Rights of Passage: Movement and Subjectivity in Recent Fiction

Activity: External talk or presentationInvited talk


To read about refugees today is to encounter the unapologetic brutality of contemporary biopolitics. Stories and reports constantly remind us that western immigration policies are regimes of exclusion and abandonment that deny certain groups the rights to move, enter, and seek safety. But can such narratives hope to do more than simply expose these injustices? Can fiction, in particular, challenge the conceptual premises of closed borders?

In this paper, I look for answers in four recent texts: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue, and Nam Le’s The Boat. These works all assert the right to movement. They show the disastrous consequences of fortress states, and some of them also test the conventions of the novel form, breaching the boundaries of discipline to enact a vision of unhindered mobility.

But the radical potential of these texts is defined, I argue, by their approach to subjectivity. Stories about travel have a tendency to employ tropes of linear character development: physical journeys, with their attendant hardships, culture shocks, and notions of arrival, happen to occur alongside internal journeys of selfhood, in which the protagonist develops and matures into a complete person. This literary technique produces texts that have a persuasive symmetry and disseminate a story of human life that has political effects. As Joseph Slaughter has observed, the concept of subjectivity presented in the coming-of-age story reinforces the model of citizenship codified in national constitutions and human rights discourses: citizens gradually develop the social and political skills necessary to act responsibly and earn the rights bestowed by the state. This conception of the citizen-subject empowers the state with biopolitical tools to determine who may join the polity.

To avoid complicity with the very doctrines that they seek to question, fictions of movement must reject myths of individual development and contend with the political implications of the image of human life that they present.
Period1 Nov 2018
Event titleWriting Refugees
Event typeWorkshop
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • Contemporary literature
  • Migration
  • Nam Le
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Mohsin Hamid
  • Bhanu Kapil