- We Shall Bear Witness: Life Narratives and Human Rights ed. by Meg Jensen, Margaretta Jolly
Human rights lawyer Mark Muller opens his contribution to this collection with a reflection: “If my experiences over twenty years have taught me anything, it is the value of listening to the many different kinds of personal voices and perspectives that are out there in society” (257). Readers of We Shall Bear Witness will appreciate that the editors Meg Jensen and Margaretta Jolly likewise recognize the value of bringing together many perspectives and voices. The writers in this collection include survivors, witnesses, and advocates; activists, artists, and academics; and researchers in fields such as English, psychology, and health care ethics. This array points to a wide interest in writing and rights in and beyond academia. Furthermore, this range of voices suggests the number of readers for whom We Shall Bear Witness represents an exciting and important new resource.
Academic disciplines in the humanities and social sciences increasingly recognize self-representation as a valuable theoretical lens. Margaretta Jolly’s introduction to We Shall Bear Witness surveys previous research that provides a foundation for examining life writing and human rights. “Life stories,” scholars have shown, “are no simple and singular thing” (9). Rather, “they are complex constructions” informed by narratives of humanism, ideologies of self-determination, and the dynamics between storyteller and consumer. Within these critical conversations, We Shall Bear Witness proposes ways of analyzing the construction of life stories as rights stories. The editors suggest that such life rights stories be understood as a process told in “stages that are psychological, social, juridical, and also, in a particular sense, literary” (9). Readers might also regard life rights stories as conversations “defined through who listens, how, and for what interest” (10). By approaching life rights stories in these ways, we can account for the persuasive power of the genre, and also its politicization.
We Shall Bear Witness is organized in five parts, examining the production, reception, and mobilization of life stories. The first section, “Testimony,” offers critical discussions of how human rights life stories are created and [End Page 708] the expectations of testimony, together with three examples of first-person accounts. Section two, “Recognition,” addresses the questions “How can we offer appropriate recognition for their testimony? How do we recognize contemporary activists and claimants?” Gillian Whitlock, Michio Miyasaka, and Finola Farrant explore these questions in specific historical and contemporary contexts. The collection then turns to “what happens to experiences of injustice and protest as they are transformed by artists and writers” (13). Chapters in this section, “Representation,” consider texts such as Anne Frank’s diary, figures like Martin Luther King Jr., and organizations like Médecins Sans Frontières. Part four, “Justice,” focuses on specific political contexts in which human rights life stories have the potential to gain material outcomes. The concluding section, “Learning,” provides a “teaching toolkit” that suggests texts and questions for discussion and further debate.
Several of the writers in this collection articulate multiple positions themselves, and consider human rights from multiple perspectives. Indeed, many of the most interesting chapters in We Shall Bear Witness come from writers such as Hector Aristizábal and Julia Watson who reflect on their intersecting positions. Aristizábal narrates a period in 1982 when he was arrested and held in secret by the Colombian military for alleged involvement with guerilla groups. He recounts his experiences of torture, but also what he calls “the other, equally true, version of my story, the narrative not of my helplessness but of my resistance” (66). Following his release, Aristizábal turned this experience “into an aesthetic object” through performance art that gives him a sense of control and brings audiences into the experience (70). Now a member of the Program for Torture Victims, Aristizábal writes as a victim, survivor, artist, activist, and trauma therapist. Similarly, Watson’s chapter narrates her self-conscious experience of speaking about human rights from diverging positions. A scholar...