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.  

Alphabet of the Night by Jean-Euphèle Milcé (translated from the original French by Christopher Moncrieff)

Alphabet of the NightThere’s a passage in Alain Mabanckou’s Black Bazaar where he compares expatriate Haitian writers to “hunted birds”.

I wondered why Haitians are either brilliant writers or taxi drivers for life in New York and Miami.  And when they’re writers they are in exile.  Do writers always have to live in another country, and preferably be forced to live there so that they’ve got things to write about and other people can analyse the influence of exile on their writing?…

…These Haitian writers are like hunted birds.  They’ve had more than thirty-two coups d’état back home and not a country in the world has equalled this record yet.  With each coup d’état, flocks of writers have emigrated.  They left everything behind, setting out with nothing apart from their manuscripts and their driving licence.  I wish I’d been born Haitian so I could be a writer in exile who understands the song of the migrating bird, but I don’t have any manuscripts, or a driving licence to become, in the worst-case scenario, a taxi driver in the streets of Paris …

Jean-Euphèle Milcé is one of those “hunted birds” Mabanckou refers to.  Born in Haiti, he both attended and taught school there.  Currently he  lives in “voluntary exile” (Milcé’s words) in Switzerland with his wife and children.  His novella (published by Pushkin Press) deals with loss; grief; displacement; and what it means to abandon one’s country.  Alphabet of the Night contains many beautiful moments which form a fractured portrait of a man and his country.

The man, the book’s protagonist, is Jeremy Assaël – a gay, Jewish shopkeeper whose lover is murdered in the street in front of Jeremy’s shop. It is his breaking point.  Engulfed by grief Jeremy leaves Port-au-Prince and travels back to his childhood home.  He is searching for his friend Fresnal, who disappeared suddenly and mysteriously several years ago.  Jeremy wishes to learn, definitively, whether Fresnal is alive or dead.  His quest for the truth about his friend becomes a spiritual journey which forces him to confront the truth about his place in the country he considers home.

The book is told primarily from Jeremy’s point of view.  Each chapter begins with the date and time, like journal entries.  And almost every chapter ends with a radio bulletin, written in italics, describing the deteriorating state of the country.  These bulletins are the best bits of the book.  They contain a frenetic urgency and gallows humor which rings true.  They also form a welcome crack in the fugue state of Jeremy’s thoughts. We spend the first two-thirds of the book trapped inside Jeremy’s head attempting to follow his densely written, stream-of-conscious style narrative.  It’s after the final third that the story (and landscape) opens up and there is forward movement in the plot.

Haiti often reminds me of a train station, or airport terminal, or any other node that men pass through on their way to or from someplace else.  It’s population is constantly in flux. Prior to independence French planters and African slaves poured into the French colony Saint-Domingue by the hundreds of thousands.  When revolution came the mulatto and remaining French planters fled in droves, seeking refuge in places as unlikely as Philadelphia (bringing Yellow Fever with them).   And in the 20th century the frequent and violent changes in government, natural disasters and a 77% poverty rate has sparked an influx of aid workers and a diaspora of Haitians who seek new homes in cities around the globe.

During WWII Haiti became a safe haven for many Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.  This is perhaps how Jeremy’s family came to the island.  The Haitian government  offered Visas to Jewish refugees at a time when other countries refused.  Some stayed on (though today the Jewish population has dwindled into the double digits).  Milcé uses this concept of “being a Jew” to explore a larger theme.  There’s an elegant parallel between the “wandering Jew” and the Haitian diaspora.  Jeremy first leaves his shop, then his city, and ultimately must decide whether or not to leave his country.  He returns to the same touchstones  – he is a Jew; his family has been in Haiti for three generations; he comes from a line of shopkeepers – without finding solace.  Jeremy’s thoughts loop back on themselves.  They become repetitive, though never to the point of becoming contrived.

Morning found me down at the harbour, by a sea that was pursuing an old, everyday wave. It caught me with my head in hands that were still warm with desire.  Its rhythm stood bolt upright in my path.  I have a horror of the sea. It is too closely linked to my family history. How many Jews have made a destiny for themselves out of fantasies about the ocean swell?  I have no right to leave. The sea reminds me to much of running away, of stories told to one horizon after another.  My family tradition is a bottle thrown by a chain of events, trailing behind it a steam of discriminations crammed together in every harbour in the world.

Instinctively I step back from the sea.  How can a whole race make an entry in their diary which might involve being tossed about by floods? To my way of thinking, exile is that profound self-perception that comes after every journey into the events and places nearest me.

Jeremy is a man four-times displaced.  In addition to being Jewish: he is white in a predominantly black country; a wealthy man selling to the poor; and a homosexual.  He is reminded repeatedly of his outsider status.  Yet the idea of leaving tears him apart.  There is no sense of him being uncomfortable or at a loss as he travels around the island.  Haiti is the only home he’s ever known, but it becomes clear that the only true ties he has to it are his memories.

I believe Alphabet of the Night is Milcé’s first novel.   He took part in a panel at the PEN World Voices Festival on the Critic’s Global Voice this past Summer and was charming, funny, intelligent and (despite having to speak through a translator) incredibly eloquent.  Which led me to buy his book after the event.  Alphabet of the Night delivered on my expectations in that you can open it to any page and find lovely, lyrical prose. But as a whole this small novella never quite came together for me.  The sentences are disjointed, particularly in the early pages.  Too much of the plot is spent treading water.  And I have some serious concerns about the quality of the translation (which at times reads awkwardly and is too self-conscious).

Despite these flaws I recommend reading Alphabet of the Night.  Milcé has written an original story, with an unusual character and often lovely prose.  And, equally important, read it because novels set in contemporary Haiti are difficult to find. Haiti is country that weaves drunkenly back & forth between extremes:  violence and idealism, hope and cynicism, incredible beauty and incredible depravity.  It  is also a place of great hope and courage.  With that in mind, anything about this small island’s – half an island, really – rich history is worth reading.

Publisher:  Pushkin Press, London (2007)
ISBN:  978 1 90128 5 765

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