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EN981 - Writing about Human Rights and Injustice

2018 - 2019

Tutor: Andrew Williams

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

Introduction

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 and wrongs or social injustice in varying contexts and media, looking at classic and contemporary non-fiction and fiction.

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 session.

During the module 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. To encourage the development of your writing, you will be asked to complete very short writing assignments that will be set each week. These will provide you with an opportunity to experiment and obtain some feedback on those efforts.

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

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

Indicative programme for Term 2 (subject to confirmation during the autumn term):

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.

The outline for topics are as follows:

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.

Please read the following extracts provided:

George Orwell ‘Why I write’

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

Week 2: UNDERSTANDING INJUSTICE: Mapping individual and systemic wrongs

In the first part of the session 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.

Please read:

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

Week 3: REGARDING THE PAIN OF OTHERS

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: https://lacuna.org.uk/migration/living-limbo-refugees-asylum-italy/

Week 4: CULTURAL APPROPRIATION

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 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/13/lionel-shrivers-full-speech-i-hope-the-concept-of-cultural-appropriation-is-a-passing-fad

Yassmin Abdel-Magied : https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/10/as-lionel-shriver-made-light-of-identity-i-had-no-choice-but-to-walk-out-on-her

Week 5: EVIDENCE AND PERSPECTIVE

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.

Readings:

David Vann: extract from Last Day on Earth

Please also access: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/20/t-magazine/protest-art-betty-tompkins-postcommodity-rirkrit-tiravanija.html

Week 6: WRITING ON EQUALITY

The #metoo campaign has highlighted some of the underlying injustices that continue to plague many societies. What can it teach us about those endemic wrongs and how we can write about them.

Week 7: Taking stock

This week we will review how your writing is progressing and how we can relate the various readings to your work.

Week 8: WHOSE STORY?

How can/should creative writers/artists respond to catastrophe when they are involved in the suffering as participants or observers? What might they hope to achieve that news journalism cannot? Whose story ends up being told? To explore these questions we will consider two different stories. First, the response to the Grenfell Fire and second the death of a mental health user. Both have provoked considerable treatment in the media but also more prolonged writing through different forms.

Please read as much as you can of Andrew O'Hagan's The Tower

Please also have a look at Sara Ryan’s blog starting at https://mydaftlife.com/summary/ 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 https://mydaftlife.com/2017/08/10/writing-trauma/ 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; https://mydaftlife.com/2017/08/12/i-want-to-ask-you-a-little-about-your-blog/

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’.

Week 9: POETRY 

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.

Zephania, Benjamin, Too Black, Too Strong and have a read of his Lacuna Magazine interview here 

Week 10: COMEDY

How possible is it to write about suffering and wrongdoing using humour? What problems ensue and what are the benefits and dangers?

Reading: extracts from Mark Steel's 'In Town', and Mark Thomas, Extreme Rambling


Assessment

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.