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.