Diasporas: Introduction



Welcome to the 43rd issue of The Funambulist. Many contributions in our 42 issues have mobilized directly or indirectly the question of diaspora; yet, we never dedicated a full issue to the topic until now. This issue approaches the question through various angles and editorial motivations that I will describe shortly in this introduction.

Diasporas Funambulist

The first one is inherited from the ongoing francophone podcast show we initiated three years ago entitled, “Diasporas et imaginaires des luttes” (“Diasporas and Imaginaries of the Struggles”). This show intends to talk about diasporas in France that are less visible or recognizable within the anti-racist movement than the Maghrebi (Algerian, Moroccan, Tunisian), West African (Senegalese, Malian, Ivorian, Mauritanian, Cameroonian, Burkinabese, Togolese, Beninese, Gabonese, Nigerien, and Guinean) and Afro Caribbean (Guadeloupeans, Martiniquans, Guianese) communities—although it goes without saying that only fragments of these cited diasporas’ histories are discussed and known. This is how we put together episodes on the Eelam Tamil, Comorrian, Armenian, Portuguese, Turkish, Colombian, Afghan, Peruvian, and Indian Tamil diasporas, with more coming in the future (Tuareg, Vietnamese, Kurdish, Roma, Pakistani, and many others). The idea is not merely to give visibility to “less discussed” diasporas—less visible to whom? Less discussed by whom?—but to ask some of its members to share some aspects of the political “pantheon” they carry with them. The idea then is for these imaginaries to potentially be integrated into a broader and local anti-colonial imaginary of which, in this context of activism, culture, and academia in France, the Haitian and Algerian revolutions, the Palestinian Intifadas, and (Atlantic-centered) Pan-Africanism are already a part.

Indeed, what happens when these canonic anti-colonial movements are joined by the Túpac Amaru rebellion on Inca land, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the Artsakh Armenian fighters, or the revolutionary figures of Ahmad Shah Massoud or Ali Soilih?

Furthermore, zooming out from France to European local and settler colonial societies, the emphasis on the (historical and present) political specificities of each diaspora helps us move away from categorizations that designate its members in relationship with whiteness and flattens these specificities. Of course, in this context, using titles such as “Khmer,” “Maya,” “Fula,” “Punjabi,” “Amazigh,” “Zhuang,” “Assyrian,” “Yoruba,” etc. rather than an uniformizing “people of color” or “minorities”, is to replace a problematic labeling with many others, as identity is always more fluid and hybrid than any label can account for. Importantly, diasporas are not necessarily based on a circonvoluted ethnic group. Furthermore, by breaking down a larger identity grouping, we take the risk of fragmenting a united front against white supremacy—but was it ever a united front?

Nonetheless, respect for diasporic specificities allows for political identities to be formed without a permanent and constraining return to the relationship with the dominant/normative group (be it white or other).

Such a respect also allows for historical and present structures of domination between these groups to be made visible (Turk ethnocracy, Sinhalese or Burmese massacres, Han settler colonialism, North Indian colorism). It also demystifies the essentialist assumption that diasporic groups are necessarily part of an internationalist left. Anti-communist Cubans or South Vietnamese, Venezuelans, or monarchist Iranians are only some of the many identifiable diasporas that clearly disrupt such an illusion. Similarly, several diasporas from Europe or the Caucasus in white dominated societies have tended to integrate a culturally homogenizing whiteness, despite originally having a limited relationship to it or a history of racialization that precluded them from it. As already mentioned in a previous issue, the most significant example might be that of Irish people in the United States, many of whom went from being subjected to British colonialism, then to explicit racism in the U.S., only to later voluntarily form many of the ranks of northeastern police in the settler colony.

What does not change, however, is that diasporic political organizing constitutes a significant asset in relation to struggles “back home”—including reactionary ones, such as the case of Cuba. Diasporas formed by Eelam Tamils (as described by Abinaya Nathan in this issue), Armenians, Palestinians, Kurds, and West Papuans, are only some examples of international branches of liberation movements. The political importance of diasporas (in particular when it comes to the economy) is intensified when the diasporic group is larger than the population in the home country. This is true for Cape Verdeans (see the text written by Sónia Vaz Borges and Flávio Zenun Almada), Lebanese, or Armenians—although in the latter’s case, the notion of a home country is inadequate given how Armenian indigenous land go beyond the country of Armenia in Anatolia and the Caucasus.

Di Folco Funambulist 1

The notion of homeland, however, is not mobilized in all diasporas; this is the case with the diasporic group for whom the Greek name of “diaspora” (i.e., “dispersion”) was originally applied. The Jewish people (Ashkenazis, Sephardis, Mizrahis, Bukharians, Beta Israel…), have practiced what our contributor Maya Ober, quoting Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, called “radical diasporism” in a past contribution (see The Funambulist 40, Mar-Apr 2022). This concept, which challenges the basis of Zionism, is critically interrogated in this issue by Ben Ratskoff.

This notion of dispersion occurs through various means, and in some instances, through various degrees of coercion.

Refugees fleeing drastically precarious life conditions, for example, form an important part of diasporas worldwide. The conditions of resettlement, be it temporary or permanent, are often significantly affected by various forms of racism and xenophobia. Yet, these conditions are made even more complex in the case of settler colonies, where people may embody a positionality of what Evyn Lê Espiritu Gandhi calls in this issue “refugee settlers,” through describing South Vietnamese refugee communities in Guåhan and Palestine.

At times, coercion can go beyond precarious life conditions, to be organized directly by colonial powers in need of an exploitable labor force. This has been the case for a large part of the world’s Afro-diaspora, due to the transatlantic slave trade. After having been forced to abolish slavery by numerous rebellions and political pressure, European empires were resolved to replace their laborforce with other forms of coercive displacement, in particular from China and the Indian Subcontinent. In the case of the French empire, Tamil and Chinese laborers of “Engagisme” were sent to Reunion, Mauritius, the Caribbean, and Polynesia (see Karine Shan and Yiling Changues’s contributions). As for the British empire, it forcefully displaced (mostly) Melanesian laborers to other Oceanian islands, as well as to the Australian and South American continents as part of a brutal practice called “Blackbirding.” Furthermore, the British colonial indenture system displaced close to two millions laborers, mostly from the Subcontinent (but also from China) towards Mauritius, Kenya, South Africa, the Caribbean, Malaya, and Fiji. Despite such an extensive geographical range, a diasporic commonality remains today, which we wanted to emphasize by commissioning an exchange between four descendants of indentured laborers, who examine these common threads in their respective academic, architectural, poetic, and artistic works (Maria del Pilar Kaladeen, Sumayya Vally, Gitan Djeli, and Shivanjani Lal).

National Museum Of Eelam Funambulist

The Japanese empire is not to be forgotten in our list of imperial powers enforcing a “diasporization” of colonized people for how it forcefully enrolled two million Korean laborers during the Pacific War, a third of whom were displaced to Japan. Those who never returned to a country that no longer exists (fragmented into two by a Cold War paradigm) form the Korean Zainichi (“residents”) diaspora in Japan, described by Hyewon Song in this issue.

To conclude, I return to a past contribution by Jeyavishni Francis Jeyaratnam and Simon-Pierre Coftier and their project “National Museum of Eelam” (see The Funambulist 36, July-Aug 2021). They remind us that objects hold a significant existence in daily diasporic lives that allow for emotionally-invested material fragments of the homeland to follow human geographical displacement. In the following pages, Raphaëlle Red offers us a hybrid text that considers not only these objects but also specific places, moments, or gestures that form “sites of diaspora.” Although she describes exclusively Afrodiasporic sites, perhaps one can similarly wander into the strong emotions generated by such items in relation with other diasporic histories, experiences, and imaginaries. With this in mind, I wish you an excellent read. ■