This story is one of several created by Coe College students in their Feature Story Writing class under the instruction of Dr. Jane Nesmith. Click here to learn more about Coe College’s Writing Program.
Bosnia. South Africa. Cambodia. These are a few of the places Audrey Golden has traveled to since becoming interested in human rights law and literature in college. “I took a lot of different classes to do with reading global literature, watching global cinema, thinking about issues of human rights and genocide in different parts of the world in the 20th century,” she said in explaining what first sparked this interest. More specifically, she wanted to explore the recovery of people facing human rights violations. This is why she turned to literature while studying law, an intersection of two very different areas of study.
“I think that fiction, especially novels, can help us to think about those issues of recovery and remedy in ways that perhaps the international court system cannot,” said Audrey. She is now an English professor at Coe College, but she had a long path to get to where she is today.
After completing college and three years of law school, she continued her studies by working towards a Doctorate in Philosophy, or PhD, in 20th and 21st century literature with a specific angle in law. Audrey was influenced by the courses she had taken in law school, as she found she kept thinking about how literature fit into the context of what she studied.
“While I was there I wrote an article on speech rights in Nazi Germany and was comparing those with speech rights in Rwanda during the genocide,” she said. “As I was writing that article, I started to think more about my interest in the humanities and analyzing language and literature, and I decided to go back to grad school.” This took her five years in total–really fast for an English degree, she added.
She travelled internationally during those years working on grant-funded research, starting in a Bosnia which still struggled to recover after the wars. There, she interviewed the prosecutors in the case against Bosnian-Serbian War General Ratko Mladic who allegedly gave the order for the 1995 massacre of around 8,000 Muslim men and boys, and was able to observe the trial. Beforehand, she had read the works of Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon, which remained a focus during her time in the country. “I was really interested in the way in which some of these stories helped us to think about issues of recovery and recuperation in relation to the trials,” she said, displaying how she took a new angle on the topic of the trials because of her love of literature.
Audrey later did her own research in Johannesburg, relating a piece of literature to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “I spent a while in South Africa doing this work and looking into the ways in which Nadine Gordimer’s first post-apartheid novel The House Gun thinks about remaking the law in South Africa as something that’s rehabilitative, much like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission wanted to do,” she said. The TRC was formed in response to around forty years of racial segregation.
Her most recent work involved translating a Cambodian legal dictionary, which she described as “sort of a long story.” Audrey first heard about the dictionary as she was doing an oral history interview with someone involved in an organization from the 1990s which trained Cambodians in Western law. “Then I went to this NGO’s (non-governmental organization’s) archives in D.C. and sorted through all of these boxes of crap, basically, to find this dictionary. Then I went to Cambodia to do research on the genocide and also to work with this translator on the dictionary,” she said.
What caught her attention was running into words that couldn’t be properly translated between two languages, though it was more complex than that. “I became really interested in these sort of issues in translation and the way in which we learn language to prosecute perpetrators of genocide and help victims of genocide to recover,” she said, as the inconsistencies between how Cambodians and Westerners practice law affect how human rights violations are handled.
Though she now teaches English courses at Coe, she continues to analyze how fiction speaks to the law and publishes pieces in law journals; the unlikely pairing of law and literature have connected seamlessly in her life.
She lives in Iowa City with her two cats and a collection of almost 200 rare Pablo Neruda books from more than 30 different countries, which she hopes to put together as an exhibit at the college this fall. With a lighthearted laugh, she said she likes to think she and Neruda are kindred spirits, mentioning both their love of collecting objects and feeling like a sailor on land. “I like to think we were or are, even though he’s not alive anymore,” she said, speaking of the Chilean poet and diplomat.
Story by Haley Valenta, Photos by Antonio Perez