Human Rights, Literature and Theory


Greg Mullins, PhD

The Evergreen State College

Winter 2008

In 1993 a ship carrying Chinese immigrants ran aground off the New York coast. The survivors from the Golden Venture were held in prison awaiting immigration appeals—a wait that lasted years. While in prison, the detainees made art from available materials (paper, thread). One of those art works appears here, in an exhibit at the Museum of Chinese in the Americas in New York City.

During winter 2008 we will study human rights in relation to artistic representation—mainly in relation to literature, but with some attention to visual representation as well. We'll consider the extent to which human rights are embedded in cultures, and how cultural expression engages human rights. Using examples such as the art produced by the Golden Venture survivors, we'll investigate whether and how the arts are shaped by human rights concerns, and how human rights endeavors are shaped by the arts.

To frame our work, consider these words by Silviano Santiago, written in relation to Brazilian literature but of consequence to literature from other national contexts:

"The Brazilian writer has a vision of Art as a form of knowledge, one that is just as legitimate as those forms of knowledge that the exact and the human and social sciences believe that they alone possess. He also has a vision of Politics as the practice of an art that seeks the people's good and just government, dissociating it from the demagoguery of rulers, the populism of charismatic leaders, and the military force of those who seek order by any means necessary." (from "An Amphibious Literature," reprinted in Imagining Brazil, ed. Jessé Souza and Valter Sinder, Lanham: Lexington Books, 2005: 297.)




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