Celebrity authors, humanitarian narratives, and the role of literature in world crises

A recent research article looks at the role of literature in raising awareness of world crises. We summarise its key findings.

By Carolina Are

From 2008 to 2010, MSF sent eight well-known Spanish-speaking authors to cover forgotten conflicts across the globe. The authors wrote a series of reportages (crónicas) about humanitarian crises in Congo, Yemen, Haiti, Kashmir, Malaysia, Guatemala, Zimbabwe, and Colombia for the Spanish newspaper El País, which appeared under the title Testigos del Horror (Witness of Horror).

The project was described as a collection of first-person narratives by great writers who traveled “a los infiernos de la tierra para dar voz a las víctimas” (to the infernal places on earth to allow the victims to speak).

A recent paper by Luis Fernando Restrepo, a Professor at the University of Arkansas, examines the articles written by these celebrated authors, and the way they mediate humanitarian suffering for a distant audience. Retrepo’s analysis highlights the “contradictory elements of humanitarian narratives and their mise en scène of suffering.”

Nobel Mario Vargas Llosa Visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo in May 2008. Photograph by Juan Carlos Tomasi. (Shared in research paper)

The writers were accompanied by photojournalist Juan Carlos Tomasi (Spain), and were well known for their habit of voicing social concerns. They were:

  • Nobel Literature Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru)
  • Sergio Ramírez (Nicaragua)
  • Juan José Millás (Spain)
  • Laura Restrepo (Colombia)
  • John Carlin (England-Spain)
  • Leila Guerriero (Argentina)
  • Laura Esquivel (Mexico)
  • Manuel Vincent (Spain)

Luis Fernando Restrepo argues that these texts’ appeal was to be found in the fact that they drew attention “to the humanitarian crises combining journalistic reporting with the literary arsenal each author is well known for and drawing on their established reputation as public intellectuals.” He likens their experiences to those of Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote in the 1970s, arguing however that “although well intended, there is an ambivalent tension in these humanitarian narratives where the writer and his or her voice seems to compete with those he or she is trying to give voice to.”

Crucially, the paper wonders whether these chronicles bring us closer to the suffering they describe or to the well-known celebrity authors. Indeed, although the chronicles highlight numerous cases of human rights abuses and the extreme conditions that the informants must endure, “the narrator is always noticeable to the reader, mediating the representation of suffering” and their story isn’t written in the “neutral” and detached style of standard journalism.

Does working with fiction writers help humanitarian causes?

Restrepo argues that through their unique voices, the authors “invite their readers to think about the harsh conditions that others face.” Yet, this may not be the most effective to generate support for the humanitarian campaigns discussed. According to him: “Effective humanitarian narratives are precisely those that are able to identify the causes, draw the reader, and guide action,” while El Pais’ chronicles written by these celebrity authors often present the people in humanitarian camps as individuals with no sense of future. He adds:

“The celebrity authors’ brief sojourn to the humanitarian camps ends with no clear plan of action but leave nonetheless an appalling picture of the great tragedies occurring today. These hopeless situations may overwhelm the metropolitan reader and cause him/her compassion fatigue.”

Still, Restrepo concedes that the chronicles do feature “a brief expression of hope”, like mentions to “the letters that Somali refugees hand to anyone they encounter, searching for their lost ones, as […] an improbable act of faith.”

The New Faces of Humanitarian Awareness

The celebrated authors’ work underlines the varied approaches and techniques currently used by media and NGOs to raise awareness of humanitarian crises and disasters, a topic we are examining under different perspective here on the blog.

Article: Celebrity Authors, Humanitarian Narratives, And The Role Of Literature In World Crises Today: The Medecins Sans Frontiers’ Newspaper Chronicles Testigos Del Horror (Witness Of Horror) by Luis Fernando Restrepo.