Human Rights in Literature

Human Rights in Literature

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Poster logo for Human Rights in LiteratureCompelling questions were brought to bear on the reading public. Not with a view to finding answers *right now*, but more to open up dialogic platforms.

So, here we go.

Human Rights in Literature.

Two subjects worth their weight in gold. Combined, this discussion feels mighty worthy. More au fait with the latter but tres intrigued by the effects of the former on the literary streets, my main concern is:

University of OxfordWhat evidence? What evidence is there that books can drive social change?

Chaired masterfully by Susan Hitch (linguist, broadcaster, academic), I opened the discussion session on this question. And how did it go? I met these women, these amazing women, who said these wonderful, wise and fascinating things. Enlightening stuff. Galvanising words. And they gave evidence. Their writing has driven social change.

Susan Hitch, Vered Cohen Barzilay, Marina Nemat, Roma Tearne.Check out the line-up:

Roma Tearne, a Sri Lankan-born Britain-based novelist, painter and filmaker. Formerly Leverhulme Artist in Residence at the Ashmolean Museum, Roma used a AHRC Fellowship to spend three years in museums around Europe accessing narrative within collections.  Her books explore themes of conflict and forced migration and have been variously short-listed for the Costa, the Kirimaya and LA Times book prizes and long-listed for the Orange Prize. She currently works to help further the cause of the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice.

For the Weidenfeld debate Roma questioned the idea of novelist-as-activist. Exploring questions such as the role of the fiction writer in driving social change and, regarding the craft, how nonfiction can beat at the core of the fiction narrative, she spoke about how difficult it is to be objective when representing the voice of victimised others (often family) in fiction. In other words, taking on the associations and responsibility involved with such narratives in the real world.

Roma TearneRoma wanted to make it clear that “While I of course support issues of human rights I don’t feel my novels should be seen as ‘Human Rights’ novels.”

In answering my question Roma claims there is no ‘evidence’ of her having brought about any change through her fiction. However, she noted that due to the representational voice in her writing, members of a charity (for which she was Patron) explained that her writing gave their experience a public face helping them justify their right to self-renewal. In this way it could be argued that Roma’s writing has helped Tamil women to feel better recognised and represented in society. Having acknowledged this impact, Roma stressed that it was only in the mind of the charity that “there might have been some sense that my writing was of an activist nature.” She explains; “I did find the expectations of both my work and me, sometimes unbearable. Eventually, after a year I resigned. I felt that someone who was more determinedly activist should play this role in my stead.”

Comparing herself to the other panellists, Roma felt the strength of the debate was the two, possibly three, very different points of views were being expressed here. She stressed “I am not an activist. I am a novelist, and as a novelist my loyalties lie primarily with my characters. I was quoting Faulkner when I said this. I honestly believe that if a novelist tries to write a manifesto in the guise of fiction he or she only dilutes the strength of the work. In my opinion, good fiction cannot be simply categorised.” Perhaps, in my own research I can move forward and explore further questions that arise from Roma’s statement. For example, I’d like to ask: What makes the strength of a work of fiction and at what point is it compromised? It was at this point in speaking about categorisation that Roma mentioned the marketing strategies adopted by publishers and others to pigeon-hole her books, “Labelling them as ’Asian Fiction’ or ‘Fiction About Conflict’, or simply ‘Women’s Fiction.’” Her response to this made us laugh: “No gold leaf mangos! No coconut palm covers!” This linked with another of my concerns; how to distinguish stories that have human rights issues at heart when marketers aim to sell ethnic cliches, glamourized suffering and the misery memoir. Roma shared this concern. She commented coolly and explained: those who attempt to capitalise on shock value are not engaging with literature at the level of empathy and integrity that well-written novels deserve.

Marina NematIt was a privilege to meet Marina Nemat Iranian-born Canadian-based author, awarded the first EU Human Dignity Prize. In discussing the process of writing nonfiction memoirs Marina highlighted the haunting challenge of bearing witness. Philosophically, she reviewed the role of witness from the platform of playground bullying to the advent of human rights violations, such as those she experienced in Evin Prison, sentenced as a pre-teen for speaking out against the Iranian government. Providing an account of her agency as author, (now activist-author), Marina detailed a brief retrospective of the events that led her to write. As an emigre escaping a death sentence, fleeing for a new life and now supporting the voices of other witnesses to brutality, Marina’s clarity of thought and ability to share, ever looking forward, was both mesmerising and motivating.

In answering my question, Marina gave multiple pieces of evidence for her book having driven social change. My favourite being when an Iranian government representative approached her at a book fair and openly told her to “Watch her back.” Clearly, an entire government can be shaken by one woman’s outspoken stance. With this in mind she calls for more writers to drive a pen to the heart of human rights violators.

After the debate concluded Marina introduced her friend Antonella Mega. Antonella’s husband Hamid has been and continues to be held in Tehran’s Evin Prison. The campaign to free him from the same environment Marina escaped underscores the fact that international laws are being undermined as we speak, imprisonment and torture are happening right now and the immediacy of the death penalty is very real.

Novel RightsVered Cohen-Barzilay, the beacon who brought me there, formerly of Amnesty now founder of Novel Rights. What an amazing thing this novel idea, this Novel Rights: a social enterprise specialising in art projects for NGOs. (Whoop! Whoop!)

Cutting to the chase, their website says it as it is: Novel Rights recognises the power of art, especially literature, to drive change and motivate people to take action.

Alongside producing events, panels and book fairs promoting literature that supports human rights values, they operate an e-publishing (e-Pub) house dedicated to encouraging the literary community to share in human rights literature, expand their understanding and knowledge on human rights topics and inviting them to take action. Not only that, they actively provide a community space for awareness, engaging authors, audiences and activists with a view towards ensuring freedom and equality for all. (Already humming along as if the last line were an anthem.)

Institute for Strategic DialogueAll this was made possible by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

They’re so cool: An independent policy organisation and think-tank working with leaders to enhance Europe’s capacity to act effectively with key players in the global arena. Did you know they’re bringing professionals and academics to Oxford to discuss issues affecting our world?

I’m told their Cultural Bridges Programme works with media and cultural leaders to establish alternative channels for communication across national, regional and cultural divides representing the ‘cultural diplomacy’ branch of the Institute’s work.

After the event I got chatting with one of the leadership programme associates, Anna Schiller, who was beautiful, clever and filled with light. Holding their work in such high regard I teased her a bit, calling her a kingmaker. This was not meant pejoratively. More like Sonia Gandhi than the 16th Earl of Warwick. Only because their Weidenfeld Scholarship Programme enables students from all over the globe to pursue graduate studies at Oxford University and bring support back to their home countries in the form of leadership skills training and concept development backing. Feeling really grateful to have been invited to this Debate Series, this collation of quality.

All this was based in a new college in Oxford. What? Say what? Wonders will never cease. Oxford founded a new college? With a focus on forward thinking international development and strategic studies? Heaven. Sounds like rigorous academic research heaven for nomadic scholars such as myself.

Green Templeton College is the University of Oxford’s newest college. International in membership and outlook, lively and supportive in spirit and with an intellectual agenda focusing on issues relating to human welfare it aims to lead the way in graduate education in Oxford.

Must visit more often.

So, let us hereby start the discussion on Human Rights in Literature. My first reaction is: What can I do to enable such worthy chin-wagging? Hook up a chain-link reaction between journalist buds and non-profit pals? Will do. Study the subject and facilitate forums? In the pipeline.

Watch this space.

Novel Rights
Creative Nonfiction
Fiction and Human Rights
Human Rights
Human Rights Literature
Tamar Levi
Tehran Green Templeton College Oxford University of Oxford Institute for Strategic Dialogue Vered Cohen Barzilay Iranian Marina Nemat Memoir Oxford Anna Schiller Roma Tearne Department of International Development Sri Lankan Evin Prison Susan Hitch Free Hamid Tamil Green Templeton College

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Alaskan raised, Cornish-Jewish, Belgium-based author and illustrator Tamar Levi has spent her life triangulated between desk, bookshelf and easel.Beginning by writing and illustrating whilst studying in London and Cambridge, Tamar also consulted for a leading multinational company. She's now come full circle, back to where she belongs, writing and illustrating again.


Send me your message using Contact form. Alternatively you can email me on tamarmagan[at]gmail.com.