Towards an ethics of the humanitarian imagination

Authored by: Allison Mackey

Routledge Handbook of African Literature

Print publication date:  March  2019
Online publication date:  March  2019

Print ISBN:
eBook ISBN: 9781315229546
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The writing and reception of literature in human rights contexts relies on a public circulation of affect that divides the world into ‘comfort zones’ and zones of risk, vulnerability and disposability. Humanitarian narratives about Africa are largely produced for the consumption of English-speaking readers in the global North in the interest of drawing attention to – and garnering support for – efforts to engage in humanitarian relief efforts. Given that at ‘any historical moment, only certain stories are tellable and intelligible to a broader audience’ (Schaffer and Smith 2004, 32), victims of humanitarian crises often need humanitarian groups to speak for them. Even when personal stories of suffering are called upon to do specific political work within human rights networks, the complexities of self-representation do not always line up easily with the cultural work that these narratives are expected to do in terms of rights discourse. Personal narratives that have been taken up within the field of human rights illustrate a wide variety of writing strategies and goals, and include genres such as testimonio, examples of postcolonial bildungsromane, ‘stolen generation’ and AIDS memoirs, child soldier and refugee narratives, as well as more recent sites of narration enabled by the use of social media and other digital technologies. In each instance, acts of ‘personal storytelling’ motivate the ‘rights movement’ and become the ground for political action and social change (Schaffer and Smith 2004, 3). When storytelling is implicitly linked to human rights claims it is important to consider the consequences and complexities of this pressure to ‘represent oneself’ (Gilmore 2001, 19) on the world stage. Given that such narratives operate within an already existing economy it is difficult to avoid their absorption into transnational culture industries where they are fetishised as commodities of cultural difference or cultural ambassadors of human suffering. 1 Keeping in mind the market- and consumer-logics within which these stories tend to circulate, in this chapter I am concerned with identifying what is at stake in iterations of humanitarian narratives about Africa and in how we approach them: what do these kinds of story do for their authors and for their readers?

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