I’m fascinated by the idea of diaspora, when human communities become shattered and scattered, while still clinging to their sense of unity. From the African diaspora caused by the slave trade, to the Jewish diaspora, to shorter term events like the French and Polish armed forces that continued to fight during World War Two. These are times when people’s lives are ripped out from underneath them, and when instead of destroying their ways of life they create complex cultures spread across continents. My notebooks are full of ideas about this, but aside from a British diaspora in the background of ‘The Promise and the Reckoning‘, it’s not something I’ve ever written about. And it’s not something I’ve seen addressed in genre fiction.
At the time of writing this, I’m 124 pages through Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, and it’s taken nearly that long for the book to reveal that it’s about a diaspora, and about a rebellion spearheaded by those scattered people. The pacing is typically Kay, and something few writers can pull off. He makes these gradual starts thoughtful, characterful and atmospheric rather than slow and frustrating.
But I’m not just excited to see one of my favourite authors address a topic that fascinates me. I’m excited because he’s writing it so damn well.
The Complexity of Identity
That slow build up, and the way the diaspora is revealed, create a complex and nuanced portrayal of how a scattered community works. Kay shows how culture, politics and power are intertwined. How a sense of personal identity becomes the focus through which humans experience these connections. How vital that identity is to us, and how poorly we often understand it.
This is the sort of sophistication we need to understand the societies we live in, diasporic or not, and that shapes imaginary worlds of incredible richness.
It’s made me reflect on the extent to which we all increasingly live in geographically fractured cultures, whether they started out that way or were scattered by the winds of history. Whether your primary identification is as a Jew, a geek, a lesbian or a Frenchman, the boundaries of the group you identify with are not neatly bound. Because that now applies to pretty much everyone, we need to rethink how we treat identity and how it affects us. With 650 more pages of Tigana to go, I’m sure it’s going to help me reflect on that, while also entertaining and enthralling me.
Each time I pick up one of Kay’s books he amazes me by showing me something new. This is no exception. I’m not going to say that you should read it. Nobody should read any particular book. But if I was going to say that you should read a novel, right now I’d say it about Tigana.