What Representations of Disability Add to Postcolonial Literature

This week in North Philly Notes, Christopher Krentz, author of Elusive Kinship: Disability and Human Rights in Postcolonial Literature, writes about the significance and utility of disabled characters in novels from the Global South.

About two decades ago, the scholar Ato Quayson noted that postcolonial literature is full of disabled characters, an intriguing insight that sent me searching for examples. Among those I quickly found:

  • In Chinua Achebe’s classic novel about Nigeria, Things Fall Apart (1958), the Igbo clan’s formidable war medicine is associated with a one-legged woman;
  • A partially deaf, cracking, impaired character narrates Salman Rushdie’s Booker-Prize-winning Midnight’s Children (1981); incredibly, he connects telepathically with other children born in the first hour of India’s independence;
  • Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K (1983) focuses on a cognitively disabled man of color who traverses through a war-torn South Africa and is beset by hunger;
  • Edwidge Danticat’s story “Caroline’s Wedding,” from her collection Krik? Krak! (1996) tells of a beloved Haitian-American sister in New York City who has a missing forearm;
  • Anita Desai’s Fasting, Feasting (1999) recounts how an ungainly disabled daughter in small-town India is largely kept out of sight by her upper-middle-class family;
  • In Chris Abani’s short novel Song for Night (2007), the narrator is a boy soldier in a war in Nigeria who has had his vocal cords severed and communicates with others through an improvised sign language;
  • The narrator of Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People (2007) is an exuberant boy in India who has a bent spine and goes around on all fours as a result of a chemical plant disaster;
  • The story in Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory (2015) is related by an albino woman in Zimbabwe who encounters both intense stigma rooted in traditional metaphysical beliefs and unexpected kindness.

And there are so many more examples! 

The examples made me realize that, far from being incidental, disabled characters are integral to the energy and vitality of literature in English from the Global South. These are great stories, and part of their greatness is how writers repeatedly deploy disability in creative, original ways. Through figures of disability, authors make any number of pressing topics more vivid, including such issues as the effects of colonialism and apartheid, global capitalism, racism and sexism, war, and environmental disaster. 

Furthermore, even at their most fantastic, such representations relate to the more than half a billion disabled people who live in the Global South, often in precarious circumstances. Disabled character can be both realistic and metaphorical.

In 2006, a few years after Quayson’s observation, the United Nations adopted its first human rights treaty of the twenty-first century: the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). I began to wonder if the prominence of disability in postcolonial literature should be linked to the gradual and global emergence of rights for disabled people—especially since both happened concurrently in the last half century or so. The representation of disabled people in this literature, I concluded, both directed and reflected this change in how disabled people are seen. 

In the last fifteen years, a new interdisciplinary field, the study of human rights and literature, has drawn connections and examined relations between fiction and human rights issues. As Joseph Slaughter puts it in Human Rights Inc., fiction—especially the bildungsroman in his case—is uniquely about rights as it typically serves to portray the relationship of an individual to society. Scholars in the field have used literature to explore the paradoxes surrounding human rights. Most of all, they show that literature can serve as a valuable form of witnessing human rights violations, making such issues more personal to readers in different times and places and compelling them to care. The first step in achieving rights, advocates realized back in the 1960s, is not laws or treaties but rather winning the public’s imagination.

While the study of human rights and literature has frequently dealt with postcolonial literature, it has not had much to say about disability. I hope Elusive Kinship can begin to fill that lacuna, enhancing our appreciation of literature in English from the Global South and nudging us toward making the world more hospitable for everyone.

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