Session on World Literature and Human Rights at the 2022 MLA Annual Convention

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    Ted Laros

    All are welcome to join our session on world literature and human rights at the 2022 MLA Annual Convention in Washington, DC:

    Session 15 – World Literature and Human Rights

    Thursday, 6 January 2022 6:00 PM – 7:15 PM, Marquis 16 (Marriott Marquis)

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    Ted Laros, Open U of the Netherlands


    Understanding Cultural Difference within the Framework of World Literature and the UDHR David Tse-chien Pan, U of California, Irvine

    Globalizing the Novel of Human Rights Cassandra Falke, Arctic U of Norway

    Ethics and Empathy: Human Rights Discourses and Lamentation as Politics in Home Fire Sauleha Kamal, U of York

    Session Information



    Ted Laros

    Please see below for a description of the session on “World Literature and Human Rights”:

    Session Description:

    What is the relation between ‘world literature’ and ‘human rights’? Both notions imply a universalizing gesture, by relying on transcultural aesthetic or literary categories (world literature) or shared moral values (human rights). Yet, in both cases, these universalistic claims entail the risk of neglecting cultural and political differences, thus projecting hegemonic (Western) values on a global scale. As a result, somewhat paradoxically, inclusive notions such as ‘world literature’ and ‘human rights’ can become instrumental to silencing or marginalizing alternative views of both literature and humanity — especially those from the global postcolonial South, but also those emanating from minor language regions in the Global North (D’haen 2013).

    In recent years, this tension between universality and specificity has been the subject of growing scholarly attention both with regard to world literature (Helgesson et al. 2020, Bhattacharya 2018, Bessière 2017) and human rights (Parikh 2019, Dawes 2018, McClennen and Moore 2016). However, much remains to be done in terms of exploring and problematizing the links between these two concepts. Building on the growing body of work mentioned above, this panel will interrogate the multiple relations between world literature and human rights from a transnational, postcolonial and decolonial perspective. In particular, we will look at ways in which world literature can respond to human rights violations, and shed light on what is excluded or sidelined by Western-centered approaches to human rights.


    1) In the first paper, ‘Understanding Cultural Difference within the Framework of World Literature and the UDHR’ (Presentation ID# 18069), Professor David Pan (UC Irvine) will set some general theoretical coordinates, by reflecting on the tension between universality and specificity within the framework of world literature and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In Prof. Pan’s view, the human rights project does not coincide with the promotion of a universal world literature that would promote human rights as commonly shared universals. Rather, literature will still have to develop within local languages and cultures. The project of a (world) literature of human rights would not be to replace such cultures, but to develop a set of interpretive tools for distinguishing between different currents within a cultural tradition and then opposing those aspects that undermine human rights.

    2) In the second paper, ‘Globalizing the Novel of Human Rights’ (Presentation ID# 18089), Professor Cassandra Falke (Arctic University of Norway) will further elaborate on the project of a world literature of human rights, by way of analyzing two novels focusing on civil war in Sri Lanka and Sierra Leone — i.e., respectively, Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost (2000) and Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love (2010). Both novels engage the typical plot structures of the ‘human rights novel’, as defined by Dawes (2018); yet, they both resist and ironize those plots, evoking them only to disappoint and challenge readers’ expectations. Additionally, both novels begin with an anglophone focalizer — a professional who invites the identification of readers approaching the Sri Lankan or Sierra Leonean civil war settings as privileged outsiders — only to fragment and highlight the inadequacy of those focalizing perspectives as the novels progress.

    3) In the third paper, ‘Ethics and Empathy: Human Rights Discourses and Lamentation as Politics in Home Fire’ (Presentation ID# 18090), Sauleha Kamal (PhD candidate, University of York) will focus on another postcolonial human rights novel, namely Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire (2017). In her analysis, particular emphasis will be placed on how world literature can redistribute empathy and establish human connections in a divided world. By interrogating post-9/11 conceptions of human rights and citizenship, Shamsie’s novel demands a more humane response and an interrogation of who is grievable and worthy of empathy. The close reading of Home Fire will ultimately set the basis for a broader assessment of empathy’s role within the project of a world literature of human rights.


    Bessière, J. (2017). What Is Left of Comparative Literature and World Literature? Notes on International Literature, Its Concrete Universality and Enigmacity. Canadian Review of Comparative Literature / Revue Canadienne de Littérature Comparée 44(3), 407-419. doi:10.1353/crc.2017.0035.

    Bhattacharya, B. (2018). Postcolonial Writing in the Era of World Literature: Texts, Territories, Globalizations. London: Routledge.

    Dawes, J. (2018). The Novel of Human Rights. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    D’haen, T. (2013). Major Histories, Minor Literatures, and World Authors. CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 15(5),

    Helgesson, S., Neumann, B. and Ripplet, G., eds (2020). Handbook of Anglophone World Literatures. Berlin: De Gruyter.

    McClennen, S. and Moore, A., eds (2016). The Routledge Companion to Literature and Human Rights. London: Routledge.

    Parikh, C., ed. (2019). Human Rights and Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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