Diaspora Humanitarianism- A Poetic Expression

by Jeevika Vivekananthan

I have been scribbling words and calling them poems since I was a kid. It is my preferred method to communicate complicated topics and complex emotions that I cannot express or explain otherwise. These days I also create poetry on a mode of reflexivity when I get frustrated by the content I interact with as part of my academic reading and research. In the creative space of poetry, I can position myself in relation to my lived and living experience and reflect on the knowledge I come to interact with, mostly essentialised or reductive, in the form of a concept, theory or evidence. Unlike the nature of typical academic writing, poetry gives me the freedom to interact, relate, reflect, contest and imagine the phenomena of my interest.

As I embarked on a PhD journey, seeking to understand the so-called ‘diaspora humanitarianism’,[1] I recognised that I was struggling with binary thinking. I struggled with the gap between theory and practice. I sat at my table, searching for hours and hours for existing knowledge that can make sense to me; ‘me’ a diasporan from a war-torn country in the Global South, currently living and researching as a settler on an indigenous land of which the sovereignty has never been ceded, and exploring ‘diaspora humanitarianism’ from the perspectives of crisis-affected people in the Global South. Can you imagine the dilemmas and struggles considering my translocational social position? Add a self-commitment to decoloniality on top of these struggles.

I created a poem responding to my inner struggles in framing ‘diaspora’ and ‘diaspora humanitarianism’ months ago at the beginning of my PhD journey. What if the concepts themselves can speak for ‘our struggle’? I use ‘our struggle’ to mean the collective struggle of people like me, people I know and people you might know. I use spoken word poetry to present our struggles, potential and imaginaries. This poem is written and performed from a diasporic perspective. So, whenever you hear me say ‘I’, think of diaspora from Global South in its plural, collective sense.

I suggest listening to the spoken word poem here instead of reading it in the first place. The text of the poem is given below, mainly for clarification and reference.

Diaspora Humanitarianism

I dangle in between

Local and international

Caged in time and place

Labelled diaspora

Stripped out of meaning or

Stretched out of it



Essentialised by all means

So here I am

The diaspora

No local or international


That’s my cousin

Calling me from his paddy field

Where we walked holding hands

Bare feet covered in muddy sand

Raced behind the flying kites

Raced away from the fighting jets

You left

You left me for the freedom

I squirm

I squirm from antagonism

You don’t belong here

I don’t belong here



This time

It’s the passenger

Next to me on the train

Offended by the smell

Of turmeric and chilli powder

Of my accent blended with

The milk from the breast of my mother

So here I am

The diaspora

No insider or an outsider


It’s my cousin

Over the phone

Breathing through hyperinflation

Surviving the emotional deflation

Living his everyday life

Hoping it shall pass too

On the same paddy field

Not yielding as it was before

So here I am

The diaspora

Asking him

How can I help

My hand suspended

In the air

Over the plate with curry and rice

Thinking of his children

Last time I met

Their dreams and aspirations

Whispering in my head

I calculate my casual pay

What is left from the mortgage

The bills and the aspirations of my kids

The cost of the summer trip we hatch

The guilt of living a better life

A better life from my cousin’s eyes

I am far behind from a better life

I cannot say it to my cousin though, can I?

The society I live reminds me every day

I am far behind from a better life

Think of starting your life

From the scratch on a foreign land

Did I choose this life?

The answer is never straightforward

My self-esteem vapours like a burning candle

Struggling to meet some invisible standards

To be taken seriously

For the contributions to this society

Forget them all

I tell my cousin

Let me help you.

Humanitarians (you say?)

I cannot be one

I am not principled or trained

I am not organised or certified

I cannot stand neutral

And discuss human pain

I cannot turn my face

And talk about the system in vain

I cannot forget

And move to a crisis hitting headlines

I cannot stop

The whispering voices in my head

So here I am

The diaspora

I am a force

Shaped by the ocean waves

Helping my folks

Is the way of my life

Folks from the same paddy field

But scattered worldwide

Call me a humanitarian

Or not

The force cannot be stopped

I am crafted by time and space

The people I meet

The lands I cross

I leave footprints

I trace back and forth

Round and round

All over the place

Making connections

I find home

I lose it

I find again

And reroot

I give

I take

I help

I am helped

Call me a humanitarian

Or not

The force cannot be stopped

Diaspora humanitarian

Define it and cage me (again)

Ignore my experience

Erase my memories

Of my land and people

Of survival and revival

Take me out of my context

Teach me about crisis response

Drill me about the system you speak

Grill me on the politics at play

Make me chew the Dunantist principles

And swallow these code of conduct

Leave me at the mercy of donors

Fighting over the grant proposals

Host me at the fancy conferences

Drug me with the power of do-gooders

Coordinate me with dominant institutions

Let them use me for the remittances

Divide me among affected people

Award me the new humanitarian

Humanitarians (you say?)

I cannot be one

I cannot be principled or trained

Because I am principled and experienced

I cannot be organised or certified

Because I am organised and legitimised

Maybe the West cannot see it

Through the lens of the West

Try to see it through my lens

And you will see the difference

I am a force

I mobilise and dissolve

I configure the local

Translocal and transnational

I respond to war

Conflict and disasters

I help my folks

From lands of paddy and gold

I am the voice

Voice of the South in North

I blur boundaries

Drawn by human laws

I come from the margin

I live on the edge

I am a rooted cosmopolitan

With views that might not be universal


Calls me a settler

On indigenous lands

Where the sovereignty was never ceded


Shows my privileges

In terms of class, caste, et cetera

I am not homogeneous

I am dynamic and divided

All things considered

I have potentials

I promise the dreamers

To transform this world

The world that is made of centres and peripheries

I can transcend the abyssal line

Between North and South

West and the rest

Because I have a taste of both

I can strategise my social location

Belonging to different places

People and cultures

I can use it

To advance my life

Or to advance this world

Or both

So here I am

The diaspora

The concept

I am a force to be reckoned with

Call me a humanitarian

Or not

The force cannot be stopped

Try me and tame me

But remember

My roots are strong

I did not think of poetic autoethnography or autotheory when I wrote this poem. I became invested in them when I presented this spoken word poetry at an online conference in July. Firstly, I did not have the courage to present it at an academic conference. I was searching for poet-scholars for inspiration. One evening after a long day of reading, I stumbled upon an interview-based article in which M. Soledad Caballero, a poet and a professor, highlights,

“I like this fluidity between the scholarly approach and the creative approach to a topic. I’ve already resisted that scholarship is not creative and poetry is not part of my scholarly self. I think the idea of autoethnography allows for that cultural divide between the creative and academic to be really disrupted.”

She also speaks of the academic culture that divides praxis from theory. In this article, I (re)found my purpose- connecting the poetic self to the researcher in me, connecting theory to praxis and personal and social.

Lyrical autoethnography is a method that can enable us to situate lived experiences within our scholarly work through reflexive engagement and a poetic voice (Rawlins 2018). Poetry returns the researcher to the body by creating a space for expressing the embodied experience of daily life (Faulkner 2016). Moreover, it can evoke embodied responses from the listeners and readers. The intersubjectivity offered by poetry makes it a product to and for others while it is in and for the poet, explaining a “triple-bind of my/your/our fringed experience” (Rawlins 2018, p.157). Autotheory explains the process of linking theory to our embodied experience.

The spoken word poetry has features of autoethnography and autotheory. It speaks of my experience and the experience of people I know through my personal life and research. It also engages with the concepts, theories and evidence from the academic literature. Even though I did not write the poem with autoethnography or autotheory in my mind at that time, I now see their relevance and significance in exploring further to be ‘officially’ embedded as a method in my PhD journey. I see their potential to challenge the Western hegemony in knowledge production. I see their potential in speaking for those marginalised, forgotten and ignored. As someone living and researching from the margin, poetry gives me hope, courage and breathing space. As I propose further exploring and applying poetic autoethnography and autotheory in the research, I welcome your feedback and reflections. If you have time, please answer a couple of questions for me:

  • What did the poem evoke in you?
  • What did you struggle with in making sense of it?
  • Can you imagine the emancipatory potential of the Global South diaspora? How and why?

In the next piece, I aim to engage with the perspectives of crisis-affected communities emerging from primary research. Until then, this poem is incomplete and open to be further developed, shaped and contested. You can record your answers/reflections in the comment section. If you would like to write a response in the form of a poem, please do and send it to jeevika@deakin.edu.au

Jeevika Vivekananthan is a researcher in migration-development-humanitarianism nexus. She is currently a PhD candidate at Deakin University. As a social researcher, Jeevika is interested in different worldviews, looking beyond mainstream for untold stories and attempting to overcome the epistemological injustices of colonialism. Jeevika perceives poetry as a powerful tool for critical reflections and social change. She encourages readers to reflect on this piece.


FAULKNER, S. L. 2016. Introduction: Why Poetry?. In Poetry as Method: Reporting research through verse. NY: Routledge.

HORST, C., LUBKEMANN, S. & PAILEY, R. N. 2016. The Invisibility of a Third Humanitarian Domain. In: SEZGIN, Z. & DIJKZEUL, D. (eds.) The new humanitarians in international practice: Emerging actors and contested principles. London: Taylor & Francis Group.

RAWLINS, L. S. 2018. Poetic Existential: A Lyrical Autoethnography of Self, Others, and World. Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal, 3, 155-177.

VIVEKANANTHAN, J. & CONNORS, P. 2022. Pacific Diaspora Humanitarianism: Diasporic Perspectives. In: PHILLIPS, M. & OLLIFF, L. (eds.) Understanding Diaspora Development: Lessons from Australia and the Pacific. Palgrave Macmillan Cham.

[1] See Horst et al. 2016, DEMAC 2016 or Vivekananthan & Connors 2022 for conceptualising diaspora humanitarian assistance to homelands as ‘diaspora humanitarianism’.

2 thoughts on “Diaspora Humanitarianism- A Poetic Expression”

  1. Hi Jeevika! Thank you so much for linking to our interview with Dr. Caballero. I so enjoyed this blog post and some of your other writing, and I wonder if you might like to contribute to The AutoEthnographer? For example, this blog post and poem would be ideal for publication at our magazine. Please reach out at your convenience; my email is editor@theautoethnographer.com. Warmly, Dr. Marlen Harrison

  2. Jeevi. I loved reading this SO much, as I have always appreciated hearing your take on ‘diaspora’ and ‘humanitarianism’. What is so powerful in your poem is its capacity to evoke the complexity and the struggle and the contradictions and, yes, all those messy relationships of power and scale. Having read (and written) academic work that is rarely able to communicate these things, even though it tries to and looks tidy (the conventions of academic writing just seem so unsatisfactory), what you are doing is profoundly important. I can’t wait to read or hear more. I hope you continue this journey.

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