shining the spotlight on short story collections
Amnesty International’s anthology, Freedom: Short Stories Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, contains 36 stories by some of the best short story writers alive today, each inspired by an article from the Declaration. Find out how you can win yourself a copy on the Competitions page.
We are delighted to have Amnesty International’s UK Publisher, Nicky Parker, who tells us why she chose fiction for this and two other books published by Amnesty for younger readers.
TSR: What made you decide that fiction was the way to commemorate the anniversary of the declaration of Human Rights and why?
Nicky Parker: We need to go back in time a few years! At one time at Amnesty UK we published only our classic human rights reports and also human rights education books for schools – all of it very useful. But personally I’ve always tended to find fiction more inspiring than non-fiction and was convinced that it could have a role to play in Amnesty’s publishing. There’s something about fiction that – when it really works, when it captures the reader’s imagination absolutely and hooks you in – enables you to get under the skin of someone else, no matter who they are, what their gender, race, age, culture or even the time in which they live. And empathizing with imaginary characters, bizarre though it seems, means that we start to understand them as whole human beings. We lose some of the prejudices that all of us carry with us on one level or another. Literature has a phenomenal power to undercut bigotry and encourage mutual understanding.
Initially we tested the relatively ‘soft’ area of children’s books, partly because when I started in Amnesty’s publishing team I had three young children and was reading to them every day. Also, I love children’s fiction. My oldest daughter was about 9 or 10 years old and very much into Harry Potter. Then, on a whim, I read her To Kill a Mockingbird, even though I knew that she was a little young for it. I did all the voices, of course, and reading aloud is always such a comfortable experience. I still remember getting to the end of the book and asking her what she thought of it. Her response was a deeply appreciative sigh: “Whew! It’s even better than Harry Potter!”.
So, with that partly at the back of my mind, we at Amnesty started to work with children’s publishers, trying to identify young children’s fiction that in some way encouraged an awareness of human rights. Initially we simply recommended and sold these books on to our supporters, but their eagerness to buy was so clear – and sales were so good – that it encouraged us to explore working at a co-publishing level with those publishers. And so the first of our UDHR trilogy was born when the children’s publisher Frances Lincoln suggested that we co-publish a picture book for young children, each right to be interpreted by a different illustrator. I thought it could work well, but never anticipated such a phenomenal response. It seems that the concept of explaining human rights to children in such a simple and beautiful way struck some kind of chord around the world – in the first six months the book We Are All Born Free sold nearly 200,000 copies in 32 languages.
And that reflects another great thing about fiction: readers don’t usually feel threatened by it in the way that they may do by non-fiction – especially non-fiction on human rights themes, which many people regard as ‘political’ and will not touch. Yes, human rights are political, of course, but only in the sense that their upholding and violation both touch and are integral to all human society. Human rights don’t take sides. And fiction undercuts this perception of ‘politics’ very subtly and very successfully.
From We Are All Born Free, it was a simple progression to Freedom and also FREE?, for both of which we asked authors to write short stories inspired by different human rights. We tried to cover all age ranges, so that We Are All Born Free is for ages 6 plus, FREE? is for age 11 to 15 and Freedom is for adults.
TSR: What do you feel that short stories can do for a reader that other forms can’t? (Hard question, I know!) And, more specifically, what can short stories do when talking about the issues that Amnesty deals with?
NP: I have to say that the initial idea of commissioning an anthology of short stories was entirely a pragmatic response to the question of how to write about all 30 rights in the UDHR! But of course there is more to it than that. The best short stories are like jewels: they cut to the quick and do away with all extraneous words and ideas. And they can deal perfectly with the abstract themes of human rights. They can take the abstract legal terminology of the human right, as expressed in the full text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and communicate a human experience that expresses that right or its violation both succinctly and movingly.
Then of course there is the fact that Amnesty is a movement that is founded on stories. The reason that we have supporters all over the world – over two million of them – who are willing to write letters and send emails, is because they are moved to action by the personal stories of hundreds and thousands of inviduals whose human rights are under threat. At Amnesty we are dealing with these true-life stories day in and day out – they form the basis of all of our campaigns – so it makes sense to use the short story form to engage with the ethos of what we are about.
And all over the world people tell stories – we have probably done so since humans evolved. So a collection of stories can resonate anywhere with perfect sense. Short stories can be bleak (the best ones often are) but there is an immense satisfaction in hearing or reading a good story, and I think that’s common everywhere.
An anthology of stories means that the reader can dip in and out. You can’t possibly read the whole thing at once – the power and richness of all the stories would be far too much to absorb. But in returning to the anthology, again and again, you can be struck by how differently each writer has approached the interpretation of one of our fundamental human rights. This helps to build on our understanding of the multi-faceted nature of human rights, the many areas of human life that are too often violated around the world, but also on the great generosity of spirit and foresight that led to the creation of this legal framework.
Personally I was very lucky in my Irish grandmother, who was one of those wonderful people who tell stories all the time and I used to go round to her house just to listen. She claimed they were all true – of course! – and although I noticed that they did tend to change between retellings, I believed them implicitly. They offered a sanctuary from my very strict home and school life. This is something that fiction does so well – it can be a great comfort in that it can lift us imaginatively out of our own stresses, but a great teacher in allowing us figuratively to enter into the lives of others.
TSR: How did you approach writers to be involved in the project? What was their reaction to the commission?
NP: Amnesty is such a well-known organization and so highly respected that it opens doors, which is a great starting point. On top of this, our work is relevant to writers and they know this. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights deals explicitly with the right to freedom of expression, without which writers are scuppered. It is possible to look at practically any country governed by a brutal regime and see writers who have been imprisoned or otherwise censored to prevent them from expressing their views. Often they are the first people to be threatened, because governments are frightened of their power to move people to action through the written word.
So the writers whom we approached recognised their affinity with Amnesty’s work and I think that made them more willing to give of their time and talent. Beyond that, some of them expressed concern about what was quite an abstract commission – to write about a human right – but others positively jumped at the chance. I would assume that commissions on a theme could be extremely difficult, but human rights have the virtue both of being abstract and of applying to all of us, so this made it a little easier to ask for a story without being prescriptive – saying ‘ please can you write about the right not to be tortured’ is possibly a little easier than asking an author to write about torture. The writer can approach it from so many different angles – the bleakness and horror of violation of the right, for example, or the joy of when it’s upheld.
There was some discussion here about giving authors details of actual cases of individuals at risk, both to inspire their stories and to provide them with information about how human rights violations affect individuals. On the whole, though, we were uncomfortable with this. It carries with it the horrible possibility of exploiting someone whose life has already been hugely damaged – to take advantage of that damage, without asking the individual, seemed wrong. In the end, a couple of writers were sent case studies and did use them for their stories. We then had to check with people who had worked with the individuals concerned whether it would be alright to publish these stories or not – or whether it might jeopardise their safety or further humiliate them. It was a difficult experience and I’m glad that in most cases we avoided this situation.
The other aspect of the commission was, of course, whom to approach. It’s true to say that we did ask some authors – superb writers – who are probably bombarded with requests of this nature and who declined. Others proved remarkably willing. Some of them are big names in the west, others less so – but we were really keen to include writing from as many countries as possible. One thing we found is how hard it is to identify good writers if their work hasn’t yet been translated into English (or if it’s not available in the west), and then how difficult to track them down! I spent many months in search of elusive people. One whom I still regret not being able to pin down is the wonderful Indian writer Vishwapriya Iyengar, whose extraordinary story The Library Girl made me spend months trying to trace her to see if she would write one for us.
TSR: There are stories that are “inspired” by the same clause in the declaration but that come at the subject very differently. Was this part of the aim of the book?
NP: This was difficult for us. The original idea was to have one story per human right, but the reality was that a couple of writers offered us stories on rights that had already been picked by other authors. Nadine Gordimer, for example. And it became a very tricky decision whether or not to use stories that were on the face of it covering duplicate subject matter, but of course as soon as you read them they treated their subject so differently. And the other aspect of this is that it was important to us to include writing from all over the world. We wanted the book to be truly international and to reflect different experiences and cultures. I was really glad that Mohammed Naseehu Ali agreed to write for us – but he wanted to write on the theme of slavery, which Marina Lewycka had already taken. It was clear that he already had an idea. Ultimately it seemed more important to incorporate any ‘duplicate’ stories, than to pigeonhole writers into themes that weren’t their first choice. And if you look at those two stories they are worlds apart and reflect two equally realistic aspects of modern slavery. In a way it seemed more honest to us to show these different experiences than to restrict the telling to one interpretation only.
TSR:. There are a number of stories in the book that weren’t commissioned especially for this, how did you find those?
These are the stories by Liana Badr, Hector Aguilar Camin, Alan Garner, Nadine Gordimer, Juan Goytisolo, Patricia Grace, Rohinton Mistry and Joyce Carol Oates. There’s a different rationale behind the choice of each of these. In part, of course, they came about because we had asked each of these authors if they’d be willing to write something for the anthology. They were willing but did not have the time, so offered us these stories, most of which had already been published. To some extent our reasoning for including them was their quality: Nadine Gordimer’s story, for example, is a superb example of the genre that also deals very pertinently with human rights.
But there were other reasons too, partly determined by the authors’ countries of origin. We were extremely keen to have a story from the middle-east, and although Palestinian Liana Badr’s had been published in Arabic, it had not been translated – which we thought was a good reason for including it. Similarly with Hector Aguilar Camin from Mexico, whose work has hardly been translated into English at all, and yet is highly regarded in his native country. The Maori writer Patricia Grace is hardly known in the UK, but her stories are superb and I was extremely keen to include one if at all possible. Alan Garner is a personal hero of mine and although our initial approach had been to ask if he could write around the right to a country (because his novels and stories are extraordinarily rooted in landscape), in fact he offered us his retelling of a Russian folk tale. We could see the validity of including something that was totally different to all the other stories in the book – and, of course, what the folk tale does, very subtly, is remind us of cultural heritage, which is so often crushed or forgotten. Also, folk tales are universal and probably the roots of story-telling.
We have similar reasons for including the stories by Oates, Mistry and Goytisolo – with Oates, she’d written it originally for a university magazine with a tiny circulation; Mistry’s was too relevant and well-written to exclude; and Goytisolo’s is actually extracts from his forthcoming novel, which his translator brilliantly tied together into a convincing story for us.
TSR: One last question: what has the response to the book been so far, as a collection of fiction and as a commemoration of the UDHR?
There has been a terrific response with regards to Amnesty’s whole trilogy of UDHR books – Freedom and the two books for children. People appreciate the fact that through literature we have made these fundamental human rights imaginatively accessible to all ages, from very tiny upwards. Reviews for all three have been very good and sales, again for each of them, have wildly exceeded any of Amnesty’s non-fiction. Freedom has sold over 12,000 copies in the UK since its launch at the end of August, which is presumably a good achievement by any standards for an anthology of short stories. Various national magazines have serialised some of the stories from the collection, perceiving that they are of genuine interest to their readers. And Mainstream’s Foreign Rights department have had great success in selling rights to publish the collection, so that – despite the difficulties inherent in translating this many short stories, with all their linguistic power and idiosyncracies – it will also (to date) be published in Turkey, Poland, the US, Canada, Portugal, Serbia and Montenegro, Italy and Australia.
Thank you so much, Nicky, and we wish the Freedom anthology and the other two books much continued success. read the review of Freedom: Short Stories Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – and you can win yourself a copy. Visit the Competitions page to find out how.