Figuring Human Rights and Troping Law and Literature
Li-Young Lee’s Poetic Investigations of Migration and Refugeeism
Pages 257 - 278
Through a discussion of figuration in Li-Young Lee’s “The Cleaving” (1990) and “Self-Help for Fellow Refugees” (2008), this essay explores how lyrical forms speak the language of human rights differently than does prose. Human rights discourse does not typically take narrative form in poetry. Poems such as “The Cleaving” and “Self-Help for Refugees” counter Joseph Slaughter’s assertion that the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European ‘Bildungsroman’ lent narrative form and plot structure to human rights discourse by projecting socially integrated versions of their homodiegetic narrators—ones in full possession of their rights—into the future. Lee’s poems suggest that the elicitation of viscerally experienced affect through figural means may be more effective in shaming responsible parties into protecting human rights than appeals that are processed through narratively evoked emotions. A contextualization of Lee’s ‘political’ poems serves to highlight larger movements in Law and Literature research more generally. These include the new focus on human rights, the move away from an exclusive interest in realist prose to other aesthetic forms, the increased interest in figuration rather than simply narration, and the new emphasis on affect.