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Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Story Behind the Stories...

Friends of the Human Rights Program (HRP) and the Creative Writing Program in the Department of English gathered at the Weismann Art Museum on May 30 to listen to acclaimed writers Patricia Hampl and James Dawes discuss writing about human rights. The event was a celebration of the University's "Scribes for Human Rights Fellowship." an initiative created in 2006 to support a Master of Fine Arts student to work with the HRP as a writer-in-residence. The Scribe serves as a storyteller - one who can transmit the deeply personal stories in human rights cases to a broader audience. Dawes and Hampl small.JPG
James Dawes and Patricia Hampl

Dawes, professor of U.S. and Comparative Literature at Macalester College and author of That the World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity, and Hampl, a creative writing professor in the Department of English at the University of Minnesota and author of the memoir, The Florist's Daughter, among several other award-winning books, engaged in a thoughtful discussion about exposing human rights abuses using the written word.
According to Dawes, "human rights work is fundamentally a matter of storytelling." But, this storytelling, not just using words, but also images, can sometimes have unintended consequences. Dawes relayed once such instance that took place in Dakha, Bangladesh. A group of prisoners were massacred in front of a group of photographers in Dakha during the 1971 War of Independence from Pakistan. Two photographers, who did not intervene in the violence choosing rather to document the killings on film, were given Pulitzer Prizes for using their photography to get the stories out to the rest of the world. It could be argued that getting the story out, in this case, was a kind of complicity with the violence - that the presence of the cameras actually incited the soldiers to greater violence to create a spectacle for the rest of the world. Ultimately, it was the photos, when viewed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, that spurred the Indian Government to take action to stop the violence and future killings. However, as evidenced in this case, telling the story can sometimes be a part of the tragedy itself.
Emily Bright, the 2007-08 Scribe, contributed to the evening by reading from her writing on the student-led movement to stop child abductions in South Sudan. For several months, Emily followed the work of a group of students committed to addressing the abduction of one of the students' two young nieces. Emily spoke eloquently about observing the students doing their work, while acknowledging her own feelings regarding the abducted children, and the challenges faced as she tracked the project's progress.
Our newest Scribe, Katie Leo, is currently conducting research, volunteering, and engaging communities in dialogue to learn more about various human rights issues. Katie has spoken with local Hmong-American artists and community members regarding the desecration of Hmong burial sites in Thailand and has volunteered at the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission's public hearings in St. Paul in June. Her experience thus far has informed her about the process of community reconciliation and the importance of creating a shared group narrative. Katie is particularly interested in the power that shaping language has over human rights work, as discussed in the Dawes book. Katie will continue to write and research around these issues as a key part of her Scribes Fellowship.
As we proceed with the Scribes project we are gently reminded that there is always a story behind the stories. In exposing and reporting on human rights abuses, the writer has to come to terms with the moral and ethical questions that often arise. If the story is exposed, will people be in danger because of it? How many people are endangered if the story is not exposed? Whose story is it? Is it a writer's duty to tell the story? We are thankful to James Dawes and Patricia Hampl for allowing us to sit in on their dialogue on these very tough questions.