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Citizenship and Human Rights in Contemporary Nigerian Literature Giulia D’Agostini 18 September 2014 AISCLI Summer School World Cultures.

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Presentation on theme: "Citizenship and Human Rights in Contemporary Nigerian Literature Giulia D’Agostini 18 September 2014 AISCLI Summer School World Cultures."— Presentation transcript:

1 Citizenship and Human Rights in Contemporary Nigerian Literature Giulia D’Agostini 18 September 2014 AISCLI Summer School World Cultures & Literatures In English

2 Generations of Nigerian literature A central theme in contemporary Nigerian/postcolonial literature: between citizenship and human rights (Hannah Arendt, Giorgio Agamben) Chris Abani’s Becoming Abigail

3 Nigerian literature Earlier authors (“first-” and “second-generation” authors) Chinua Achebe Wole Soyinka Flora Nwapa Buchi Emecheta Ken Saro-Wiwa … Themes The colonial encounter and pre-colonial order A state that does not become a nation Post-independence disillusionment

4 Nigerian literature Younger novelists (post-2000, “the children of the postcolony”): Chris Abani Chimamanda Adichie Helen Oyeyemi Chika Unigwe Helon Habila Sefi Atta … Themes Migration and global inequality Violent encounters with the State (dictatorships 1980s and 1990s) The democratic failure of the Nigerian state …increasingly through the lenses of human and citizenship rights

5 Citizenship and Human Rights Definitions and relationship Hannah Arendt, “The Decline of The Nation‐state and the End of the Rights of Man,” in The Origins of Totalitarianism: Denaturalisations during and after World War I  Statelessness. Two solutions: repatriation or naturalisation Unwanted human beings How to deal with them? Or, how to re-exile a refugee?  Police Citizenship and concentration camps What of human rights?

6 The supposedly ‘natural’ rights, to which a human being should be entitled for the sole reason of being human, “proved to be unenforceable […] whenever people appeared who were no longer citizens of any sovereign state” (293). The human being deprived of political status, the “man who is nothing but a man,” was destined to lose “the very qualities which ma[de] it possible for other people to treat him as a fellow-man” (300): in other words, “the world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human” (299). The human being who is not a citizen of a sovereign state does not have any “right to have rights”  his/her very inclusion in the human family, his/her humanity, is put in question Citizenship and Human Rights

7 Arendt’s “abstract nakedness of being human” and Giorgio Agamben’s “bare life” Homo Sacer. Il potere sovrano e la nuda vita, 1995 (Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life) 1) bios; 2) zoē; 3) bare life 1) political existence; 2) animal existence, the fact of birth; 3) what becomes of the human being when s/he is deprived of political life Homo sacer: an emblem of bare life, the human who is stripped bare of political existence (cf. the refugee, the human being in the concentration camp, the stateless, …). Between human and animal, between life and death. Can be killed with impunity.

8 Chris Abani Narrative production GraceLand (2004) Becoming Abigail (2006) Song for Night (2007) The Virgin of Flames (2007) The Secret History of Las Vegas (2014)  Works that explore what happens to the human in very complex, even extreme, situations  Often abstracting tendencies (most evident in Song for Night)

9 Abigail’s story Haunted by the ghost of her mother, who died in childbirth Guilt, desire to create memory of her and frustrating invisibility (ambiguous relationship with a beloved father) Scarification At 14, she is taken to London by Peter Peter attempts to force her into prostitution Resistance and new love – a love that the state cannot accept Encounter, and confrontation, with the state (GB) Becoming Abigail

10 Form Novella Lyrical prose Often grotesque imagery Disturbing images of the human reduced to sub-human life And yet, “I really believe that we are never more beautiful than when we’re most ugly” (Ted Talk) Fragmented narrative:  “Now” chapters where Abigail is sitting by the Thames  Alternate with “Then” chapters telling her story from birth

11 Animalisation And this is how she was made. Filth. Hunger. And drinking from the plate of rancid water. Bent forward like a dog. Arms behind her back. Kneeling. Into the mud. And the food. Tossed out leftovers. And the cold. And the numbing of limbs that was an ever deeper cold. Without hands, she rooted around her skin with her nose. Feeling the brandings, for the limits of herself. […] Without hands, she bit at the itches from blood vessels dying in the cold. From the intimacy of dirt. Bending. Rooting. Biting. Her shame was complete. […] [A] girl slowly becoming a dog. (91-92) Becoming Abigail

12 Animalisation Fifteen days, passing in the silence of snow. And she no longer fought when Peter mounted her. Wrote his shame and anger in her. Until. The slime of it threatened to obliterate the tattoos that made her. Abigail. […] One night. Unable to stand it anymore, she screamed. Invoking the spirit of Abigail. And with her teeth tore off Peter’s penis. (95-97) *  Resistance even from within a dehumanised space

13 The grotesque and the beautiful Abigail ran out, half-naked, the severed penis clutched in her hand. Though the streets were crowded, only a few people noticed this gorgon with bloody mouth and hands, and the grisly prize she held up as a torch as she ran. (99) * Hyperbolic Shows Abigail’s invisibility The grotesque and the beautiful  The very idea of beauty is reconfigured Becoming Abigail

14 Even the name she gave, Abigail Tansi, drew a blank. It was like she didn’t exist. And she didn’t, because Peter had used a fake passport and a forged visa to bring her into the country and she was registered everywhere under that fake name, a name she had forgotten. She was a ghost. (110)

15 Becoming Abigail The ghostly Her mother: a traumatic past that’s forever coming back, asking to be addressed The main character’s spectrality: Invisibility in her father’s eyes: no one has ever really seen her Invisibility of the victim of human rights abuses Condition of invisibility of the undocumented migrant before the law A metaphorical rendering of bare life, as a form of (sub)human existence (cf. tropology of animalisation) Caught between life and death, humanity and animality

16 Trafficked Trafficking Protocol, 2000: not a human rights instrument, it has the purpose of promoting international cooperation in the fight against organised crime. (a) [...] the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. […] Becoming Abigail

17 Abigail conforms perfectly to the definition of the victim of trafficking provided in Art. 3 of the Trafficking Protocol: – Transported to the UK “for the purpose of exploitation”; – Deceived as to her destiny there; – Abused with the purpose of being rendered subservient. What is more, she is a child (< 18): “(c) The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a child for the purpose of exploitation shall be considered ‘trafficking in persons’ even if this does not involve any of the means set forth in subparagraph (a) of this article” Yet, she is not an uncomplicated victim: her love story with Derek  Derek, “this man-child who was her social worker” (54)

18 Becoming Abigail Eroticism Abigail was giving. For the first time, she wasn’t taken. And she wept for her joy and for the loss of Derek’s wife upstairs dreaming the dreams of love amidst all that floral wallpaper, as though in an English country garden. Abigail, this Abigail, only this Abigail, always this Abigail, felt herself becoming, even in this moment of taking. (52, emphasis added)

19 Erotic love Self-realisation: a girl becoming a woman, re-appropriating her own body A way to counter invisibility, spectrality BUT the state sees only victimisation  Derek is charged with sexual abuse of a minor Paradox Abigail’s case is apparently perfectly dealt with in terms of human rights protection But Abigail perceives it as a form of violence, as the paternalistic disregard of her own will – even though she recognises that it is difficult to tell a “vegetarian lion” from the others Becoming Abigail

20 She had loved him so completely, and he her. But what are the limits of desire? The edges beyond which love must not cross? Those were questions she had heard discuss in these last few days. Discuss as if she were a mere ghost in their presence. Called this thing between Derek and her wrong. How could it be? (78) * Derek was fired from his job and brought up on charges for the abuse of a minor. Nothing Abigail did helped. Her impassioned denial. Her letter saying it was her fault. Her choice. But they said they were doing this to protect her. That she didn’t know what choice was. But she did. She who had been taken and taken and taken. And now the one time she took for herself, the one time she had choice in the matter, it was taken away. (117) Becoming Abigail

21 ‘Protection’: Yet another form of spectrality Abigail must remain confined to the role of the passive, ghostly victim who can receive protection provided that she remains such – a passive object of intervention – no agency, no choice She has to remain a victim, a child, even if she feels herself becoming a woman BA exposes one of the greatest contradictions inherent in the human rights project: human rights need bare life Infantilisation and victimisation = spectralisation Abigail’s sacrifice and the ambiguous reassertion of her agency Becoming Abigail

22 savage-victim-savior Makau Mutua, the savage-victim-savior “damning metaphor” Human rights, humanitarianism and the reproduction of a colonial rhetoric (Enlightenment origins) Without victim, there is no savage nor savior  the human rights ideological enterprise collapses This doesn’t mean rejecting its potentialities, but acknowledging its implications and perfectible nature

23 Thank you! AISCLI Summer School World Cultures & Literatures in English


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