Cynthia Franklin on Narrative and Activist Politics

Aug 10, 2023

In episode 153 of Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach interviews literature professor Cynthia Franklin about the activist politics of life writing. 

Cynthia’s new book Narrating Humanity: Life Writing and Movement Politics from Palestine to Mauna Kea traces the complex ways activists, artists, cultural producers, and scholars engage genres like memoir and autobiography to resist racial capitalism, imperialism, heteropatriarchy, and climate change.

In their conversation, Cynthia and Cathy chat about why narrative plays such a large role in defining who gets to count as human and how that narrative definition shapes everything from economic policy and medical care to police violence and environmental degradation. 

Cynthia shares how movements like Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, Students for Justice in Palestine, and the Native Hawaiian movement to protect Mauna a Wākea push back against such narrative humanity, using collaborative praxis and transformative solidarity to build new models for collective care and liberation.

In this episode

  • How narrative is used to define who counts as human
  • Resisting dehumanization through memoir and autobiography
  • Radical solidarity and care in social justice movements
  • Thinking and living beyond the human

About Cynthia Franklin

Cynthia Franklin is a professor of English at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, where she teaches contemporary works that challenge genre boundaries and engage feminist and queer theory, life writing, university studies, and critical race studies.

Cynthia’s most recent book is Narrating Humanity: Life Writing and Movement Politics from Palestine to Mauna Kea (Fordham University Press, 2023). She is also the author of Academic Lives: Memoir, Cultural Theory, and the University Today (University of Georgia Press, 2009) and Writing Women’s Communities: The Politics and Poetics of Contemporary Multi-Genre Anthologies (University of Wisconsin Press, 1997).

Cynthia coedits the journal Biography and serves on the editorial collective of the newly formed EtCH (Essays in the Critical Humanities), an initiative committed to publishing work by activists and intellectuals in the pursuit of social justice.

For the past 10 years, she has been part of the organizing collective of USACBI, the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. She is a founding member of Students and Faculty for Justice in Palestine at the University of Hawai‘i.

Teaching and learning resources


[00:00:00] Cathy Hannabach: Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about bridging art, activism, and academia to build more just futures.

[00:00:12] I’m Cathy Hannabach, and today I’m talking with literature professor Cynthia Franklin about the politics of life writing.

[00:00:20] Cynthia’s new book, Narrating Humanity, Life, Writing, and Movement Politics from Palestine to Mauna Kea, traces the complex ways that activists, artists, cultural producers, and scholars engage genres like memoir and autobiography to resist racial capitalism, imperialism, heteropatriarchy, and climate change.

[00:00:41] In our conversation, Cynthia and I chat about why narrative plays such a large role in defining who gets to count as human, and how that narrative definition shapes everything from economic policy and medical care to police violence and environmental degradation.

[00:00:58] Cynthia shares how movements like Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, Students for Justice in Palestine, and the Native Hawaiian movement to protect Mauna a Wākea push back against that narrative humanity, instead using collaborative praxis and transformative solidarity to build new models for collective care and liberation.

[00:01:19] Thank you so much for being with us today.

[00:01:21] Cynthia Franklin: Thank you for having me. It’s such a pleasure and an honor.

[00:01:25] Cathy Hannabach: So, in your new book, Narrating Humanity, you emphasize the importance of life writing in resisting various forms of dehumanization. I’m curious if you can take us through how life narratives in particular can be mobilized to create alternative ways of being human, particularly in the face of the intersecting violences that you examine in the book—climate change, racial capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and all of that loveliness that we live with.

[00:01:55] Cynthia Franklin: Thank you for that question. So, the starting premise of the book is that life stories shape our understandings of what it means to be human and that the human is always defined by categorizing whole groups of people as not human.

[00:02:13] And so my understanding is that life writing has a lot of power in terms of perpetuating the violent norms and structures that you’ve just mentioned. That also means that life writing can have a lot of power to reshape who or what counts as human.

[00:02:32] So if you think about hegemonic understandings of the human and the ways they naturalize and legitimate things like climate change, racial capitalism, settler colonialism, heteropatriarchy through formulations of the human. And here I’m thinking about stories that require citizenship or conformity to norms of gender and sexuality or Christianity as the basis of being human or that value masculine individualism, competition, mastery, having money, owning property, all of these things as qualities of the human, along with having dominion over and separation from land, women, Indigenous people, Black people, and so on.

[00:03:14] If all of that becomes the domain of the human, and that’s carried through with stories, stories can also be used to reshape our understandings of the human.

[00:03:25] And in that, I’m really inspired by Barbara Harlow’s book on resistance literature, which builds on work by Ghassan Kanafani as a kind of inspiration in thinking about how literature participates in these struggles over who counts as human, who gets to live, who gets to die—not gets to die, who dies. So that’s where that comes from.

[00:03:59] Cathy Hannabach: In the book, you get at these complexities through the lens of three key concepts that you lay out. You call them narrative humanity, narrated humanity, and grounded narrative humanity. What do you mean by those concepts, and how do they help you trace this history? How do they help us redo or maybe understand better who counts as a human in these different contexts?

[00:04:28] Cynthia Franklin: I came up with the term narrative humanity after reading Samera Esmeir’s book on juridical humanity, which is a study of colonial Egypt that considers ways that the law is not an instrument simply to restore violated humanity but actually sets the terms and conditions that make some violations legitimate.

[00:04:56] And so I was thinking about how that is also true for narratives and life narratives and how life narratives, through their generic codes and conventions, set the terms not only for who or what is human but who also is designated as not human.

[00:05:19] And so the term narrative humanity I use as an analytic lens to describe the range of historically variable but persistently ideological, generic, and narrative conventions and codes that come out of Western colonial contexts to create understandings of the human and, within the human, the inhuman.

[00:05:40] And so in the first part of the book, I analyze life writing texts that mobilize forms of narrative humanity to challenge dehumanization, that take those narrative codes and conventions and see if there’s room in them to challenge ways that people during Hurricane Katrina were criminalized and designated as inhuman for being Muslim, for being Black.

[00:06:11] And I look at how like narratives of family, of the marriage plot, of career, of self-making, narratives of conquest and discovery can be used to challenge or expand hegemonic understandings of the human.

[00:06:28] But I also found that there are limits to doing this, that in some cases this just kind of broadens a multicultural umbrella rather than really dramatically reconfiguring understandings of the human.

[00:06:42] So I came up with the term narrated humanity that I explore in part two of the book, which looks to how life writing texts can tell stories of the human that break with the codes and conventions of narrative humanity.

[00:07:00] I look at how what I’m calling narrated humanity is coming out in the present day out of contemporary political movements that are based on radical care and relationality and how these movements require new narrative genres and forms that haven’t yet been codified in literature and that are emerging out of and advancing these movements that are still in the making.

[00:07:28] And so narrated humanity, and here there’s a kind of shift from the noun narrative to the verb narrated, offers formulations of the human that are still in process and that are emerging in the ones that I explore out of a specific set of new historical conditions that have given rise to these political movements.

[00:07:50] So that’s what I do with the term narrated humanity. I do want to note that forms of narrated humanity over time can become narrative humanity as they become accepted.

[00:08:08] In the third part of the book, I introduce the term grounded narrative humanity to accompany the exploration of narrated humanity.

[00:08:19] So this is a term that describes 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.

[00:08:38] So I’m taking what I call grounded narrative humanity as a concept that emerges from Indigenous-led movements that are distinctly anti-capitalist and decolonial and that posit understandings of the norm of the human that are normative to those cultures and that posit humans and more-than-humans existing in reciprocal caring and nonhierarchical kinship.

[00:09:09] So I hope I explained that enough to give a sense of what I’m doing with those terms.

[00:09:16] Cathy Hannabach: Definitely, definitely. You analyze so many different political movements in this book, Black Lives Matter and the Native Hawaiian movement to protect Mauna Kea being two prominent ones, although there are many others and I encourage folks to check out the book to look at those others.

[00:09:35] But these two examples in particular, you use these to show how communities and social movements are remaking not just what it means to be human and to organize around the concept of the human but also to organize beyond that category.

[00:09:52] I’m curious how that beyond that category aspect plays out in practical ways in the daily labor of the social justice work that you’re looking at in the text.

[00:10:03] Cynthia Franklin: I would want to start here with the fifth chapter, which is on the movement to protect Mauna Kea, led by Kānaka Maoli or Native Hawaiians. And I came to that chapter, it was going to be an epilogue because it really, in some ways challenges a lot of the focus of the book, which is about the category of the human.

[00:10:28] And one of the things that was happening as I finished up, or was finishing up this manuscript, was I was participating as an ally in the movement for Mauna Kea, which has been going on for decades but really heated up in 2015 but then again in 2018.

[00:10:50] And one of the things that I was thinking about a lot through participation in that movement was the inadequacy of the category of the human, because the movement to protect the Mauna put into crisis this centering of the human. One of the things that it does is it is a struggle to protect from desecration a mountain that is sacred and that is also a relation to the Kānaka Maoli people.

[00:11:20] And so the whole movement is premised on the understanding that humans exist in relationship to land, to water, to elements, and that it is the assumption that humans have dominion over these things, that they’re things, that they are resources to be extracted that has led to not only the treating of land as property but also environmental catastrophe and so many other things.

[00:11:51] So one of the things that happened as I started really thinking about this was thinking about the need to go beyond the human and how the movement for Mauna Kea was really teaching me about that and putting into practice values and ways of being that really remake the understanding of what it means to be human.

[00:12:16] I think some of the practical ways that this played out in daily labor was in participating as an ally, it meant going to noontime protocols at the University of Hawai‘i and learning chants and hula that really put your feet in the ground and make you really think about what it means to be in relation to land, to think about water as something that is a living entity, to think about what happens if you approach land with the kind of respect and care that you give to the people that you are closest to.

[00:13:01] And that’s profoundly challenging, for me at least it was profoundly challenging, to the understanding of what it means to be human and what it means to organize around but also beyond that category.

[00:13:15] Cathy Hannabach: This concept of relationality is really key, particularly in that chapter. I mean, it shows up in a lot of the chapters, but I find that you get at some of the complexities really deeply in that final chapter.

[00:13:29] And you put it in the context of the work that activists, that writers, that artists, that cultural producers, that ordinary folks are engaging in. I’m curious how you saw that kind of radical relationality play out, not just in the example of the movement to protect Mauna Kea, but maybe reading that also into some of the other movements that you analyze in the book.

[00:13:54] Cynthia Franklin: I also am thinking about other forms of radical relationality that maybe aren’t directly taking on those questions that are working more within the category of the human. One of the examples that I might give would have to do with Palestine and work for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.

[00:14:16] And there you see a challenge to liberal humanist conceptions of relationality that expose the hypocrisies and inhumanity of those understandings of relationality that sees Palestinian life as a threat to Jewish life, and that in doing so defines Palestinians as terrorists, as non-existent, as not human.

[00:14:43] So in the BDS movement, you get a refusal of dialogue when that dialogue requires equalizing the settler state with people living under conditions of settler colonialism, occupation, apartheid, siege.

[00:14:58] The papers posit it as, oh, there’s this conflict. And the solution to conflict would then be dialogue.

[00:15:04] And so the struggle for justice in Palestine and the BDS movement as one part of that struggle is premised not only on principles of justice. It’s also premised on relations of love for Palestinian people, as well as land.

[00:15:23] And so in the fourth chapter, I look to Steven Salaita’s work as an example of this. His memoir exposes dialogue as weaponized and civility as a violent and inhuman state.

[00:15:36] His memoir also insists on internationalism and solidarity among oppressed people. And he shows this kind of love and solidarity through stories of family, of teaching, of bus driving, that involve a refusal of the inhumanity of any person.

[00:15:56] And so there are some stories that range from in his memoir, Uncivil Rites, outrage about the fact that children during the summer of 2014 were having their bodies stored in ice boxes and ice cream stores because there was no room in morgues.

[00:16:17] He connects this to his love for his own son and the kind of nightmares that he gets thinking about the situation of children. But it takes the form also of when he’s driving a bus after being pushed out of academe by Zionist organizations and individuals of people bullying this little white girl on a bus and him stopping the bus and saying “Nobody on this bus is ugly. This just doesn’t fly on this bus.”

[00:16:45] And so there’s this kind of refusal of inhumanity. It’s not coming out of some kind of soft humanism but a kind of radical humanism that insists on forms of safety and security and freedom and justice that are anti-capitalist, anticolonial, that refuse militarism, or any kinds of relations that diminish human relations and that really come out of movements like BDS, Standing Rock, BLM, and their understandings of humanity, of security, of freedom, that expose liberal humanism as violent and exclusionary and that draw upon and strengthen international struggles for justice.

[00:17:28] Cathy Hannabach: I’m struck by how present students are in this book. They’re organizers, they’re leaders, they’re teachers in a variety of the movement spaces that you look at. I’m curious how teaching and learning with those students, from those students, alongside those students, how did that shape the way that you approached the research and the writing process?

[00:17:51] Cynthia Franklin: I love this question so much, and I really appreciate your attention to that because so much of what I learned that informs the book came from students. And this ranged from classes, both undergrad and graduate classes.

[00:18:11] I quote from an undergraduate, Gabriel Verduzco in the Mauna Kea chapter. He did this beautiful reading of Leanne Simpson’s constellations of co-resistance to think about stars and it was just so beautiful and so much expanded my thinking about humans in relation to stars that I was really happy to be able to quote from that work in the book.

[00:18:37] I taught a class as I was finishing up the book that was thinking about genres of social protest. One of the students, Kauwila Mahi, wrote a song that is featured in the epilogue to the book that he wrote because Sumaya Awad was coming to campus for a visit.

[00:19:00] He was reading Steven Salaita, and he was inspired to write this song of solidarity between Hawaiians and Palestinians. He then went on to work on with ‘Ihilani Lasconia, and so they wrote this song, which is one of solidarity and of rising, was so central to the forms of solidarity was really interested in this book and so I was really happy to be able to honor that work in the epilogue and to express some gratitude for what I learned.

[00:19:28] And so throughout, it’s been really important to me to uplift the creativity and vision and work in the world that I see students doing.

[00:19:36] So, I guess what I’m saying is that a lot of the research for this book happened not only through reading theorists doing groundbreaking work, though that was really important, but also learning from students in classroom spaces and also movement spaces as theorists engaged in radical forms of practice.

[00:19:56] Cathy Hannabach: In the spirit of imagining otherwise, I’m going to ask you a giant question that I love to close out every episode with because I think it’s really important that we get to ask it of each other and that we get chances, multiple chances to answer.

[00:20:11] What is the world that you’re working toward? What kind of world do you want?

[00:20:16] Cynthia Franklin: Well, that is a very giant question. And so, I have a kind of general answer, which would just be a world in which humans live and breathe freely and community structured by radical forms of care for each other, for other than human life, for land, for water.

[00:20:36] But I also want to kind of ground that a little bit. Part of the pleasure of writing Narrating Humanity was learning from people who are doing this care work.

[00:20:48] I’ve just been talking about the students I’ve learned so much from and realizing how resisting the logics of capitalism, racism, colonialism, heteropatriarchy happens not in abstract or grandiose ways but in really day-to-day ways and not only in movement spaces but in all of the different ways we radically remake our understandings of what it means to be human.

[00:21:13] We do it if we’re teachers in our classrooms, we do it as family members, we do it when we shop in stores, as well as participating in whatever political organizing most calls to us.

[00:21:28] Cathy Hannabach: Well, thank you so much for being with us and sharing all of these ways that you imagine otherwise.

[00:21:34] Cynthia Franklin: Thank you for having me.

[00:21:38] Cathy Hannabach: Thanks for joining me for this episode of Imagine Otherwise. A big thanks to Cynthia as well for sharing her work.

[00:21:45] You can learn more about Cynthia’s book, Narrating Humanity, and her other projects in the show notes on our website at

[00:21:53] The show notes include a transcript and a teaching guide for this episode that includes related books, episodes, and resources.

[00:22:01] This episode was produced and edited by me, Cathy Hannabach.

[00:22:05] Want to support Imagine Otherwise? We would love it if you would share this episode with a friend or consider teaching it in your classroom. You can also subscribe to the show wherever you get your podcasts.

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