posted on Dec. 6: Exiles conference explored issues surrounding displaced individuals


Century castles in Europe may be enjoying a boost in tourism thanks to Harry Potter. As part of a recent advertising promotion, three Canadian families will win a trip to a century castle next summer to take part in a Hogwarts Castle Adventure. Although their trip was more for business than pleasure, four McMaster professors had the opportunity earlier this year to experience the beauty of one such castle in England, Herstmonceux, owned by Queen's University. The colloquium was co-sponsored by McMaster and the Faculty of Humanities held a reception in the Elizabethan Room.

In this submission, McMaster linguistics & languages professor Magda Stroinska discusses her impressions of the castle and the significance of the Exiles 2001 conference that took her and three colleagues there.

By Magda Stroinska

There could hardly be a more beautiful setting for a conference than the magnificent Herstmonceux Castle. Set among carefully maintained Elizabethan gardens, in the rolling countryside of the Sussex County in England, surrounded by a moat covered with water lilies, Herstmonceux is really breathtaking.

The original castle was built in the 15th century, as one of first brick castles in England. Ruined in the 1700s, it was used by smugglers to hide their contraband. It was only at the beginning of the 20th century that the restoration of the castle began. In 1946, Herstmonceux was bought as a new location for the Royal Greenwich Observatory, before it finally moved to Cambridge University. Then, in 1993, the castle was bought by Queen's University with funds provided by the family of Alfred Bader, a former student at Queen's, to create an International Study Centre. At the end of May 2001, the castle hosted an international colloquium titled “Exiles 2001” and organized by Kingston University in Surrey, U.K.

Our age may truly be called the age of exile, as the broadly understood notions of exile or displacement apply to millions of people worldwide. And yet no two experiences of exile are similar enough to warrant the creation of a prototype of exile or of an expatriated individual. Therefore the use of the plural form in the title of the conference was only appropriate.

The conference was divided into eight sessions, in either English or French, with themes ranging from “L'exil politique” and “Exile and Memory” to “Visual Media Technologies and Exile.” Vittorina Cecchetto (modern languages & linguistics) and I jointly organized the most popular conference session on “Exile, Identity and Language.”

Among session participants were three colleagues from our Faculty of Humanities: Iris Bruce and Branka Popic, both from modern languages & linguistics, and Maroussia Hajdukowski-Ahmed, Department of French (Popovic did not travel to England but rather had her paper read.).

The theme of language and identity in the context of exile seemed particularly relevant to many conference participants. This attraction can be easily explained. No matter how different the experience and the mode of leaving the familiar territory, no matter whether one is allowed to take all belongings or is lucky to escape alive, language is one thing all displaced individuals take with them.

With language often comes a representation of the native culture in form of verbalized beliefs and traditions. Is it possible to retain this culture and these languages if one is physically removed from their sphere of influence and, metaphorically speaking, cut off from their roots? Or is one doomed to lose touch with one's native culture and language by the very fact of being immersed in another one?

Is it possible at all to free oneself from one's old identity and adopt a new language and a new set of cultural values? Is exile still the worst fate imaginable, the way it was thought of by Euripides? Why then do so many people choose it, voluntarily abandoning their native countries and searching for a better life in a Promised Land?

McMaster University was one of the co-sponsors of the colloquium and the Faculty of Humanities hosted a wine and cheese reception on one of the evenings. The reception took place in the Elizabethan Room of Herstmonceux Castle and was attended by approximately 50 people. The reception was followed by an evening of music and dance, with a klezmer band making virtually everybody join the rejuvenating experience of music that knows no borders.