Human Rights Literature

Human rights Literature manifests the belief in the enormous power of literature to drive change, and in the author’s moral duty to their readers, both social and artistic.

This Literary genre is based on the theory of ’Engaged Literature’ developed by the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, a theory committed to a better society and to the belief in the power of every human to make a social change.
Human rights Literature promotes values of human rights directly or indirectly. It aims to transform the impact of the reading experience into a motivation for social action; the latter underpins the struggle for protection of human rights.

In his book ‘What is literature?’ Jean-Paul Sartre argued on the moral duty of intellectuals, as well as the ordinary citizen, to take a stand in face of political conflicts, and especially those in their region. Literature according to Sartre is a tool which provides a dual action: first as a mirror to the oppressor, and second, as a guide and inspiration to the oppressed. Through literature, oppressed minorities could gain recognition and an action taken by the elite.

Sartre explains: “…the reader of the novel submits to the book before him, abandoning his worldly existence to assume a vicarious one while he reads. He lives the problem which he himself helps to create, placing himself in the most sympathetic position in relation to what the writer wishes to say”.

The conceptual basis of human rights literature was first introduced in 2010 in ‘The Tremendous Power of Literature’, the foreword to the book ‘Freedom’, an anthology of short stories by renowned writers from around the world celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the essay, Novel Rights founder Vered Cohen Barzilay explored the concept of Human Rights Literature through her personal experience and engagement with the book ‘Before We Say Goodbye’, that empowered her to “abandon my way as a ‘warrior’ and to follow the tremendous power of literature allowing it to take me into another reality”.And the book Freedom became an example of the links between literature and human rights organization – Amnesty International.

Freedom was later translated to different languages and published around the world including in USA, Canada, Poland, Italy, Spain and Latin America.

Since the publication of ‘Freedom’ and ‘The Tremendous Power of Literature’, the concept of Human Rights Literature was presented at several literary events including Edinburgh book festival in August 2010, Oxford University UK in March 2012 and the Literary Festival at the London School of Economics (LSE) in March 2013. In 2012 Novel Rights e-publishing was founded, to create and Human Rights Literature.

Unlike the abstract commitment to social action of Sartre’s Engaged Literature, Human Rights Literature places human rights at the core of its moral and social duty. It emphasizes the responsibility of the author to delve into writing that is not deliberately cut off from the world, geopolitical changes or social crises. Human Rights Literature does not believe writing is solely an artistic aesthetic exercise, and calls on writers to realize the social commitment under the power of their literary creation that it effect on the public is enormous and does not come to fruition often.

Another element of Human Rights Literature is that it manifests unique and close links exist between literature and human rights campaigns.

Professor Lynn Hunt of Stanford University identified these links. In her book Inventing Human Rights: A History, she examines the emergence of the Prose Narrative in the 18th Century and the role it played in the conception of the human rights idea. Prof. Hunt demonstrates how ideas of human relationships portrayed in novels and art generated a powerful fictional empathy which helped spreading this new idea.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Nelle Harper Lee is one example of a novel that had major contribution and impact on American public opinion on the issue of Race and Rights. Another example is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin which was the best-selling novel of the 19th century. The book had a deep impact on public opinion in the USA on the issue of slavery and is seen as one of the triggers to the Abolitionist movement in the 1850s.

Many other books and novels had great impact on Human Rights issues and struggles, for example: Beloved by Toni Morrison, Franz Kafka’s The Trial and Night by Elie Wiesel.

In respect to the reading experience, Human Rights Literature emphasizes the responsibility of the author to delve into writing that is not deliberately cut off from the world, geopolitical changes or social crises. For Human Rights Literature, writing is not a mere artistic aesthetic exercise, but a process wherein writers own and exercise a social commitment, an integral commitment to the power of their literary creation. This tremendous power affects the readers and the public, and yet, does not come to fruition often.

Nevertheless, Human rights Literature is not a tool of propaganda, it does not anticipate that the author actually will call for a specific action, rather it sees the authors’ ‘role’ end as soon as s/he complete the process of the literary creation. The question whether his creation will inspire for social change or motivate readers to take action will be answered by the readers. Human rights literature gives the readers direct opportunities for a real action; however it will never obligate them to be committed to it. Commitment is in fact an unwritten contract that is signed between the readers to the creation in the process of reading and holds the reader’s freedom to act.

“What we should be doing is taking the responsibility ourselves to play our part in protecting the human rights of others”, wrote the author, Michael Morpurgo, (“I long for the day when Amnesty is needed no more”). “Maybe we do it sometimes, but not enough. If we did, if all people of goodwill did this, then the tsunami of protest would roll on into the corridors of power and sooner rather than later the bastions of tyranny, the walls of division and oppression and prejudice would come tumbling down”.

“One of humanity’s greatest enemies is ignorance”. wrote Vered Cohen Barzilay, “It limits the human mind from seeing and taking in the reality, especially when that reality is complex. It leaves us in the darkness without developing the ability to wish to see reality better. It assists us in paralyzing our senses, thus destroying the important work of compassion. We must never give in to ignorance. The only way to defeat it is to learn; to become exposed to every single source of information which could assist us in restoring our five senses into full capacity, looking at the true reality with hopeful eyes. Only in this way could we understand each other, be attentive to each other’s distress, feel each other’s pain and enable us all to live the descent life that we deserve as human beings.” 

Human Rights Organizations mobilize thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned. These activists’ motivation is  their belief and conviction that they must act on behalf of those who have been tortured or imprisoned. The power of human empathy, wrote JK Rowling (“The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination”) is leading to a collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. “Ordinary people, whose personal wellbeing and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet”. Rowling indicated that the greatest formative experience of her life which has influenced her writing was her work at the African research department at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London. “My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life” she declared.

“It is through literature”, explain Morpurgo, “not simply literacy, that we learn to understand and empathise. As readers, we learn about the lives of others, other places and cultures, other ways of seeing the world. We find out about the past, understand better how it made our today and how our today makes our tomorrow. We learn we are not alone in our feelings, that joy and pain are universal, that humanity is to be celebrated for its diversity but is ultimately one humanity. Through literature, we can find our place in the world, feel we belong and discover our sense of responsibility”.

In addition to its far reaching impact on readers, literature, as part of the book industry, is the first cultural industry in Europe. The book industry is a key player in the knowledge society and economy and contributes actively to achieve the Lisbon Agenda goals.

Literature can be as powerful as life itself. It can be like our prophecy. It can inspire us to change our world and give us the comfort, hope, passion and strength that we need in order to fight to create a better future for us, as well as all humanity. We just need to keep on reading and to allow the tremendous power of literature to enter our hearts and lead us to our own path”. (from the foreword to “Freedom”).