by Gina Elbert
On Thursday, March 1st, the English department held a standing-room-only event to celebrate the launch of Professor Crystal Parikh’s new book, Writing Human Rights (University of Minnesota Press, 2017). Sponsored by the Colloquium for Postcolonial, Race, and Diaspora Studies, the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU, and the Contemporary Literature Series, the event featured Professor Parikh, author Joseph Keith, and graduate student Alexandria Ramos. Opening remarks were given by Professor Jini Kim Watson, Professor Parikh’s close friend and colleague who enthusiastically expressed support for her work.
Professor Parikh began by reading an excerpt from the introduction of Writing Human Rights. At its most basic level, she explained, the book is a survey of American literature through the lenses of postcolonialism, diaspora, and gender and sexuality. It complicates the normative discourse on human rights, which usually focuses on an “American” definition that brings to mind national belonging and liberation that Americans claim that they have as others do not. This definition tends toward a narrative of victimhood for those excluded from legal belonging. In her book, which concentrates on the bildungsroman and the family saga, Parikh argues that this is much too narrow and myopic a definition.
Instead, Professor Parikh works toward a transnational, intralinguistic theory of literature written in English by people of color. She asks, “How do we know what ‘the human’ is?” Traditionally, the answer to this question speaks to strength and capacity for labor, but Professor Parikh’s answer highlights the vulnerability and flexibility of the human. Vulnerability isn’t weakness, she says, but strength. Its vexed relationship with desire, another central theme in the book, works to complicate the one-dimensional victim. Disability studies, feminist theory, and queer theory all inform her perspective as well.
Ms. Ramos and Professor Keith’s comments brought out the above points: they asked about methodology and how role of the literary in representing ethical and political discourse, respectively. Afterwards, Professor Watson opened up the talk to further questions from the panel and the audience. Ms. Ramos, Professor Watson, Professor Maureen McLane, a member of the Colloquium for Postcolonial, Race, and Diaspora Studies, and undergraduate student Whitney Graham all asked insightful questions about the assumptions surrounding human rights literature, identity politics, historicizing the book’s argument, and making human rights discourse accessible to non-academic communities.
Writing Human Rights is Professor Parikh’s second book. The first, An Ethics of Betrayal: The Politics of Otherness in Emergent U.S. Literature and Culture, was published by the Fordham University Press in 2009. Writing Human Rights is available wherever books are sold. Congratulations, Professor Parikh!