Affordable Access

The Social Rights Imaginary of the Contemporary Postcolonial Novel

  • Stambler, Arielle Hanna
Publication Date
Jan 01, 2024
eScholarship - University of California
External links


This dissertation examines how twenty-first-century postcolonial fictions remake the liberal language of human rights to contest economic violence. A moral lingua franca for narrating violence and redress, human rights discourse typically deploys individual stories of suffering to evoke readerly empathy and galvanize ethical action. But its focus on the state as exclusive perpetrator and the self-possessed individual as the standard of personhood means it habitually misses economic violence—the structural denial from racialized subjects of rights to housing, healthcare, employment, education, food, and other tenets of material citizenship. By contrast, I argue that a growing group of contemporary postcolonial fictions—which I name “social rights novels”—helps us to rethink the relationship between human rights and economic violence. Included in this group are works by NoViolet Bulawayo, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Imbolo Mbue, Ishmael Beah, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Jonathan Escoffery, Marlon James, and Edwidge Danticat. The genre exposes economic violence as a product of global racial capitalism and ongoing financial colonialism. It identifies and contests forms of predation overlooked by the dominant, rights-based imaginary—from the pollution and dispossession of Niger Delta communities by multinational oil companies, to the redirection of Caribbean state wealth toward international debt service and away from social welfare programming, to the marginalization of the economic refugee struggling to survive in the Global North. What holds the genre together across these diverse narrative sites is how it both marshals and destabilizes the language of human rights. To make this language usable, the social rights novel stretches it to a breaking point—something that postcolonial fiction has long done with colonial cultural materials. By breaking and remaking human rights in this way, the social rights novel builds a new narrative framework for imagining economic justice. Specifically, these works challenge the logic of neoliberal austerity, under which material provision is not a matter of rights but a market prerogative, a personal responsibility, or a problem for humanitarian charity.

Report this publication


Seen <100 times