(aka another reason this show is my fave and you should all watch it)
This post has been marinating for a while now. As a diasporic WOC there are certain themes in AtLA that resonate very strongly with me, and it’s led me to consider how the story and its characters affirm immigrant/diasporic experiences, the inevitable upheavals of imperialism and the kinds of resilience and strength it takes to survive that. So I’m gonna talk about the diasporic/ immigrant narrative thread I find in each character and the Four Nations at large.
Aang and the Air Nomads
“Air is the element of Freedom. The Air Nomads detached themselves from worldly concerns, and found peace and freedom.”
Those of you who follow me know how much I love Aang and the Air Nomads. As a Buddhist WOC they mean the world to me. Aang’s narrative is especially poignant because his people were destroyed by genocide, making him literally The Last Airbender. Many historical peoples have been forced into diaspora through genocide, most notably Jewish people, but also the Tamil people of Sri Lanka, the Palestinian people, and so forth. Being displaced by genocide creates a traumatic dilemma: how do you survive and adapt to a new way of life where you’re the minority, while at the same time upholding and honoring the traditions that represent your history? How do you preserve that history in the face of overwhelming violence?
There are several moments in the show that touch on this: Aang refusing to cover up his tattoos, Aang shaving his head before the Battle of Black Sun, Aang’s poignant decision to give up his destroyed staff (and the defiance with which he tamps in down in the volcano) and Aang’s initial dismay at the changes to the Southern Air Temple. But perhaps most significant is Aang spiritual struggle with killing Ozai, and his ultimate decision not to. It’s notable that the other characters all gainsaid his hesitance, and that he felt truly alone in this decision (even amongst his past lives). As the last of the Air Nomads Aang carries the burden of a lost people, and his refusal to kill Ozai is the ultimate honoring of those people. Being a diasporic POC, you face similar decisions all the time (minus a Fire Lord and the end of the world ofc). How do I move forward without erasing the past? How do I balance both? This is also why Aang is a Buddhist, which I’ve talked about HERE and HERE.
Katara, Sokka and the Water Tribe
“Water is the element of change. The people of the Water Tribe are capable of adapting to many things. They have a deep sense of community and love that holds them together
I could write reams and reams about the Water Tribe. Basically, anyone who’s lived a diasporic/ immigrant life knows that adapting to change while maintaining your core is ESSENTIAL to survival. Katara and Sokka butt heads many times during the show, but when shit gets tough they have each other’s backs. Most notably, when Katara wants to help the small FN fishing village and Sokka reluctantly agrees because “You’re my sister, and I’ll never turn my back on you.” We immigrants and diasporic people maybe not agree with each other, we may yell and fight and scream sometimes, we may gossip and throw shade, but if you need a babysitter we’re there, when your parent dies we help you cook the funeral food, when you lose your job we lend you money, if you get evicted we offer you a couch. These are survival skills that immigrants, especially immigrants of color, have had to learn in order to survive a world that’s institutionally stacked against us. Princess Yue literally sacrificed her life so her people and their way of life could continue. If the diaspora is built on nothing else, it’s pure love and courage.
Apart from sticking together, immigrants of color also need to be pretty damn creative. When Katara’s trapped in the Palace courtryard with Azula, she uses her bending to freeze and then carefully melt so she can subdue her opponent. When she’s trapped in a wooden cage, she bends her own sweat. Hama the bloodbender, whose story is a tragic yet common one in wartime, exemplifies the dark side of immigrant/diasporic life, when your identity is torn from you and all you have is hate and anger. I’ve felt that way too. It takes a shit ton of strength to survive diasporic living as a POC, and Katara’s story, the story of the Southern Water Tribe, is extremely important for those reasons
Zuko and the Fire Nation
“Fire is the element of power. The people of the Fire Nation have desire and will, and the energy and drive to achieve what they want.”
Zuko’s arc is very interesting in that he’s part of an imperialist nation, a nation that’s destabilizing other nations and forcing people into diasporic/ immigrant/ refugee lives. What’s amazing about his story is that he embodies dissent, a refusal to align himself with imperialist nationlaism (a choice for which he’s permanently scarred and cast out). I always feel heartache for Zuko in the beginning of Book 3, when he’s finally home, a hero beloved by his country and accepted by his father, but he’s still angry, he’s not happy, he’s not himself. The heartbreaking reality of diasporic/ immigrant life is that you have let go of the idea of ‘home’ in the traditional sense. There’s no one place where you’re completely free, completely welcome, completely yourself. There’s no one place that’s exempt from a history of violence and colonialism. I love Sri Lanka with all my heart, there’s parts of myself that awaken only in when I’m there, but I can’t ever go back completely, I can’t build a life there. It’s home, but it isn’t. And that’s just how things are.
Even more important in Zuko’s narrative is the questioning of ethnocentrism, which is a requirement for immigrants of color but only a vague intellectual exercise for white people in imperialist nations. Immigrants of color have to see outside of ourselves, learn other languages, other customs, all the time, but our lives are never legible to those in power. Zuko was jolted out of his privileged perspective by being forced into an immigrant/ diasporic life. He was forced to see the effects of war on everyday people, forced to hide his identity, forced to live in fear. He was confronted with the reality of the Fire Nation’s genocidal, imperialist actions. He was confronted, in effect, with the truth of the subaltern. Because here’s the thing: nationalism will never ever tell you the truth. Nationalism has meant the destruction of entire communities and people. As a Sinhalese woman, it took my own immigrant experience, my experiences with racism and being otherized, to teach me the pitfalls of nationalism and to help me realize that my own people, the ethnic majority of Sri Lanka, have been responsible for the genocide and disenfranchisement of Tamil Sri Lankans. Zuko’s line to his father “I’ve learned everything! And I’ve had to learn it on my own” is one of my absolute fucking favorite lines spoken by a fictional character, because all of us diaspora kids of color know that feeling. Whether it’s accepting the reality of your own history, or finally confronting someone else’s, the diaspora teaches you, and afterwards there’s no going back.
Toph and the Earth Kingdom
“Earth is the element of substance. The people of the Earth Kingdom are diverse and strong, they are persistent and enduring.”
Toph’s story is different from the rest of the Gaang because she’s the only who’s not compelled or forced to leave home, but does so voluntarily to escape the stifling protectiveness of her parents. I think this too is an immigrant story. I know many desis who invented reasons to leave the country in order to escape oppressive familial situations. Like Toph, these women also have a certain degree of financial security and make a choice to leave, rather than being forced out due to war and genocide. For this reason, Toph is I think the most self-assured member of the Gaang, the one who’s most certain of her identity and her goals, and the one who’s relationship to her parents is not marked by tragedy but by anger and resentment.
Toph’s stalwart confidence is another trait that’s extremely important for an immigrant life. You have to be strong and sure in who you are, because otherwise the world will literally swallow you up. Some of the most successful, powerful, dynamic immigrant women of color I know are women who’ve a strong sense of who they are, what their goals are and how to achieve them. Furthermore, leaving home tested Toph and made her even stronger in who she is; it’s doubtful if she could’ve invented metalbending if she was still living a double-life with her parents. I think Toph always knew, deep down, that she was meant for bigger things than Earth Rumble, and when she met the Gaang she saw her chance and took it. I didn’t leave home because I hated my parents, in fact it was really hard to leave them, but I also knew that the things I wanted to do, the things I needed to learn, couldn’t be found where I was. Sometimes, you just have to take a breath and let go, and trust that you, like Toph, are strong enough to meet the future.
Freedom, Change, Stability, Power
“Understanding other people, the other Nations, will help you become whole.”
I complain about being a diasporic kid a lot. I miss my family like you wouldn’t believe. There are cousins I don’t see for years, who grow up on Facebook while the years go by. Sometimes I miss the feel of Sinhalese on my tongue so badly I talk out loud to myself, just to enjoy the language. But there’s one thing I wouldn’t change about being an immigrant/ diasporic POC: it teaches you empathy, it teaches you respect, it teaches you strength and it teaches you creativity. You need ALL these things to survive and grow, to hold up your community and push yourself forward. You need to unlearn myths and lies, reform them to fit new realities. You need to respect the past but mold it for the future. In short, you have to “draw wisdom from many different places” while keeping true to who you are and where you come from. IDK if the creators of AtLA thought about these things when crafting this story; I think when a story is well told, with authenticity and love, it has the potential to illuminate many perspectives and strike empathy in many different people. Diasporic consciousness is incredibly valuable because it teaches us a different way of being, a way of interconnectedness and mutual love. The Gaang symbolizes this perfectly: it took all of them with all their different skills, to end the War and restore peace and balance. A diasporic consciousness has the same power: to model a newer, more just, more empathetic way of life.
“Diaspora, Immigration and Identity in ‘Avatar: the Last Airbender’,” ©irresistible-revolution, originally posted on August 19, 2014