- Migrant Sites: America, Place, and Diaspora Literatures
In his 1994 essay “Diasporas,” James Clifford reminds us that “the term diaspora is a signifier, not simply of transnationality and movement, but of political struggles to define the local, as a distinctive community, in historical contexts of displacement” (qtd. in Migrant Sites, 38). This insight is central to Dalia Kandiyoti’s Migrant Sites: America, Place, and Diaspora Literatures, an elegant and compelling new study that invites us to consider diaspora writing in the United States as a literature not only of displacement but also emplacement. Somewhat paradoxically, place has been neglected in the study of diaspora literatures. Deeply suspicious of territorializing metaphors, diaspora studies tends to polarize mobility and sedentarism, celebrating the former while assuming the latter to be a reactionary, conservative force. Seeking to correct this imbalance, Kandiyoti identifies place as a key modality of diaspora literatures. Her sensitive readings of a series of Jewish, Latino and other diaspora texts attest that diaspora identities are not anathema to place-based ones; instead, place emerges in her study as being as important to diaspora writing as it is to more “settled” literatures.
Migrant Sites is one of several recent works to join together the insights of critical spatial studies with those of diaspora and postcolonial studies (other [End Page 317] examples include Rita Barnard’s Apartheid and Beyond: South African Writing and the Politics of Place, Elizabeth Deloughrey’s Routes and Roots: Navigating Caribbean and Pacific Island Literatures, George Handley’s New World Poetics: Nature and the Adamic Imagination of Whitman, Neruda, and Walcott, and my own Second Arrivals: Landscape and Belonging in Contemporary Writing of the Americas—all published in 2007). In addition to bringing the U.S. national context into focus, Kandiyoti’s most striking intervention into this discussion is her theorization of enclosure. Building on the dynamic and relational understanding of place developed by geographers such as Doreen Massey and Edward Soja, Kandiyoti examines diaspora writing in the United States that thematizes the idea of enclosure through literary topoi such as the immigrant prairie, the Jewish ghetto, the border town, and the barrio. According to Kandiyoti, diaspora narratives are shaped by experiences of spatial exclusion. “I am convinced,” she writes, “that enclosures continue to be essential to the control, abandonment and disenfranchisement of negatively racialized populations and are therefore key to the stories they tell” (32). At the same time, this sense of enclosure exists in tension with translocal and transnational connections that are constitutive of the local. The dialectic of enclosure and translocality produces a diaspora sense of place, or what Kandiyoti terms “migrant sites.”
After an introduction and opening theoretical chapter that set the stage with admirable clarity and sophistication, the subsequent four chapters move chronologically from the turn of the twentieth century to the post–civil rights era and thematically across a series of diaspora literatures. Focusing on spatialized literary genres including localism, regionalism, urban writing, and barrio narratives, Kandiyoti considers works spanning roughly a century by Jewish (chap. 2), Chicana (chap. 4) and Puerto Rican diaspora (chap. 5) writers that elaborate the theme of “ethnoracialized confinement.” In addition, a chapter on Willa Cather (chap. 3) identifies the prairie writer as “the first to underline the intensely spatialized nature of the immigrant experience as foundational to not only diaspora memory but also the dominant American memory landscape” (8). In Migrant Sites, Kandiyoti discusses “white ethnic” writers such as Abraham Cahan alongside Chicana writers Estela Portillo Trambley and Sandra Cisneros and Puerto Rican diaspora writers Piri Thomas and Ernesto Quiñonez but makes only brief reference to the question of enclosure in African American and Native American writing, noting that the plantation and the reservation already have been the focus of extensive study.
Kandiyoti’s reflections on the challenges and possibilities of comparative and transnational methodologies are particularly salutary at a moment in [End Page 318] which ethnic American literary studies is undergoing a comparative turn. In her introduction, she reviews critiques of traditional comparativist models and emphasizes...