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  • Literary Didacticism and Collective Human Rights in US Borderlands: Ana Castillo's The Guardians and Louise Erdrich's The Round House
  • Tereza M. Szeghi (bio)

There is now a sizable body of scholarship on the relationship between human rights and literature. James Dawes suggests that the work of human rights is largely a matter of storytelling ("Human Rights in Literary Studies"). Joseph Slaughter contends, in turn, that "literary works and literary modes of thinking have played important parts in the emergence of modern human rights ideals and sentiments, as well as in the elaboration of national and international human rights laws" ("Rights" xiii). More specifically, in her oft-cited Inventing Human Rights, Lynn Hunt argues that contemporary human rights thought derives from the rise of the epistolary novel, which enabled readers to empathize with people different from themselves by rendering their individual experiences in a compelling, broadly understandable fashion. Just as these epistolary novels focused on the individual, so too has the human rights tradition been derived from individualistic Western Enlightenment thought and foundational Western documents (from the Declaration of the Right of Man to the United States Declaration of Independence).1 Although much human rights fiction is non-Western, it tends to be read by Westerners through the dominant human rights frame—which emphasizes the struggles of individuals in relation to the societies in which they live.2 Too infrequently are such texts examined with an eye not just toward critiquing human rights thought or activism but also toward revising working conceptions of what human rights are and how literature can best be allied to the struggle for human rights. This article addresses how two recent novels, written by Indigenous US writers, offer precisely [End Page 403] these types of critiques and revisions.

Ana Castillo's The Guardians (2007) and Louise Erdrich's The Round House (2012) argue from Indigenous American perspectives (Chicana and Anishinaabe, respectively) for reforms to the individualistic nature of much human rights thought and, as a result, to the ways nation–states police and maintain their borders. Moreover, they reject conventional approaches to the role of literature in effectively promoting human rights—which tend to emphasize literature's capacity to spur empathy—by blurring the line between literary, legal, and political realms.3 Castillo and Erdrich weave into their narratives overt statements about the laws, policies, and colonially rooted biases that contribute to human rights violations in the United States today. They do not just appeal to readers' emotions but also offer readers and would–be activists guidance about what can be done to effect change (e.g., citing specific policies that need to be overhauled) in order to increase the odds that their novels will prompt readers to take action.

Looking at these two books together reveals how legal restrictions and ambiguities in the US borderlands contribute to human rights violations in these regions. Further, it prompts a comparative assessment of how the United States legally defines and maintains two distinct types of borders (the international border with Mexico and the internal borders with American Indian nations whose sovereignty continues to be hard fought and under–recognized by the United States). While recent human rights instruments like the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP),4 which the United States adopted in 2010, tend to take a comprehensive approach to Indigenous rights, these novels, examined together, illustrate that while there are significant commonalities in the ways US policies contribute to human rights violations in different Indigenous borderlands, there are also important distinctions in terms of how these policies should be revised to promote the human rights of Indigenous peoples.5

In The Round House, a rape goes unpunished in part because of the indeterminate location of the crime and limitations placed on tribal governments when prosecuting offenses that occur on their lands (particularly when the perpetrator is not an American Indian). [End Page 404] It is the tribe's combined separation from and connection to the US legal system that impedes justice for Geraldine Coutts (the rape survivor) and her family. The Guardians, in turn, spotlights how US efforts to treat its border with Mexico as a dividing line between...