American Diaspora

The United States is home to various diaspora communities that enrich and enhance American literature and culture. The literature produced by diasporas such as the African diaspora, the Chinese diaspora, and the Vietnamese diaspora is indispensable to the study of American literature as well as transnational and postcolonial literature. As the world becomes more globalized and interconnected, reading diasporic literature helps us to understand displaced populations worldwide.

American Diaspora American Diaspora

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Table of contents

    A Definition of American Diaspora

    Diaspora comes from the Greek term for disperse or scatter across. The term refers to a group of people who have been displaced from their homeland. It is also sometimes considered a kind of exile, for example, with the dispersion of Jews from the Land of Israel beginning in the 8th century BCE. Diaspora communities generally retain a strong connection to their homeland through food, language, religion, and cultural practices. They maintain these practices and the cultural identity of the homeland even though they reside in a different country.

    American diaspora, map of the world, StudySmarterDiaspora communities exist worldwide.

    The difference between diaspora and immigration is often confusing. Most importantly, diaspora populations maintain a strong connection to their homeland and view their place of origin as their true home. On the other hand, migration occurs when individuals set out intending to settle in a new place. Migrants do not continue to hold the homeland in the collective imagination the way diaspora populations do.

    Causes of American Diaspora

    Diaspora has various causes, and American diaspora communities come from around the globe. While diaspora can result from voluntary migration, it is often caused by outside forces, including natural disasters, wars, and other manmade circumstances such as slavery and colonialism.

    American diaspora, Vietnamese refugees, StudySmarterThe Vietnam War was one of the main causes of the Vietnamese diaspora.

    For example, the African diaspora began through the forced dispersion of African people through the transatlantic slave trade. The Vietnam War resulted in a large Vietnamese diaspora, and, more recently, diasporas have been created by events such as the Syrian Civil War and the Venezuelan refugee crisis. Alternatively, other diasporas, such as the Mexican diaspora, result from compounding problems, including limited economic opportunities, restrictive government policies, and high levels of violence in some areas.

    The three largest diasporas worldwide are the Indian, Mexican, and Chinese diasporas.1

    Characteristics of American Diaspora Literature

    There are three key characteristics in diaspora literature:

    • A strong connection to the displaced person’s homeland
    • The depiction of a difficult journey
    • Contrasting the new place of residence to the displaced person’s homeland

    Connection to the Homeland

    One of the most important characteristics of diaspora literature, and diaspora communities in general, is a strong connection to the displaced community’s homeland. Diaspora people maintain a connection to their homeland through language, religion, and cultural practices. Memory also plays an important role, and the power of memory and nostalgia are often important themes in diasporic literature, as the homeland takes on an almost mystic quality. For example, South Asian American poet Fatimah Asghar explores this complicated sense of nostalgia and longing for home in their poetry collection If They Come For Us (2018). They write:

    “I love a man who saved my family by stealing our home.

    I want a land that doesn’t want me. I love a land that doesn’t exist.”

    -If They Come For Us (“How We Left: Film Treatment”)

    Many diasporic communities continue to uphold the memory and traditions of home and long to return one day, even if that home no longer exists.

    A Difficult Journey

    Another characteristic of diaspora literature is the journey that takes displaced individuals from their homeland to a new country. Often times this journey is painful or difficult and deeply affects characters for years to come. Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnamese American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen, for example, describes Vietnamese refugees escaping the country by sea in his short story collection, The Refugees (2017):

    “By the fifth evening, the only sounds besides the waves slapping at the hull were children whimpering and adults praying to God, Buddha, and their ancestors.” -The Refugees (“I’d Love You to Want Me”)

    The protagonist of Thanh Nguyen’s short story has lived in the United States for many years, but she still remembers the trauma of her journey and returns to the memory often.

    Depiction of the Host Country

    The final characteristic of diasporic literature is the displaced individual’s experience in the new country of their destination. This experience is often associated with isolation, alienation, and disorientation as characters try to fit themselves into a new society and culture. Alternatively, other characters cope with displacement by fully embracing the host country’s culture and leaving their own behind. Cuban American writer Cristina García’s novel Dreaming in Cuban (1992) presents an example of this facet of diaspora literature:

    “Lourdes considers herself lucky. Immigration has redefined her, and she is grateful. Unlike her husband, she welcomes her adopted language, its possibilities for reinvention. Lourdes relishes winter most of all—the cold scraping sounds on sidewalks and windshields, the ritual of scarves and gloves, hats and zip-in coat linings. Its layers protect her. She wants no part of Cuba, no part of its wretched carnival floats creaking with lies, no part of Cuba at all, which Lourdes claims never possessed her.” -Dreaming in Cuban (“A Grove of Lemons”)

    García’s protagonist, Lourdes, embraces her life in the United States in a way her husband does not, which begins to drive them apart. Much of the conflict in diaspora literature revolves around how displaced people handle their situation and whether they cling to their traditional ways or adopt the new practices of the host country.

    Examples of Diaspora in American Literature

    American literature has been influenced by various diasporas, including the African diaspora, the Chinese diaspora, the Vietnamese diaspora, and the Mexican diaspora.

    African Diasporic Literature

    The African diaspora began with the Transatlantic slave trade, in which somewhere between 5 and 100 million Africans were sold into slavery and dispersed around the world.2 Later, other African diasporas were generated by the effects of colonialism, civil war, and more. Today, African diasporic literature in the United States is generally differentiated from African American literature using the characteristics mentioned above, primarily featuring a strong connection to the homeland. Some examples of African diaspora writers working in the United States include:

    • Teju Cole (1975-present)
    • Wayétu Moore (1985-present)
    • Yaa Gyasi (1989-present)

    Chinese Diasporic Literature

    The Chinese diaspora is the second largest in the world, with 60 million individuals and their dependents living outside of China. The first wave of Chinese migration to the United States began in the 19th century during the California gold rush.

    American diaspora, chinatown, StudySmarterChinatowns, a result of the Chinese diaspora, exist around the world.

    However, the first literature produced by this diaspora was written in Chinese languages and has only recently begun to be studied. Many Chinese diaspora writers in the United States started receiving national and international acclaim in the mid-late 20th century. Some key Chinese diaspora writers in the United States include:

    • Bette Bao Lord (1938-present)
    • Amy Tan (1952-present)
    • C. Pam Zhang (1990-present)

    Vietnamese Diasporic Literature

    The Vietnamese diaspora arrived in the United States following the Vietnam War, and the United States remains home to the largest community of Vietnamese people living outside of Vietnam. In addition to themes common to diasporic literature, much of the literature from the Vietnamese diaspora deals with the war and its aftermath. Some key Vietnamese diaspora writers in the United States are:

    • Lan Cao (1961-present)
    • Viet Thanh Nguyen (1971-present)
    • Ocean Vuong (1988-present)

    Mexican Diasporic Literature

    Mexico is by far the largest source of immigration to the United States. Unlike some, such as the Vietnamese diaspora, which has an explicit primary cause, the Mexican diaspora has various sources. These include poverty and limited opportunities among rural, often indigenous populations. Additionally, more restrictive US immigration policies have interrupted the once-open movement and exchange of labor between the two countries, causing many migrants to live outside of Mexico more permanently. Some key writers of the Mexican diaspora working in the United States include:

    • Tomás Rivera (1935-1984)
    • Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa (1942-2004)
    • Helena Maria Viramontes (1954-present)

    There is some debate about whether the Mexican population in the United States is the result of diaspora or migration. Based on your understanding of migration and diaspora, how would you define it?

    Facts About American Diaspora Literature

    • The concept of diaspora dates back to the dispersal of Jews in the 8th century BCE.
    • The term became more widespread in the 1950s and 60s when scholars applied it to the African diaspora.
    • Diaspora is an important concept in studying transnational and postcolonial literature.
    • The United States is home to many large diaspora communities that have significantly contributed to American literature.

    American Diaspora - Key Takeaways

    • Diaspora refers to a population of people who have been dispersed from a place but continue to share a common heritage.
    • Diaspora communities in the United States come from around the globe.
    • Diaspora has a number of different causes, including natural disasters, wars, and other manmade circumstances such as slavery and colonialism.
    • Some characteristics of diaspora literature include a strong connection to the displaced person’s homeland, the depiction of a difficult journey, and contrasting the new place of residence to the displaced person’s homeland.
    • Some of the largest diaspora communities in the United States are the African diaspora, the Chinese diaspora, the Vietnamese diaspora, and the Mexican diaspora.

    1Kably, Lubna. “With $78 billion, India Still Highest Overseas Remittance Receiver.” The Economic Times. 2019.

    2Chambers, Glen. “The Transatlantic Slave Trade and Origins of the African Diaspora in Texas.” Texas A&M University. 2021.

    Frequently Asked Questions about American Diaspora

    What is the meaning of American diaspora?

    Diaspora refers to a group of people who have been displaced from their homeland yet retain strong ties to that homeland.

    What led to American diaspora?

    Diaspora communities arrived in the United States due to a variety of causes, including natural disasters, wars, and other manmade circumstances such as slavery and colonialism.

    What is the importance of American diaspora?

    Members of various diasporas in the United States have made important contributions to American literature and American culture more generally.

    What are the effects of American diaspora?

    Diasporas in the United States create connections between the United States and the various home countries of diasporic populations.

    What are the characteristics of American diaspora?

    Some characteristics of diaspora literature in the United States include a strong connection to the displaced person’s homeland, the depiction of a difficult journey, and contrasting the new place of residence to the displaced person’s homeland.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which is NOT a common cause of diaspora?

    Which is NOT a characteristic of diaspora literature?

    True or false? African diaspora literature consists only of African American writers.

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