Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Mystery of Human Rights: Guest post by Eliot Pattison

Described as "a writer of faraway mysteries," Eliot Pattison's travel and interests span a million miles of global trekking, visiting every continent but Antarctica. An international lawyer by training, he received “the Art of Freedom” award along with Ira Glass, Patti Smith and Richard Gere for bringing his social and cultural concerns to his fiction, published on three continents. He is the author of thirteen mystery novels, including the internationally acclaimed Edgar award-winning Inspector Shan Series, set in China and Tibet and the Bone Rattler Series, set in Colonial America. His books have been translated into over twenty languages. A former resident of Boston and Washington, Pattison resides on an 18th century farm in Pennsylvania with his wife, three children, and an ever-expanding menagerie of animals. Eliot Pattison’s new novel Skeleton God, ninth in his award-winning Inspector Shan series, has just been released. He was recently awarded the Art of Freedom prize by Tibet House to honor his support for the cause of Tibetan human rights. 

Eliot Pattison:
The Mystery of Human Rights 

Readers and critics sometimes have a difficult time categorizing my Inspector Shan novels. Some call them police procedurals, others Asian noir or literary thrillers, even political tragedies. A British editor once announced that with this series I had invented a new genre, that of ”campaign thriller.” I leave it to others to conjure up labels, but I do believe that what causes many to stumble in characterizing my novels is their unique undercurrent of human rights advocacy.

After extensive travels around the planet, and experiencing first hand the effects of political tyranny, I began to realize that many activists in the West have sucked the humanity out of the fight for human rights. For them it often seems a matter of ego rather than virtue. Instead of embracing human rights in their hearts they’d rather just wear the cause on their sleeve, and as their voices get louder their causes seem to get smaller. They focus too much on partisan politics and classes of people rather than people themselves. In doing so they avoid the hard and inconvenient questions arising out of modern geopolitics and ignore the truth of the most poignant human rights credo ever articulated: “When a good man is hurt,” the ancient Greek Euripedes observed, “all who would be good must suffer with him.” That credo doesn’t distinguish between suffering just down the road and suffering on the other side of the planet.

It was partly in reaction to this “out of sight, out of mind” mentality that I launched the Inspector Shan series. With these novels I always seek to provide not only an engaging read but also a more personal, visceral look at some of our planet’s most abject human rights abuses. It’s a fine line for a novelist to take. My readers don’t pick up my books to be lectured to, and I work hard not to get up on a soapbox. Some grim lessons about the human cost of modern geopolitics are offered in all my books but the only way to be successful at such messaging is not to force them on readers. I want them to keep turning the pages because of my storylines and characters, and just absorb those lessons along the way..

I admit, however, that I do make it difficult for my readers to engage with my plots without experiencing the painful realities of daily life under tyranny. When, for example, a murder is staged as just another self-immolation protest in the prior Shan book Soul of the Fire, disturbing moral questions are implicit in the incident. What misery are these simple, deeply spiritual people enduring that makes self-immolation a common event? As Shan proceeds with his unofficial, unauthorized investigation and effects his usual makeshift justice, the experience of the Tibetan people takes on much more texture. The unrelenting persecution of Tibetans in their own land is a backdrop to all my novels in the Shan series. An investigation inside a prison or internment camp gives the reader a chance to experience their physical and spiritual brutality through Shan’s eyes. When Shan visits an idyllic nomadic camp or a remote, timeless village, I try to make the reader invested enough in the serenity and natural pleasures of such places to share the gut-wrenching pain when government agents arrive to extinguish that way of life.

The stages I set in my books always have that shadow around their edges, that uncertainty about larger scale injustices lurking below the more focused thefts and murders at the center of my plots. Those stages may get dark at times but all of my books end not just with a triumph of the human spirit, but also with a small but meaningful victory over a system that has institutionalized human rights abuses, a system to which the West has long turned a blind eye. If I am successful I will have prompted my readers to confront questions they had forgotten to ask and ponder that much greater puzzle, the mystery of our modern morality.

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