Writing Diaspora: Transnational Memories, Identities And Cultures

Volume 12, Issue 2  | 
Published 13/10/2015

Editor: Asma Sayed

Publisher: Inter-Disciplinary Press, 2014

Reviewer: Emilia Ilieva

This volume of literary criticism expands, deepens and nuances the current understanding of diasporic writing as shaped by major theorists in the field. It does so by bringing into light literary representations of relatively little known diasporas as well as by conceptualising emergent or hitherto elusive aspects of diasporic life and diasporic literature.

Among the little known diasporas are those highlighted in the chapter by Claudio Braga and Glaucia R. Gonçalves – “Toward a Poetics of Diaspora: The Case of Japanese-American Writer Karen Tei Yamashita”. Focusing on Yamashita’s novel Brazil-Maru, which offers a representation of a Japanese community in Brazil, mostly in the early 20th century; and on her multi-generic Circle K. Cycles, about (rediasporised Japanese) Brazilians living in Japan in late 20th century, Braga and Gonçalves make insightful observations regarding the characteristics of these diasporas, both as collectives and as groups of distinct individuals. They point out that migrant communities become indelibly marked by their dislocation; with the deprivation they have suffered remoulding their character in complex ways. Even as communities dig deep into their internal resources and devise mechanisms of survival, and even where this creative impulse leads to prosperity, there is an “inevitable human cost” to migration. The specific circumstances of displacement are shown to have a bearing on the cohesiveness of the group, on its very diasporic quality. When forced, migration produces an urge towards togetherness, leads to clustered existence in the hostland, and generates a strong ethnic consciousness. In its collective memory, the group continues to inhabit the original home. But the work of memory competes with the vividness of immediate experience and the homeland gradually fades into a “fabricated, at times idealised, place where the heart lies”.

As far as diasporic individuals are concerned, Braga and Gonçalves argue that their sense of national origin does not inhibit their singularity. This is because of the hybrid and heterogeneous nature of diasporic experiences. The authors thus problematise, as does the writer they study, homogeneity and essentialist notions of the diasporic subject.

The identification of the literary strategies employed by Yamashita – a hybrid genre, multiple narrative points of view, as well as her blend of Portuguese, English, and Japanese – leads the two authors to the formulation of the concept of diaspoetics, or the poetics of diasporic writing, understood as “the fusion of text, paratext and context”.

Besides diaspoetics, helpful new concepts are formulated in Jairus Omuteche’s excellent chapter, “Diasporic Singularities and Global Cosmopolitanism”. Omuteche studies Edwidge Danticat’s novel Breath, Eyes, Memory, Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For, and Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters’ Street. In his analysis of the competing singularities and cosmopolitanism that build up diasporic identities in a globalising world he introduces the term optimisation process. It designates the dialogic re-engagement of immigrants with the hostland, the strategies they adopt “to integrate and belong in the new home in spite of the policies of exclusion by the host”. Omuteche also draws attention to the existence of a global “underground” and “illegitimate” diasporas as products of increasing global inequalities and discriminatory immigration policies. Of particular significance is the distinction Omuteche makes between the first and the second generation immigrants in terms of their responses to the host’s hegemonic power. In the author’s view, the second generation are more assertive and “claim multicultural and transnational identifications as they resist unidirectional European-centred assimilation”, which culminates into cosmopolitanism.

This latter point may well be the fine-tuning that Elizabeth Jackson’s argument is in need of. In her chapter on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck, Jackson somewhat sweepingly proclaims “the increasing irrelevance of the concept of diaspora” and the triumph of cosmopolitanism in the context of “ongoing globalisation”.

A diaspora sui generis emerges in Isabel Cristina Rodrigues Ferreira’s chapter on “Religious Experience in Paulina Chizaine’s O sétimo juramento”. Ferreira interprets as diasporic doubleness the experience of those postcolonial Mozambicans who retain a hidden loyalty to their traditional African religions and cultural practices and at the same time maintain an explicit commitment to Catholicism and Portuguese traditions.

In Asma Mansoor’s “Marriage Conventions in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane”, marriage in a diasporic setting is sensitively interpreted as a displacement within a larger displacement, or, alternatively, as a centre of gravity, where roots are established again.

Of special interest are chapters which examine writing itself as a means of overcoming the marginality imposed on the migrant subject. Anabela Alves persuasively shows how, through the power of the imagination and the will, Puerto Rican writer Esmeralda Santiago carves her memoirs into an alternative site of existence for herself and her people, a site in which the self is reconstituted into wholeness, and in which a new home emerges.

Similarly, Eric Tinsay Valles posits that a writer can will an inclusive and nurturing nation into being. The scholar argues that the ethically inspired poetry of Edwin Thumboo legitimises “the otherness” of Singapore’s constituent ethnic communities and gives their multiplicity “the stamp of a broad national identity”. On their part, Shri Krishan Rai and Anugamini Rai demonstrate how Derek Walcott’s innovative handling of the English language enables him to negotiate a Caribbean identity in unmistakably indigenous creations and at the same time to imagine a world without political and social borders.

But diaspora writers can also find themselves at the be intersection of extreme pressures, detrimental to their careers, as J. B. Rollins and Paochai Chiang show in their chapter on “Chinese Writers in Exile: Eileen Chang and Gao Xingjian”.

Perhaps the only thing that has not worked out well in this collection is the editorial decision for authorial cross referencing. Rather than serving a unifying purpose, this approach has led to a certain degree of predictability, monotony, and an artificially narrowed scope of vision. But the book’s integrity is not in question.

Asma Sayed has edited a text that makes a significant contribution to the study of the literature of migration. She has succeeded in showing – through literary examination – how the varied outcomes of diaspora have led to the formation of transnational memories, identities and cultures.


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