Diaspora poetry has underscored the greater portion of my own writings on Asian identity, and specifically, the art I create from it. There’s a formula: imagine a mango, or a lychee, or any fruit from the produce section of Ranch 99, because fruits have become the language of our diaspora.
Like you, it is an import - a foreign, not local, pawned-off luxury in an unknown land.
Pulled at the root and transferred elsewhere.
List off the various mainstays of your culture, things people know and maybe things only you know.
Describe how your grandmother’s hands are painted with inscriptions of a life you are not privy to.
This is the core of a diaspora poem. For me, it is a eulogy. Grief in every word. Mourning the motherland.
It feels almost like a rite of passage at this point - having a diaspora poem. There is a part of me that feels guilty because there’s an oddly self-flagellating tone to so many diaspora poems. There is revelry in sorrow, not that our grief is invalid, but I personally find that those who do not share our plight find it more impressive. I submitted a diaspora poem in a local poetry competition and earned first place. I wasn’t a refined writer by any means, and I still think I was coming into my own. There are perhaps better examples of writers who earn accolades from diaspora writing - Rupi Kaur is a hot topic for those absolutely enraged at the blandness and drudgery of diaspora poetry. People love reading tragedy, especially when it’s put through that artistic suffering filter of flowery language and metaphor. And it’s especially clear when the trauma of diaspora is the only experience being written about among immigrant writers. Kaur is among this type of writer. Her website states, “Our trauma escapes the confines of our own times. we’re not just healing from what’s been inflicted onto us as children. My experiences have happened to my mother and her mother and her mother before that. it is generations of pain embedded into our souls.” Kaur only tells one narrative. A strictly Desi, strictly diasporic narrative. There is nothing wrong with this on principle - Kaur writes what she knows, and that is what makes her writing more intimate and appealing. It is the fault of our media ecosystem. Immigrants and children of immigrants are often conditioned to find representation exclusively in tales about their suffering. And when those demographics become artists and creators themselves, one of the easiest ways to market yourself is to exploit your own suffering.
It’s easy to assert that a diaspora poem, in its metaphors about fruit or your mother’s cooking or airports, is surface-level and exploitative of this trauma suffered by immigrants. They flatten the narrative and remove any cultural context and history. And I understand the rage - my own diaspora poems prove just how out of touch I am with my own homeland because in them, I am unable to recognize the internal injustices that occur, opting instead to victimize myself. What I mean by this is, there’s a silent frustration aimed at my own ancestors for “betraying” or “losing” my culture. This ignores the complexity of the situations that immigrants go through - that in the Philippines, democracy and equality are threatened, that colorism affects so many facets of everyday life, that classism runs rampant. I will never forget that I am where I am because my parents sought a better life, but I will never forget the one they left behind. Diaspora poetry erases this kind of nuance, and it should be subject to criticism as much as any piece of literature is.
Conversely, I know why young people write diaspora poetry. I know why we share it. It is comforting, to be seen and understood by words, and that is what these kinds of poems do. I write diaspora poetry, especially when I feel particularly sad. This is not a call to arms to abolish all instances of mango metaphors and gratuitous anguish. Diaspora poetry is formative to my identity as a writer. Maybe we do need to re-examine what a good diaspora poem should be, but we don’t start out knowing everything. Maybe sometimes we don’t need to. A poem need not be loaded with complexity and nuance to be meaningful. Sometimes it just needs to be seen, and in turn, see you.
Editors: Rachel C., Lang D., Erika Y., Claudia S.