Humanitarianism has a narrative problem. Far too often, aid to Africa is envisioned through a tale of Western heroes saving African sufferers. While labeling white savior narratives has become a familiar gesture, it doesn’t tell us much about the story as story. Humanitarian Fictions aims to understand the workings of humanitarian literature, as they engage with and critique narratives of Africa.
Overlapping with but distinct from human rights, humanitarianism centers on a relationship of assistance, focusing less on rights than on needs, less on legal frameworks than moral ones, less on the problem than on the nonstate solution. Tracing the white savior narrative back to religious missionaries of the nineteenth century, Humanitarian Fiction reveals the influence of religious thought on seemingly secular institutions and uncovers a spiritual, collectivist streak in the discourse of humanity.
Because the humanitarian model of care transcends the boundaries of the state, and its networks touch much of the globe, Humanitarian Fictions redraws the boundaries of literary classification based on a shared problem space rather than a shared national space. The book maps a transnational vein of Anglophone literature about Africa that features missionaries, humanitarians, and their so-called beneficiaries. Putting humanitarian thought in conversation with postcolonial critique, this book brings together African, British, and U.S. writers typically read within separate traditions. Paustian shows how the novel—with its profound sensitivity to narrative—can enrich the critique of white saviorism while also imagining alternatives that give African agency its due.
Megan Cole Paustian is Associate Professor of English at North Central College.