Skip to main content

EN981 - Writing about Human Rights and Injustice

2017 - 2018

Tutors: Andrew Williams, Maureen Freely, Preti Taneja and Gonzalo Ceron Garcia

Term 2: Tuesdays, 12:30 - 14:30, S1.39, PAIS Common Room, Social Sciences


People from many and diverse walks of life feel compelled to write in response to past and present injustices: journalists, creative writers, lawyers, historians, philosophers and sociologists. They may write to seek redress or policy change, or they may simply want to bring wrongs to public attention. But to do so, they face common problems of representation. What forms of writing are appropriate? Which are possible? What ethical and political sensitivities and sensibilities are constraining? Are any liberating? What skills do they need to develop to write effectively and well? How is the matter of ‘truth’ addressed in different media and how does this affect the nature and content of representing wrongs?

On this module we will examine the ethical and practical elements of writing about human rights or social injustice in varying contexts and media, looking at classic and contemporary non-fiction and fiction. We will look at:

Beginnings and endings


Voice and voices

Evidence and argument

Polemic and reportage

Style and form (satire, poetry, non-fiction, and fiction)

Music and song

We will also offer you a chance to investigate and write about topics of your own choosing. We shall begin to think about these projects when we meet for our first workshop, and we shall use subsequent workshops to work towards final drafts. Along the way we shall examine writing on selected contemporary crises to illustrate questions of technique, competing political and media agendas, ethical dilemmas and legal constraints that those writing about injustice commonly face.

In addition to large group sessions every Tuesday you will also have one-to-one sessions with assigned tutors to discuss and develop your writing for the module.

As a preliminary to the module please try to read ‘A Very British Killing: the Death of Baha Mousa’ by A.T. Williams

You might like to read the following books if you have time, as they are exceptionally good and provide different approaches to writing about wrongs:

Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance (Faber & Faber)

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Penguin Classics)

Samar Yazbek, A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution (Haus Publishing)

Caroline Moorehead, Human Cargo (Chatto & Windus)

Other readings will be made available at the beginning of the module in week 1 term 2

First Assignment

Write a piece, no more than 500 words, on the pressures that affect the shape and content of a story, whether fiction or non-fiction. Think about some of the things that can change how a story might be told. You may have an experience of your own that you’d like to write about. You may want to think about the idea that certain things can’t be written about because of possible future consequences. There are many concerns that may lead to people feeling unable to express their opinions and tell their stories. Try to compose something that both communicates the story and shows how its form and content are determined.

The aim of this exercise is to encourage you to start thinking about some of the things, both internal and external to us, which can affect the way we tell stories. Be creative with your writing, play with ideas and think about the best ways to express the story you want to tell.

Please send your words to by Sunday 7th January 2018. Any questions, do get in touch, but this exercise is deliberately flexible to allow you to write about something that feels relevant and interesting to you, and to allow you to develop your thinking in this area.

And another thing…

Writing Wrongs Project: To enhance the module and develop your experience of writing about wrongs, we also try to provide space to develop writing skills, share work, discuss issues of publication, and explore ideas. This will hopefully include guest speakers, expert workshops, reading groups and anything else that you might like to initiate. We are also engaged in producing the on line magazine, Lacuna and will be encouraging your participation in this venture.

Indicative programme for Term 2 (subject to confirmation):

Each week we will consider different themes (such as conflict; migration; genocide; freedoms) and the ways in which writing has responded to them. We will look at journalism, non-fiction, blogs, fiction, poetry etc. Readings will be provided to address both themes and forms.

We will also look at different writing conundrums in the context of these themes:

How can we understand an injustice?What evidence can we accept? What’s the distinction between truth, lies and perspective?How can we write about it?What barriers to writing about injustice will we face and how can these be overcome?

Throughout, we will provide as much space and time as we can for you to explore your possibilities for writing, setting weekly writing assignments to help you develop your work

Week 1: Full module meeting with the tutors

We will introduce the detail of the module and also begin to explore the difficulties and issues involved in writing about wrongs. In particular, we will debate the relationship between academic and other forms of writing.

Also, please come prepared to talk about a particular piece of writing that has inspired you in its portrayal of injustice.

Please read the following extracts provided:

George Orwell ‘Why I write’

Deborah Levy ‘Things I don’t want to know: Political Purpose’


With these in mind, think about why you want to write, what you want to achieve, what you might want to express.

Week 2 Assignment: Intersecting demands

Your brief: Consider an injustice that you have experienced personally and write no more than 500 words on the intersecting ethical demands of telling the truth and 'getting the story right' - are these always compatible objectives? Make sure you address these questions with reference to the specific details of the case or issue you are discussing.

Week 2: UNDERSTANDING INJUSTICE: Mapping individual and systemic wrongs

In the first part we will look at the concept of injustice and how it might reveal deeper and more varied aspects than perhaps seem obvious when starting out to write. The impact of discovery through research but also the process of writing is something that we will consider. We’ll look at A Very British Killing as an example of an encounter with ambivalence even with what is an obvious injustice and consider how the story has extended beyond the individual wrong to the systemic. We’ll compare this to another conflict (the North of Ireland) and see how the two overlap.

A.T. Williams: extracts provided of A Very British Killing

Also come prepared to discuss an injustice you have experienced personally and the intersecting ethical demands of telling the truth and ‘getting the story right’ – are these always compatible objectives?

Week 3 assignment: your changing awareness of an injustice

Write a brief account (500 words) describing (in the first person) how you became aware of/concerned by/curious about the injustice you intend to write about for this module. What was your first inkling? How did you understand it at the time? What questions did this raise in your mind, and did you then put it out of your mind, or did you ask questions? What happened next? How did your understanding change over time. What is the thing you have yet to understand?


We will consider the impact of images of suffering on the moral, ethical and authorial decisions we make when writing about or responding to wrongs.

Please read the extract from Susan Sontag: Regarding the Pain of Others

We will also look in particular at the work of Ai Wei Wei in response to the migrant crisis, Sebastião Salgado and Kevin Carter. What do you make of the images they have produced? How aware do you think the photographers are of the difficult issues we will discuss in class? Where have they managed to break down the barrier between us and them, and at what cost? What images stay with you, and why? And what relationship can image have to writing about human rights?

Please access the award winning work of the photojournalist César Dezfuli whose work appears in Lacuna at:

Assignment Week 4: Images

Take a look at the images in the Lacuna articles available here:

Following on from our discussions in class, what do you make of any of these images? How aware do you think the photographers are of the difficult issues we have discussed in class? Where have they managed to break down the barrier between us and them, and at what cost? What images stay with you, and why?


One of the most significant barriers to writing is the institutional and societal constraints placed on our freedom to express ourselves, whether through writing or some other medium. Much dispute has arisen recently about what a writer can and cannot write about.

Read the materials available here and come prepared to discuss the issues they reflect.

Lionel Shriver

Yassmin Abdel-Magied :


Assignment for Week 5: vignettes

Write a vignette (a short, vivid scene) about an occasion when you witnessed/experienced/became aware of an injustice. It can be the injustice you intend to write about or an example of same. But it can be something else as well. It can be a real event that you witnessed or participated in, or it can be just a newspaper article or a book or a story or something in a film or on television. Or a story you heard. Or a place you visited. It does not have to be 'lived'. It is simply an account of the way in which this awareness entered your life. Make it short (250 words) and concentrate on describing the scene. If it was a story told by a friend, describe where you were, who was there, and whatever details remain in the memory. Don't over-explain or over-analyse. Let the story tell itself, staying true to the emotions of the time. Keep a tight frame. Then write the same scene again, but from the point of view of someone else in the story. (250 words). Concentrate on seeing what they see. Let this new voice tell the story. But keep the same tight frame. Here again the important things are the voice and the details.



Should truth get in the way of a good story? How rigorous must the evidence for your writing be? Are there ethical standards applicable when sifting through the material you want to use in your writing about injustices? What are they and which ones might you decide to break? And how do legal ideas of evidence relate to journalism or other forms of writing.

We will also look at Protest and art and consider how art engages with political issues today and with the production or challenge of ‘truth’.


David Vann: extract from Last Day on Earth

Please also access:

Assignment for Week 6: Your responses

Write about one idea you took away from the discussions this week. This can be something that surprised or troubled you. Or it can be a question that has lingered in your mind. Remember that we are not interested in your assessing the speakers. We're interested in knowing what thoughts in you they may have provoked. But a lot was said about voice, communication with the outside world, political art, the responsibilities of the poet/artist/dramatist, and the strange, meandering trajectory of creative invention.



Maureen Freely, President of English PEN will talk to us about the role of writers in modern Turkey.


To be confirmed

Assignment for Week 7: Responses to vignettes

  1. Copy and paste the vignettes you did last week
  2. Apply the questions we discussed in class. How convincing are they? What do they evoke for evoke for you, and what do they leave out? Why are these things left out? What were you able do by limiting your scope? How much do you stay inside a single scene, and how much room do you give for explanation. Which vignette seems more satisfying to you? What did you learn by trying different perspectives? Answer some or all of these questions, or apply any other thoughts that rise out of our class conversation. The point is to look at your writing through the prism of the sorts of questions we have been encouraging you to ask about your work as your develop and redraft it.



This week we will look at two areas of angry writing. The first is in response to the Grenfell disaster. How should creative writers/artists respond to these events, what might they hope to achieve that news journalism cannot?

The second is more personal but reflects a social problem: the recognition and treatment of mental health service users.

Please have a look at Sara Ryan’s blog starting at This is the writing of a woman whose son, Conor Sparrowhawk, died in an NHS mental assessment unit in 2013. Read the summary first and then dip into her blog posts. Try to get a feel for the story and her way of dealing with it. Then move on to which provides an account of questioning of the author before a General Medical Council hearing into the professional practice of the consultant psychiatrist involved in the case. Finally have a look at her writing on the issue of her blog which became part of the story itself at;

We will also look at the idea of subversion and how forms of writing can respond to and resist the conventions of the publishing industry and the authorised version of ‘the story’.

Assignment for Week 8: Your introduction:

Please write the first few paragraphs of your assessment. It doesn’t have to be perfect or the final version. Take risks and see what you can produce. This will be an important opportunity to consider the current state of your writing with a tutor if you haven’t already begun your project and the possibilities open to you.

Week 8: #metoo campaign with AL KENNEDY


Week 9: POETRY with Preti Taneja

This week we’ll be looking closely at the form of poetry. We’ll be undertaking a class exercise to see what can be learned by close reading.

Assignment for Week 9: Shaping stories

This week we talked about poetry and its relationship to writing about wrongs. …


Our theme for this week will be the production of film as a way of communicating wrongs. We hope to have a film-maker with us who will discuss the issues surrounding this medium.

NB In addition to the classes held each Tuesday you will also receive individual or small group supervision on your assessment writing. This is an essential method for developing your creative project and will be held at times convenient to student and tutor alike.


Reading List

In addition to the extracts provided you may like to read others which address injustice. We’ve set out a few below that you might like to look at:


Gelhorn, Martha; The Face of War

Cercas, Javier; The Anatomy of a Moment

Hersey, John; Hiroshima

Verbitsky, Horacio; Confessions of an Argentine Dirty Warrior

Feitlowitz, Marguerite; A Lexicon of terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture

Vuillamy, Ed; Amexica: War along the Borderline

Gourevitch, Philip and Morris, Errol; Standard Operating Procedure: A War Story

Sontag, Susan; Regarding the Pain of Others

Arendt, Hannah; Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil

Moorehead, Caroline; Human Cargo

Roy, Arundhati, The Algebra of Infinite Justice

Toolis, Kevin, Rebel Hearts

Levi, Primo, The Drowned and the Saved

Duras, Marguerite, The War

Zephania, Benjamin, Too Black, Too Strong

Urvashi Butalia: The Other Side of Silence (on honour killings in Partition)

Basharat Peer Curfewed Night: (on Kashmir)

Barbara Demnick: Besieged: Life Under Fire on a Sarajevo Street

Aleksander Hemon: The Book of My Lives

Greg Marinovitch (etc) The Bang Bang Club: Stories from a Hidden War - this would be a good one for the 'Images' week



Klima, Ivan, My Golden Trades

Kundera, Milan, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Brink, Andre, A Dry White Season

Kemal, Yashar, Memed My Hawk

Vasquez, Juan Gabriel, The Informers

Figueras, Marcelo Kamchatka

Solzhenitsyn, Alexandr, One Day in the Life…

Ibuse, Masuji Black Rain

Llosa, Mario Vargas, The Feast of the Goat

Vasquez, Juan Gabriel, The Informers

Shauna Singh Baldwin What the Body Remembers

Manto: Collected Short Stories - Sadaat Hassan Manto (trans. Aatish Taseer) - particularly the story 'Khol Do' and 'Toba Tek Singh'

Steven Galloway The Cellist of Sarajevo

Chimamanda Ngozie Adiche Half of a Yellow Sun



For the MA in Writing: Either an essay of 10,000 words on a topic arising from the module, agreed with the tutor; or a piece of original biographical writing, 8,500 words in length, on a topic agreed with the tutor, with a 1,500-word commentary on the aims and processes involved (45 CATS).

For the MA in English: Either an 8,000 word essay (36 CATS) or a 6,000 word essay (30 CATS).

For the MA in Philosophy and Literature: a 5,000 word essay (20 CATS)

For the LLM in International Development Law and Human Rights and LLM in Advanced Legal Studies: a 2500 word critical essay on a topic of the student’s choice relating to the module; and a 2500 creative work on the same topic.