Academic journal article ARIEL

"Let Us Begin with a Smaller Gesture": An Ethos of Human Rights and the Possibilities of Form in Chris Abani's Song for Night and Becoming Abigail

Academic journal article ARIEL

"Let Us Begin with a Smaller Gesture": An Ethos of Human Rights and the Possibilities of Form in Chris Abani's Song for Night and Becoming Abigail

Article excerpt

Abstract: This essay intervenes in current debates over human rights-oriented approaches to literature through a reading of Chris Abani's two novellas. As opposed to critics who want to either embrace or unmask human rights in literature, we argue that Abani mediates between these two poles through close attention to the ways in which literary form and aesthetic can craft a shared ethos between reader and text. In depicting the short lives of a child soldier and sex trafficked young girl, he emphasizes the limits of the law: the gap between the human subject and the legal person whose legal claims are recognizable. At the same time, his narratives are not sentimental, and they challenge readers to extend a recognition of shared humanity across facile divides of right or wrong behavior. If, as Abani posits, we cannot become fully human without the courage to unmask ourselves, then the endeavor of human rights must also submit to a similar unmasking of its foundational paradoxes, limitations, pretentions, and complicities precisely in order to live into or embrace the fuller manifestation of justice toward which it gestures. More specifically, we examine the interplay of lyric and narrative voices within the context of the novellas to show how Abani deploys temporal and aesthetic constructions in response to the limits of normative human rights (legal instruments and official discourses). Rather than calling upon the readers responsibility and fostering literary humanitarianism (which has been extensively critiqued as paternalistic by scholars such as Joseph Slaughter and Elizabeth Anker), Abani's delicate balance of lyric and narrative generates a more complicated ethos of reciprocity between the reader and the subjects whom the text calls into being as characters.

Keywords: Chris Abani, human rights, child soldiers, sex trafficking, literary humanitarianism, novella, lyric voice

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This essay intervenes in current debates over the role of the aesthetic in human rights approaches to literature through a reading of Chris Abani's two novellas. As James Dawes notes, "the return of aesthetics as a category of interest in literary criticism has generated significant suspicion" ("Human Rights in Literary Studies" 399). In the context of human rights-oriented criticism, suspicion has often turned to condemnation of the aesthetic on the grounds that it not only aestheticizes suffering but, more pointedly, masks the structural imbalances that generate human rights violations, cultivates a sense of literary humanitarianism, and substitutes sympathy with the text for action in the world beyond it. These different critiques share a common root in the work of recognition: the argument that the aesthetic generates a readerly response through various forms of identification, perhaps layered through aesthetic pleasure, with the subjects suffering in the text. When the aesthetic produces concern in this way, and sympathy elides the distance between reader and subject, it contributes to what Makau Mutua calls a "messianic ethos" (231), Lilie Chouliaraki analyzes as "'universal' morality and grand emotion" ("Post-humanitarianism" 107), and Joseph Slaughter (Human Rights, Inc.) and Elizabeth Anker each critique as literary humanitarianism that re-centers the ostensibly secure (read: Western) reader as the paradigmatic liberal subject and, thus, the true subject of human rights. Indeed, in Spectacular Rhetorics, Wendy Hesford warns explicitly against the "narcissism of pity" (Chouliaraki, The Spectatorship of Suffering 209, qtd. in Hesford 48) as well as an ethos grounded in Enlightenment universalism. In place of pity and universalism, she argues for readings that demonstrate "an awareness of the historical contingencies and rhetorical exigencies of ethical responsibility in its entanglement with institutional structures and individual lives" (190).

We share these scholars' critiques of how the aesthetic may mask historical and geopolitical context and thereby reproduce, under the guise of universalism or (mis) identification, the exclusions and imbalances of the human rights regime more broadly, particularly its Eurocentric conceptual apparatus and the ways in which human rights can provide an alibi for political and military intervention. …

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