Book Review: Writing Human Rights: The Political Imaginaries of Writers of Color

Crystal Parikh. Writing Human Rights: The Political Imaginaries of Writers of Color. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

What constitutes “the good life” [3], from who’s imagination does it spring and how does that notion become the rationale for international human rights law?  What peoples are excluded or unimagined or are “impossible subjects” [37] of this good life?  And what might the representation of their existence, aspirations and desires imagined in the literary fiction of US-based writers of color tell us about the limitations of existing human rights instruments? Crystal Parikh explores these questions in Writing Human Rights.  Parikh uses “human rights literacy” [ 22 ] to engage with works from the 1960s through the turn of the new century to show how those writers of color address the human rights imaginary rather than its legality.  This review seeks to raise, interrogate, trouble the role of writer and scholar activists. Can we utilize the cultural production at our disposal to both organize for acceptance of and compliance with existing human rights laws while opening our own activism to further the visibility of those impossible subjects excluded from the neoliberal imaginary that has shaped the formation of human rights protocols since their inception in 1948?

Positing the “neoliberal imaginary” as the basis for defining the “American good life” [200], with its conception of equality based in the idealized subjectivity of “white male Americans” ”[17]  and the specious “transcendence of social difference” [21], Parikh illustrates the neoliberal state’s privileging of property, borders and individualism in the definition of belonging via citizenship, and how that definition shaped the earliest UN human rights protocols and all that followed [27-28, 45]. Parikh engages seven human rights instruments — From the UN International Bill of Human Rights to The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child — in critical dialogue with eleven works of fiction by US-based writers from the Cold War to the end of the first Gulf War [212], ], including Toni Morrison, Ernest Gaines, Maxine Hong Kingston, Chang-rae Lee, Susan Choi, Ana Castillo and Aimee Phan.

Her choice of works illustrates a range of imaginaries outside the fiction of the American good life.  Parikh engages human rights literacy in dialogue with literary works of fiction that were co-emergent with the codification of human rights protocols during and after the cold war period. Parikh acknowledges the necessity and incisiveness of these protocols in addressing the emergent autonomy of the global south, as well as the constraints in their initial codification that have left them deeply flawed [13]. Parikh engages a “dialectical method” [22] of criticism of that which is “idealized” in the formulation of rights law, “the American good life” [3]. This good life, predicated on white masculinity and Euro-American hegemony, inculcated the belief that the rest of the world should want what Americans already possessed [3], obfuscating the many versions of apartheid and genocide endemic to the founding of the country while shielding the US political system from scrutiny of the specific and ongoing oppression of African-Americans contemporary to the post World War II period [14]. 

The US agenda for the world after World War II and into the Cold War was to further free trade across borders, reduce U.S. involvement in foreign entanglements, and maintain, with Western Europe, its “geopolitical and economic domination” [9]. The documented reaction of US lawmakers to the formulation of the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was the protection of U.S. and of Western European political interests in a progressively decolonizing world and against meddling in US domestic politics, especially the treatment of African-Americans under state and federally sanctioned Jim Crow laws [14]. The “domestic jurisdiction clause” in the Charter served this purpose [13]. 

Parikh posits humanness, personhood, agency and kinship as the human rights imaginaries of the works of fiction she engages.  These may seem irrelevant to, or at least meaningless for a United States in the 21st century, given the inculcation of the neoliberal imaginary into every aspect of American life and the focus of rights and humanitarian awareness, in popular conception, on other shores.  Yet the soon 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina (2005) in which African-Americans, putative citizens, became, to use Rob Nixon’s terminology, “refugees in place” [Nixon, 19][i] the current interdiction in Guatemala of those seeking asylum in the US and the ongoing refugee crisis at the US border with Mexico  instantiates the relevance of Parikh’s application of a human rights literacy  to illuminate the contradictions between the fictional representations of the lived experience of people of color and the historical hegemonic aspirations of the United States in the cold war period and after [11].

Parikh chooses Toni Morrison’s Beloved and it’s haunting at the end of enslavement in the US to postulate the first imaginary of those considered “other than.” Beloved chronicles the ability of Sethe’s community to act for each other as fully human persons [34]. This imagining becomes the recurring labor of dispossessed peoples [39]. Parikh reminds us in considering Ernest Gaines, A Gathering of Old Men of the deep alliance among liberation leaders of colonized peoples in Africa and Asia with American Black Radicals and their mutual struggle for self-determination [59].  Ending with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Parikh discusses Aimee Phan’s We Should Never Meet and the coming of age of the children evacuated from Vietnam in Operation Babylift, reminding us of the consequences of ill-conceived humanitarian responses to disastrous geo-political entanglements and the resourcefulness of those displaced and dispossessed of family in building kinship networks [237]. This interrogation of the human rights record reveals “the substantial contestation undertaken by the ‘darker races’ against the ideological limits of the united nations [sic] world and a (neo)liberal vision of the American good life.” [37]

Parikh’s application of human rights literacy pairs well with Nixon’s reflection on the writings of global south writers of color seeking to resist colonialism and the encroachment of extractive industries and global petro-capitalism [218] that has created so many of the refugee crises that are not addressed as crimes against humanity and render their victims the “impossible subject” [85] in “unimagined communities” [Nixon, 150]  outside human rights protections.  In dialogue with Nixon, Parikh presents a challenge to writer and scholar activists to address the questions raised by writers of color worldwide, regardless of genre.  What is the responsibility of writer/scholar activists seeking solidarity with those writers who “… pit their energies against what Edward Said called ‘the normalized quiet of unseen power” [Nixon, 6]. What is our practice in a world at war, a world on fire?

Both Parikh and Nixon seek to liberate human rights protocols from the rarified province of international institutions and the academy by engaging in literary critique and dialogue embedded in the historical experiences of genocide, despotic collusion with petro-capitalist incursions and other atrocities in the service of the neoliberal imaginary. These writers of color, US and global south [26] “broke the rules” of their genres,  favoring  the family romance & romance over the bildungsroman [22-23], and “a vast social canvas over the ‘misery memoir’” of the early 21st century [Nixon, 143] presenting multi-genre attestations to the truth of their people’s dispossession, marginalization and resistance.  Importantly, these writers made the invisible visible at a time when the hegemony of racist neoliberal capitalist expansionism was hardening borders and undermining indigenous sovereignty, while rendering whole people’s stateless. The challenge for writer/scholar activists is to place our work in service to the identity of geographic claims and the visibility of the impossible subjects and unimagined communities in their struggles for autonomy, personhood and civic belonging.

Rebecca O. Johnson
Union Theological Seminary

[i] Nixon, Rob. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Nixon discusses “Maathi, Saro-Wiwa, Munif, Kincaid, Ndebele, Naipaul, Carson, Richard Rodriguez, Nadine Gordimer and James Baldwin” among others [Nixon,26].