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  • Defining Diaspora in the Words of Women WritersA Feminist Reading of Chimamanda Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck and Dionne Brand’s At the Full and Change of the Moon
  • Connor Ryan (bio)

In an interview assessing the impact of her famous essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” two decades after its publication, Hortense Spillers comments that the Black Atlantic, the Black Diaspora, cosmopolitanism, and similar framings of the transnational tend to obfuscate the complexities of gender and the concerns of women. Referring to this turn toward examining global and transcultural configurations, she claims that “it really is a way to, I think, escape the female again” (305). This essay takes Spiller’s observation as an invitation for reading two texts by women from either side of the Atlantic, Dionne Brand and Chimamanda Adichie, who have located women at the heart of Caribbean and African diasporas. These narratives of migration do not evade gender but rather generate richer representations of what it means to be black and female in the diaspora. As the women in Brand’s and Adichie’s novels leave home and enter a migratory space—call it the Black Atlantic, the Black Diaspora, or a cosmopolitan space—their experiences demonstrate that these transnational spaces present their own gendered hierarchies and their own threats to women. One discovers these hierarchies inscribed in the order of language. However, it is also in language that one finds the negotiation and subversion of gendered and racial hierarchies. This essay considers the modes of speech used by female characters to navigate their conditions at home and abroad, and critically explores the language Brand and Adichie use to represent black women in the diaspora. The diasporic family is the site for the struggle against patriarchy and racism, which is cast as a struggle to preserve bonds between mothers, daughters, and sisters. If Spillers draws our attention to the risk that theorizations of diasporas often circumvent feminist imperatives, we must ask how Adichie’s and Brand’s stories take African and Caribbean migration as the occasion for redefining women’s sites and avenues of resistance.

The type of readings I am proposing call for dialogue across a range of feminist texts, including those of Hortense Spillers, Chikwenye Ogunyemi, and Carol Boyce Davies. By way of a quick comment on my method of inquiry, I turn to Angela Miles who advises us to speak across the cultural, experiential, and material boundaries that divide feminisms: “In dialogue across cultures, it appears that patterns of relationships, behaviors, and customs—in all communities—that are so taken for granted as to be invisible and seen as natural are revealed as social constructions that can be challenged and changed or honored and built upon” (171). What seems most intuitive and natural to one woman is revealed to her when she can see herself from the vantage of her counterpart who stands outside the institutions, history, and ideological circumstances that produce this effect [End Page 1230] of naturalness. It is not Miles’s intent to suggest that “women in all groups are likely to develop the same insights and make the same contributions” (171). But all feminists gain awareness of and learn to attend to the concerns of other women when they engage in dialogue vis-a-vis women unlike themselves.

Migration across and beyond the boundaries that limit black women writers is the central concern of Carole Boyce Davies’s influential Black Women, Writing, and Identity. Her primary intervention is the notion of migratory subjectivity, which seeks agency in the idea that “the subject is not just constituted, but in being constituted has multiple identities that do not always make for harmony” (36). Migratory subjectivities can thereby trouble stable identities—like blackness or femininity—as a means of politicizing identity. The narratives of black female migration considered in this essay present an opportunity to reinvigorate the idea of migratory subjectivity and raise the political stakes, so to speak. This essay seeks to move beyond individual identity and to instead ask how migratory subjectivity might shed light on a woman’s relations with her family, her community, and her experience of traversing cultures. Migration and exile are...