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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

My Letter to the World: Narrating Human Rights

On Monday, October 9th, the Human Rights Program and the Creative Writing Program held a conference entitled My Letter to the World: Narrating Human Rights. The conference featured prominent writers and professors from the University of Minnesota and Kingston University in London.

Celebrated writer and University of Minnesota Regents Professor Patricia Hampl chaired the first panel, "The Voice of Human Rights: Teaching Narrative Writing." In introducing the panel, Hampl noted that memoir is the act of using the self as an instrument to render the world. First person voice serves to illuminate our inner lives, which help us to understand external events. The Diary of Anne Frank, the inner voice of one girl, has allowed us to in some sense more personally conceived of the horrors of the Holocaust. The first group of panelists consisted of Annette Kobak (Joe's War: My Father Decoded), Nuruddin Farah (Crossbones), Vesna Goldswrothy (Chernobyl Strawberries), and Emin Milli (eminmilli.posterous.com). Kobak spoke particularly of the use of voice in activism. The tool of dictators, she said, is silence, while voice is the tool of writers and advocates. Farah stated that "the only way to fight injustice is to expose it." Writers, in telling stories, retain the voices of those who have been exposed to injustices. Goldsworthy focused on the duty of the memoir. The act of writing a memoir is, in some cases, the refusal to submit to a narrative decided by those in power. As such, writing is a form of dissent. Milli described his experience with blogging and protest.
In the keynote speech, "Bearing Witness to Atrocity: Forms, Motives, Ethics," Professor James Dawes of Macalester College outlined the ethical questions of writing about human rights. Bearing witness is the creation of an accurate account of our time for future generations, stated Dawes. However, the act of bearing witness is embroiled in several paradoxes. For instance, trauma is that which cannot be integrated. Trauma is incomprehensible by definition. So how do you tell the story that cannot be told? Human rights writers face the challenge of understanding incomprehensible events and relaying that understanding without skewing the reality behind the events.
The afternoon panel, "Reading Across Borders and Genres: Linking the Humanities and Social Sciences in Human Rights Curricula," was chaired by Brian Brivati of the John Smith Memorial Trust. The panelists represented the disciplines of political science (Kathryn Sikkink), English (Meg Jensen), history (Elaine Tyler May), Spanish and Portuguese studies (Ana Forcinito), and African studies (Charlie Sugnet). This panel focused on the potential for inter-disciplinary study of human rights. Sikkink noted that the social sciences concentrate on why questions, which supplement the what questions that other disciplines like law tend to focus on. Jensen pointed out that writing (fiction, memoir) can provide a more complex view of the truth than trials. May stated that the historical perspective is often useful when thinking about human rights. Forcinito discussed the role of testimonial writing in Latin American studies. These testimonies provide insight into some of the key actors in the human rights movement, but they are often overlooked in by other disciplines. Sugnet, like Jensen, described the power of storytelling, referencing film specifically, in providing the most accurate truth. The inter-disciplinary model provides a platform for greater inquiry into human rights study.