Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Book Review: Measures of Expatriation



Time to read

3 Minutes

Guest post by Sarah Turnbull, Lecturer in Criminology, Birkbeck, University of London. Follow her on Twitter @SL_Turnbull.

Review of Measures of Expatriation by Vahni Capildeo (Carcanet, 2016).

I first heard Vahni Capildeo speaking on an episode of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Start the Week’ entitled ‘Language and Reinvention.’ I was struck by how she captured many of the same themes―identity, belonging, home, migration―that I’ve been researching over the past three years so expressively, powerfully, and concisely. After listening to Capildeo, I was especially interested in reading her new book, Measures of Expatriation, to learn how her work might help with my own thinking as I write up my current research project on immigration detention and deportation and as I consider issues of border control and migration more broadly. In reading the book, I found it also registered on a personal level as it addresses the experiences of being an ‘expatriate’ (albeit differently in terms of privilege/penalty) and the where and what of ‘home.’ Capildeo’s writing attends to issues of gender, race, class, sexuality, age, and ability as well as the legacies of British empire in contemporary practices of identity and immigration control. 

Divided into seven sections and consisting of both poetry and prose, the book highlights the complexities of belonging and identity and steers us away from neat categorisations of people, places, and things, recognising the nuances and fluidities of the self, of home, of belonging. My favourite piece is entitled ‘Five Measures of Expatriation.’ In it, Capildeo describes her understanding of ‘expatriation,’ something that came into being through the often incessant questioning along the lines of ‘where are you from?’ She writes: ‘Expatriation: my having a patria, a fatherland, to leave, did not occur to me until I was forced to invent one. This was the result of questions. The questions were linked to my status elsewhere’ (p. 95). Consequently, she conjured a Trinidad, one that others―like the ‘Priests of the God of Obstacles’ (i.e., border officials)―could understand and accept. Yet, she explains: ‘This luxury of inattention, invention, and final mismatch… a ‘Trinidad’ being created that did not take my Trinidad away (my Trinidad takes itself away, in reality, over time)… this is expatriation, no?’ (p. 95). I had not given much thought before to how I similarly create a ‘Canada’ (for example, one that’s not always cold) in encounters to both identify myself and present an idea of ‘home,’ even as I know how the question ‘where are you from?’ when directed at me (a white, Canadian woman) is typically imbued with different meaning and implication.

In the same piece, Capildeo details an experience of crossing borders, juxtaposing the complexities of travel for her (born in Trinidad but a long-term UK resident) with her ‘native-born UK citizen’ partner (p. 96). She uses a simple phrase, ‘[p]aperwork stuck to me’ (p. 97), which I think so perfectly epitomises the workings of state power at the margins, where documents are so central to practices of inclusion and exclusion, of privilege and penalty. Capildeo’s description of her encounters with Italian border officers, of having to ‘prove’ the existence of Trinidad as a real place, is both humorous and tragic. Whereas her UK citizen partner needs one document, Capildeo needs many. Hers are also suspect, subject to scrutiny and disbelief. 

Capildeo ends ‘Five Measures of Expatriation’ by distinguishing between expatriate, exile, refugee, migrant―each word implying a certain status associated with mobility and differing forms of belonging and home(s). Expatriation denotes a simultaneity of home, yet inequalities of race, nationality, class, and so forth work to exclude, demarcating certain people as always being other, as being forever out of place. This sentiment is powerfully conveyed earlier in the book in which Capildeo writes: ‘Ask me where I’m from. / Where is home, really home. Where my parents were born. / What to do if I sound more like you than you do. / Every word an exhalation, a driving-out’ (p. 85). Such discursive practices are not minor matters, particularly in the current context of Brexit and Europe’s ‘refugee crisis’ in which identity politics and questions of belonging and entitlement are key.

Measures of Expatriation is a powerful, insightful book and I wish I had the literary skills and knowledge to give it the full appreciation it deserves. I have no doubt that many of Capildeo’s words and their meaning were lost on me. However, the book offers much to those of us interested in questions of identity, belonging, home, social justice, and the lived experiences of border control. It has rejuvenated my approach to my ‘data’ as I try to make sense of and write up my research. I definitely recommend it.

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