Academic journal article ARIEL

The Poetics of Postcolonial Atrocity: Dalit Life Writing, Testimonio, and Human Rights

Academic journal article ARIEL

The Poetics of Postcolonial Atrocity: Dalit Life Writing, Testimonio, and Human Rights

Article excerpt

If, as Michael Ignatieff proposes, human rights is the lingua franca to articulate and address the problems of suffering (7), then it follows that particular forms of suffering might generate specific forms of narrative within this language of rights. Local social and cultural conditions of atrocity are tied in to universal discourses--including legal--of human rights via a narrative that is simultaneously local and global, even as the legal domain of human rights permeates other realms of politics and culture (Ahmed and Stacey 1). An atrocity narrative is, then, irreducibly "double voiced": it is located within a discursive structure specific to a time and place, thus ensuring that the atrocity is made recognizable, and the demand for rights is made part of a universal schema of values. Anthony Langlois argues that the discourse of human rights presupposes definitions of the "human," thereby proposing a narrative tradition in which the "human" emerges (Langlois). The circulation and/or acceptance of narratives about what it means to be human determine what is defined as a "human right" (Slaughter).

My essay discusses Dalit life writing, a genre of Indian texts that emerged first in regional languages, and, in the 1990s, in English; the genre situates personal and collective suffering within a larger discourse of human rights. "Dalit," derived from the Marathi--the predominant language of Maharashtra state literally means "of the earth" and "that which has been ground down" and now signifies socially oppressed caste groups and tribals. Ironically, these marginalized Dalit peoples constitute a large segment of the population, and have been forced to mobilize themselves in order to fight for rights and justice in postcolonial India. Dalit human rights emerge in a national context but, as this essay shows, can be usefully integrated with a larger international-global discourse of suffering, trauma and human rights. 'While Dalit life writing explicitly references conditions of atrocity in India, it also develops a notion of the human subject that can be serviceable within multiple contexts of suffering. Indeed, the genre's narrative tradition of recognizing the outcast human in India offers strong parallels with other such humans the world over. In its representation of suffering humans, Dalit life writing generates abject-types for (possible) ethical appropriation by a global literary field for human rights. I invoke "abjectification"--deliberately echoing "objectification" to signal social processes of economic and political oppression, modes of atrocity and injustice, but also the representational process. Abject-types are figures of abjection occurring in literatures of trauma across the world. They demonstrate the consequences of political and social processes and emerge through representations of atrocity and suffering.

"Life writing" includes genres as diverse as autobiographies, autofictions, and confessional forms (Henke). Dalit life writing is a personal atrocity memoir that calls attention to oppressive conditions within a community. It folds the atrocity narrative into testimonies and evidentiary statements that are explicitly political; as Kay Schaffer and Sidonie Smith have demonstrated, memoirs by victims are intrinsically linked to contemporary global rights movements (Schaffer and Smith).

Thus far, studies of Dalit people have been largely sociological and rarely attentive to the narrative, aesthetic, and formal properties of Dalit writings (Dumont; Omvedt; (Those). Such studies foreground crucial issues such as oppression, atrocity, and protest as major themes in Dalit writing but do not investigate or provide an account of the forms in which these themes are conveyed (exceptions include the works of Limbale, Towards an Aesthetics of Dalit Literature; Dharwadker; Beth; Nayar, "Bamis Karukku"; Rege). My earlier work proposed that Dalit writing may be treated as testimonio (Nayar, "Bama's Karukku"). …

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