Displacement is a bitter muse, but a very powerful one. The experience of exile has played a huge role for thousands of years in literary history, making way for the likes of Hannah Arendt and Edward Said to explore its multi-facetedness, to name just a couple of the millions of authors who have contributed to exile literature. The sorrowful memoirs of those who had been forced out of their homes have inspired theories surrounding language, identity, and memory. Should an exile write only in their mother tongue or in adoptive languages, or maybe rather in the reigning lingua franca? How can a writer translate embodied experiences? And where does the literature produced in exile belong?

20th century European literature was defined by the epoch of Exilliteratur from authors fleeing Nazi rule, the émigré writers who fled Soviet rule to influence the world, and in the writings of stateless refugees who still struggle for freedom and sovereignty.

Because not everybody has the luxury to cry over a home country: at least 10 million people are stateless today, and over 108 million are forcibly displaced, according to the UNHCR. The reasons for statelessness vary, but international law is organized around nation-states rather than universal human rights. Stateless people have it particularly difficult when it comes to accessing health care, education, employment, and the freedom of movement – and that’s just scratching the surface.

Though the simple definition of statelessness refers to people who do not hold a nationality, its condition goes beyond mere legal documents or recognition. Diasporas such as the Palestinian, Kurdish, Roma, or Rohingya ones are considered to belong to nations without a state, and many of them have long embraced the condition of statelessness in their work, even if some are holding citizenship from other countries.

Writers in diaspora are forced into a position of the exile and being perpetually out of place, ever referencing a home they had either left, or had never even had the chance to ever visit.

The émigré writer resists with a pen filled with the ink of nostalgia, spanning genres from fiction to biographies to prose. The poet, the scholar, and the artist pave the way for remembrance and claim histories that impact the future.

Now that we’ve established the importance and potential of this form of literature, let’s contend with some biting questions. How much influence, platform and space do writers have today as readership plummets and gives way to more superficial media? Is it always their job to represent their people and their cause? Can an exile write about anything else than the exile? Well, I guess they can write, but can they publish? Do we appreciate and lift those works that don’t fit the mold up?

Our guests today will tell us all about disappearance, alternative narratives, and who they are writing for.

Behrouz Boochani is an award-winning Kurdish writer, journalist, cultural advocate, and filmmaker. His memoir No Friend But the Mountains (Pan Macmillan 2018, trans. Omid Tofighian) was written during his seven years of incarceration by the Australian government in Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island prison, tapped out and sent as single messages in Persian over the years. He is the co-director of the documentary Chauka, Please Tell Us The Time (dir. Arash Kamali Sarvestani) and author of the book Freedom, Only Freedom (Bloomsburry 2022). Boochani is currently living in New Zealand. 

Ibtisam Azem is a Palestinian novelist, short story writer, and journalist based in New York. She was born and raised in Taybeh, near Jaffa. She works as a senior correspondent covering New York and the U.N. for Alaraby Aljadeed newspaper. She has published two novels in Arabic. Her second novel “The Book of Disappearance” was translated into English, Italian and German. Her first short story collection is forthcoming in summer of 2024. Azem holds an MA in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies with minors in German and English Literature from Freiburg University, as well as an MA in Social Work from NYU.

Bilgin Ayata is professor of southeastern European studies at the University of Graz (Austria) and is leading the project Elastic Borders: Rethinking the Borders of the 21st Century.  She received an MA in political science at York University in Canada, and a PhD in political science from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in the US, later spending her postdoctoral years at the Freie Universität Berlin (Germany). She has published widely on displacement, border regimes, citizenship transnationalism, affective politics, memory and violence. ​Her regional expertise includes Europe and the MENA region, and her research focusses on migration, borders, citizenship, and postcolonial studies. 

You can also enjoy our episodes in a podcast format on the Cultural Broadcasting Archive, or wherever you find your podcasts.

Standard Time podcast S1E26 – Exiled voices: identity & literature


Réka Kinga Papp, editor-in-chief
Merve Akyel, art director
Szilvia Pintér, producer
Zsófia Gabriella Papp, digital producer
Salma Shaka, writer-editor
Priyanka Hutschenreiter, project assistant


Hermann Riessner, managing director
Judit Csikós, project manager
Csilla Nagyné Kardos, office administration


Senad Hergić, producer
Leah Hochedlinger, video recording
Marlena Stolze, video recording
Clemens Schmiedbauer, video recording
Richard Brusek, sound recording


Milan Golovics, dialogue editor
Nóra Ruszkai, video editor
István Nagy, post production


Victor Maria Lima, animation
Cornelia Frischauf, theme music

Captions and subtitles

Julia Sobota  closed captions, Polish and French subtitles; language versions management
Farah Ayyash  Arabic subtitles

Hosted by

ERSTE Stiftung, Vienna


117.3 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced


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