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U of M conference to address human rights writing

September 29, 2011

What: Conference on narrative writing and human rights
Who: Emin Milli, James Dawes, Annette Kobak, and Vesna Goldsworthy
When: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Oct. 10

The University of Minnesota College of Liberal Arts’ Human Rights and Creative Writing programs will sponsor a daylong conference on writing about human rights issues on Monday, Oct. 10. The conference, My Letter to the World: Narrating Human Rights, is intended to bring writers, literary scholars and human rights activists together to discuss how human rights issues are presented in first person narrative writing, including memoir, fiction and nonfiction.

The conference will feature many luminaries known for their narrative writing on a host of human rights issues; they include Azeri political blogger Emin Milli, memoirists Annette Kobak and Vesna Goldsworthy, novelist Nuruddin Farah and author James Dawes.

The conference will take place at Coffman Memorial Union Theater, 300 Washington Avenue S.E., Minneapolis, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The capstone event will be the Department of English's Esther Freier Endowed Lecture in Literature, featuring author and foreign correspondent Philip Gourevitch, author of "We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families", whose talk is titled Salvage: Writing About Aftermaths from Rwanda to Abu Ghraib and Beyond. He speaks at 7:30 p.m.

Questions addressed by the conference will include: What are the ethics of writing about genocide? What is the writer's responsibility in witnessing? And how do we talk about such writing in the classroom?

The support of narrative writing about human rights is an important initiative of and partnership between the Creative Writing and Human Rights programs. Their joint Scribes for Human Rights fellowship supports a creative writing graduate student who does intensive research and writing on a human rights issue during the fellowship.

“Narrative writing can illuminate human rights issues in a way that news reports simply can’t,” says Regents Professor of English and noted memoirist Patricia Hampl. “Most atrocities are not comprehensible until they are described by memoir or nonfiction prose—think Anne Frank or Adam Hochschild.”

"My Letter to the World: Narrating Human Rights" is free and open to the public.

More information is at

Organizers Barbara Frey and Patricia Hampl, and speakers Annette Kobak, Jim Dawes and Meg Jensen, are available for interviews.

Select conference speakers:

James Dawes teaches U.S. and comparative literature at Macalester College. He is the author of "That the World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity and The Language of War."

Nuruddin Farah is a Somali novelist and currently holds the Winton Chair in the Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota. His award-winning fiction focuses on human rights issues in Somalia.

Barbara Frey is director of the U of M’s Human Rights Program. She is well known as an international human rights teacher, advocate and scholar.

Vesna Goldsworthy is the writer of "Chernobyl Strawberries," a memoir of her native Yugoslavia. She is a professor of english literature and creative writing at Kingston University in London.

Patricia Hampl is Regents Professor in the Department of English at the University of Minnesota and an award-winning memoirist. She has helped define what Booklist has called “the memoir of discovery.”

Meg Jensen is Deputy Head of School of Humanities at Kingston University, London. She publishes creative writing and literary criticism, with a focus on writers’ lives. She has recently completed her second novel.

Annette Kobak is a writer and broadcaster. Her latest book, "Joe’s War: My Father Decoded," was Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4.

Elaine Tyler May is a Regents Professor in the history and American studies departments at the University of Minnesota. With Patricia Hampl, she has just co-edited "Tell Me True: Memoir, History and Writing a Life."

Emin Milli is a well-known Azerbaijani blogger who was imprisoned in 2009 for his political activities. He is co-founder of the AN Network.

Kathryn Sikkink is a Regents Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Minnesota. Her most recent book is "The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions Are Changing World Politics."

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