Favourite Readings 2022 – On the Road

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Edmund De Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance (Random House, 2010).

Sally Merry, Human Rights and Gender Violence: Translating International Law into Local Justice (University of Chicago Press, 2006).

Philippe Sands, The Last Colony: A Tale of Exile, Justice and Britain’s Colonial Legacy (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2022).

Elif Shafak, The Island of Missing Trees (Bloomsbury, 2021).

Chelsea Watego, Another Day in the Colony (University of Queensland Press, 2021).

As in previous years, EJIL review team, Gail gail.lythgoe {at} manchester.ac(.)uk" data-hovercard-owner-id="98">Lythgoe and Christian J. Tams, have asked colleagues to offer short reflections on their favourite books of the year.  No strict rules apply — the posts are meant to introduce books that left an impression, irrespective of their genre. Today we have selections from Emma Nyhan. You can read all the posts in this series here

In compiling a list there is typically a process of selection. When drawing up my favourite reads for 2022, I noticed one book was purchased, another borrowed and three gifted. In the act of being gifted a book, we not only learn more about the world of ideas and the power of words but we also see how we are perceived by others. I also noted on this year’s road – whether in my hometown Arklow, Canberra, Lisbon, or San Francisco – books move with and sometimes within us. These introspective remarks inform and colour what follows.

The Last Colony: A Tale of Exile, Justice and Britain’s Colonial Legacy by Philippe Sands was the only book to be purchased – partly out of utilitarian reasons (for my next journal article), partly because the author never disappoints. They say don’t judge a book by its cover. And if you follow this logic, you probably shouldn’t judge a book by its epigraph. That said, it was easy to get hooked after reading the extract from Eavan Boland’s poem Witness:

What is a colony                                         

If not the brutal truth

that when we speak

the graves open

And the dead walk?

Most of us have been on the wrong or right side of colonialism at one time or another. Stories of colonial injustice weigh heavy. Stories of decolonial justice give a sense of freedom and reason for hope. Both stories are captured in The Last Colony. Chagossian resilience is its leitmotif. Like those who have been on a long walk to freedom, the Chagossians’ justice project – to return to where they came from – saw them end up at the International Court of Justice. In his role as a friend of the Chagossians, Sands amplifies their voice along the way, while illustrator Martin Rowson helps the reader imagine the circa 5600-plus mile journey from Madame Liseby Elysé’s home in Peros Banhos to the Great Hall of Justice in The Hague.

This book gives the reader the sense that international law can have a human touch if not a human story. Witness Madame Elysé asks international lawyer Sands: ‘Why did it take so long for us to come to The Hague?’ (at 8). Sands does not have an answer for Madame Elysé. Politics aside, the reader might ask: why is it so hard to give back a colony? This book does not give an answer either – a point to return to in the conclusion.

The Last Colony illustrates that international law and lawyers can do good. What might catch the reader off guard are the details of running an international law case. From the perspective of the armchair reader, taking a case before the World Court seems less like rocket science and more like playing a game of snakes and ladders. The usual suspects of international lawyering display an uncanny ability to talk common-sense and act with pragmatism. The late James Crawford, and world’s leading litigator, had advised a green Sands when it comes to written pleadings: ‘keep it simple’ (at 118). Crawford added the narrative should be clear, accessible, and accompanied by a road-map for the international bench to follow. Besides being a fitting stocking filler for an international lawyer, The Last Colony is a road-map for doing international law and a story-map for undoing miscarriages of justice.

Another Day in the Colony by Chelsea Watego is a fierce and unapologetic work and is a tough read for anyone who takes seriously their role and influence in (often White) settler-colonial projects. It was gifted to me while temporarily residing in the ‘Bush Capital’, officially known as Canberra or Ngunnawal and Ngambri country. The book title is ‘a hashtag […] used on Twitter to describe the types of colonial violence that Blackfullas are subjected to every day and everywhere’ (at 8). Watego, a Munanjahli and South Sea Islander woman, shares her lived experiences of being Indigenous in a non-Indigenous society in Australia. The late historian Patrick Wolfe is famed for saying that settler-colonialism is a structure, not an event. I don’t think he’d object too much if I were to add settler-colonialism is also a mindset. It is this White settler-colonial mindset that Chelsea Watego is pushing against, taking aim at specific society members, namely White women with a saviour complex (see e.g., at 173). The reader will likely feel unsettled. Maybe a reflexive awareness will be awakened or refocused.

The magic of a book, specialist and non-specialist alike, is that it moves you and takes you to another place. Another gift, The Hare with the Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss by Edmund de Waal is a book of other places. It is also a book of artistic, literary and physical movement that travels from Odessa to Paris to Vienna, across Europe through Nazism and to post-war Tokyo. The author is a potter by vocation so it is not hard to imagine him making ceramic pots by day and writing his family memoir in the small hours. If you ever collected stamps or shells, this family portrait told through the collection of 264 netsuke, miniature Japanese sculptures carved from wood or ivory, will draw you in and captivate the mind in an imaginative and tactile way. Near the end one of his neighbours asks, ‘Don’t you think those netsuke should stay in Japan?’ De Waal answers no because ‘objects have always been carried, sold, bartered, stolen, retrieved and lost. People have always given gifts. It is how you tell their stories that matters’ (at 348). Last year I read Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. Thinking back these books would make good companion reads and might even be taught together.

Being a forester’s daughter there is nothing I like more when a tree is the main protagonist in a story. The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak is a fictional story of love and division in 1970s postcolonial Cyprus and 2010s London, partly narrated by a fig tree. The novel is dedicated ‘to immigrants and exiles everywhere, the uprooted, the re-rooted, the rootless.’ It is also dedicated ‘to the trees we left behind, rooted in our memories.’ Similar to how you felt when watching the Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher and you develop an inexplicable sense of one-ness with this eight-limbed sea creature, this book will kindle an arboreal connection and tree empathy from within. And like the octopus, the fig tree is one extra-ordinary teacher. This book would make a good companion read with Irus Braverman’s Planted Flags: Trees, Land, and Law in Israel/Palestine, where through the looking lens of legal geography the pine tree and the olive tree tell stories of society and law in – what is often perceived to be – perpetual conflict.

A footnote before this book-road ends. It would be remiss of me not to give a nod to Sally Merry’s legacy work Human Rights and Gender Violence: Translating Law into Local Justice, which was initially borrowed and then owned. Turning 17 next year this book is on the cusp of adulthood. That said Human Rights and Gender Violence remains relevant and helps make sense of international human rights law in contemporary discourse and practice. Merry was the ultimate gift-giver, presenting us with both academic concepts and methodological tools, like the vernacularisation of human rights; the rights translator; the resonance dilemma (i.e., the disconnect between human rights on paper and in practice); and a range of ways for doing legal ethnography, including de-territorialized ethnography.

This book is what I might call an ‘auld segotia’ in Hiberno-English, or a good friend in standard English, accompanying me everywhere I go and read on an annual basis, but always with a different purpose. This year’s effort was to find a definitive answer to the question: ‘if human rights are so imperfect, why continue to use them?’ ‘It is all we have’ is an inapt and hollow response. Yet Human Rights and Gender Violence doesn’t give a more satisfactory answer. But then again what is better: a book that has all the answers or that makes the reader wonder?

Additional references

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1951).

Eavan Boland, A Poet’s Dublin (Carcanet Press, 2014).

Irus Braverman, Planted Flags: Trees, Land, and Law in Israel/Palestine (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, My Octopus Teacher (Netflix, 4 September 2020) <https://www.netflix.com/ie/title/81045007> accessed 9 December 2022.

Patrick Wolfe, ‘Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native’, (2006) 8(4) Journal of Genocide Research 387.

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Sean Walsh says

December 22, 2022

Thanks for this interesting list of books to read.