Poetic Redress: A night of "middle class c**ts acting out" at the Baby Grand, Belfast
The title refers to an anecdote from Glenn Patterson regarding an email he received from a friend about her feelings on human rights and those who would gather to discuss them at Thursday night's "Poetic redress" in the Opera House's Baby Grand theatre! Her sentiments were harsh and missed the mark but it's a thought that remained with me and something which needs to be borne in mind when discussing these 30 commandments of human rights. As Mary Robinson spoke of at her lecture on the UDHR human rights are our responsibility as a community and so it is vital to recognise our duties on the micro scale of close-to-home and not just the macro scale of the international world. It is often easier to deal with torture in Guantanamo Bay than the rights of the traveller community throughout the island of Ireland. Thursday night's "Poetic redress" featured four of the writers who took part in the larger project of Irish writers giving their literary reaction to the UDHR. Each story brought an article away from the page and in to reality through storytelling. As Finola Meredith (who acted as chair) put it in her introduction to the stories the writers allow us a safe entry in to a world where we can visit the "spectre" of a world without rights. As Carlo Gébler noted the beauty of the story is that it can "insinuate itself into the conscience" in a way that the declaration's articles cannot when read without an accompanying narrative to colour them and expand their meaning.
For me what each of these writers did was lay bare the ignoring of rights, the way in which we can easily bypass our duty to these rights through our own discomfort or ignorance or thoughtlessness.
Glenn Patterson opened the storytelling with his tale based on Article 29 (Everyone has duties to the community: the state may only limit someone's rights to ensure respect for the rights and freedoms of others) called "Free and Full". Told in the third person it tracks Patterson's own discomfort (mind you he never said if it was a fictional narrative or not!) at how to deal with this question of community coming from a place so obsessed with its ideas of community. He swung from the anxieties of Belfast into a poetic, busy description of India and its escape from having to write this story. In the midst of the beauty there the question of human rights and duties hangs everywhere and flits in and out of the story through darkened electricity-less shanty towns, begging amputees and centrally a begging little girl wearing a shower cap in the torrential rain. The main emotions that comes from Patterson's story are ones of impotence and guilt in the face of so many social problems that seem to big to solve. It was a poignant reminder of the extent of our duties to the world community and a reminder of how inadequate our reactions can be.
Kevin Barry next stepped up to render his story inspired by Article 28 (Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which all these rights and freedoms are protected) "An Anthem for a King". Barry's telling of this story set on a fantasty archipelago part deep south USA, part rural Ireland, part anywhere-in-the-world was hypnotic. Barry's Seanachaí style kept the comedic mood of the tale of a family famous for composing national anthems given the task of creating a new anthem for the new king. While the king is "totally down with fluffy" for the song, he's wary of being too insulting to "the crowd over" but introduces new hatreds and bigotries to balance this out. The precociously talented and unfortunately red-haired Frankie with his left-handed scribed literary works represents almost everything the new king wants to see rid of: 'gingers', citógs (Irish for Left-handed) and lisps. Having had their own family threatened by the new king's decrees the family sets about facing these bigotries and gathering mass support "it had the feel of a muscle flexing". All the while however these champions of individuals' rights maintain their own accepted bigotry toward the gypsies who are kept at the swamp. As Barry commented in the panel discussion afterwards, we tend to care about the rights that effect us. He wanted to show the complexity of the reifying of the declarations rights when the articles themselves appear so clear and simple. Again it recalls the uncomfortable sentiment expressed at the beginning of this piece that in our rush to protect certain rights or the rights of certain others we forget those whose rights we are trampling on or simply ignoring.
The third writer to tell their tale was Éilís Ní Dhuibhne who dealt with Article 16 (Men and Women of full age have the right to marry and found a family, with free and full consent, and equal rights during or after marriage) in her story "Rite of Passage". Based on an actual true story related to her, Éilís's story followed the history of a couple, the woman Irish the man from Ghana, whose marriage is not considered valid in Ireland. Because of this their lives are lived apart and their future together left to the hope that beauracracy will fall on their side. This story reflects the cruelty of the state's power to decide that a marriage is invalid to interfere in the private lives of people; unless, as the story's narrator reminds us, you have "pots of money" to spend on fighting the law's dictums.
Finally Carlo Gébler told his story "Christopher Jenkins" based on article 26 (Everyone has the right to education, including free and compulsory primary education) and perhaps the most thought-provoking of all four stories. Gébler's story of the "root"* Christopher Jenkins, a man imprisoned for downloading child pornography, who excels in a prison creative writing class but ultimately is driven out by other prisoners. The uncomfortable reality of the story is that it is likely that many, if not most, people (not just the prison bully who threatens him in to leaving the class) would have issue protecting a convicted child sex-offender's right to take a creative writing class. As Glenn Patternson commented in the panel discussion afterwards, this is a story which "takes you somewhere uncomfortable" and really makes you ask if you really agree with the UDHR. Had the character in the story not been convicted of 'only' downloading indecent images of children but had been a child rapist I think the story would have challenged the listener even more. And while, as Patterson says, these are dark places to go to in questioning the strength of our commital to the declaration's articles, these are the important questions that need to be asked to ensure its application.
For me the night's stories and discussion welded together two main considerations: our duty to recognise and protect everyone's rights and not only those that effect us, or those that we are comfortable protecting. As well as this there was the point that there can be those who shout for protection of their rights while continuing to disregard and abuse the same rights of others. Glenn Patterson's comment that we are often "clamorous on our own rights silent on our responsibilities to other people" pulled these two issues together and ended a night of excellent storytelling and engaging discussion which I wish could have gone on longer!
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.