Narrative States: Human Rights Discourse in Contemporary Literature
Doctor of Philosophy
Human rights have become a dominant framework through which to narrate and read political violence in contemporary literature concerning Africa, the Caribbean, and the Indian subcontinent. This dissertation argues that human rights discourse depoliticizes crises that result from histories of colonialism, inequitable development policies, and the growth of transnational capital. The testimonial narrative structure of human rights treats political violence as trauma and portrays the narrator as testifier and reader as witness. It assumes that in the exchange between these figures a cathartic process takes place and that by proxy the original political violence may be resolved. The language of human rights is thus deployed to illuminate the suffering of others without interrupting processes of global capitalism or narratives of US exceptionalism. This dissertation examines the intersection of human rights discourse and postcoloniality. It analyzes the decolonial strategies through which postcolonial texts challenge human rights discourse and shift focus from trauma and catharsis to the national and international policies, business practices, and cultural narratives that sustain inequitable power structures. This dissertation begins by critiquing the concept of literary humanitarianism, which suggests that the reader may fulfill a humanitarian act by reading a story of suffering. After showing in the introduction how this literary trend is connected to changes in the nation-state system, the first two chapters analyze the narrative mechanics of the testimonial narrative structure. As these opening essays examine depictions of apartheid in South Africa, genocide in Rwanda, and slow violence in India, they problematize the expansion of the 'universal' humanist narrative voice and critique the construction of a humanitarian reader. Chapter three then compares methodological approaches to storytelling to analyze the relationship between literature, the archive, and lived reality in post-apartheid South Africa. Moving into a discussion of the economic and cultural imperialism that characterize the postcolonial condition, the final two chapters reveal how representations of old and new diasporas across Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, and the Americas resist the language of human rights. Together, these chapters argue that the political potential of literature is not in staging humanitarian resolutions but in interrogating the frameworks that sustain inequality.