Cynthia G. Franklin, Narrating Humanity: Life Writing and Movement Politics from Palestine to Mauna Kea (Fordham University Press, 2023).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Cynthia G. Franklin (CF): When I consider this book’s beginnings, I think about a confrontation at a conference. I was giving a paper connecting attacks on Hannah Arendt’s alleged incivility and antisemitism in Eichmann in Jerusalem to those being issued against contemporary critics of Zionism. The chair cut me off ten minutes into my presentation. The next day, a conference organizer, clearly reluctant to accept my contribution to a student travel fund, told me he had heard that my behavior was scandalous, and my talk inappropriate. These responses to my presentation enacted the very phenomenon I was describing. They got me reflecting on how consequential life writing is in shaping understandings of who counts as human, what counts as civil, and how foundationally these categories depend upon structures of dehumanization. They also got me reflecting on the need not simply to denounce Zionism, but also to foreground Palestinians’ narratives.
The conference experience led me to apply to a 2013 Faculty Development Seminar sponsored by the Palestinian American Research Center. That trip to Palestine took me away from writing and moved me into projects that felt more pressing than a book on how understandings of the human are shaped by stories. Upon returning from Palestine, I undertook the coediting of a special issue of Biography on “Life in Occupied Palestine” with Brahim Aoude and Morgan Cooper (work that involved another few trips to Palestine). I also joined the Organizing Collective of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI), and worked intensively on academic boycott resolutions, and supported Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) students on divestment initiatives. During this time of editing and organizing, Israel mounted its 2014 assault on Palestine. As they revised their essays, contributors to the Biography issue were losing family members, friends, and homes. Meanwhile, in the United States, Steven Salaita, my USACBI comrade, was fired from his position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, allegedly for tweets denouncing this horrific violence. This same year, at the University of Hawai‘i, I started a Students and Faculty for Justice in Palestine (SFJP) organization, and a Decolonial November series, which brings out Palestinian writers and organizers to build solidarity from Hawai‘i to Palestine as two interconnected sites resisting occupation and settler colonialism.
Immersion in these organizing projects involved community building founded on shared political commitments. But I also was learning about how movement politics provides new as well as resurgent ways for thinking about human being and belonging. This learning returned me to the project that became Narrating Humanity. I realized that the stories, and ways of being, that came out of participation in these movements made up the story I most wanted Narrating Humanity to tell. As I returned to writing this book, it became more than a scholarly project. It became one that aims to honor movements and organizers who think about human being and becoming in ways that provide alternatives to hegemonic narratives of the human, those that naturalize and legitimate intersecting structures of settlerism, racial capitalism, and heteropatriarchy.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
CF: This book explores life writing texts that have catalyzed or respond to contemporary crises in the United States concerning the status of the human. Through chapters focused on Hurricane Katrina (Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun, Carl Deal and Tia Lessin’s Trouble the Water), Black Lives Matter (Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Patrisse Cullors and ashe bandele’s When They Call You a Terrorist), Palestine solidarity (Salaita’s Uncivil Rites and website essays), and Native Hawaiian sovereignty (stories coming out of the movement to protect Mauna Kea), Narrating Humanity explores how life writing can be mobilized to resist as well as perpetuate hegemonic forms of dehumanization that underwrite state violence. I contend that life narratives that participate in liberatory political movements can help us to envision ways of being human based on queer kinship, inter/national solidarity, abolitionist care, and decolonial connectivity among humans, more-than-humans, land, and waters.
I approach the life writing texts under consideration through the analytic of “narrative humanity”—a formulation indebted to Samera Esmeir’s “juridical humanity.” I conceived this term to theorize the range of historically variable but persistently ideological generic and narrative conventions and codes that, emerging from Western colonial contexts, create exclusionary understandings of the human. In Part 1 of the book, I analyze possibilities and limitations of narrative humanity in resisting processes of dehumanization; in Part 2, through attention to what I call “narrated humanity,” I look to how life writing texts can help narrate into being understandings of the human inspired by political movements that are based on radical care and relationality. I explore narrative forms and genres that have not yet been codified in literature, and that emerge out of and advance movements in the making. Narrated humanity—and here the shift from the noun “narrative” to the verb “narrated” is indicative—offers formulations of the human that are still in process. In Part 3, I continue this exploration by introducing the term “grounded narrative humanity.” I conceive this term to describe a system of narrative humanity that emerges from understandings of the human that are normative within Indigenous worldviews, or what Yellowknives Dene scholar Glen Sean Coulthard theorizes as “grounded normativity.” Stories based in grounded narrative humanity that emerge from Indigenous-led movementsposit a distinctly anticapitalist and decolonial understanding of the human as normative and as part of an ongoing story, one in which humans and more-than-humans exist in reciprocal, caring, and nonhierarchical kinship.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
CF: I approach this study as a scholar of life writing who comes at the field sideways. Even as this book takes as its premise the importance of analyzing representations of lives and complements my work coediting Biography, my main concern is not with debates and directions in life writing studies. Rather, I see this primarily as an American studies project with a twofold orientation toward movement politics and literary criticism. Taking a transdisciplinary approach, I build on my first two books, Writing Women’s Lives: The Politics and Poetics of Contemporary Multi-Genre Anthologies and Academic Lives: Memoir, Cultural Theory, and the University Today, which also take up the relationship between life writing and participation in political movements, and which also investigate interrelations between academic work and activism. My commitment to engaged scholarship in Narrating Humanity draws upon, and I hope extends, my support for BLM and my participation in solidarity work for Palestinian liberation (as a white, Jewish anti-Zionist American) and for a decolonial Hawai‘i (from my position as a settler).
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
CF: I write in conversation with scholars in American studies, life writing studies, critical ethnic studies, Indigenous studies, settler colonial studies, university studies, Black studies, Palestine studies, feminist studies, queer studies, literary and film studies, and cultural studies. However, my most sincere hope is that Narrating Humanity will contribute to the movements this book seeks to uplift. Learning from the writers and activists in this study, I have come to write side by side with them in my own acts of narrated humanity, refusing boundaries between autobiography, community-based activism, and literary and cultural criticism. I hope that those reading this book will keep company with them, and with me, in a journey toward materializing more just, capacious, and joyful ways of human being and belonging.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
CF: I am conceptualizing a monograph on narratives of decolonial love that will continue Narrating Humanity’s attention to collective forms of radical care, expansive forms of kinship, and movement solidarities. I am interested in what the term “colonial love” might mean (in what ways might it equate and not equate to colonial violence?), and in interrelations between decolonial love and abolitionist forms of care. For USACBI, we are in early stages of exploring how to reignite a campaign to boycott study abroad in Israel, and to support academic boycott initiatives. As part of my ongoing work for SFJP@UH, I am organizing visits to Hawai‘i for the coming academic year with Malak Mattar and Sherene Seikaly.
J: In what way is Palestine a through-line in this book?
CF: Although thematically central only to the fourth chapter, on Steven Salaita and the BDS movement, Palestine is the heart of this book, and is woven into each of its chapters. In the Introduction and Chapters 1 and 2, it serves as a moral compass, one that registers failures in narrative humanity’s formulations of the human and demonstrates how memoirs can break from movements with which they are aligned. For example, in Chapter 2, Ta-nehisi Coates’ relationship to Palestine evidences how his memoir departs from BLM. At the same time, attention to Oscar Grant’s story (in Chapter 2) and Cullors’ relationship to Palestine (in Chapter 3) provides a way to trace BLM’s commitments to international solidarity. As the book progresses—in Chapter 5 (on the Native Hawaiian-led movement to protect Mauna Kea) and in the postscript—Palestine becomes a greater focus as I consider the power and importance of stories that build solidarity from Hawai‘i to Palestine. Palestine is vital to the story this book tells of how, in the face of crushing violence, humans continue to rise, together, and breathe into being old and new stories of human and more-than-human becoming and belonging.
Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 4, pp. 145-49)
Memoirs work within a tradition of liberal humanism insofar as they represent their authors as complex individuals constituted in relation to their time and place. And yet, in the Palestinian context—if not, as previous chapters show, uniquely so—such uses of narrative humanity are not merely liberal. Because they counter the dehumanization on which the Israeli state depends, Palestinian memoirs do not merely open a multicultural umbrella. Almost all of narrative humanity’s pathways cast Palestinians as terrorists, as inhuman others, and as security threats. In such a world, for a Palestinian father to narrate his nurturing love for his son and for other children, and to express the joy of imagining and then entering a world animated by kindness, care, and harmony (“nursing visions of the unimagined, just out of view but always there” [Salaita, “Palestine in the Revolutionary Imagination”]), counts as a world-upending, decolonial practice.
In Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom (2015), a memoir catalyzed by his 2014 firing from a tenured position at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), Salaita continues this love story to and for his son—and for all children, including those under siege in Palestine. He responds to interconnected issues surrounding his firing: the colonial and racist violence inherent to institutional demands for “civility”; the dehumanization of Palestinians and the Palestinian exception to academic freedom and free speech; the undue influence of Zionism in the United States and the criminalization of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement; the white supremacy and militarism of US and Israeli settler colonial societies; the corporatization of the university and its systematic undermining of Indigenous studies and solidarities. Through telling a family story, Salaita mobilizes the liberal tenets of narrative humanity toward transformative ends and advances the BDS movement and the Palestinian struggle for justice. Not simply anticolonial but also decolonial, his memoir supersedes Zionist efforts to circumscribe his and all Palestinians’ life stories.
Accompanying its contextually radical elements of narrative humanity are Salaita’s acts of narrated humanity. Sometimes contributing to the memoir’s father-son narrative and at other times more explicitly political, these instances of narrated humanity further Salaita’s work to support a free Palestine as a parent, scholar, teacher, member of the USACBI Organizing Collective, and, in the tradition of Edward Said, intellectual in exile. As his genre-bending memoir combines autobiographical elements that are profoundly political with political analysis that is deeply personal, Salaita does not merely expand understandings of the human and the civil. Instead, he reconfigures the human as he exposes an articulated set of oppressive conditions in the United States and Palestine/Israel. Through deployments of narrated humanity, Salaita reworks and provides alternatives to forms of narrative humanity that, in the name of civility, support settler violence. In a post to his website written in response to the Israeli army’s execution of beloved Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu-Aklehon May 11, 2022, Salaita remarked of the endlessness of the settler’s violence, “It is the only way he knows how to be a good citizen. And it is the only way, in the end, he can imagine a meaningful existence” (“Why Did Israel Execute Shireen Abu-Akleh?”). Salaita’s memoir exposes and refuses such formulations of citizenship—ones that make settlers into what Ali Musleh calls “human-weapon ensembles”—while embracing both a way of being human that is instead based on inter/nationalism and radical forms of empathy and equality.
In the latter part of this chapter, as I explore Salaita’s website entries, I look to how this decolonial way of being human comes more sharply into focus once Salaita leaves academe and moves more fully into modes of narrated humanity in which he asserts his newfound freedom. No longer willing to combat a four-continent blacklist, Salaita began work as a school bus driver. He also started a website which frees him to write what and when he wants and to reach out to his large social media following (over 55,000 on Twitter, almost 20,000 on Facebook). In postings to this site, as a father and caretaker of schoolchildren, he continues to extend his filial love to all children, and to tell family stories with elements that increasingly shift them from narrative to narrated humanity. These entries provide glimpses of what a decolonial mode of life writing can look like as they participate in and promulgate Angela Davis’s insight that rather than an achieved or achievable destination or state of being, “freedom is a constant struggle.”
Before turning to a section on BDS that prepares for my discussion of Salaita’s life writing, I want to situate myself in relation to this chapter’s concerns. Since participating in 2013 in a faculty development seminar in Palestine, my work has come to include a focus on Palestine. I grew up in a white Jewish home and in a white Christian neighborhood, both Zionist by default. In college, and then as an American Studies and life writing scholar located in Hawai‘i, I developed an antipathy to settlerism and Zionism. I contribute what I can to Kanaka Maoli, or Native Hawaiian, decolonial movements, and advocate for the call from Palestinian civil society to boycott Israeli academic institutions. Acting in solidarity for a free Palestine has also involved using the privileges that come with being tenured, Jewish, and white in a university with only a small and ineffective (though vociferous and well-funded!) Zionist presence: to host and teach the work of Palestinian scholars, writers, and activists; to help organize events bringing Palestinians into conversation with Kanaka Maoli student activists; and to work on academic boycott resolutions and divestment initiatives.
Through these efforts, I have come to know Steve (as I will refer to him in the more personal moments in this chapter) not only as a scholar and leading proponent for BDS, but also as a comrade and friend. The Zionist website Canary Mission’s description of me as Steve’s “avid supporter” is an attempted aspersion in which I take pride (“Cynthia Franklin”). I began working with Steve when we were both organizing with the Academic and Community Activism Caucus of the American Studies Association (ASA), to pass a Resolution to Boycott Israeli Academic Institutions, which, after years of groundwork, was adopted with overwhelming support from the membership in 2013. In 2013, I also joined the Organizing Collective of USACBI, which included Steve as a member (he has since moved to the USACBI Advisory Board). Based on this work, I was happy to be part of a group that David Lloyd brought together to nominate Steve for the 2016 ASA Angela Davis Award, which recognizes scholars who have made an outstanding contribution to the public good, and to celebrate with Steve and other comrades in Denver when he received this award. I also invited Steve to Hawai‘i in 2017 for “Decolonial November” (more on this later), a visit that inspired students to join the University of Hawai‘i’s Students and Faculty for Justice in Palestine organization (SFJP@UH) and participate in ongoing inter/national exchanges. Steve stands as a beacon for me and students and faculty I work with. His politics are principled, uncompromising, and courageous. He also is kind, decent, and compassionate. Steve exemplifies how it is possible to uphold humanism and value the human in ways that work within, against, and beyond narrative humanity, in practices of decolonial love, and in collective pursuit of freedom and justice.
In attending to how Steve does this through genre-mixing engagements with both narrative and narrated humanity, and how his involvement in the BDS movement informs his writings, my commitments to him and to BDS are personal and political. They take this book into a more explicit crossing over from literary, cultural, and life writing studies into personal narrative, and engaged scholarship. In part, I attribute this move to what I have learned from Steve. In his attention to form as well as content, as his work advocates for better ways of being human, it not only reinvigorates the maxim that the personal is political—it also illuminates ways the political is personal. In this chapter, by blurring the lines between life writing studies and life writing, and between scholarship and activism, I explore possibilities that open for politically engaged cultural criticism when it includes attempted acts of narrated humanity.
In taking this approach, I flip Said’s formulation, “never solidarity before criticism” (Representations of the Intellectual, 32), specifically conceiving of how to act in solidarity not only as a critic, but also as a comrade and as an ally. Putting solidarity before criticism does not mean that I am withholding criticisms that would challenge my arguments. It does, however, mean not attempting to do research or tell stories that cross lines I would not venture beyond as a movement participant. And it also means being willing to test my academic freedoms and cross lines of “professionalism” or “civility” in order to exist “in a contradictory relationship to the academy,” as graduate student ‘Ilima Long put it on an Arab Studies Quarterly conference panel we organized on solidarity. It means being willing to call out university administrators using a tactic my brilliant and badass student ‘Ihilani Lasconia named, on that same ASQ panel, “shame, blame and follow the money” (Lasconia). It also means putting what close-reading skills and audiences I have access to as a literary critic into the service of supporting not only movements in which I believe, but also those I respect and am connected to through political solidarity, friendship, and love.