A Case for Diaspora Writing as a Literary Movement

I’m in the midst of writing a review of Memory At Bay, a novel by Evelyne Trouillot translated by Paul Curtis Daw.  As I was writing an idea became stuck in my head – relevant to the book and the review, but too large and unformed at this stage to actually use.  The only way I can think of to move past it and get back to work is to do a massive data-dump…  plus I’d love to put it out there to hear what everyone else thinks of it.

My question is:  can diaspora writing be considered a literary movement of the late 20th- early 21st- centuries? And if so, what would be its defining characteristics?  Here’s what I’ve found so far.

A Google search brought up both the terms “diasporic literature” (which is a horrible name) and “exile literature”, but I think diaspora and exile are two different things.  Modern diaspora is a kind of expatriation associated almost exclusively with people of the developing world who leave their home countries for socio-economic and political reasons: war, famine, poverty and corrupt governments. But they aren’t necessarily refugees or exiles.  The implication is that refugees are fleeing ahead of something.  That they are leaving against their will and that when the region they are leaving stabilizes they will try to return.  The word exile, on the other hand, implies a specific individual (or race or religious group) forced to leave because they are being targeted.  In contrast, members of a diaspora leave in search of better circumstances, better opportunities and (yes, this too) for safety. They plan and prepare.  It is a kind of immigration (though members of a diaspora do not always come through legal channels). Ultimately, they are looking for a new home where they and their loved ones can thrive.

Puerto Rico (though not a country), Haiti and other Caribbean Islands, African nations (particularly Eastern, Western and Central), India, Bangladesh… these are all countries I associate with diaspora.*  Countries, the majority relatively small, whose citizens have dispersed throughout the world in large numbers.  Diaspora writing is about the transition between one country and another, about resettling and rebuilding of lives, and is often multi-generational.  Another important characteristic of the literature is an attachment to memory and an underlying sense of guilt – for having left and for building a new life somewhere else.  Displacement.  Diversity. Navigation. Perhaps diaspora writing is about coming to terms with voluntary exile.

The writers who are a part of the diaspora tend to settle in the wealthier Western countries. English language countries like England, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.  They write in English or write in another language and are translated into English. Zadie Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri, Salman Rushdie, Alain Mabanckou, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Evelyne Trouillot, Jean-Euphèle Milcé and maybe Valeria Luiselli and Bolaño (Mexico and Latin America is somewhat tricky for a number of reasons) – they are some of the writers whose work I would put in the category of diaspora writing.

The immediate result of diaspora writing is that it brings a fresh perspective to English literature. It is a reexamination of Western culture, described by someone who is simultaneously embedded and detached, and gives voice to a huge segment of Western society that is too often marginalized and ignored.  At its best it explores the fusion of two cultures, allowing for endless variations.

One last piece of information I found interesting: the word “diaspora” entered into the English language as recently as the late 1800’s.  A graph generated by the Google Ngram Viewer (which tracks the usage of a word or phrase in books) shows a jump in its usage between the years 1980-2008 of approximately 250%.  I can’t embed the chart into this post, but you can follow the link to it below.


That’s all I’ve got at the moment.  I hope I haven’t bored everyone to death.  My final question is – what do you think?  Is diaspora writing a real thing or have I over thought it? (I’m really not sure 🙂 ).  And are there other countries and authors you’d include in the category? I’d really love to hear what everyone thinks.


*For some reason I don’t entirely associate diaspora with most Asian and Latin American countries, though at the moment I can’t explain why.  

8 thoughts on “A Case for Diaspora Writing as a Literary Movement

  1. Isn’t it just the continuation of a school of writing going way back look at joyce for example he wrote most of his books outside his homeland in Paris or trieste through the exiled writers of communism not sure there is a strong enough case to band different writers together I think publishers find romantic notions I’m writers back stories and some.of these writers benefit from that .An interesting question Tara

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Stu,
      You’re point is a good one. There is definitely a precedent, though we probably can disqualify Joyce to a certain extent because he seems to have written very little on his own expatriate lifestyle (Hemingway would be a better example I think). The writers who are part of a more global diaspora write about the experience of this massive migration/dissemination of people.

      My devil’s argument would be that the difference in scale and wealth/class, and the fact that these writers come from small countries whose impact on the world has been minimal in other ways.

      Oh, and I completely agree with publishers finding romantic notions in writers’ backstories. Bloomsbury and the Beats are two groups who benefitted hugely from that in my opinion.


  2. I’m not sure, I’m trying to think of examples and only coming up with Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser (and I’m not even sure about that). But hey, we can have a lot of fun tossing the idea around, so don’t give up on it yet *smile*


    1. Hi Lisa, I thought Australia would be a mecca of this kind of writing. I always had the impression (though I have no evidence on which to base it) that there was a huge immigrant population. That’s how much I know. 🙂

      I wonder if diaspora is the right word? Maybe what I really mean is migration? As you can read, I am still sorting this out. In the end I may just realize it’s entirely fanciful.


      1. Oh, but you are right, we are a nation of immigrants and our writing reflects that. There are communities here from the Indian diaspora, the Jewish diaspora, and dating back to 19th century, the Irish diaspora. I’m using the word diaspora to mean a significant proportion of a country/ethnic group that leaves because it has to for some reason (potato famine, job opportunities, anti-Semitism, war) and spreads around the world, forming major new communities in their new homeland. Is that what you mean?


      2. Yes! Exactly. And what I am trying to determine is whether writing dealing specifically with that experience has become more prevalent in the last 20 years.


      3. Well, there’s Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn (Irish diaspora), and an entire Anglo-Indian/Pakistani body of work from people like Zadie Smith (Indian diaspora) …I can’t think of any more now, it’s 3.30AM here and I really must turn out the light, will try and think further tomorrow…

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I do not think that a literature of diaspora has become more prevalent in the last few decades. Rather the displacement changes. Europe, for example throughout the 20th century – Jewish writers, central and eastern European writers fleeing the censorship of Communism), even Balkan writers more recently. South Asian, East Asian (Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese) more recently and so on.

    I think the key factor is dependent on how the writer identifies him or herself. In that way, someone who leaves their homeland may identify closely with their new home, the second generation may still have strong cultural and family ties with their homeland that informs their writing. As well, some people live and work in a country, say the US or UK, but continue to see themselves as writing as Africans or Indians, etc. I think of someone like Zakes Mda who has lived and taught in the US for a long time but still writes of and publishes in South Africa.

    Here in Canada, a writer I enjoy is MG Vassangi. Raised in Tanzania he came to the US to study at MIT, moved to Toronto to work as a nuclear physicist or something, and started writing. He has lived here for over 30 years but refuses to define himself as a writer. If forced he will say he is an East African-South Asian-Canadian. His writing typically straddles those identities. I think he would however see himself as part of that East African diaspora, but in recent years he has been spending more time back in Tanzania and recently published a memoir of his childhood.

    So diasporic writing can only be defined from within. And it is fluid. In Nov, 2014 I heard a Sri Lankan- Canadian author named Shyam Selvaduri speak here in Calgary and he argues that immigrant writers ideally write not from where they come from or where they end up, so much as they write “from the hyphen” and that migration (regardless of whether it is choice or necessity) is a process, it is not a fixed identity. I believe he writes about this in the introduction to a book called Story Wallah: Short Fiction from South Asia (2005).

    Just my addition to the discussion. This is something that interests me too.

    Liked by 1 person

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