Academic journal article MELUS

Seeking Asylum: Literary Reflections on Sexuality, Ethnicity, and Human Rights

Academic journal article MELUS

Seeking Asylum: Literary Reflections on Sexuality, Ethnicity, and Human Rights

Article excerpt

Over the past decade, immigration law in the United States has taken several important steps toward establishing that human rights violations arising from sexual-orientation-based persecution are recognized grounds for granting asylum to refugees. Sexual orientation is joining other more established grounds for seeking protection from persecution. However, US asylum laws and practices still fail to protect all the refugees on US soil who face persecution if returned to their homelands. Asylum law, as written by Congress and interpreted by the courts and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), is forged through the conflict of two incompatible functions: it attempts to meet US obligations under international accords to shelter those persons whose own national governments cannot or will not protect them from persecution, and it attempts to limit the number of successful asylum claims in response to anti-immigrant feelings strongly felt and expressed by the American public. Asylum seekers, immigrant rights activists, and human rights advocates work to overcome the latter of these functions while strengthening the former.

Scholarly human rights advocacy is typically carried out in the fields of law, public health, politics, and journalism. What is to be gained by expanding this range of fields to include literary criticism? In this essay I analyze an autobiography, Reinaldo Arenas' Before Night Falls, and two novels, Elias Miguel Munoz' The Greatest Performance and Shyam Selvadurai's Funny Boy. These texts were published between 1991 and 1994, and many of their central concerns overlap with issues confronted in US asylum law and practice during the 1990s: persecution on account of sexual orientation and ethnicity, family and ethnicity as categories of social experience that shape and give meaning to gender and sexuality; the emerging understanding that human rights violations occur not only in the public sphere but also in the domestic or private sphere; and the consideration of barriers that prevent victims from seeking justice, both at home and in the US. I explore these areas of overlap in the sections below. However, more important than overlap is the fact that the representations of immigrant and refugee experience rendered in these literary accounts speak powerfully to human rights issues that US law overlooks and that INS practice ignores. As a result, literary criticism of these texts can contribute to the study of human rights a deeper understanding of human experience and of humanity in the fullest sense of that word. At the same time, human rights discourse provides a critically compelling framework for interpreting the work of Arenas, Munoz, and Selvadurai.

Before focusing on these authors' texts, however, I need to provide the context for my analysis in the form of an overview of US asylum laws and practices. In the following section, I explain the legal basis for asylum claims. For the purposes of this essay, I will focus on one of the five grounds upon which a refugee can seek asylum: persecution on account of membership in a particular social group. The legal definition of "social group" has proven especially important to persons who seek asylum because they fear persecution on account of their sexual orientation. The INS, through the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), the Ninth Circuit Court, and the Second Circuit Court, have offered three definitions of "social group." As I explain in detail below, two of these definitions draw upon notions of "family." Arenas, Munoz, and Selvadurai complicate the meaning of family, sexuality, and ethnicity by representing these forms of human relation in and through each other. Their fictional and non-fictional representations invite us to reconsider the definition of "social group" as it has emerged in US asylum law. The tension between literary and legal approaches to the idea of "social group" suggests not only that its legal definition is too far removed from lived human experience, but also that literature can clarify our understanding of human rights and our vision of remedies for rights violations. …

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