Writing Human Rights

Writing Human RightsWriting Human Rights
The Political Imaginaries of Writers of Color

University of Minnesota Press (2017)
Winner of the Association for Asian American Studies Award for Outstanding Achievement in Humanities and Cultural Studies: Literature

The legal texts and aspirational ideals of human rights are usually understood and applied in a global context with little bearing on the legal discourse, domestic political struggles, or social justice concerns within the United States. In “Writing Human Rights,” Crystal Parikh uses the international human rights regime to read works by contemporary American writers of color — Toni Morrison, Chang-rae Lee, Ana Castillo, Aimee Phan, and others — to explore the conditions under which new norms, more capacious formulations of rights, and alternative kinds of political communities emerge.

Parikh contends that unlike humanitarianism, which views its objects as victims, human rights provide avenues for the creation of political subjects. Pairing the ethical deliberations in such works as “Beloved” and “A Gesture Life” with human rights texts like the United Nations Convention Against Torture, she considers why principles articulated as rights in international conventions and treaties — such as the right to self-determination or the right to family — are too often disregarded at home. Human rights concepts instead provide writers of color with a deeply meaningful method for political and moral imagining in their literature.

Affiliating transnational works of American literature with decolonization, socialist, and other political struggles in the global south, this book illuminates a human rights critique of idealized American rights and freedoms that have been globalized in the twenty-first century. In the absence of domestic human rights enforcement, these literatures provide a considerable repository for those ways of life and subjects of rights made otherwise impossible in the present antidemocratic moment.

In this ambitious study, Crystal Parikh shows how the literature of writers of color has always been preoccupied with what are now called “human rights.” Her wide-ranging and urgent readings, written with the precision and care of a passionate literary and social critic, reminds us of how much literature matters in imagining and demanding justice and humanity. — Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Refugees” and “The Sympathizer”

Clearly passionate and committed, Crystal Parikh has read broadly and deeply into this very exciting topic and opens up a range of provocative questions. — David Palumbo-Liu, author of “The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age”