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Contagion, Cosmopolitanism, and Human Rights in Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to Our Hillbrow

From: College Literature
Volume 40, Number 3, Summer 2013
pp. 99-112 | 10.1353/lit.2013.0026



This essay explores the association between the outsider (as transnational migrant, social outcast, city dweller, and HIV-positive person) and disease in South African novelist Phaswane Mpe’s 2000 novel Welcome to Our Hillbrow. It argues that Mpe’s text appropriates the trope of contagion from contemporary xenophobic discourse and reconfigures it to uncover the transnational and rural-urban interconnections in post-apartheid South Africa erased by scapegoating immigrants from other parts of the continent as the primary carriers of AIDS. In the absence of an effective international legal mandate for addressing human rights violations, the text combats such abuses through Afrocentric and yet overtly cosmopolitan acts of narrative memorializing. By working relentlessly to theorize the interchange between the local and the cosmopolitical, Mpe offers an important model for human rights scholarship that aims to engage with witnessing and memorializing the vulnerable body and to contextualize diseased bodies within narratives about rights and shared responsibility.

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