Elusive Kinship: Disability and Human Rights in Postcolonial Literature (Christopher Krentz)

Reviewed by Kate Champlin

Elusive Kinship is a work of literary analysis and cultural studies. I’ll give an academic review first and offer my own thoughts afterwards. Elusive Kinship deserves a review that the Modern Language Association will (hopefully) pay attention to, for several reasons. First, this is a fantastic work of literary analysis and cultural studies. Second, Elusive Kinship is a great work of disability studies. Among other assertions, Krentz provides especially interesting insights about the limits of current models of disability accommodation. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s Extraordinary Bodies and Lennard J. Davis’ Enforcing Normalcy are widely regarded as among the first texts in the interdisciplinary field of disability studies; both books were published in the mid-to-late 1990s. Arguably, disability studies hasn’t had time to become as “expected” in academia as critical race theory, ethnic studies, area studies, and gender and sexuality studies. Moreover, written works that combine disability studies, studies of the Global South, and discussions of worldwide power/class structures1 remain relatively rare. Krentz’s Elusive Kinship does all of the above and more. 

Krentz uses twelve literary works set in India, Africa, and the Caribbean (or among Caribbean Americans living in the U.S.) to consider the meaning of disability in countries labeled “the Global South.” These texts include: Achebe’s Things Fall Apart; Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children; Coatzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K.; Desai’s Fasting, Feasting; Dandicat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory; Abani’s Song for Night; and Sinha’s Animal’s People. Krentz discusses the effect of the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in these texts’ countries and contexts of origin while also acknowledging the limits of a human rights model (as underscored by the CRPD and the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights). A few of these limitations come from pre-colonial cultural practices which treat disability as a source of pollution or a physical manifestation of a spiritual ill. However, the majority of these limitations happen, as the book makes clear, because our global system is inherently dehumanizing. As one of Krentz’s sources notes, “Human rights, even perfectly realized human rights, are [not] compatible with inequality.” 

As Krentz points out, global society inherently discriminates against both disabled people and citizens of the Global South. Those who occupy both identities often live with a variety of unique issues, including a profound lack of educational opportunities, increased exposure to violence and sexual violence, and communities that cannot afford the accommodations or medical care that their disabled members need. Most infuriatingly, rights are often “enforced” by the same nation-states and global power systems that created class and ableist oppression in the first place. Krentz concludes that disability rights are important, but that current human rights debates do not go far enough. We must be aware of the inherent inequalities in the global system, and of the failures of cultural definitions of the human, before we can truly begin to discuss disability justice. This is particularly true in any discussion of disability justice that includes the Global South.

This scholarly text lies very close to my own heart. I did my dissertation on disability and power/class issues in U.S. literature, and I reached many of the same conclusions that Krentz does. Those who are poor, not white, and disabled end up at the intersection of several kinds of discrimination. This is a problem both inside and outside U.S. borders. The texts that I discussed tended to treat united global activism or networked attempts to create alternative systems as the solution. The texts that Krentz studies often go without proposing any overarching solutions. Nevertheless, as Krentz shows, these texts make the disabled residents of the Global South uniquely visible. As Krentz states in his discussion of Sinha’s Animal’s People: “That the witty, cynical, and ribald Animal addresses his account directly to us readers makes his narrative even more effective and adds to the dynamic of elusive kinship between disabled narrators and readers….”

“Elusive kinship” is Krentz’s term for the connection between (possibly able-bodied) readers and disabled characters. If these connections are handled correctly by the text, Krentz contends, they help readers to consider the often (rendered) invisible perspectives of disabled people. All of the texts that Krentz studies help to create this empathy by inviting us inside the perspectives of the disabled narrators or their close and sympathetic kin. 

Several of Krentz’s selected texts also propose a local collective care ethic as an antidote to systematic oppression. As Krentz puts it: 

Both Lahiri and Desai show the importance of family in the lives of disabled people in India, the stigma of disabilities in their families and culture, the difficulty of finding a husband or becoming independent, and, most of all, the importance of other characters who care, who are compassionate and offer support. They suggest how disabled women may find supportive networks outside of the home. Such an ethic of care gently prods readers to care as well. 

Sinha’s Animal’s People also ends with a supportive, found family network. This found family network is made up primarily of people disabled in the same chemical plant disaster. They care for each other—as the group shows when Animal runs away and they go looking for him—and also advocate for shared rights. These partial solutions lend a sense of hope to texts that are often horrific looks at the current global system’s effects on its most vulnerable citizens. 

Krentz’s scholarly text is a brilliant work of disability studies, a brilliant work on the Global South and on current systems of power, and a brilliant consideration of twelve works of postcolonial literature. This work will become a go-to text for academics, and it will appeal equally to casual readers. Like the works of fiction that Krentz discusses, Elusive Kinship shows readers that disability visibility is important, that care ethics can be a strategic and activist antidote to oppression, and that current debates over human rights must be expanded. Hopefully, Krentz’s work will go on to spur more debates about human rights, definitions of humanity, and systematic inequalities. 

Title: Elusive Kinship: Disability and Human Rights in Postcolonial Literature
Author: Christopher Krentz
Publisher: Temple University Press
Date: 2022


  1. Krentz uses this term to discuss post-colonial countries which are still being colonized economically. Many of these countries are in the southern hemisphere. Krentz acknowledges that this term can be problematic.

Back to Top of Page | Back to Book Reviews | Back to Volume 17, Issue 1 – Summer 2023

About the Reviewer

Kate Champlin (she/her) is a late-deafened adult and a graduate of Ball State University (Indiana). She currently works as a writing tutor and as a contract worker for BK International Education Consultancy, a company whose aim is to normalize the success of underserved students.