“Diaspora” (from the Greek word for “scattering”) refers to the dispersion of a people from their homeland. A simple definition of diaspora literature, then, would be works that are written by authors who live outside their native land. The term identifies a work’s distinctive geographic origins.
But diaspora literature may also be defined by its contents, regardless of where it was written. For example, the story of Joseph (
The term diaspora comes to us from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, particularly
We could also draw a distinction between exile and diaspora to further define what diaspora literature is. The difference between exile and diaspora may lie in a book’s attitude toward the homeland and toward the migration. Exile emphasizes the forced nature of the migration and the freshness of the experience of leaving the homeland; exile is not neutral and exiled peoples usually possess a single-minded desire to return to their homeland. Time is also a factor: exilic literature may be written during the Babylonian exile of the sixth century B.C.E., when the experience and memory of it was still vivid.
In contrast, living “in diaspora” may assume a certain accommodation to living away from the homeland—and a sense that it is possible to survive and even thrive in the adopted country. Diaspora implies a more neutral or even a more positive view than exile does. Diasporic literature may be mindful of the ancestral native land, but the nostalgia for it has lessened, if not disappeared. And diasporic literature is, moreover, engaged by the possibilities of the new location. Finally, it may be written well after the Babylonian exile by Jews who chose not to return. Diasporic living stops short of assimilation because the community still maintains its distinctive identity and its status as a minority people.
The diasporic book of Daniel, for example, celebrates Daniel’s refusal to assimilate to the pressures of the gentile court—such as his refusal to eat the nonkosher food at the king’s table. The book of Esther could also be described as diaspora literature, regardless of where it was written, because it reflects on what it means to be a Jew living outside the land—with all the accompanying dangers and opportunities. These books’ subtle reflections of the instabilities of diasporic existence have given them lasting appeal; their meditations on leadership and self-sacrifice for the good of the community resonates with those who wrestle with the vicissitudes of their own diasporic existences.
- Wills, Lawrence. The Jewish Novel in the Ancient World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995.
- Halvorson-Taylor, Martien A. “Exile and Diaspora in Biblical Narrative.” In The Oxford Handbook to Biblical Narrative. Edited by Danna Nolan Fewell. New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2014.
- Rajak, Tessa. Translation and Survival: The Greek Bible of the Ancient Jewish Diaspora. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.