Freedom: Short Stories Celebrating the Universal declaration of Human Rights

Edited by Amnesty International

Mainstream Publishing 2009, Paperback


Read an interview on the blog with Nicky Parker, Amnesty UK's Publisher, about why she chose short stories and win a copy!

Authors: A.L. Kennedy, James Meek, Marina Lewycka, Mohammed Naseehu Ali, Gabriella Ambrosio, Joyce Carol Oates, Walter Mosley, David Mitchell, Ariel Dorfman, Amit Chaudhuri,  Petina Gappah, Milton Hatoum, Ali Smith, David Constantine, Jon Fosse, Kate Atkinson, Banana Yoshimoto, Alexis Wright, Helen Dunmore, Héctor Aguilar Camín, Paulo Coelho, Mahmoud Saeed, Richard Griffiths, Juan Goytisolo, Yann Martel, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nadine Gordimer, Xiaolu Guo, Alice Pung, Ishmael Beah, Alan Garner, Liana Badr, Rohinton Mistry, Olja Knezevic, Henning Mankell


"Madeleine and Mr Kramer faced each other in silence across the table. The nurse had closed her magazine and was watching them. Mr Kramer was thinking that from many points of view the project was a bad one. Madeleine had wanted to write about being Madeleine. Fine, he said, but displace it. I have, she said. My image is a war zone. My story is about a child in a war zone, a boy half my age, who wants to get out to somewhere safe. Asylum, said Mr Kramer. He seeks asylum."

Reviewed by Tania Hershman

What inspired the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was most definitely not fiction. The 30 articles outlining the rights - freedom from torture, right to free movement, to a fair trial etc.. - had to be written down, it seems, because it is not in our nature to behave this way. We need reminding.

When Amnesty International commissioned writers to celebrate the anniversary of the UDHR, they might have compiled a collection of articles, of reportage, of case studies. But choosing the short story form was, in my opinion, a brilliant idea. The greatest short stories don't just tell you something, they slip you beneath someone else's skin. And to really feel what the UDHR represents, what atrocities it is attempting to prevent, that is where we need to be.

Freedom, whose royalties go to Amnesty International, contains 36 short stories, most of which are inspired by one of the articles of the UDHR. There is some overlap, and there are also some stories not specially written for the book, but that doesn't matter. Taken as a whole, this is a powerful and moving book. You could buy a copy because it is a worthy cause - or, more simply, because it contains some of the best writing I have read in a long time.

I would recommend that when reading the stories you try not to let the particular UDHR Article it was inspired by influence how you read the story. It's difficult, of course. When you see the Article referring to "the right to asylum" above the story title, it sets up certain expectations.

My personal preference is for stories that do not tackle an issue head on. For example, A L Kennedy's The Effects of Good Government on the City, on the surface about a couple's walk through Blackpool, but  something terrifying lurks underneath the words. Kennedy has no need to spell anything out, the way she uses language to describe the everyday conveys sufficient menace:
"He's looking at you - easy to tell without having to check, because his attention is tangibly leaking, scampering, running down the side of your face. Fair enough, your boyfriend is supposed to pay attention, but his payment feels like a trickle of something bad, feels like he's pissing on you."
Already a fan of Kennedy, this anthology introduced me to several writers whose work I had never read, such as Italian writer Gabriella Ambrosio. Sticko, h
er take on the article relating to freedom from torture, left me stunned, shaken. It begins:
"I am a Stick, I am the most advanced stage in the evolution of humankind. I remain motionless, still, exactly the same as everything else, spread somewhere in some way. I am here, but no-one sees. I sit in front of the television in my flower-patterned cretonne armchair. I too am flower-patterned cretonne."
Wherever you imagine this story might go, it doesn't. Whereas An Internet Baby, by
Xiaolu Guo, another author new to me, does go where you fear it will, but this does not detract from the shock of the story of a young couple who decide to sell their baby on the Internet:
"After putting the ad online, Yuli feeds her son a bitof milk and changes his wet nappy. What she's worried about is that if the baby doesn't go soon, sh'll miss her end-of-term exam, then she won't get her diploma."
Joyce Carol Oates' Tetanus, one of those not written especially for Freedom, has not left me alone since I read it either. Every time you think you know what is about to happen in this story of a police detective interviewing a young boy, the story twists and spirals away. A masterpiece.

Inspired by the article on the right to a free trial, Aniruddha: The Latest Instalment, was my introduction to Amit Chaudhuri, a writer I will certainly be seeking more from. This is the quirky, moving story of "a typical - even completely conventional - Bengali intercultural marriage" between two men, Chris and Aniruddha, in London, around the time of the London Underground bombings. I could not help but be wooed by a story whose first sentence begins: "Then there's Aniruddha", as if we have been chatting for some time already. Once again, as great stories are wont to do, this does not go in the direction you might predict.

There are several stories concering the actions of one's neighbours (James Meek's The Kind of Neighbour You Used to Have and Walter Mosley's The Trial), because history has proved time and again that it is those closest to us that have the power, to either betray and condemn or to rescue.

Yann Martel's The Moon Above His Head apparently concerns a man who fell into a septic tank, but is in fact about paying attention to those around us and seeing the different ways in which they express their suffering.

Of those stories that do look the issue right in the eye, Helen Dunmore's Where I Keep My Faith is an exquisitely original telling of a woman's exploration of where her faith resides inside herself in order to imagine how she might renounce it. David Mitchell's Character Development carries you along with its protagonist's strong voice, and is less about torture than about one soldier's personal dilemma. Ali Smith's The Go-Between uses humour to illustrate the absurdity of borders, slamming its point home with an ending that wipes the smile of your face.

David Constantine's Asylum, from which the quote at the top of the page is taken, is a complex and multi-layered story exploring the term "asylum" through the relationship between Madeleine, a patient in a psychiatric instituation (one use of "asylum") and Mr Kramer, her visitor, who's daughter has just found the Ukrainian shtetl where his family was wiped out. And Banana Yoshimoto's A Special Boy simply and devastatingly demonstrates the effect on the children of an abusive family through the eyes of one small boy who would never want the to be the kind of "special" that the title assigns to him.

There are more that I would mention if I had the space. And, as with all multi-author collections, there were those that left me unmoved, some because they seemed less a short story than the sort of lengthy mini-novel, others because they looked too directly at the issue in hand or took a rather cliched approach (Kate Atkinson's The War on Women, about sharia law being declared in Scotland, for example).

Freedom left me with many thoughts, about what we take for granted, what we let slide because our daily lives distract us from caring. These "fictions", more than any newspaper article I may read or television news program, took me inside what the UDHR strives for, leaving an lasting impression.



Read Ali Smith's story from this collection in The Times


Tania Hershman is editor of The Short Review. Her collection, The White Road and Other Stories, is published by Salt Modern Fiction.
Tania's other Short Reviews: Etgar Keret & Samir el-Youssef "Gaza Blues"

Melvin J. Bukiet "A Faker's Dozen"

Rusty Barnes "Breaking it Down"

Roy Kesey "All  Over"

John Klima (ed) "Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories"

Kelley Eskridge "Dangerous Space"

18 Lies and 3 Truths: StoryQuarterly 2007 Annual

Aimee Bender "Wilful Creatures"

Paddy O'Reilly "The End of the World"

Annie Clarkson "Winter Hands"

Yannick Murphy "In a Bear's Eye"

Declan Meade (ed) "Let's Be Alone Together"

Lise Erdrich "Night Train"

Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing

Alexandra Chasin "Kissed By"

Tamar Yellin "Kafka in Bronteland"

Mary Miller "Big World"

Ali Smith "The First Person and Other Stories"

Chris Beckett "The Turing Test"

Petina Gappah "An Elegy for Easterly"

Sean Lovelace "How Some People Like Their Eggs"
                     
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If you liked this book you might also like....

Petina Gappah "An Elegy for Easterly"

Ali Smith "The First Person and Other Stories"

"One World: A Global Anthology of Stories"

David Constantine "The Shieling"

Anything by Jocye Carol Oates

A L Kennedy "What Becomes"

What other reviewers thought:

The Guardian

Goodreads