What Is a World?: On Postcolonial Literature as World Literature
Pheng Cheah is Professor of Rhetoric and Chair of the Center for Southeast Asia Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Inhuman Conditions: On Cosmopolitanism and Human Rights and Spectral Nationality: Passages of Freedom from Kant to Postcolonial Literatures of Liberation.
This chapter is a study of Nuruddin Farah’s Gifts. It examines the novel’s articulation of an alternative model of giving to that of Western humanitarian aid, which has deprived the Somali people of their autonomy and humanity because it dehumanizes them by reducing them to the passive victims of famine, civil war, and recipients of aid. The novel transforms Marcel Mauss’s theory of the gift by exploring the phenomenological dimension of giving—the opening of a world—and how storytelling is an ethical form of reciprocal giving. Western humanitarianism is based on an idea of philanthropy that is shaped by the Abrahamic religions, and Farah’s novel draws on Somalian cultural practices of communal self-help and traditions of giving, as expressed in folktales and myths, to develop a model of giving that can be Somalia’s contribution to ethical international relations. The chapter argues that as a form of narrative, the ethics of storytelling draws on the inhuman gift of time that renders self-determination aporetic.