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Review by Emma Burridge
In this collection, Amnesty International UK and Walker Books have brought together twenty-eight of the most eclectic voices in order to create an exploration of just why human rights matter, and why we should protest when they are threatened. Amnesty’s book helps to illustrate that the most basic of rights can be violated, not only by governments and states but also by other individuals.
From the opening story regarding sexual abuse of minors by trusted adult figures, to the closing interview with Chelsea Manning (the US soldier currently serving 35-years for leaking classified government documents through Wikileaks), Here I Stand constantly walks the line between fiction and fictionalised accounts of true events. In doing so, Amnesty has reminded each and every reader that, whether they personally notice it or not, there are human rights cases being fought every single day, cases reliant on the aid of charitable organisations such as Amnesty International.
For me, the strength of the collection lies in the diverse nature of the writers who have produced pieces for this book – from novelists such as Matt Haig to poets and illustrators such as Jackie Kay and Chris Riddell, all come together to tell a myriad of stories. They explore horrendous instances of sex trafficking, statutory rape, gang violence, homophobic attacks, suicide bombings, government-sponsored torture, and racially motivated attacks – narratives which, unfortunately, are not confined to fiction.
Indeed, many of the stories pass through London, from ‘Harvester Road’ by John Boyne to ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ by Chibundu Onuzo, a reminder that even in one of the alleged capitals of Western democracy, there are still individuals who are trapped in unthinkable situations. By producing such an anthology, Amnesty International have forced readers to confront the uncomfortable truth which they might otherwise try to overlook. Because, in doing so, in choosing not to look, we are “letting the torture happen. Looking the other way”, as Frances Hardinge articulates in the note to her own story, ‘Bystander’.
As with any collection featuring several creators, there are some stories that didn’t quite hit the mark for me, and others which hit the tone perfectly. One standout contribution in particular was the poem ‘Black/White’ by Amy Leon. Leon visually illustrates the divide between the lives of two young men (one black, one white), by laying out her poem in two columns, the left following the “Black boy born with loose noose round his neck” and the right following the “white boy born with halo round his head”. Through this use of direct contrasts, her poem explicitly illustrates that, even from birth, the two boys are placed in entirely different boxes, and their life opportunities and expectations are limited (or not) by the colour of their skin. It is an issue with profound contemporary resonance, what with growing reports of institutional bias against people of colour and with the Black Lives Matter movement growing in the US.
Even for the privileged individual in the equation, such injustices have to matter; these stories have to make an impact, and we have to be shocked, disgusted, or ashamed that this collection is not merely portraying a fantasy world. In that mission, Here I Stand is remarkably effective, illustrating that the most basic rights can be limited or taken away from us, even in countries such as the UK and US where we like to think we are protected by Human Rights legislation.