English and Film Studies

Beyond Amnesty's Book Shelf: Narrating Human Rights

T. Tomsky 

What is the role of literature in securing human rights? Literature and what Martha Nussbaum calls the “narrative imagination” have long been seen as integral to the spread of human rights sensibilities. These beliefs have started to take institutional form, as when in 2014 Amnesty International, whose mandate is to “generate action to prevent and end grave abuses of human rights,” turned to fiction and launched a book club. With over 6,000 subscribers, the Amnesty book club showcases a range of novels that, in author Nino Ricci’s words, “open us up to the plight of others.” This course asks, what kind of human rights feelings does or can literature cultivate? Who is the subject of human rights and how is that political subject constructed at the level of genre, form, structure, plot, or content? Focusing on human rights and literature following the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we will investigate how literary narratives navigate the representational challenges of communicating violence in post-colonial and colonial states, as well as the risks of empathy in relation to asymmetric relations of power.