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  • Theoretical Perspectives on Human Rights and Literature ed. by Elizabeth Swanson Goldberg & Alexandra Schultheis Moore
  • J. Paul Martin (bio)
Theoretical Perspectives on Human Rights and Literature (Elizabeth Swanson Goldberg & Alexandra Schultheis Moore eds., Routledge, 2012), 302 pages, ISBN 978-0-415-89097-7.

Those of us committed to the interdisciplinary dimensions of human rights studies will welcome these rich and varied studies on potential and actual literary contributions brought together [End Page 254] by Elizabeth Goldberg and Alexandra Moore. This sub-field (sub both to human rights and humanities) and this volume are dominated by the framework suggested by Joseph R Slaughter. He has emphasized the interactive development over the last couple of centuries between the Bildungsroman (the coming of age novel) and, using the title of his contribution to this study, International Human Rights Law (notably in Human Rights Inc: The New World Novel, Narrative Form and International Law, New York, Fordham University Press, 2007). Those of us who have come to human rights through other scholarly and advocacy routes may be not so sure that literature has had such a one-on-one impact. Perhaps both have grown out of the shared globalizing world. Either way, testimonies in all their fictional and non-fictional forms, as well as literary analyses now play a major role in the modern human rights movement. It is, therefore, important for human right scholars to understand literature’s dynamic and its impact as well as, the criteria used to measure and assess their impact.

This volume comprises fourteen chapters written by fourteen different authors, including one chapter each by the editors. Its contents cut across human rights, literary writing and literary criticism in a variety of ways. The chapters address different forms of discourses and narratives, norm universality, theories of human rights, individual topics such as violence and women’s rights, as well as the work of an extensive range of authors, notably J.M. Coetzee, Edwidge Danticat, Vyvyane Loh, Salman Rushdie, Joe Sacco, Indra Sinha and others. The resulting themes and insights are complex and diverse. Nothing short of reading the book could do justice to the emotional and intellectual territory covered, not to mention the variety of literary genres, legal, literary, ethical and esthetical premises.

The chapters identify the fascinating array of roles played by literature with respect to human rights. They include literature as a witness, as a wake-up call, as a mobilizer, as documentation, as a living memory or archive, as a social critique, as a re-interpretation of events, as a voice of the voiceless, as seeking to make sense of cacophony and the incomprehensible, and as an identification, analysis and reflection on subjectivities. A closer reading of the chapters would identify additional roles. The editors sought to encompass the core forms of human rights writing, including the analysis of testimonial and autobiographical forms of witness literature, the literature of protest, traditional and post-modern narratives and satires, the role of all kinds of drama and poetry, as well as fictional accounts of human rights events, claims and advocacy.

The core questions for readers are when, where, and how do literary writings and literary criticism address and engage human rights. When is there intellectual or practical engagement, and when is it merely a question of re-labeling or story-telling? When, for example, is the search of a community for its identity a rights process, especially when the search is at the expense of other communities? The volume raises but provides no single answer to this range of questions. It is, however, an important step in that it offers substantial material for thought and analysis on the part of the reader. One has only to look back at the above list of roles and potential roles for literary and literary criticism to see some of the ways in which they can benefit the human rights enterprise.

From no matter which starting or reference point you choose, the human rights fields of scholarship, advocacy, and diplomacy have now achieved a high degree of global ideological and ethical prominence. Today, the current international human rights regime, its principles, [End Page 255] institutions, and practices form the most...


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