Book Review: Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction, by Kevin Kenny

Bradley FarlessGraduate Work, History, Reviews0 Comments

Kevin Kenny’s book, Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction, is part of a series of short introductions on a wide range of topics published by the Oxford University Press. As a very short introduction with just 109 pages of content, Kenny does his best to avoid becoming bogged down in historical details and instead focuses on elucidating the theoretical framework of diaspora itself. Kenny argues that the term diaspora has been used in so wide a variety of situations that it has begun to lose its utility as a tool of study. To combat this trend, Kenny tries to narrow the definition of diaspora by identifying three key attributes that diasporic groups possess: movement, connectivity, and return. He supports and expands on this framework for diaspora by analyzing a geographically diverse range of population movements.

Kenny’s conception of diaspora is heavily rooted in Jewish tradition. He traces the word diaspora back to its use in the Septuagint, a Greek translation of Hebrew scriptures from approximately 250 BCE. He argues that the Jewish understanding of diaspora, which was originally meant to convey the idea of spiritual estrangement from God, became conflated with galut, a Hebrew word which means physical exile (Kenny, 4-5). So, the Jews saw physical and spiritual exile from the land as being part of the same experience or process. Kenny positions this process of catastrophe, forced movement and a hope for redemption through return as the most useful structure of diaspora as a concept.

Is Kenny’s understanding of diaspora sound? Does it make sense to only apply the term diaspora if a migratory group’s situation conforms to the Jewish experience of exile and a hoped for divine redemption, or does that privilege Western understandings of history unnecessarily? One could argue that a word must have a set meaning, but the meanings of words have always changed over time. Also, for an academic study, it might make more sense to define a term in a way that does not rely on a specific set of religious ideas, especially if the goal is to make it generally applicable for groups of differing religious and cultural backgrounds. Because of how Kenny positions the idea of diaspora, at times it feels as if he is stretching the experience of the immigrant groups he examines to push them into the box he has built. He also fails to examine in any meaningful way the experiences of groups that would challenge his construction of diaspora. That may not be a fair critique for a very short introduction, but considering his conjecture that there are many opposing viewpoints of what constitutes a diaspora, including an example could have benefitted readers. Also, if Kenny is committed to the idea of scholars having the obligation to create a specific definition of diaspora and maintain it, why does he backpedal in his closing chapter by asking, “But if a given group chooses to define itself as a diaspora for its own purposes, who is the author of a short introduction to disagree? (Kenny, 109).

Kenny’s book is arranged thematically, rather than by group. He defines how he understands diaspora in chapter one and then spends the next three chapters expanding on the experiences of a handful of groups to elaborate on that definition. On the one hand, arranging his book this way makes it difficult to follow the individual experiences of the groups he reviews. In most cases, there are no chapter subheadings to orient the reader if they were interested in just one group’s experiences, making the reading experience potentially more laborious. Arranging his book thematically also leads to the repetition of information in some cases, which is space that could have been used for opposing views or the analysis of additional groups. On the other hand, organizing the book thematically allows the reader to clearly see the similarities between the experiences of the different groups, which better suits the author’s purpose of attempting to define diaspora.

Kenny’s first qualifier for a group to be a diaspora is an initial movement from a homeland. This movement must have a catastrophic element that creates a sense of imposed exile. Because of his concern for overextending the use of the word diaspora, Kenny is careful when discussing the history of the migration of different groups to differentiate between normal migration and a forced migration that creates a diaspora. His best example to support this idea is his discussion of the continuous migration of Irish to other countries over a period of hundreds of years, beginning in the 1700s. He points out that it was the potato blight in 1841to1855, which caused massive famine and a sudden, massive increase in the number of people migrating out of Ireland that was the defining moment in the creation of an Irish diaspora. The Irish who went abroad blamed England for their circumstances and for the deaths caused by the famine. They felt that England engineered the blight to eradicate them. This feeling of oppression created a sense of exile that reinforced their identity as a diasporic community. He also shows how the Jewish diasporic community suffered a catastrophic event that began a period of diaspora, though he oddly positions the beginning of diaspora in 586 BCE with the Babylonian exile. While historically accurate, Jews see exile and return as cyclical and the most recent exile, imposed by the Romans in 70 CE after they destroyed the Second Temple was the defining event for the majority of diasporic Jews. It marked the end of Jewish sovereignty for approximately two-thousand years and, unlike the Babylonian exile, removed almost the entirety of the population from the area.

Kenny’s second qualifier is connectivity. This is an interesting idea, but it does not seem as well-developed as Kenny’s explanations of either the initial migration or of the desire for return. Or rather, it seems that in each category a different group fits more neatly into Kenny’s definition of diaspora. For the initial migration, Irish and Jews clearly fit into the model of catastrophe leading to diaspora. For Africans, there was certainly a catastrophic event, but Kenny points out that Africans were victims of being sold into slavery in other parts of the world as well. Kenny attempts to downplay the experiences of African slaves in other areas of the world to bolster his claim that Atlantic slavery was definitive in creating an African diaspora. It seems more likely, however, that rather than the initial experience of being sold into slavery, it was racialization that created a feeling of commonality between Africans, which is something that Kenny brings up, but only in the sense that it created a sense of connectivity among Africans in the Atlantic world. This brings up another point. What is connectivity? Did Africans in South America actively communicate with Africans in the southeast United States or the Caribbean? Or is Kenny simply referring to a feeling of solidarity and common experience?

The third qualifier, which focuses on the idea of return, is the most interesting. Kenny focuses on the fact that many members of diasporic communities may not choose to return, even when given the opportunity. He oddly situates a discussion of this regarding Indians in South America in the chapter dealing with connectivity, but it is relevant here as well. This speaks to Kenny’s definition of the desire to return as being a desire to return a homeland that may be more imagined than real. His explanation of return focuses most heavily on the Jewish experience and the Rastafari movement. The Jewish experience was extremely informative because it shows what can happen when a diasporic group attempts to become a singular nation. The differences between the waves of immigrants that arrived in Israel shows that life in the diaspora has an effect on migrant groups. They become partially assimilated the cultures they live in. One could almost say that they stop being part of the same group in almost every sense of the word, becoming something in-between, rather like the Japanese experience in the American west. This is something that Kenny touches on when discussing the reasons why diasporic groups may choose to remain outside of their homeland. His discussion of the Rastafari movement was fascinating, though it seemed out of place. Kenny attempted to present the entire African diaspora in the Atlantic as connected, but used the experience of one group to show a general desire for return to Africa.

There were other odd additions to Kenny’s narrative that seemed out of place. One was the long discussion of the Palestinians in the chapter on return. Why add in a new group of people but only discuss them in a specific chapter, rather than as a part of the whole narrative? This may have been a limitation of the decision he made to structure his book thematically, but if that were the case, it may have presented a cleaner narrative if the Palestinians had not been included. However, since they were included in the narrative, the way they were approached feels like a missed opportunity. Rather than describing in excessive detail the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem, Kenny could have examined the Palestinians as a diaspora. Even more, he could have looked at the dynamics between the Jewish and Palestinian diasporas and discussed how they affect, or possibly reinforce each other. Another odd inclusion was the discussion of ancient human migrations out of Africa. Was this necessary for a discussion on diaspora?

Despite any problems that Kenny’s book may have, he is tackling a topic that is hard to define and hard to discuss, especially in a very short introduction. With a book this short, Kenny necessarily must take a certain point of view and stay with it. His desire to give the term diaspora a set meaning is reasonable, especially if we want the term to be useful as a tool for studying migration, and he presents a definition that seems to fit the groups he chooses for analysis reasonably well. Kenny spent time on subjects that were not necessary to his topic, but they do not detract from the book in a serious way. He also seems to broaden and bend his definition based on the group he is analyzing. As an introduction to diaspora, this book is well worth the time it takes to read and, if the reader has more questions, Kenny provides a list for further reading based on chapter.

 

References

Kenny, Kevin. 2013. Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford Universy Press.