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Literatures and Human Rights in Asia and Asian Diaspora

This interdisciplinary York Seminar for Advanced Research will examine human rights struggles and issues (broadly and critically understood) in Asia and the Asian Diaspora through literature and other forms of creative expression (egs. novels, short stories, poetry, plays, films, visual arts, and performance).  The broad aim is to look at literatures as vehicles for contextualizing human rights norms and issues in Asia and Asian Diaspora. Conversely, just as we want to explore how literature can deepen our understanding of human rights issues, we want to consider how a focus on human rights can be used to expand our appreciation of certain literary works.
The project initially focuses on regular seminar meetings that bring together scholars from the southern Ontario region and guest speakers from further afield, to discuss readings and creative works of relevance as well as draft papers and presentations from scholars, writers, and artists. The longer-term aim is to publish a collection of scholarly articles and an anthology of literature and other forms of creative expression that will include works not previously published in English. Additionally, the project will have a community outreach and public education dimension.

Supported by: York Advanced Research Seminar Grant, Office of the Vice President Research and Innovation; York Centre for Asian Research programme fund
Principal Investigators: Susan Henders (Director; Political Science, York University); Theodore Goossen (Faculty Associate; Humanities, York University).

Session 1 (19 May 2010): Human Rights Discourses in Asia and Asian Diaspora: Histories and Counter-discourses | Presenters: Susan Henders (Political Science), Ted Goossen (Humanities)

Session 2 (16 June 2010): Human Rights and Literature: Approaches and Issues | Presenter:  Ted Goossen (Faculty Associate; Humanities)

Session 3 (27 September 2010): Screening of the film “1999” (Lenin M. Sivam, 2010)
This independent film by Canadian filmmaker Lenin M. Sivam looks at the effects of gang violence amongst Toronto’s Tamil youth in the 1990s and its connections to the Sri Lankan civil war. A drama based on real-life events, the film was selected for the 10th ReelWorld Film Festival in Toronto in 2010.
Session 4 (4 October 2010) Dangers of Diaspora: Ethics and Aesthetics in Diasporic Sri Lankan Human Rights Texts | Presenter: Nedra Rodrigo (Doctoral Candidate; Humanities, York University) 
The Human Rights text rarely serves a purely aesthetic function, but, because it addresses an injustice, serves an ethical function as well. Any critique of the creative Human Rights text must follow by examining both the aesthetic choices of the author (form) as well as the social function of the text (content and context). My presentation examined the treatment of the Sri Lankan civil conflict by three diasporic artists: poet/novelist Michael Ondaatje, filmmaker Lenin Sivam and musician M.I.A. (Mathangi Arulpragasam). I used both textual and extra textual information to determine the audiences interpolated by their works, and to study the effectiveness of employing chronoschisms and postmodern narrative styles in the articulation of human rights concerns.

Session 5 (25 October 2010): Duong Thu Huong's Novel without a Name | Presenter: Van Nguyen-Marshall (History, Trent University)
Examining Duong Thu Huong’s anti-war novel, entitled Novel without a Name, this seminar explored human rights issues in wartime and raised questions regarding the limit of a state’s demands on its people for sacrifice in a period of total war. This seminar also examined the dilemmas of dissident authors such as Duong Thu Huong, who questions state orthodoxy, as well as the relationship between fiction and politics.  

Session 6 (3 December 2010): Noor, by Sorraya Khan | Presenter: Sorraya Khan
A novelist of Pakistani and Dutch heritage, Ms Khan spoke about Noor as an exploration of memory, silence, and atrocity in the aftermath of the Bangladesh-Pakistan war of 1971. She provided insight into the enduring intergenerational effects of human rights tragedies.

Session 7 (15 December 2010): Representing Minorities and their Rights in Law and Literature: The Macanese of Macau | Presenter: Susan Henders (Political Science)
The seminar examined how minorities, their identities, belonging and rights, are represented in major international and Chinese legal texts as well as literary texts, given the tendency to emphasize the internal purity and coherence of such individuals and communities despite their lived experiences of interculturality. The session focused on the Macanese community, a Eurasian minority in Macau, now a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. The focus was on the extent to which law and literature allow for understandings of Macanese identity, belonging and rights that recognize their intercultural history and experiences. The presentation examined Deolinda da Conceiçao’s short story "An Act of Charity" (1956), the novel of Henrique Senna Fernandes, entitled The Bewitching Braid (1992), and Liao Zixin’s short story, "The Illusory World of Aoge" (1999).

Session 8 (4 February 2011): Kashmir/Cauchemar: The Queer Poetry of Agha Shahid Ali | Presenter: Andino Hazra (Doctoral Candidate; English, York University)
My presentation focused on Agha Shahid Ali’s collection of poetry, The Country Without A Post-Office. It sought to throw light on the queer impulse running through Ali’s meditations in these poems on the state of Kashmir, poised precipitously vis-à-vis two large nations-as-claimants (India and Pakistan). Ali’s queerness, most explicitly coded in the recurring gaze on Kashmiri male bodies, weaves through issues of sexuality to comment on the multifaceted hierarchies undergirding the nation-state. Ali’s Kashmiri males embody sites of Indian national violence, literally bearing marks both psychological and physical. For Ali, these desirable young men are the rebellious children of the parent-nation, who must be broken if they are unwilling to reproduce, i.e., accede to, the Indian nation within the Kashmiri state. Yet, Ali’s vision for a Kashmiri community does not pander to Manicheanistic separatism-as-solution: his poetry (re)inscribes a Kashmir where syncretic ties between Hindus and Muslims exceed, or make queer, the borders of the modern nation.

Session 9 (18 February 2011): Human Rights and Contemporary Tibetan-language Literature, Art and Music | Presenter: Françoise Robin (Professor, Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales, Paris, France)
The speaker surveyed the diversity of contemporary Tibetan artists/writers (e.g. regional diversity, whether they communicate in Tibetan or Chinese, whether they live in or outside Tibet, and their patriotic, middle way, or passive stance vis-à-vis the Chinese state). She also explored the variety of creative works being produced by these individuals, examining the often indirect and metaphorical ways they express human rights issues and how different forms of creative expression tend to reach different kinds of audiences. Robin noted the many paradoxes of the situation of Tibetan writers/artists in China. For instance, it is partly the Chinese state’s multinational policies that have allowed these individuals public space to express themselves. Yet, the state also aggressively cracks down on writers/artists as soon as they are perceived as threatening to China’s established political and economic order. The crackdowns have been particularly intense since the widespread protests by Tibetans across China in spring 2008.

To listen to this session, click here.

Session 10 (14 April 2011): Quotidian Indignities: Life Lived as a Muslim in Contemporary India | Presenter: Arun Mukherjee (Faculty Associate, English)
My presentation was focused on Indian writer Noor Zaheer's short story "A Life in Transit," and how it brings out the day to day othering of Muslim Indian subjects.  The story poignantly underlines the invisible borderlines between Hindus and Muslims where neighbourhoods have been demarcated according to religion and a de facto segregation exists.  Beyond that, the story underlines the deep reach of Hindutva ideology which constructs Muslim Indians as "invaders" and "foreigners" thereby endangering their lives and well being.  The story successfully helps us grasp the emotional and psychological effects of being subjected to the onslaughts of this ideology and paints a dark future for the Indian democracy and its Muslim citizens.

Session 11 (18 May 2011): Cosmopolitanism and Democracy and Human Rights in the Contemporary Indonesia Theatre/Performance Work | Presenter: Michael Bodden (Professor of Pacific and Asian Studies, University of Victoria)

Session 12 (19 September 2011): Gender, Ethnicity and the Politics of Pop Music for Uyghur and Mongol Communities in China | Nimrod Baranovitch (Professor of East Asian Studies, University of Haifa, Isreal)


Seminar Co-organizers
Susan Henders, Associate Professor, Political Science, York University
Theodore Goossen, Professor, Humanities, York University  

Lily Cho, Assistant Professor, English, University of Western Ontario  
Afsan Chowdhury, YCAR Research Associate and Executive Director, Bangaldeshi-Canadian Community Services
Anindo Hazra, Doctoral Candidate, English, York University
Sailaja Krishnamurti, YCAR Research Associate and Sessional lecturer, York University and University of Toronto at Mississauga
Arun Mukherjee, Professor, English, York University
Van Nguyen-Marshall, Associate Professor, History, Trent University
Jooyeon Rhee, Humanities, York University
Arun Nedra Rodrigo, Doctoral Candidate, Humanities. York University
Arianto Sangadji, Doctoral Candidate, Geography, York University
Alicia Turner, Assistant Professor, Humanities, York University
Mary Young, YCAR Research Associate and Sessional Lecturer, York University


> Several members of the research group will be presenting papers related to the project at the Association for Asian Studies Conference that will be held in Toronto in March 2012. Participants include Susan Henders, Van Nguyen-Marshall, Xueqing Xu, Hua Laura Wu and Andino Hazra. Ted Goossen (Humanities, York University) will chair and R. Cheran (Sociology, University of Windsor) will be the discussant.  

> Ted Goossen (Humanities) is co-editor of Monkey Business International: New Writing from Japan, a new journal that was launched on 1 May 2011 in New York City.The journal is published in collaboration with A Public Space (a nonprofit literary magazine committed to creating a new forum for literature in the 20th century)and features new material from Haruki Murakami, Yoko Ogawa, Hideo Furukawa, Mina Ishikawa, manga artists The Brother and Sister Nishioka and Barry Yourgrau, among many others. The publication was compiled, translated and edited by Motoyuki Shibata (University of Tokyo) and Professor Goossen.  

"We offer nothing in the way of a 'concept' or 'lifestyle' aimed at a particular age bracket or social group, no useful information to help you get ahead," write the editors. "Our inspiration for the name Monkey Business is the immortal Chuck Berry tune. No other work of art that I know of deals with the aggravations we face every day so straightforwardly and with such liberating humour. That is the guiding star we follow on this journey." For more information, please visit www.apublicspace.org/pre-order_monkey_business.html .

> Professor Goossen’s article on “Japan’s Literature of the Apocalypse” recently appeared in the Globe and Mail. It can be found here: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/books/japans-literature-of-the-apocalypse/article1956370/.


For more information, please contact Susan Henders (henders@yorku.ca) or Theodore Goossen (goossen@yorku.ca).

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