joshua ellison, editor of Habitus: A Diaspora Journal, and ron kavanaugh, publisher of Mosaic: Literary Arts of the Diaspora, sat down with the nook to address what diaspora literature means within the contemporary landscape.
Habitus is an international journal of diaspora literature and culture. each issue focuses on a different city, penetrating deep into the emotional and political substance of the urban environment. while Habitus is rooted in the experience and language of the jewish diaspora, the magazine is not limited by the parochial boundaries of any single group. as josh wrote in the introduction to the first issue: “Habitus is not just about cataloguing distinctions. It’s a way of using the whole world as raw material for creating a more complete picture of ourselves.”
Mosaic explores the literary arts created by writers of african descent. through articles, essays, book reviews, and interviews Mosaic has increased the literary reach of some of the most important voices affecting change on many artistic fronts. Mosaic has featured such artists lucille clifton, bernice mcfadden, colson whitehead, walter mosley, staceyann chin, major jackson, chimamanda adichie, and sonya sanchez among others.
nook: i’ll start my question with a quote:
“diaspora literature involves an idea of a homeland, a place from where the displacement occurs and narratives of harsh journeys undertaken on account of economic compulsions. basically diaspora is a minority community living in exile. the Oxford English Dictionary 1989 edition traces the etymology of the word ‘diaspora’ back to its greek root and to its appearance in the Old Testament (Deut: 28:25). as such, it references god’s intentions for the people of israel to be dispersed across the world. The OED here commences with the judaic history, mentioning only two types of dispersal: the “jews living dispersed among the gentiles after the captivity” and the jewish christians residing outside the palestine. the dispersal (initially) signifies the location of a fluid human autonomous space involving a complex set of negotiation and exchange between the nostalgia and desire for the ‘homeland’ and the making of a new home, adapting to the power, relationships between the minority and majority, being spokes persons for minority rights and their people back home and significantly transacting the ‘contact zone’—a space changed with the possibility of multiple challenges.”
—from Diaspora Literature: A Testimony of Realism, by shaleen singh
josh: you are very right to notice that the passage of time can obscure a visceral sense of diaspora. in fact, i think Habitus has a polemical dimension that we try to deal with subtly, but I hope still comes through: we want to preserve an awareness in jewish culture of our relationship to displacement, cosmopolitanism, and all the cultural impurity that makes diasporic culture really interesting. to me, what is interesting about the jewish diaspora can also hold for many other groups. it’s the way a rich and continuous tradition interacts with each new time and setting. the result is familiar but distinctive.
i think literature and diaspora have an important common function, which is that they are means of building empathy with people who are not standing right in front of you. they both make moral demands on the imagination. jewish children are told at passover that they should feel as if they, themselves, went out of egypt. you can hear the same sentiment from a reggae singer like Burning Spear, when he asks, “do you remember the days of slavery?”
ron: i believe modern interpretation of diaspora would suggest a somewhat positive, voluntary movement of people—as opposed to forced displacement. i’m more resolute about what the forced disbursement of black people has done to our collective identity, given that we make an overt choice to identify with a place as our place of origin. no one’s ancestry truly begins in jamaica, brazil, or alabama, but these are the places where we, black people, were enslaved, later established roots, and now hone a cultural, literary starting point, connected to but uniquely separated from “africa.” even referring to a continent as a cultural starting point is troubling—it wasn’t as “fluid” as the word suggests.
when I decided to use the subtitle “literary arts of the diaspora,” it was more of an attempt to use coded language to signal to blacks and people open to reading a variety of literary work that this publication was for them. in Mosaic, because of black people’s history of slavery and jim crow, we accept where people identify as their chapter in a highly disconnected journey.