In her marvelous, odd textbook, The Writing Experiment: Strategies for Innovative Creative Writing, Hazel Smith devotes a late chapter to “Mapping worlds, moving cities.” Composing in a kind of sociological sublime, she writes in the subsection, “The diasporic city,” of the sub-section, “Cities rather than city,” “As the concept of the nation-state breaks down, people migrate and borders shift. The modern western city has become a mixture of nationalities and ethnicities: this has transformed food, clothing, customs, art and language” (260). Cutting to the chase, she ends her paragraph on “the diasporic city” with this pithy sentence: “The diasporic city is as much about displacement as about place” (261).
It was one of those days when everything random converged. The evening before, our friend who devoted a long career working with youth at risk talked to us about another friend, a Khmer Rouge survivor, who has spoken to several of my classes. The first time he told his story, he traumatized my freshmen by telling them about a woman bludgeoned to death before her colleagues for asking for more food. He finished the story with a laugh. My students couldn't get over his laugh. It assumed more importance to them, it seemed, than the story itself. “He shouldn't have laughed,” more than one told me. That day things converged, call it last Thursday, I awakened to an on-line citation of a memory card of my own, plucked at random by Joseph Harrington from my new book, based on a story told to me by a man who works as a prison psychologist, whose mother was in the same Alzheimer's home as mine. “He tells me about a [Cambodian] prisoner, 72 years old, stuffed inside a suicide shirt, who screams in Khmer that someone is beheading him.” And at noon, I attended a talk at the Biography Center at my university by Sydney L. Iaukea, whose new book is The Queen and I: A Story of Dispossessions and Reconnections in Hawai`i.Iaukea is a political scientist writing about the trauma of Hawaiian history, the effects of those traumas on extended families like her own.