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EN981 - Writing about Human Rights and Injustice

2019-20

Tutors: Maureen Freely and Andrew Williams

Term 1

Mondays 3-5pm

Classes begin in week 2 in the Writers Room, Millburn House and continue throughout the term including Reading Week 

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 1 (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.

The outline for topics are as follows:

Week 1: Open House with Tutors (details to follow)

Week 2: 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. We shall also create a schedule for your one-to-one writing tutorials over the term.

Please read the following extracts provided:

George Orwell ‘Why I write’

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

Week 3: 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 4: 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 5: OPENING WOUNDS

How societies deal with past atrocities or conflicts remains contested, as we will have seen in Week 3. And how writing can address the questions and issues arising will be our topic this week. We’ll examine this through the lens of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which has attracted considerable attention recently. Two works in particular, both Orwell Prize winners (one for Political Fiction, the other for Non-fiction) show what might be possible.

Please read the extracts provided of:

Patrick Radden Keefe’s ‘Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland’

and

Anna Burns’ ‘Milkman’

Week 6: 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 7: 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.

Listening:

https://www.thisamericanlife.org/640/five-women

Reading:

The Case of Al Franken https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0?ui=2&ik=bfd557b95f&view=lg&permmsgid=msg-f%3A1640157753164666801&ser=1

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

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: WRITING ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE 

We will look at the difficulties and possibilities of writing about climate change and the environment.

Readings are yet to be set as we are hoping to have a guest author speaking on the subject.

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.

 

 

Weekly assignments

 

Week 3 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. Adopt whatever style you like – be as creative as you dare.

 

Week 4 assignment: your changing awareness of an injustice

Write a brief account (no more than 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?

 

Week 5 assignment: Images

Consider any of the images we have examined today in class. Write a short response to any one of these (as usual no more than 500 words). Consider any aspect the image has provoked for you. Adopt any style of response you want, but do experiment.

 

Week 6: 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.

 

Week 7: 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.

 

 

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.

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