The best novels about disability human rights in the Global South

Christopher Krentz Author Of Elusive Kinship: Disability and Human Rights in Postcolonial Literature
By Christopher Krentz

Who am I?

I teach and write about literature and disability at the University of Virginia. I’m also late deafened and have worked in the field of disability studies for over twenty years. In 2002, a scholar pointed out that literature from the former British colonies includes a lot of disabled characters. In 2006, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. I began to wonder if the two are related. In Elusive Kinship, I wound up arguing that they are. Not much work has been done on this. I tried to emphasize that I’m just advancing a critical conversation, not giving the final word at all.


I wrote...

Elusive Kinship: Disability and Human Rights in Postcolonial Literature

By Christopher Krentz,

Book cover of Elusive Kinship: Disability and Human Rights in Postcolonial Literature

What is my book about?

An academic literary study, Elusive Kinship shows how disabled characters are integral to literature in English from the Global South. These are great stories, and part of their excellence is how authors like Achebe, Rushdie, Coetzee, Desai, and others deploy disability in creative ways. Through figures of disability, they make pressing topics more vivid, including such issues as the effects of colonialism and apartheid, global capitalism, racism and sexism, war, and environmental disaster. Such representations also relate to the millions of disabled people who live in the Global South, often in precarious circumstances. Elusive Kinship argues that the representation of disabled people in this literature both directed and reflected the rise of global disability human rights over the last half-century. 

The books I picked & why

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Things Fall Apart

By Chinua Achebe,

Book cover of Things Fall Apart

Why this book?

I love reading and teaching this classic of postcolonial literature. Written in spare, accessible style on the eve of Nigerian independence from Britain, Achebe tells the story of British colonization of an Igbo clan in Southeast Nigeria near the end of the 19th century. Even as the novel portrays the appalling damages of European colonialism, it subtly critiques the traditional Igbo exclusion of disabled people. It demonstrates one of the paradoxes of human rights: victims of human rights abuses can also be perpetrators of them. The British missionaries first gain a foothold by welcoming those stigmatized people marginalized by the Umoufians, indicating how Achebe promotes compassion of all people.

Things Fall Apart

By Chinua Achebe,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Things Fall Apart as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of International Man Booker Prize 2007.

Midnight's Children

By Salman Rushdie,

Book cover of Midnight's Children

Why this book?

I frequently teach Rushdie and this is his best book. Winner of the Booker Prize, Midnight’s Children is a playful epic novel that uses magic elements to tell the tale of India’s independence from British colonization in the mid-20th century. Through a first-person disabled narrator, it potentially adds to readers’ imaginative engagement with disability. Matters are complicated, though, because of narrator Saleem’s claims of having fantastic telepathic powers might actually make it harder for readers to identify with him. The novel depicts disability in complex ways, where disabled people simultaneously are powerful figures who offer hope for the newly independent Indian nation and vulnerable citizens almost always marginalized and victimized by society. Ultimately the novel promotes respect toward disabled people, which fits in with campaigns for disability justice.🎯


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Midnight's Children

By Salman Rushdie,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked Midnight's Children as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

*WINNER OF THE BOOKER AND BEST OF THE BOOKER PRIZE*

**A BBC BETWEEN THE COVERS BIG JUBILEE READ PICK**

'A wonderful, rich and humane novel... a classic' Guardian

Born at the stroke of midnight at the exact moment of India's independence, Saleem Sinai is a special child. However, this coincidence of birth has consequences he is not prepared for: telepathic powers connect him with 1,000 other 'midnight's children' all of whom are endowed with unusual gifts. Inextricably linked to his nation, Saleem's story is a whirlwind of disasters and triumphs that mirrors the course of modern India at its most…


Disgrace

By J.M. Coetzee,

Book cover of Disgrace

Why this book?

Written by a White South African after the end of apartheid in 1990, this novel is both troubling and moving. You won’t forget it anytime soon. It differs from the above novels in that it offers a disabled character, Pollux, who is more aggressive and takes part in a horrifying gang rape. Earlier in the novel, the White protagonist, David, rapes one of his college students, making him and Pollux somewhat parallel figures. Metaphorically, Pollux could be said to represent the injustices of apartheid. David contends with not just personal violence, but also reckonings of the history of Black oppression in South Africa. A disabled figure raises ethical questions about human rights in this novel, which paved the way for Coetzee to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.   

Disgrace

By J.M. Coetzee,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Disgrace as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. J.M. Coetzee's latest novel, The Schooldays of Jesus, is now available from Viking. Late Essays: 2006-2016 will be available January 2018.

"Compulsively readable... A novel that not only works its spell but makes it impossible for us to lay it aside once we've finished reading it." -The New Yorker

At fifty-two, Professor David Lurie is divorced, filled with desire, but lacking in passion. When an affair with a student leaves him jobless, shunned by friends, and ridiculed by his ex-wife, he retreats to his daughter Lucy's smallholding. David's visit becomes an…


Fasting, Feasting

By Anita Desai,

Book cover of Fasting, Feasting

Why this book?

This is another novel I enjoy teaching; students respond well to it. Desai excels in giving detailed domestic pictures of life in India. Here she recounts how an ungainly disabled daughter with what seems to be epilepsy and a learning disability is largely kept out of sight by her upper-middle-class family in the 20th century. The daughter, Uma, goes away with assorted other characters, finding a measure of freedom, but invariably needs to return to her parents’ confining house. At the end of the novel, she is largely taking care of them. Desai shows what we might call a “feminist ethic of care” as she writes of a disabled woman as interesting and worthy of sustained attention, which implicitly feeds into advocates’ contention of the value of all disabled people.

Fasting, Feasting

By Anita Desai,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Fasting, Feasting as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

SHORTLISTED FOR THE 1999 BOOKER PRIZE

Uma, the plain, spinster daughter of a close-knit Indian family, is trapped at home, smothered by her overbearing parents and their traditions, unlike her ambitious younger sister Aruna, who brings off a 'good' marriage, and brother Arun, the disappointing son and heir who is studying in America.

Across the world in Massachusetts, life with the Patton family is bewildering for Arun in the alien culture of freedom, freezers and paradoxically self-denying self-indulgence.


The Cambridge Companion to Human Rights and Literature

By Crystal Parikh (editor),

Book cover of The Cambridge Companion to Human Rights and Literature

Why this book?

This collection of academic essays gives an incisive overview of the newly emergent field of literature and human rights, which I build upon in my book. Contributors include pioneering scholars like James Dawes, Elizabeth Swanson, and Alexandra S. Moore. They have chapters exploring the relationship between literature and rights, the role of emotions in the process, and more. The collection does not consider disability much, but is a good introduction for someone who wants to learn more about an exciting academic field.

The Cambridge Companion to Human Rights and Literature

By Crystal Parikh (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Cambridge Companion to Human Rights and Literature as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Literature has been essential to shaping the notions of human personhood, good life, moral responsibility, and forms of freedom that have been central to human rights law, discourse, and politics. The literary study of human rights has also recently generated innovative and timely perspectives on the history, meaning, and scope of human rights. The Cambridge Companion to Human Rights and Literature introduces this new and exciting field of study in the humanities. It explores the historical and institutional contexts, theoretical concepts, genres, and methods that literature and human rights share. Equally accessible to beginners in the field and more advanced…

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