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

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.

A scene from Tsirk

Tsirk – 1936 USSR Film – Reaction Essay

 

The film “Tsirk” was produced in the USSR in 1936. The film contains a large amount of propaganda that is presented in the format of a comedy. The film deals primarily with issues of race and nationalism and how citizenship is defined. The producers were implicitly comparing the way that minorities are treated in the USSR to how they are treated in the United States and Europe. The main character, Marion Dixon, has a relationship with an unnamed black man which results in a child. In the United States, this is treated as a major scandal and Marion is chased by a mob. In the beginning of the film, Marion’s manager is identified as German. He also has a negative view of Marion’s previous relationship and uses the existence of her child to control her. These views are sharply contrasted with the Soviet ideal, which is inclusive and does not discriminate based on race.

While the film may not accurately depict the status of minorities in the USSR, it provides the viewer with an opportunity to understand early Soviet views on race relations in two ways. First, the film presents the Soviet view of being inclusive as both positive and better than views on race held by Europeans, represented by the German manager, and Americans, represented by the mob in the opening sequence and Marion’s feelings of shame and fear in respect to her child. Race was not something that should be used to differentiate or exclude people from society. Second, the film provides the viewer with a glimpse of how the Soviets attempted to shape their national narrative, to create a cohesive whole from a mix of racial and ethnic groups that fell under the sovereignty of the USSR.

During the French revolution, French nationality was defined as being contingent upon being ethnically French. Putting aside the ambiguity and arbitrariness of how the standard for “Frenchness” was defined, the state was built on the foundation of the nation. Italy, England and Germany are also similarly built on the idea of a cultural, racial or ethnic group that compose a nation banding together to form a state. The USSR, on the other hand, was composed of many different ethnic and racial groups. This is similar to how the United States was formed, but the difference was in how minorities were (theoretically) treated. At the time, being American meant being white. Racial boundaries outside of the USSR in general were firm, represented by the German manager’s declaration near the end of the film that Marion’s sexual relationship with a “Negro” was a “racial crime”.

Soviet ideology, represented by the closing sequence in the Circus, is racially and ethnically inclusive. The Soviet Union is represented as being composed of many racial and ethnic groups, without racial boundaries or divisions. Each person is considered based on merit, rather than simply skin color. Whether or not this view of racial inclusiveness had any substance beyond this and similar films is questionable, but it was the image that the Soviets wanted to present to the world and to their own public. “Tsirk” represents the Soviet attempt to bring nations of people together in a common cause.

Also interested was the focus on technology and advancement. The acts in the circus revolved around cannons, space flight and reaching for the stars. This was perhaps symbolic of industrialism and was meant to inspire people to conform to Soviet industrialization policies. This ties in with the idea of all racial groups working together in the Soviet Union, because of the ways that local economies were reoriented to encourage industrial growth in the Russian Metropole. Of course, that also contradicts the ideal presented by the film, since these economic policies negatively impacted local non-Russian economies and would later lead to famine and impoverishment.

Whether or not “Tsirk” was an attempt to accurately reflect Soviet ideas or purely propaganda, it reveals quite a bit about the nature of race relations in the world at the time. It shows that ideas of citizenship and belonging were still very much tied to ideas of belonging to the same race or ethnic group. The Soviets understood this and, in this state sponsored film, were simultaneously criticizing other state’s treatment of their ethnic minorities while constructing a standard of belonging for Soviet citizens that contradicted prevailing norms.

Allegiance, with George Takei & Lea Salonga

In November, I told my wife that we would go see Allegiance for her birthday. She wasn’t so much interested in the show for the sake of the story, but because she’s a big fan of Lea Salonga and Miss Saigon. Miss Saigon hasn’t played in New York City since we’ve been here, but Lea has a starring role in Allegiance. As a bonus, George Takei stars in the play as well and I’ve really enjoyed him as an actor and as a person since I first saw him in Star Trek as a kid. His Facebook account is hilarious.

I was told later that Allegiance was based on Takei’s childhood. He actually went through a Japanese internment camp during World War II. We really did go into the show blind, but it didn’t stop us from enjoying the story or the actors’ performances. The parts were well played. Everyone knew their lines. There was no stuttering. The dancing scenes were a lot of fun. The music was good.

I think what I enjoyed most about the show was the way it attempted to address complex ideas of identity, belonging and citizenship. Questions 27 and 28 of a loyalty questionnaire given to Japanese internees played a prominent role in the play. The audience is told what those questions are, but I felt like there should have been more explanation about why answering “yes” to those two questions was such a huge moral dilemma for many Japanese-Americans. Having the main character’s father say it impinges Japanese “honor” did not really convey the complexity of being singled out as a group and being made to affirm loyalty to the United States when one was already an American by birth and upbringing. You kind of pick up on it throughout the play, but only if you’re really paying attention. I suppose one doesn’t go to a play to be mindlessly entertained, though. It’s supposed to be thought provoking.

Not to take away from the suffering of Japanese-Americans during World War II, but I was reminded of the problems that many Muslim-Americans are facing today. They are being singled out as a group and subjected to additional scrutiny. Their loyalty, or allegiance to the United States, is questioned in the same way that Japanese-Americans’ allegiance to the United States was questioned.

The fact that Muslim Americans weren’t rounded up and placed in internment camps shows that most of us learned something from our previous mistakes, or at least the people who can make those sorts of decisions learned something. But, we’re walking on a thin line. It wouldn’t be hard for the balance to shift and to wake up one day and find people being deported to concentration/internment camps again. I mean, look at how popular Trump is with Republican voters. Sometimes the guy says something that makes sense, but even a monkey could type a coherent sentence if he sits in front of a keyboard long enough. Trump represents the worst of our past and the desire of some to return to a period of selective privilege that leaves everyone who isn’t a white male in second place at best.

Anyhow, coming back to the topic of this post, the play was excellent, thought provoking, a critical look at our past and relevant to contemporary affairs. I would recommend it to anyone interested in human drama, history, US politics, race relations, or just a good story.

The Longacre theater, where the play is shown, is a little cold. The seats are a little close together and they didn’t open the doors until 6:30 PM, meaning the line was still out the door at 7:00 PM when the curtain was supposed to go up. If you’re planning on going, show up around 6:15 PM to be at the front of the line.

Also, the concessions stand wasn’t impressive, but I haven’t been to a lot of plays so I don’t have a frame of reference and I imagine the audience is expected to be different from the one you find packed into a typical movie theater.

 

The Man in the High Castle movie title logo and background imagery.

The Man in the High Castle

I haven’t updated this blog in a while, other than a few pictures over the summer. I haven’t always been really busy, but I suppose I’ve just been trying to keep up with other things and this just fell to the wayside. I’m going to try to get back on top of this soon. I’m working on finishing up an MA class this semester on top of working full-time. I also have one more MA class to do in the Spring, maybe. Maybe two more. We’ll see how it goes.

The Man in the High Castle movie title logo and background imagery.

The Man in the High Castle

Anyhow, no matter how busy things get, my wife and I take the time to enjoy a show together, usually with dinner. Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Gotham, Fear the Walking Dead, and so on. Lots of good shows lately. When there’s a lull in what’s coming on TV, we have Netflix and Amazon Prime for stuff like House of Cards and this new show, The Man in the High Castle. I had heard about it before, but it really sort of popped to the front of my “to-watch” queue when I read about all the butthurt generated by the controversial ads placed on the shuttle train here in Manhattan, which I think runs between Grand Central and Penn Station.

"...it's Tuesday..."

“…it’s Tuesday…”

Anyway, the shower is really, really well done. The acting is first-rate, the visuals are well done and the story is very engaging. It’s also very, very intense in ways that I had expected. I just didn’t expect them to be placed so well into the story I guess, like when the highway patrolman casually mentions the dust in the air is ash from the incinerator, because “it’s Tuesday” and that’s just the day for burning invalids and the terminally ill. It’s just such a casual drop of something so inhuman, that it really puts the world you’re becoming a part of through this series into much clearer perspective, in just a few seconds of dialog. Then, at the end of the second episode, so much was said and not said in those few minutes. I’m just amazed at how much is conveyed by this story, with the use of camera work and clever dialog. “I’m not a monster” indeed.

I need to get around to reading the book for this at some point, and after seeing the first two episodes of this, I’m going to just put Philip K. Dick on my reading list.