DIASPORA: THE SUBJECT OF ONGOING DEBATE
The concept of diaspora has elicited unprecedented interest among academicians and has provoked divergent responses worldwide. How to define diaspora has been the subject of ongoing debate.
Safran maintains that diaspora is that segment of people living outside homeland. Docker defines diaspora as “a sense of belonging to more than one history, to more than one time and place, to more than one past and future.”1 Scholars like Brah, Gilroy, Stuart Hall and Phil Cohen are divided in their opinions on the issue of diaspora. Clearly, a working definition of diaspora is in order.
Etymologically, the term ‘diaspora’ is derived from the Greek word ‘dia’ and ‘speiro’. ‘Dia’ means ‘through’ and ‘speiro’ means to ‘scatter’. The literal meaning of diaspora is ‘scattering’ or ‘dispersion’. The word ‘diaspora’ has often been used to describe the original dispersion of the Jews in the 6th century B.C. or to refer particularly to the Jews living outside Palestine among people of non-Jewish faith. “For Jews, Africans, Palestinians and Armenians diaspora signifies a collective trauma where one dreams of home while living in exile.”2
Today the term diaspora has made a dynamic comeback in the debates around ethnicity, nationality and nationhood, boundaries and identity. In current parlance, the above-mentioned term is applied as a metaphoric designation for expatriates, expellees, refugees, alien residents, immigrants, displaced communities and ethnic minorities. Emmanuel Nelson has used this paradigm to analyse expatriate writing.
The term diaspora has now attained the full-fledged status of a concept. Today intellectuals and activists from various fields are frequently using it to describe such categories as “immigrants, guest workers, ethnic and racial minorities, refugees, expatriates and travellers.”3 It has now emerged to be a useful concept to analyse the relationship between place and identity and the ways cultures and literatures interact. In the present day literary studies it has achieved great significance. According to this concept, different responses to migration are articulated in literature produced in the places where diasporic communities exist. Apparently a metaphorical application of the term is prevalent, encompassing a wide range of phenomenon under the very notion. For the last four decades, many dispersed communities, those once known as minorities, ethnic groups, migrants, exiles etc. have now been renamed as diasporas either by scholars or academicians.
It is interesting to note that the early 1990s witnessed the conceptualisation and systematisation of this term. In 1991 Khachig Tololyan launched a journal named Diaspora. As an editor of this journal, he said:
We use Diaspora provisionally to indicate our belief that the term that once described Jewish, Greek, and Armenian dispersion now shares meaning with a larger semantic domain that includes words like immigrant, expatriate, refugees, guest workers, exile community, overseas community, ethnic community.4
According to William Safran, the concept of diaspora can be applied to expatriate minority communities whose members share several of the following characteristics:
§ they, or their ancestors, have been dispersed from a specific original ‘centre’ to two or more ‘peripheral’, or foreign regions;
§ they retain a collective memory, vision, or myth about their original homeland -- its physical location, history, and achievements;
§ they believe that they are not -- and perhaps cannot be -- fully accepted by their host society and therefore feel partly alienated and insulted from it;
§ they regard their ancestral homeland as their true, ideal home and as the place to which they or their descendants would (or should) eventually return -- when condition are appropriate;
§ they believe that they should, collectively, be committed to the maintenance or restoration of their homeland and to its safety and prosperity; and
§ they continue to relate, personally or vicariously, to that homeland in one way or another, and their ethno-communal consciousness and solidarity are importantly defined by the existence of such a relationship.5
It is clear from this brief survey that the notion of diaspora is used to refer a wide range of historical and contemporary phenomena. This brief survey offers an opportunity to push the debate forward. In fact, a diaspora exists and reproduced by relying on everything that creates a bond in a place among those who want to group together and maintain, from a distance, relations with other groups, installed in other places but having the same identity. This bond can come in different forms, such as family, community, religious bonds or shared memory of a catastrophe or trauma suffered by members of the diaspora or the forebears. A diaspora has a symbolic and iconographic capital that enables it to reproduce and overcome the obstacle of distance separating its communities. Diaspora areas and territories must be gauged first in the host country, where the community bond plays the essential role, then in the country or territory of origin -- a pole of attraction -- through memory. Thus the term diaspora has more of a metaphorical than an instrumental role. On this basis it can be said that diasporic writings are invariably concerned with exile, memory, diasporic consciousness, longing for return, alienation, nostalgia, search for identity and sense of belonging. While languages, customs and traditions are distinct, all diasporic experiences share a similar sense of displacement, of seeking a sense of belonging. These experiences influence literary imagination and map literary texts.
1. John Docker, The Poetics of Diaspora (London: Continuum, 2001), p. vii.
2. Robin Cohen, Global Diasporas: An Introduction (London: UCL Press), p. 26.
3. Steven Vetovec, “Three Meanings of Diaspora: Exemplified among South-Asian Religions”, Diaspora, Vol. 6 (3) (1997), p. 277.
4. Khachig Tololyan, “The Nation State and its Others: In Lieu of a Preface”, Diaspora Vol. (1) (1991), p. 4.
5. William Safran, “Diaspora in Modern Societies: Myth of Homeland and Return”, Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies (spring 1991), p. 83- 4.
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