life. One such case was Argentine writer Mario Goloboff, who had lived in exile for over 30 years. Goloboff was asked by a journalist why he wanted to go home. He answered “well, one wants to die in his own land”. His contemporary, Tununa Mercado by comparison was quoted by Sosnowski as saying: “I have to return to Argentina because it is my own country. It is what defines me, what I am. I don’t know why anyone would want to die upon returning to their homeland. It is a sort of shortening of the time phenomenon; it’s something that places you at the zero point.” As Sosnowski explained, Mercardo was voicing the disorientation felt by many returnees and asking “where do I go from here?”. As someone whose own research interests lies in exile literature, upon hearing this question, I instinctively reframed that question to ask “where does the writer go from here?”.
Nostalgia is a theme that many writers have to negotiate whilst in exile and manifests itself in their work. Of those returning, Sosnowski explained that they returned expecting to fit back into the life they left when they were twenty years old – nostalgia then, appears to be not only suffered whilst still in exile but it is carried across the ocean and back onto home turf. One thing became certain amongst the interviewees: upon return, neither the person they were nor the country they had left behind would be the same. Sosnowski talked about those who tried to return more than once, found all was not as they had remembered (or imagined) and ended up caught in a constant back and forth. His description of them being “happiest on the aeroplane” led me to recall Perri Rossi’s depiction of the airport and the safe haven offered by this in-between space. And yet, did this misguided nostalgia prove a limitation for the returning writers? From the testimony Sosnowski offered, it would appear not. He took the example of the Uruguayan writer Fernando Butazzoni, who said he never again felt quite at home. As pointed out though, Butazzoni had lived in many countries, the idea of home had become portable to him and yet he still chose to go home. Despite his claim that he didn’t feel at home, he went on to immerse himself in Uruguay society as a prominent cultural figure and engage himself in the reestablishment of the country. Luisa Valenzuela, one of Argentina’s most prominent women writers, asserted that “one carries roots within ourselves”, they are not something firmly planted in one place but something to be carried. She suggested that for writers in particular, their roots are carried to their true home: the edge, the margins. This was a fitting idea for Sosnowski to conclude his talk with as, as he pointed out, it is the lines, borders, edges and margins that underscore the estranged from the one who is at home.
Thank you to Professor Saul Sosnowski for an enriching talk, to those who attended for the lively discussion that followed and to CLACS for hosting the event. I look forward to reading the full study upon publication.
Email: tessa.morrison [at] postgrad.sas.ac.uk