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A plane used in the humanitarian relief effort during the Biafran War, also known as the Nigerian Civil War

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New network to explore interaction between law and literature

Matt Pickles

How can lawyers draw on literature to make their case? Can English professors benefit from a legal perspective? These are among the questions to be tackled by a new network set up by TORCH | The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities.

Dr Tessa Roynon of the Faculty of English Language and Literature and the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford has set up the ‘Fiction and Human Rights’ network, in collaboration with Natasha Simonsen of the Law Faculty.

To mark the launch, a one-day symposium is being held at the St Cross Building in Oxford on Saturday 7 November from 10.30am to 5.30pm.

It is called 'Dignity and the Novel since 1948' and will involve lawyers, literary scholars, philosophers and political theorists discussing the relationship between the modern novel and the concept of 'dignity' in legal theory and practice.

Dr Roynon says: 'Although the two faculties share a building, English and Law have not collaborated in this way before. The network will hold discussions and talks over the course of the next year and we hope that postgraduate students and academics from English and Law will come together to share ideas about fiction and human rights, and perhaps to form promising research partnerships in the future.’

Dr Roynon explains that literature and law have often approached human rights in different ways and believes the two can complement each other.

'I think the relationship between human rights law and world literature is conflicted,' she explains. 'In one sense it is affirming, vindicating and validating for novelists and literature academics to feel that literature makes a real, concrete intervention. For example in writing 'Half of a Yellow Sun', Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie informs otherwise ignorant people about the Biafran war and the Igbo cause. The very fact that PEN exists or that Amnesty has literature programmes endorses the usefulness and validity of literature.

She adds: 'On the other hand, while lawyers may well be sceptical about the ‘usefulness’ of literature,  literature academics also take a sceptical view of the apparent specificity and confidence of human rights legal discourse. A work of fiction, such as Ralph Ellison's 1955 novel ‘Invisible Man’, might implicitly take apart, parody or show up the loopholes in the confident rhetoric of a document such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

'In the Declaration's Preamble, it says with great certainty, "Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world ..."

'This is not dissimilar to the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 in which wishful thinking is expressed as indisputable truth. As literary scholar Joseph Slaughter has asked, 'Is dignity 'inherent'?' Are rights 'inalienable'? Literature has space and time to explore the pitfalls of such a belief system and to question the power of language. A common process in a typical 'world novel' is that it will take apart one way of thinking and offer an alternative world view in its place.'

The symposium’s aim is 'to bring together an eclectic range of thinkers to analyse the ways in which the genre of fiction might or might not contribute to debates about the nature and role of dignity in human rights'.

Visiting keynote speakers include Stephen Clingman from the University of Massachussetts, Amherst, Zoe Norridge from Kings College London; and Philippe Sands QC.

Oxford-based participants include Ankhi Mukherjee, Michelle Kelly, Marina MacKay and Kate McLoughlin from the Faculty of English Language and Literature; Cathryn Costello, Jonathan Herring and Charles Foster from the Law Faculty; Dana Mills from the Department of Politics and International Relations, and Kei Hiruta and Carissa Véliz from the Faculty of Philosophy.

There will also be contributions from Helena Kennedy QC, Principal of Mansfield College, and Mark Damazer, Master of St Peter's College.

The event is open to the general public as well as members of the university. Advanced booking is essential. Visit the TORCH website for registration and the full programme.