Literature and human rights are not two things that obviously go together. I wonder if you could begin by explaining the connection.
For me, it’s always been an intimate connection. If you look at the history of philosophy, the history of rights, and the history of literature together, the ways in which all three have mutually enforced or challenged each other has been, at least in the Western tradition since the 18th century, very strong. There are plenty of super-literary cultures that don’t have modern human rights, but I don’t think we’d have modern human rights without literature.
When I think of modern human rights, I think of the Universal Declaration of 1948. You’re talking about the longer history of human rights, I assume.
Yes. But my main interest is in the 20th century, the moments leading up to the mid-20th century, and what has happened since. If you go way back, the intersections between literature and human rights are so intimate. In the 18th century, for example, you have the development of ideas around natural law, which are really the pre-history of modern human rights: the belief that we have human dignity, and that we should respond to each other recognising natural human dignity.
It’s no accident, as other scholars have pointed out, that the novel was born then. The novel helps make other people real to us. This is true whether it’s the sentimental novel, which was teaching readers to be sympathetic towards servant girls and other people who were not middle class, or whether it’s Rousseau’s Emile. Rousseau was a great advocate of natural rights and doing our own thing to make the world the best place. When he’s trying to think about how to bring up Emile he says that Emile shouldn’t read any philosophy because it is very bad for children’s young minds—he’s probably quite right there—but, instead, he should read novels. Indeed, he should just read one novel, Robinson Crusoe. So the great 18th century natural rights man learned how to be this man by reading a novel. That’s a tradition that goes all the way from the 18th century novel to Orwell in the 20th century: describing the lives of other people to make their entitlements to lives like ours, their entitlement to live according to natural law, seem natural.
“I don’t think we’d have modern human rights without literature”
Then you have literature teaching us about moral law. Here, I think of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, George Eliot, those great 19th century moralists who teach us about the relationship between political democracy, and rights and entitlement. Then you have literature as resistance, writing itself as a kind of rights claim. In this genre, by telling my story, I’m claiming my role, my place in the human story, and my right to be recognized. Frederick Douglass’s Narrative is a classic tale of injury, oppression and violence, which in itself is a rights claim, made politically and historically. And then, going all the way from slavery to modern monstrosities, you have literature that exposes naked monstrosities for the moral and historical horrors they are. For example, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Octavia Butler’s work, Primo Levi on Auschwitz.
Once you start to think about it, the way we became a human rights culture and rediscovered human rights is, in some ways, intimately bound up with literary history, and the imagination, and form, and ultimately with storytelling. I find it very difficult to think of these things separately.
That’s very persuasive. But there is this worry that some people overplay the role of decentering and empathy, and the development of empathy and conveniently forget that some of the perpetrators of the worst atrocities in the 20th century were reading Goethe, or immersed in German literature, for instance. Pol Pot studied philosophy with Jean-Paul Sartre. All these intellectual and literary pursuits don’t guarantee anything at all.
That’s absolutely right. And I think one of the things that has troubled a lot of us is the overplaying of empathy in arguments about literature—it infuriates me, actually. I find the idea that we read literature primarily in order to feel empathy for people, and that’s why teaching literature is great for human rights, deeply troubling. If you need a book to tell you that there are other people in the world who have human rights, your baseline on human rights is pretty low. Empathy is always a hierarchical relationship. It implies there are people who are to be pitied, albeit by trying to see the world from their perspective. It’s an exchange economy, which is also a political economy (as eighteenth-century writers understood), which can be willfully blind to the absolute causes of human rights abuses and injustice.
You can feel empathy for suffering. And it appears we have lots and lots of imaginative resources that allow us to do that all the time. But, as you say, there are different things here. I can share my imagination with you, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to share my money and my property, my ‘natural’ entitlement with you. You’re quite right to query that gap.
On the other hand, I think what happened in literary studies as a discipline as it’s been taught in universities for a long time, is that we became highly critical of the normative function of literature, and as a result we threw the baby out with the bathwater. To be endlessly sceptical about the new imaginative terms reading can give you for looking at the world is the wrong approach. Just because you can read Goethe and be a commander in a death camp shouldn’t stop us going back to the fact that there is a strength that can come from reading literature, even if there is no guarantee that this will be the case. It’s an ambivalent strength, but don’t downplay the strength in terms of what reading can give us as it helps us imagine our lives. Many of the struggles for human rights have been about creating new norms—and sometimes undoing old norms. Law is brilliant for that, of course; philosophy has been brilliant too; I think literature has a role here as well. We underplay the treasures we have if we don’t see that.
Let’s go to your first book choice, Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas.
In some ways, Three Guineas was the very late sequel to A Room of One’s Own, and it’s very well known as being Woolf’s great pacifist text. She started writing it in the late 1930s but didn’t publish it until 1938. It presents an uncompromising case for pacifism and feminism. It was well known when I read it in the ’80s and ’90s for being a proto-feminist pacifist text. Woolf is famous for the completely unconditional nature of her pacifism—she was writing it during the Spanish Civil War in ’36/’37. She lost her nephew in that war, and many on the left and in her circles were fighting to defend the Republic. So that wasn’t a popular move. She knew it wouldn’t be: I think she originally wanted to call Three Guineas something like How to be Unpopular. But the book is also well known for its great feminist cry, which is: “As a woman, I have no country…my country is the whole world”—her refusal to sign up to nationalism.
“The telling of stories is a way in which we do affirm each other’s humanity”
I reread it, after 2016, after the election of Trump and after Brexit, after a failure of a kind of liberalism that we all thought was pretty indestructible, although problematic, in other words at that moment when a lot of us on the left and in the centre got a real shock. And I saw that what she was also doing was providing a critique of what was already becoming liberal human rights in her time. Much of the book is an indictment of everyone’s complicity with making war, with the war machine, with capitalism, and with colonialism – whether it’s in education, or whether it’s in law. In some ways, she was saying that you’re not going to be able to have your lofty pacifism without realizing liberalism’s deep complicity with war, even when you espouse liberal values. What she’s indicting here particularly is the League of Nations and the kind of liberal internationalism that thought it could bring peace to the world. She said that failed because it failed to examine its complicity with patriarchy and in particular how patriarchy is complicit with the war machine, and with capitalism.
When I read it again in 2016 I thought, ‘My goodness! This is not just feminist pacifism, although it’s great as that. It’s actually an indictment of some of the conceits we have when we think we’re doing the right thing.’
What does she think the right thing is? Liberalism is based on giving people a right to speak, a right to think, a right to religion or the rejection of it, a right to an inviolable space around each individual. What does she want if she wants to get rid of these things?
She doesn’t want to get rid of them. What she wants is to undermine a kind of self-satisfied conceit. She wants things to be better than they were. What she proposes is very interesting. She has a discourse—in the footnotes, of all places—on Antigone. She doesn’t come out and say that Antigone is the real poster girl for human rights. It’s Antigone who challenges the political law, the law of the father, and says she wants to bury her brother in the city. Antigone claims there is a law beyond the law of politics, an ethics of the family, an ethics by which we know we have to do good. And, of course, she ends up being sacrificed for doing that: her fate is to be buried alive.
Woolf puts her Antigone in the footnotes—she’s buried her in this secret place. And she does that to talks about experimental human rights. She says that what Antigone was doing was responding to a specific and concrete violation. And that’s what she likes. She was saying that, actually, in terms of human rights, 19th century British feminism was there before, with these very specific struggles, arguing for the rights of women, for the rights of children, against sex laws, against poverty, and particularly against the rules as they pertained to women and property.
And what she wants to do—and I think this is a lesson that a lot of human rights activists have learned recently—is to return human rights to concrete particulars in specific contexts and to be very wary of the kind of generalized human rights that assumes it can speak for all. What Woolf wants is to say that, in some way, human rights need to respond to the thing at a specific time, whether it’s an anti-Semitic boycott, or a brother not being buried properly. We don’t need a grand narrative.
She could see that the League of Nations had failed in that moment, that inter-war liberalism had failed to hold the line. We are now in a position that feels very similar to the situation she was in.
That’s fascinating and particularly, as you say, reading the book in the current context. We know that Woolf was deeply depressed. If that’s what she believed, what happened the year after the book was published must have been the worst possible outcome she could have imagined: the outbreak of a world war.
Yes. There’s a lot of talk about how she suffered from depression. But remember too that in the year she committed suicide, she was living on the south coast of England – close to the action. She knew that she and her husband, Leonard Woolf, who was Jewish, were on a Nazi list and she knew that a lot of people thought the Nazis would win and invade. She could see what would happen under those circumstances. Certainly, part of her depression was her thinking that the worst has happened and that she didn’t feel she had the resources not to go mad. I think the way that Virginia’s story is often told loses sight of the historical gravity and the political gravity of the situation she found herself in, in 1941.
Your second choice, Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man is one of the greatest books about the Holocaust. This is a first-person account, possibly fictionalised to some degree for structural effects, but containing a lot of truth about Primo Levi’s own experiences of incarceration and worse. This is the most obviously literary work of those you’ve chosen and has at its heart the question of what we can expect of each other as human beings.
Yes. When it came out in the States it was known as Survival in Auschwitz. I think it’s a work of genius. And you’re quite right, some of it is testimony. But what I admire so much about it is that it is a book without pathos, or sentiment. Levi was a scientist, a radical empiricist. His ability and his care in describing the camp structure is unrelenting. It’s almost as if he answers his own question: have we got rid of rational man? Answer: No, because here I am, observing, writing, and thinking.
Our generation read this in the ’80s and ’70s—it was standard fare where I was growing up. When we were first reading it, people were not talking about the Holocaust all the time, but when I’ve taught the book to students who are used to Schindler’s List, they are surprised because they are used to a more popular Holocaust literature, or Holocaust testimony. This book doesn’t use the usual tropes of Holocaust literature. It does, actually, have a deep pathos, but it is a book without sentiment. What Levi does is reveal the Hobbesian nightmare that was deliberately created in the camps. In a world without contact with one another life is indeed nasty, brutish and short. What had been recreated in the center of post-Enlightenment Europe was its own worst nightmare, the very thing that it was built to prevent. He turns his scientifically trained and unrelenting gaze on what it means to live in a system where there is no ‘why?’
At the beginning of the book, Levi describes being brought into the camp. He was Jewish-Italian and, as a member of the resistance, he was caught late on in the war, which meant he could survive. He describes coming into the camp, and they were already thirsty – he reaches out of one of the barracks to pick an icicle to suck, to drink, and it’s snatched away by one of the guards. And he asks him why he had done that, and the reply was, “Here there is no why”.
“Books that are classics of their time often don’t get recognized as classics of their time at the time”
His analysis of modern forms of horror and the organization of modern forms of horror is brilliant. But he also poses a question about literature and humanity, right in the heart of the camp. There’s a chapter, which I’ve never been able to forget, “The Canto of Ulysses”. It describes Levi having a conversation with a younger camp inmate, a French guy called Jean whom everyone calls ‘the Piccolo’. The Piccolo’s job, because he’s young, is to go and get the soup from the other end of the camp for the workers every day. All the other guys vie to be the one who goes to help Piccolo because it means that you can walk across the camp and you can actually have a conversation and be outside the unremitting horror for a bit.
One day it’s Levi’s turn and he goes with Piccolo. He says he’s suddenly filled with a need to talk to Piccolo about Dante, about the Inferno. Piccolo is French and Levi is Italian. Dante is written in vernacular Italian, which is supposed to make the journey into hell every man’s story, as everyone could speak it. So, there’s this great scene where Levi is trying to translate into French, from the Italian, just because he wants to hear it, just because he’s desperate to communicate to this young man this great, great story. And in the end, he says, ‘Obviously, I’m not going to be able to do this, but Piccolo understands what I’m trying to do. He’s heard I’m trying to tell the story.’
And that act of storytelling, of transnational, trans-lingual, trans-historical storytelling affirms their humanity at that particular moment. It doesn’t redeem it, but it affirms it at the gates of hell. It seems to me the telling of stories is a way in which we do affirm each other’s humanity. And the great works of literature and the not-so-great works of literature are doing that work all the time. If I had to have one book out of these five, it would be this one and for that reason.
What you were saying about the attention to detail reminds me of Claude Lanzmann’s approach in Shoah: that relentless specificity is questioning, almost impersonal, in its desire to get more information about how things really were and reveals just how horrific they were through the accumulation of data rather than by using adjectives. It strikes me that Levi is a very clear writer at the level of the sentence. In translation his writing is very elegant, and unflashy. I’ve tried to read it in Italian as well—my Italian’s not particularly good—but I could understand a lot because he writes with this simplicity, this directness of style that allows the message to get across. It’s showing rather than saying. It’s a profound book but then, like Virginia Woolf, he did commit suicide. There is this sense that he clung to his humanity, amazingly, in the worst possible experiment he could find himself in, and then he couldn’t live with it, possibly. We don’t know.
We don’t know. It’s hard to know. People get tired. But I think you’re right about showing and not telling because, with things like the Holocaust, things like slavery, it’s not as if we need adjectives to bring the horror home. If we did we’d have gone morally wrong already. It’s enough just to approach it, I think, without asking how you are going to get people interested in mass death – which is a pretty obscene question in itself. The over-sentimentalisation of the atrocious things we do to each can become a way of not telling the story. Whereas Levi and Woolf are truth tellers—maybe all of the writers I’ve chosen are truth tellers, reality tellers.
You mentioned reading this book in the 1980s. That was when everybody thought that books were the free play of signifiers, that there was nothing outside the text and the author was dead. Every book you’ve chosen seems to be a kind of testament against that divorcing of literature from real lives. In a way, the intimate relationship of life and literature is what this interview is about.
Yes, more and more I think that’s the case. I did my Master’s degree in Critical Theory. But I came to literature through studying it with philosophy. I wanted to understand what it was like to be a person with other people. And I think that’s what most students of literature come to literature to do. If people spend the time trying to make the world real to one another—and writing is hard work—the least you can do is respond to that.
Your third choice is Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, an interesting one. I hadn’t thought of this particularly as literature. But you could read it as literature in the wider sense. It’s certainly true that Arendt has been enjoying a huge revival in the last five or six years— especially in the last four years, in relation to what’s been happening in America under Trump.
I’m trying to write a book on Arendt at the moment—as a literary scholar. That’s how I came to her. I think her stature as a great writer is really underplayed.
She was a poet, as well…
Yes. It’s interesting that she wrote poetry, but to really love it you have to have a certain love of the German romantic tradition and, maybe, to be slightly more indulgent towards Heidegger than I can ever bring myself to be.
What I like about her prose are exactly the same things I like about Levi. And she’s doing it in her third language quite often. She writes in German and French, as well as English. The Origins of Totalitarianism is the first great book to try and understand totalitarianism. It’s a book of political theory, as well as a work of history and of philosophy. But it’s also a testimony. She started writing the book when she was a stateless person, a refugee in Vichy France. She was taken to a detention camp, from which she escaped. She started work on the first section of that book, which is a section on anti-Semitism, in Montauban, which was a city of refuge in the South of France. She sat there in the library, re-reading Proust, and reading Clausewitz’s On War.
She eventually made it to America, she started to write the middle section of the book, on imperialism, which tells you how colonial practices of barbarism and administration boomeranged back to Europe, creating a seedbed for Nazi totalitarianism and fascism. And then the final section, on totalitarianism, she wrote as a stateless person waiting for her papers to come through in America.
So, in some ways, it’s a book that’s trying to understand what is happening by someone who is actually experiencing it. On one level, I think of it as a relentless archiving of that moment—its footnotes are heavy, almost manic. She’s archiving her own formation, as well.
I do think it’s an absolutely extraordinary book. She’s trying to find a new form and a new language for a new thing that she lived through, in her third language.
She’s sometimes criticized for being too passionate in the book, which is not something Arendt is often criticized for. But she said that she had to write it that way and that if you were to write an historical book on what happened to the poor during the Industrial Revolution in England, which was absolutely atrocious, one of the major atrocities in the history of capitalism, equally you could not write it without being angry. Your moral response is in the writing. She says that the style is a matter of moral response.
Then, in the middle of the book, she also has a critique of natural human rights. She said, and what her own experience showed, was that once you are made stateless and pushed out of a country, once all you have is human rights, that is when you are most vulnerable. Then she says, in this biting critique of the natural rights tradition, “the world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human”. She took that paradox very, very seriously. It’s why she was quite skeptical about the 1948 new human rights regime.
Arendt said that you couldn’t stitch that paradox back up. But what she said instead is that, if you can’t have natural rights, you can still have the right to have rights. This is so crucial; you have to have political communities where it’s possible to construct rights for one another. We are the ones who give each other rights, rights are human constructions made in a political society of free speech.
And she says what you need is a society where you can be heard and listened to and appear as a person. Then we can start talking about rights, because it’s at that moment that we construct human rights—as part of a political community. And so for her the foundational rights—and she’s also utterly 18th century in this—are the right to assembly, the right to be heard and to speak.
This might be a naive question, but in Nazi Germany, there was respect for German people, as conceived by the Nazis. But there was a community of thinkers who treated each other with a great deal of respect. It’s just that a lot of people were on the outside of that community and weren’t considered fully human, as a result. I can see how universal human rights would escape that and natural rights, presumably, would escape that. But when you emphasize the community, there are always people who aren’t part of your community and how you treat those people is the key issue. Just because it’s community, doesn’t guarantee people will be nice to each other.
That’s precisely why Arendt will always ask how, if we’re going to have something like a state, if we’re going have something that deals with boundaries and recognition and community, how can we do that without reproducing forms of nationalism and racism. Tribal nationalism wrecks the nation state because at some point it cuts through things like law, cuts through the offices of state, to produce, for example, a Nazi Germany. Nationalism of that kind destroys the tradition of the nation state. So, as soon as racism inserts itself, then the whole nation-state project comes apart. What she was always looking for was forms of republic or federation—she thought that the European Union would be quite a good idea—in order for people to be held in states of difference and debate.
But you’re right. And the real lesson around that, for Arendt, was what happens to political organizations once nationalism, or racism, trump the apparatus and political functioning of the state.
This segues into your next choice, because it was written by somebody who was definitely treated as an outsider, Behrouz Boochani—No Friend But the Mountains. I have to say that I hadn’t read this book. But, in preparation for this interview, I went and bought the book because it sounded so fascinating from the descriptions online.
Books that are classics of their time often don’t get recognized as classics of their time at the time. It took Primo Levi up to 1948 to find a small Italian publisher for his work. Even then, it was only when the publisher Einaudi republished it that it took off and was translated into many languages.
Boochani is an Iranian-Kurdish political theorist and writer who was imprisoned within the Australian migration and refugee regime in Manus Island up until the end of 2019. This book was first published in Australia in 2018 and was published in the US and the UK in 2019. I think it is remarkable.
People either call it a refugee testimony, which it most certainly is not, or a novel, though it’s not made up. There’s a real question about what kind of genre this book is. And the short answer to that is that Boochani and his collaborators—and there’s something really interesting about the collaborative nature of this book—were inventing new genres to describe new forms of organized horror.
The book was written via WhatsApp messages coming out of the Manus Island prison system and then translated by his collaborators and his main translator, who’s an incredibly interesting writer and thinker called Omid Tofighian, who is based in Sydney.
Part of the book is very, very literary. There are references to various literary traditions, including Persian and Iranian traditions. And in part it’s a quest. There’s also a political theory that Boochani is trying to write from within the migration system, from within the prison of Manus Island. It’s an absolutely extraordinary piece of writing.
It makes perfect sense with my other choices. The book talks to Levi and Arendt in terms of asking where we are now on detention and imprisonment and deliberate human degradation. Boochani says, ‘Well, let me tell you how it’s going from within this latest chapter of all that.’
On one level, Boochani is again describing a system where there is no why. What the prison system, in his analysis and Tofighian’s analysis, is doing is trying to force people to agree to go back to where they came from. It’s like the prisoner’s dilemma, but really much worse. They have to make that decision for themselves because it is now an international crime to send someone back to where they have come from. So, you have to get them to want to go, which is similar, but not identical, to the way in which totalitarian concentration camp systems aim to get prisoners to concede their own dehumanization, because then they became the very thing that the ideology wanted them to be.
The whole Manus Island system is based on a deliberate strategic degradation that gets to the point where you will say, ‘OK, I’ll go back to Iran, even though I’ll probably be put in prison or killed’. Nothing makes sense in this system. There being no ‘why’ is the governing principle. The way Boochani describes the system has other strong echoes of Levi, like the precise description of queues for the doctor, which turn out to be for one painkiller, which is all the doctor ever gives you. There are economies of things like paracetamol and cigarettes that are set up just to keep these economies of pointless waiting going.
“The novel helps make other people real to us”
One of the really interesting things about the book is the relationship between the Australian system, the Manus Islanders who are themselves being paid by the Australians in a kind of colonial-settler legacy to do this work, and the refugees and migrants who are imprisoned by the system. He shares that, but he also shares with Arendt and with Levi a strong desire to affirm a different type of life to the one that he’s forced to live. That’s where the sheer poetry of the book comes from.
Boochani’s writing about nature, his writing about his relationship with other people on the island, his writing about the interrelationships between different people in the camp, are extraordinary affirmations of that question, again, ‘is this a man?’, is this the world? is this nature? You get that re-creation of the very thing that’s been denied at the heart of this system, as well as the analysis of the system. So, for me, that’s why it’s one of the great human rights texts of our generation.
Interestingly, the human rights lawyer Itamar Mann, who works for an organization called Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), sent a copy of If This Is a Man to the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. GLAN have been urging that Australia be held to account for its migrant refugee system.
I loved Mann for doing that, because it suggests to me that, while of course we can all make overclaims for literature and human rights, maybe we can also start using writing in human rights cases not to play the empathy game, or talk in abstract terms about humanity; but to say that some new system of oppression is happening now, and that we need to pay attention. Perhaps many won’t recognize contemporary migrant regimes as atrocities because there’s some ideology that says that’s what you have to do—to treat refugees as if they’re criminals. And we don’t want them in our country, etc. But what books like Boochani’s do is reveal a situation as a moral atrocity – as a crime. In other words, our writers can give us new imaginative terms by which we can comprehend what it is we’re doing. This, maybe, is a very human kind of evidence. I hope I’ve persuaded you to read it! It also includes incredible poetry. The description of the shipwreck from Indonesia when they get picked up, just outside Australia, reminds me of Conrad in its evocation of humanity in the face of nature and risk—what happens when your whole life is about to disappear in front of you. It’s an absolutely extraordinary piece of writing.
Most human rights literature is about individuals, when it comes down to it, about what happens to an individual. So, it does make sense that all the books you’ve chosen have either an explicit or implicit first-person view of the world. Hannah Arendt’s, the way you described it, is really a kind of autobiographical work, as much as a third person view on what’s happening. That seems entirely appropriate. But what about the danger of generalising from a single case? That’s the counterargument – you have this eloquent writer who’s got a particular take on what happened to him or her and it’s not representative of the whole. But it gets taken as that.
One of the reasons I think Boochani is very important is the way the book is written and talked about and has been talked about. It’s his viewpoint, but the book is also profoundly collaborative—a text that was written transnationally and between different constituents. I think Boochani is very, very aware of the dangers of universalising experience, and that’s why that collaborative and dialogic aspect is important. There’s a kind of conscious ethics and politics in the way he talks in the book and in his subsequent work and his filmmaking.
But I’ve also heard people ask whether he can speak for all people on Manus Island. Well, no, of course not. But he’s eloquent. And now he is free. And he’s doing good work. Urgent advocacy is not like a dinner party conversation, where you take polite turns. If someone’s got the patience and the stubbornness to sit down and observe, to write, you really need to take that seriously. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re universalising. And, of course, the counter to not speaking for others is silence.
There’s also this sense that people telling other people what happened to them is a very basic human form of interaction that we recognize, and we’re very good at detecting authenticity and disguise in the way people relate stories to us. It’s like music, it has a very deep resonance if you get the tone right.
Yes. Maybe we need to have an old-fashioned conversation about literary value. I think most texts on my list will stand the test of time precisely because they’re not in the genre of ‘endless testimony to endless suffering to endless injury’. That may be a terrible thing to say, but you can get into this kind of competitive injury-telling genre of misery memoir, which may not, in the end, be a real challenge to power.
There are some works of writing, just as there must be some works of music, that have changed the way a lot of people look at the world, because they do it really well, or because they’ve managed to look at the starry heavens above and find the moral law within. They’ve done something with that. There are those moments where you just know that something important in terms of morality and justice has been revealed in the world. You maybe only really know when the moment has passed.
I would have said that there’s a whole issue within the arts generally about how you use your personal experience. Some people manage to transform it into something that lasts, while others make it just seem like ‘this happened to me’ without any broader significance implied by it. The second kind of writer can be really tedious. But there are these artists who take their particular suffering and it somehow rings true in a way, even when we haven’t experienced anything like what they’ve experienced: it seems to get to us. It’s almost a magical thing. I don’t know how they do it.
Yes, there’s a kind of worldliness in this kind of writing. I’m thinking here too of Denise Riley’s writings on her son’s death, or Max Porter’s on grief, which is something we certainly should be talking much more about right now. What makes Riley’s poems and her long essay on time and loss so valuable, is that she knows the grief is not just her own: she says over and over again, millions of parents lose their children, we always say, ‘no one should lose a child’. But the reality – and this is a human-rights or a least an equality and poverty issue, is that parents do all the time and all over the world. She’s trying to make sense of something which is so unimaginably painful. But she’s not just trying to find the words for herself, she’s actually trying to reach out to precisely what is shared about that experience. The context in which those stories are told is important. You can have a story of individualism, a story of triumph. But the stories which succeed best are those told by people not just speaking for themselves, those writers who attend to the other voices in their head. I find it hard to think of good human rights writing that doesn’t do that. You could perfectly well write brilliant books about human rights thinking yourself the happiest and most privileged person in the world.
Let’s move to your last book, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel This Mournable Body.
This is part of a trilogy that Dangarembga began 30 years ago. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year. I really wanted it to win. It’s the third book of the trilogy which tells the story of a character called Tambudzai, whom we meet as a really bright girl living in colonial Rhodesia in the first book, Nervous Conditions. At one point, Tambu thinks she could be anything she wanted to be. But that’s an impossible dream in pre-independence Zimbabwe. And then you have This Mournable Body, which is set after independence, where everything is just getting corrupted and relentlessly going wrong. Tambudzai emerges as this sort of Beckettian/Kafka-like character, but she’s a black woman in Zimbabwe and has her own version of the modernist story. She is not a likeable character. She does not play the human rights game, particularly in the way that some post-colonial fiction is often read by the West. She’s not having it. Things don’t get much better. What the book does so brilliantly is make the reader one with her. You get her perspective; you get her point of view, and you want her to do well; but at the same time, the book puts you in the position of being in a situation where nothing is getting better. Nothing is changing. Everything is grim. So, there’s a sense in which, like Beckett or Kafka, Dangarembga can throw reality at you without supporting structures, but allows you to take that as the reality.
This Mournable Body also addresses the question of whose life is grievable in an unequal world. Judith Butler has written beautifully about this in Precarious Life, that some lives are not deemed worthy of mourning. We’ve seen this with the refugee crisis, we see this in contemporary America, we see this in how many disposable lives there are today. And in answering that back by saying, look ‘this is a mournable body’ Dangarembga is refusing to play the sentimental pathos game. She’s not going to play; she’s not going to be extra virtuous. She’s not going to give you a redemptive story. It’s this body in this world, in this unrelenting reality that is mournable.
Again, I think it’s just extraordinary. It’s compelling to read and difficult to read. The other thing she does, which is so smart, and very few writers can get away with, is that she uses the second person throughout. She writes at the beginning: “There is a fish in the mirror, the mirror is above the washbasin in the corner of your hostel room, the tap cold only in the room is dripping still in bed, you roll onto your back and stare at the ceiling, realizing your arm has gone to sleep, you move it back.” So, the whole book is written both from inside the key character’s head, but directed towards us as the reader.
Is it written for an African audience, do you think? Or is it targeted at a European audience?
I think it’s been written for Zimbabwe. I don’t want to speak for Dangarembga at all, but I think it’s also been written for black women. There are a whole group of writers who are telling truth not just to power, but to reality at the moment, who are amazing realists. I’d put Claudia Rankine in this in this category as well. They are women who are exploring anger—Black women exploring anger—and articulating anger in a way that bears comparison to Levi and Arendt. There’s a precision and careful description involved in doing that. That’s why some of the most exciting writing is coming from places like Zimbabwe, but also from the States.
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Dangarembga is a filmmaker, as well. That’s why she’s got such a good eye. She’s currently facing charges in Zimbabwe for protesting against the government’s corruption, but particularly its corrupt handling of the COVID epidemic, and its use of crony contracts, which turned out to fictions. She had COVID. The government said that it had built this great private hospital. She was really ill, and she took herself there – it wasn’t there. So, she started protesting, and was arrested and charged. This was all after she’d written This Mournable Body, but the whole thing that the book proposes about what counts as a life, and what it means to stubbornly insist on that life, was also relevant to her protest over COVID. What all the writers I’ve chosen here are good at is saying, ‘You have to face up to reality. And reality is completely outrageous.’
We keep on hearing, again and again, that loads of people are reading fiction in the pandemic, because they want to escape reality. I would say, ‘No! The best writers are getting us to understand a reality that we should in no way reconcile ourselves to. That’s the point. We have to be able to comprehend and understand it.’ I think Dangarembga has always done that brilliantly. But this novel I think is the best of the trilogy. It’s astonishing.
The reason why we’re having this interview about this topic is in part because you’ve just written a book on literature and human rights. I just wondered if there’s anything in the process of writing that you discovered that you didn’t already know, that you came to see more clearly about that relationship?
The book came from two places. It came first from the classroom, as books do. I taught a course, with the 18th century literature scholar Ross Wilson, at the University of East Anglia ten years ago, on literature and human rights. Students were attracted to that course because they wanted to talk about the issues we’ve been talking about today. But they were also restless because it was just at the moment when higher fees had really kicked in, the neoliberal university was packaging everything in new ways, graduate jobs were going, and austerity was cooking. So they were very jibby students, which was very instructive for me. And, at that very same moment, we also had the new rise of nationalism and a new set of human rights challenges. It became very fashionable to criticize human rights, both from the left, but also and mainly on the right—which is still enjoying playing phony culture war games around human rights (as though everyone gets up in the morning worrying about the Human Rights Act, which they most certainly don’t).
So, I had the weird experience of teaching something that seemed to be vanishing at the same time. That was the subject of the first couple of chapters of that book. And because the thing that I was teaching—human rights—was disappearing, I did more journalism and local public engagement work in that period, and that’s where the other essays come from—from journalism or, more precisely, from publicly trying to find my way back into talking about the things that I thought were, and that I still think are, being threatened.
In the end, I do think that if you’re in a culture that degrades the humanities, that degrades reading, that degrades literature, if you’re a defender of human rights, you need to wake up. If we’re not going to fund the humanities, if we don’t think reading is important, if we don’t think having these conversations is so important—and it seems increasingly that we don’t—we’re in trouble. Those are things I will go out to defend, and I don’t care if I sound naive. I’ll get up that mountain and I’ll die on it.
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