Literature and the Limits of Human Rights
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In this thesis I argue that there are qualities of literary writing which can illuminate human rights discourse and, specifically, its limit points. I focus on one such limit-point: the difficulty of fully possessing human rights. Rights are most likely to be securely guaranteed under the legal system of a nation-state. However, such rights – possessed on the basis of citizenship rather than through humanness – are not always considered human rights. The position of the nation-state, the possibility of legal enforcement and the category of the human are therefore ambiguities for the discourse. Literary texts from two countries which have been central to debates about human rights – Uganda and South Africa – will provide the focus for this study. Joseph Slaughter proposes that the plot of the Bildungsroman both resembles and promulgates the citizenship model of human rights-possession. However, in texts addressing the involvement of children in war in Uganda, I read experiments with the Bildungsroman form to indicate human rights discourse’s preoccupation with merely human identity. Child soldier narratives appeal to a decontextualized, universal image of the child, while in the fiction of Goretti Kyomuhendo there is an excessive repetition of familial language and symbol which throws the traditional narrative arc of the Bildungsroman off course. Critics including Slaughter see literature as compensating for the ambivalence of human rights discourse about the possibility of its own enforcement through the law. Instead, I explore the ways in which certain texts, in the context of South Africa, enact their own irreducibility to legal categories. I make this argument through a discussion of the way the literature and the literary appear in the Report of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission alongside readings of Antjie Krog’s Begging to Be Black and Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter and The House Gun.
AuthorsHogg, Emily Jane
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