On Saturday 7th November, a mixed group of undergraduates, postgraduates, academics and the interested public packed the Cube to capacity to participate in the launch of the Fiction and Human Rights Network at TORCH. Co-convened by lawyer Natasha Simonsen and literary scholar Tessa Roynon, the co-founders of the network, the symposium centred on the theme of ‘Dignity and the Novel since 1948’.  In three consecutive panels, experts in a range of disciplines examined what conceptions of dignity in legal theory and practice might or might not add to modern novels that address issues of human rights.

In the first panel, ‘Why Fiction and Human Rights? Why Dignity?’,  keynote speaker Professor Stephen Clingman (UMass, Amherst) argued that fiction’s examination of ‘the human’ precedes human rights. He discussed the relationship between the novel, conceptions of home, homelessness and the figure of the refugee, and novelistic forms that complicate and extend Joseph Slaughter’s identifications between the Bildungsroman and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Natasha Simonsen spoke next, outlining contrasting theories of dignity, and using Wayne Booth’s emphasis on the importance of ‘the freedom to pursue a storyline or plot’ to posit the importance of literature as a form of ‘life experience’ for lawyers, and as essential ‘training’ in empathy for us all. Ankhi Mukherjee (Oxford English), who chaired this panel, asked provocatively whether other disciplines ‘steal as greedily from narrative as narrative steals from other disciplines’.

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC chaired the second panel, ‘Narrative and Genocide’. Here, Philippe Sands QC discussed Louis Begley’s fictionalized account of Polish Jewish survival during World War II:  Wartime Lies. Kate McLoughlin of Oxford’s English Faculty was his respondent. This was followed by a discussion of Véronique Tadjo’s text, The Shadow of Imana: Travels in the Heart of Rwanda, by Kings College London specialist in African literature, Dr Zoe Norridge. Oxford Law’s Cathryn Costello was her respondent, and these talks gave rise to heated lunch-time debates about the relationship between fiction and autobiography in writing for social and political change, about different kinds of truth, and about dignity as a necessary fiction.

The final panel of the day, ‘Novel Rights and Wrongs’, constituted eight speakers presenting for five minutes each on a novel of their choice. The mix was eclectic, ranging from Mark Damazer (head of St Peter’s College) on Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, through Jonathan Herring (Oxford Law) on Lisa Genove’s Still Alice,  to Michelle Kelly (Oxford English) on Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People. The other presenters included Marina MacKay (English), Charles Foster (Law), Kei Hiruta (Philosophy) and Dana Mills (Politics). This unconventional but illuminating panel was chaired by Jonny Steinberg (African studies). It was brought to a fittingly moving end by Carissa Véliz (Philosophy), who read from her beautiful novel-in-progress on the theme of exile following the Spanish Civil War.

Speakers and delegates alike spoke with enthusiasm after the event of the fresh perspectives that an interdisciplinary approach brings to questions of suffering, injustice, and the meaning of ‘being human’.

Further activities planned by the Fiction and Human Rights Network at TORCH include a seminar on Ian McEwan’s The Children Act in Hilary 2016, and an event about and/or with PEN in Trinity 2016. For more information please contact tessa.roynon@ell.ox.ac.uk or natasha.simonsen@law.ox.ac.uk

You can hear recordings of the 'Dignity and the Novel since 1948' event at the links below. Many thanks to Steve Allen at the Law Faculty for his help with recording and editing this material. Please note that those speakers who do not appear have been removed from the recordings at their own request.

Panel 1 (Why Fiction and Human Rights? Why Dignity?)
Panel 2 (Narrative and Genocide)
Panel 3 (Novel Rights and Wrongs)

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