Migration and Metamorphosis in Nabokov’s Pnin and Hill’s The Book of Negroes

MonarchButterfliesatAmistadNRADisplacements, the loss of home and homeland, and the attempt to root oneself in a new place, all plough a deep furrow in our identity and our consciousness. Individual and collective transformation is the inevitable result. The literature of migration explores these events and their many implications.

We will read two acclaimed accounts of exile from homeland, one voluntarily embraced after cataclysmic political change, Nabokov’s post-revolutionary Pnin. The other migration was imposed as part of the horrific experience of enslavement as described in The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill. We will examine these novels for an understanding of the issues faced by the uprooted protagonists, how they make their way in a new milieu, and what transformations they undergo in the process.

Among the issues we will consider are notions of home and identity, the role of memory and nostalgia, the impact of language in adaptation and survival, the binary implications of migration, and the link between self-identity and place. How does the imagination process profound dislocation? What are the tools and techniques these authors use to unravel their stories, construct their characters, and make their mark? What factors allow such transformational experiences to be turned into opportunities for progress?

Read more in my blog post, Exile and Identity in Pnin and The Book of Negroes.

“‘Abdication! One-third of the alphabet!’ coldly quipped the King, with the trace of an accent. ‘The answer is no. I prefer the unknown quantity of exile.’”

– Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin


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Nella Cotrupi is a literary scholar, lawyer, and educator whose work focuses on the social and ethical dimensions of art. As an immigrant, she is fascinated by displacement and its impact on identity.

Participants are required to obtain the specified editions in order to facilitate the group’s ability to find and cite portions of the text during discussion.

Pnin, by Vladimir Nabokov
(Vintage International, 1989)
ISBN-13: 978-0-679-72341-7

The Book of Negroes, by Lawrence Hill (HarperCollins, 2011)
ISBN-13: 978-1-443-40898-1

Please search by ISBN to purchase this international edition, as the book was published in the U.S. under a different title.

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