This essay examines critically the relationship between stories and human rights by focusing on refugee narratives in two contemporary novels. An influential account of this relationship suggests that stories make legible the human in human rights and therefore storytelling is a performance of human rights work. This essay challenges this notion by analyzing the forms and limits of narratives that attempt to “humanize” the refugee as well as the forms and limits of the human that they produce. It shows that recent literary representations of refugees rely on the conventions of sentimental fiction and argues that while such a strategy may be useful in soliciting sympathy for the suffering other, it also constrains the narrative field and conceals other stories that tell of much more pervasive structural wrongs. By emphasizing individual and spectacular suffering, sentimentalist humanitarian storytelling generates a depoliticized figure of universal humanity and displaces the narratives that would indicate a more ambivalent role for stories and a more difficult task for human rights.
"The Permissible Narratives of Human Rights; or, How to Be a Refugee,"
Criticism: Vol. 60:
1, Article 5.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.wayne.edu/criticism/vol60/iss1/5