Humanitarian Fictions: One-Day Graduate Workshop

Humanitarian Fictions: One-Day Graduate Workshop


April 14, 2018

We held the first graduate workshop related to my AHRC-funded research project, “The Psychic Life of the Poor,” at King’s College London yesterday. The ‘call for papers’ asked for short talks which examined the revived idea of humanitarianism in postcolonial, comparative, and world literary studies. We wanted to look at how the English-language novel, in particular, whether identified as regional and local in its affective or political affiliations or avowedly global in its sweep and reach – or both – embraced and furthered the discourse of human rights to address global modernity’s emergences and discontents.

The workshop had ten speakers and one auditor, doctoral and postdoctoral scholars as well as Master’s students, from Cambridge, Oxford, Queen Mary, and York:

Daniel Abdalla, “Homelessness in E. M. Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’”

Bhagya Casaba Somashekar, “Subaltern Quotidian: Solidarity and Resistance in Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance”

Chelsea Haith, “’Cities Teetering at the Edge of the Abyss’: Revising Human Relations in Hamid and Miéville’s Postcolonial Speculative Fiction”

Joshua Hambleton-Jewell, “Dialectics of the Uneven City: The Failure of ‘Liberalisation’ in Crime and Punishment and Portrait with Keys”

Joseph Hankinson “’The Alone to the Alone’: Gwyn Thomas’s Unexceptional Humanism”

Clare Kelly, “Constructing Prison Experience: Interactions between Authenticity, the Body, and Human Rights Discourse”

Lorraine Lau, “Agency in the Multicultural City: Politics of Gendered Space in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and Leila Aboulela’s Minaret”

Emelia Quinn, “Notes on Vegan Camp”

Akshi Singh, “’How Long Do Souls Linger by the Side of their Bodies?’: Han Kang and the Limits of Testimony”

Kelly Yin Nga Tse, “Legacies of the Asia-Pacific War: Human Rights Fiction and the Ethics of Forgiveness”

Joe Williams (auditor)

The all-day workshop was chaired by Dr David Barnes and me, by which I mean we made the introductions, kept time, and, occasionally, threw a lit match on combustible heaps of ideas. We started at 10 am and finished around 5.30 pm, stepping out for air during the breaks into a secret garden adjoining room SO.O3 in the Strand Building.

The set of papers was ambitious and wide-ranging in geopolitical and thematic scope: E. M. Forster’s imperial dystopia to post-World War II Malaya to Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantánamo; local (Welsh, for instance, or South Korean) and global politics and their myriad entanglements; gender violence and its kinship with violence toward the non-human animal; the “voice consciousness,” as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak termed it, if not the voice, of the marginalised, the incarcerated, the subaltern; the multicultural megacity. Some of the topics addressed well-known humanitarian crises in the aftermaths of epochal events such as the Gwangju uprising, the Indian Emergency, or the Asia-Pacific war. Others examined the “slow violence,” to use Rob Nixon’s powerful formulation for gradually unfolding environmental crises, of exploitative urban development and the class apartheid of neo-colonial or neoliberal states. Yet others contemplated the poetics of unexceptional, quotidian politics (or politics with a small p, as a speaker put it), and proposed that the bare, obscure life and its worldlessness be counted in the humanitarian sway of world literature.

The starting point of this conversation was the relationship between contemporary literature, literary criticism, and the world. The world we were evoking was one wracked by international warfare, inequalities in the wake of the global expansion of the capitalist mode of production, Islamophobia, gender violence, environmental and migrant crises. In the course of the day, we recast literature in the interchanging roles of witness, prophet, perpetrator and victim, activist. Convergences started appearing, not just in the papers grouped together thematically in panels but even across spatiotemporal divides posed by the diverse texts under discussion. Akshi’s and Emelia’s papers connected pathways of gender emancipation with the emetic or abstinent performativity of non-incorporation, as seen in the character of Han Kang’s vegetarian or the ‘vegan sexuality’ of the discourses of vegan camp. Claire and Bhagya questioned the claims of authenticity and sincerity associated with forms of social realism, whether it was the postcolonial historical novel or a secular confessional. If Akshi’s paper had lingered on Han Kang’s visceral narration of chronic domestic violence through the optic of a historical catastrophe, namely the student-led democratic uprising in South Korea in 1980 (precipitately and brutally crushed by the military junta), Bhagya argued that the depredations of the Emergency had brought to the fore areas of underdevelopment and social exploitation already rampant in India in the decades after decolonisation. Lorraine’s talk, on the negotiation of public and private spheres in Ali’s and Aboulela’s depictions of femininity at tricky intersections of class, race and religion, evoked the distinction Claire had cited between substantive and performative national identities.  Joshua’s evocation of Vladislavić’s Johannesburg as vertical modernity constructed over a hollow space resonated with Chelsea’s paper on the constitutive pessimism of postcolonial speculative fiction, which allowed readers to trade pernicious purist nostalgia for an unflinching look at “how bad things are.” Chelsea’s discussion of Hamid’s and Miéville’s modes of seeing and unseeing plural as well as striated urban space recalled Akshi’s insights on the precarity of the unseen. Joseph’s discussion of Gwyn Thomas’s “unexceptional” humanism evoked an affective register very different from the Rohinton Mistry novel Bhagya had discussed but both papers were arguing for a re-imagination of the collective, urging we retool ourselves to think of world literature not simply as a corollary to spectacular and world-changing events but politics in its messier, more forgettable, everyday guises. Daniel’s discussion of E. M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” urged a new line of thinking on genre as procedure just as it continued the conversation on the mental underground of haunted nation space inaugurated by Joshua, Lorraine, and Chelsea. The re-coding of homosexuality as homelessness in this fantasy raised an important question from Bhagya about the proven connections between occluded sexualities and transient, homeless states. Kelly’s paper on the ethics of forgiveness, with its acute attention to the gender politics determining the subject positions of the respective trauma sufferers, gave rise to a powerful discussion on the politics of remembering, reparation, and post-traumatic recovery. Was it fruitful to separate personal or subjective forgiveness from forgiveness of systematic (and ongoing) atrocities, Joseph wondered. Why was the victim additionally saddled with the emotional labour of forgiveness, Lorraine asked.

Centred in literary studies as this workshop was, we paid attention to the forms of the postcolonial and world fiction under consideration, traditional as well as aberrational, social realist, magic realist, sci-fi and speculative fiction, diary, memoir, autobiography, novella and short story. We debated also the changing cultural meanings of camp, banality, pessimism, melancholia, trauma, alienation, and intimacy, recorded flickeringly or reinvented with impunity in literary representations. The portrait of the artist as the author of humanitarian fictions threw up a mess of images: a veritable Antigone, re-burying ungrieved bodies to give them their symbolic due; a forensic Holmesian consciousness, the truth sleuth; the city walker; critic, con artist, and camp performer, trying on recombinant modes of being and doing; chronicler; lay analyst; poet.

The camaraderie and intellectual exchange of this heady day continued over drinks and dinner at the iconic and shambolic India Club a few doors down. Some of the authors of (Indian) postcolonial modernity, Jawaharlal Nehru included, had been there before us.


Oxford, 15/4/18

Ankhi Mukherjee
Humanitarian Fictions