- The People’s Right to the Novel: War Fiction in the Postcolony by Eleni Condouriotis
Since serious interdisciplinary study of human rights began—which we might conveniently date back to the first issue of Human Rights Quarterly in 1980—the field has been dominated by law, political science, and philosophy. While art has always been central to the practice of human rights (from war photography and post-conflict memorialization to testimonio and the poetry of witness), it is only in the past decade that disciplines from the arts and humanities have emerged as central to both research and pedagogy in human rights.
The roots of literary studies of human rights reach back to Elaine Scarry’s The Body and Pain (1985), as well as to the collective intersection of a range of disciplinary movements—including law and literature, critical race theory, trauma theory, queer theory, Holocaust studies, and postcolonial studies—that together generated what is known as the 1990s “ethical turn” in literary studies. It was not until 2007, however, that human rights and literature emerged with seemingly sudden clarity as a named subfield of its own. Immediately following a special issue on human rights in the discipline’s flagship journal, PMLA, four monographs were simultaneously published that mapped out the historical and ethical parameters of the interdiscipline: Joseph Slaughter’s Human Rights, Inc., Elizabeth Swanson Goldberg’s Beyond Terror: Gender, Narrative, Human Rights, my own That the World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity, and Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights (the last a book of history that nonetheless argued for the centrality of literary studies in understanding human rights).
Since then studies in literature and human rights have proliferated, generally along one of two lines: those that seek to export the theories and concerns of literature departments to the field of human rights broadly conceived, and those that seek to import the theories and concerns of human rights to literature departments. Eleni Condouriotis’s new book, The People’s Right to the Novel: War Fiction in the Postcolony, is an exemplary instance of the latter.
The People’s Right to the Novel is a sweeping analysis of war literature in Africa, focusing primarily upon Kenya, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and Somalia. In her most succinct statement of the book’s ambitions, Condouriotis writes: “The question ‘what does the African war novel teach us about the genre of the war novel more broadly?’ performs a double gesture: it delineates a distinct tradition (the African war novel) and seeks to bring it into a global context.”1 While The People’s Right to the Novel makes a sustained effort to complete the latter gesture, its greater success (and largest effort) is in the former.
Condouriotis argues that war literature not only reveals a culture’s competing conceptual frameworks for understanding [End Page 799] human rights, but also helps to generate and shape them. The African war novel is especially important, she continues, because it offers a clarifying contrast to the better known, more globally successful genre of African novels, the Bildungsroman (the novel of social education). Where the Bildungsroman often represents “high” literature that aims for a global market—“writing back to the Empire,” as Condouriotis sometimes phrases it—the war novel tends to enjoy less international prestige and is frequently written for an internal national audience. And where the Bildungsroman articulates and consolidates individualism as a framework for understanding and hierarchicalizing rights—an argument persuasively argued by Slaughter in Human Rights, Inc.—the war novel articulates and consolidates what she calls “a people’s history”: that is, stories that put the concerns of ordinary people at the center of national concerns and that, typically, stake claims to a collective rather than individualistic conception of rights.
For literary critics, one of the most important contributions of the book will be her identification of four defining motifs for the African war novel, motifs that help organize our understanding of a large swath of literature across the continent...