Challenging Voices : Tracing the Problematic Role of Testimony in Political Change

Human Rights and Narrated Lives: The Politics of Recognition, by Kay Schaffer and Sidonie Smith is a challenging and ambitious book. It should be read because it raises so many important and urgent questions. But it must be read with caution because its breadth has at times been achieved at the cost of misleading simplification. Kay Schaffer and Sidonie Smith have set themselves a demanding task: they are taking a global, comparative approach to argue that the rapidly escalating use of personal narrative and life stories reflects changed strategies for human rights advocacy, and has in turn changed the understanding held in many arenas about what ' human rights ' might be . Their book is at its most successful when it forces us to take notice of the insights from many disciplines, including literary studies, politics, history and economics, to understand the creation and circulation of life stories. Schaffer and Smith make us see that our first impulse of 'recognition' when we hear or read the experiences of another human being is no simple 'recognition' at all. Rather, it draws us into a complex process, in which life stories are elicited, shaped, published and circulated in a multivocal conversation. This goes far beyond the link of which we are most aware as we 'recognise' the life story, because along the way there is also the advocacy organisation, the publishing venue (whether book, pamphlet, website, radio or film), the courts, the market and the many distant collective audiences it might reach, and whose discussion of it contributes to our ongoing reception.

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Published 1 October 2006 in Volume 22 No. 4. Subjects: Civil & human rights, Self expression.

Cite as: Goodall, Heather. ‘Challenging Voices : Tracing the Problematic Role of Testimony in Political Change.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 22, no. 4, 2006, doi: 10.20314/als.95b722eae6.