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On Writing and Exile: Eight Writers Who Changed Nationalities

Andrew Madigan By Andrew Madigan Published on September 9, 2016
This article was updated on October 16, 2017

It's not uncommon for writers to travel abroad, write in a foreign language, or even live in exile. What’s more rare is when they change nationality.

Until today writers have been banished or have chosen to move away from their homeland—Ovid and Dante, in classical and medieval times for example—but the modern “nation” hadn’t yet developed. Instead, there were city-states and principalities. Changing one’s nationality, then, is a modern phenomenon.

Karl Marx, after leaving or being deported from several nations, settled in the UK. He tried to become a British subject, but was turned down. Nevertheless, he spent the rest of his life in Britain. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn defected to the US and was stripped of his Soviet passport but he never became a citizen, even when the rest of his family did. Ezra Pound lived in self-exile in Italy, where he supported the Fascists and espoused anti-Semitism, but he nevertheless felt it was wrong to renounce one’s citizenship.

Here’s a look at eight prominent writers who left their home to become citizens of a foreign country:

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One thing these writers have in common is a complicated background—political, ethnic, national, and linguistic. Joseph Conrad is no exception. He was born in an area of the Ukraine that had broken off from the Kingdom of Poland in 1793 and was, at the time, ruled by Russia. His father, a poet and patriot, was arrested and exiled to Northern Russia in 1861. His parents died of TB when he was 12, after which an uncle raised him. Conrad moved to France at 17 and joined the merchant marines. At 21 he sailed to Britain where he learned English during a series of voyages, from conversation and scraps of newspaper. Because his uncle had moved the family to the Austrian part of the Ukraine Conrad tried to obtain Austrian citizenship, but his request was rejected. Moreover, he couldn’t return home because of his father’s political legacy, so he considered France and the US, but eventually settled in England. Conrad became a subject of Queen Victoria in 1886.

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Henry James was born into a wealthy New York banking family. They were also intellectuals who traveled extensively in Europe. James became a journalist and later a novelist, settling in London in 1869. There, he met Charles Dickens, George Eliot and other celebrated writers. Later, he relocated to Paris for a short time, meeting Emile Zola and Ivan Turgenev. James was smitten with Europe, and rarely set foot in the U.S. again. Many of his works grapple with the interaction and cultural distance between Europeans and Americans. In 1915, horrified by the US’ hesitation to enter World War I and defend its European allies, James renounced his citizenship and became a British subject. He died the next year in London, but was buried in the family plot in Massachusetts.

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T.S. Eliot is another Yank who became a Brit. As a young man he studied at Harvard, the Sorbonne and Oxford. In England he met Ezra Pound and Bertrand Russell, who introduced him to a wide range of political and artistic figures. Eliot settled in London, working as a teacher, banker, critic and editor. Significantly, he proofread Joyce’s Ulysses, as it was being serialized in the Egoist, which incited his identification with the modernist movement. Eliot felt a sense of acceptance in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of London. He enjoyed the romance of living abroad where he wasn’t defined by his background or his past—this was crucial for a poet who would break so completely with artistic convention in his experimental work. In 1927 Eliot converted to Anglicanism, the official Church of England, and became a British citizen. He even lost his provincial midwestern accent, making the transformation complete.

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Like Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov was a non-native English speaker who became one of the great prose stylists of the English language. His backstory, moreover, was equally convoluted. Nabokov came from an aristocratic Russian family. When it became clear that the Bolshevik Revolution would succeed, the family went into exile, first in England and later Berlin. Here, his father was fatally shot by a Russian monarchist who was aiming for Pavel Milyukov, leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party-in-exile. Afterward, Nabokov's family moved to Prague, but he stayed in Berlin, gaining a solid reputation for both poetry and fiction, writing under the pseudonym V. Sirin. He eventually married, his wife Vera gave birth to a son, and to make ends meet Nabokov taught languages, tennis and boxing. They were now safe from the Russians, but not from the Germans. In 1936 Vera lost her job because of rising anti-Semitism, so they settled in France. In 1940, as the Germans were approaching, they fled once again, this time to the US where Nabokov worked as an entomologist and college lecturer. In 1945 he came an American citizen.

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Now for an Englishman who became American: W.H. Auden, like the other authors, led a fascinating and frenetic life. He lived in Berlin and Scotland. He also travelled to Spain, like Hemingway, to drive an ambulance during the Civil War. In 1935 he married Thomas Mann’s daughter who he barely knew, so that she could escape from Nazi Germany. Auden moved to the US in 1939 but also spent time in Germany, Italy and Austria. In the UK his emigration was seen as a betrayal—it was even debated in Parliament. His reputation momentarily suffered, but in later years he taught at Oxford and was a Nobel Prize runner-up. Auden became an American citizen in 1946 but died in Austria in 1973. Could it be that writers who change citizenship do so because they’ve already been everywhere and done everything else? Fittingly, one of Auden’s best-known works is called “The Unknown Citizen,” composed shortly after his move to the US.

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Not many Americans became Ghanaian citizens during the Eisenhower years, but W.E.B. Du Bois was not an ordinary American. Historian, sociologist, activist, writer, Pan-Africanist, co-founder of the NAACP, handlebar moustache enthusiast—he was a true renaissance man. In 1957 Ghana asked him to join their celebrations following independence from Britain. Since the US government had confiscated his passport, Du Bois was unable to attend. He did, however, visit Africa in 1960 to support the inauguration of Nigeria’s first African governor. In 1961 he and his wife moved to Ghana. Two years later, when Du Bois was 93 years old, the U.S. refused to renew his passport. To protest, he became a Ghanaian citizen.

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Vladimiro Ariel Dorfman is another important writer-activist with a complex story. Born in 1942 in Argentina, his parents were immigrants—his father Russian-Jewish, his mother Moldovan-Jewish. The Dorfmans moved to the U.S. when Ariel was young, and then to Chile. Dorfman was a professor at the University of Chile, became a naturalized citizen in 1967, and worked as President Salvador Allende’s cultural adviser in the early 1970s. Following the 1973 coup by General Pinochet and Allende’s suicide, Dorfman fled to Paris, Amsterdam and then Washington, DC, where in 2004 he became a U.S. citizen. That’s two citizenship changes for Dorfman, for those of you keeping score.

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Our last entry is from South Africa, J.M. Coetzee, winner of two Booker Prizes and the Nobel. He moved to Australia in 2002 and became a citizen four years later. Why? That’s not an easy question, especially since Coetzee refuses to supply an answer. He’s not a political refugee and hasn’t renounced his country. In fact, Coetzee is, in many respects, the most apolitical of writers despite the fact that his novels describe a nation wracked by violence, political upheavals, imperialism, injustice and racism. During a ceremony when he received Australian citizenship Coetzee said, “I did not so much leave South Africa, a country with which I retain strong emotional ties, but come to Australia.”

He first visited Australia in 1991 and was, he says, immediately drawn to the country’s beauty and egalitarianism. But he had tragic personal incidents he might have been escaping, consciously or otherwise, such the death of his son, only 23, in an accident, or the negative reaction to his 1999 novel Disgrace, which many thought was racist. Perhaps Australia was a safer and more peaceful setting, where politics weren’t thrust so voraciously into everyday life.

Interestingly, Australia wasn’t his first attempt to relocate. In 1961 Coetzee left South Africa to settle in England. In 1966 he won a Fulbright to study in the US but was arrested at a peaceful protest against the police presence on campus. Because of this, his visa wasn’t renewed and he was forced to return home. Well, “home.” Like all eight of our writers, he eventually redefined the meaning of this simple word.

Editor's note: We realize that this article focuses exclusively on male writers. While they are fewer and further between, there have been a few women writers, such as Judith Kerr, who have changed nationalities. We invite you to take a look at our list here.

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Judith Kerr


    Freelance writer (food, drinks, books, travel, music, film) and former professor (creative writing, literature, Islamic studies, US history) and magazine editor who's lived in the UK, New York, ... Show More


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