Tag Archives: racism

ifls screening series presents Rex v Singh

Legal History: Shelley Gavigan Launches Hunger, Horses, and Government Men

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending the launch of my colleague Shelley Gavigan‘s new book Hunger, Horses, and Government Men: Criminal Law on the Aboriginal Plains, 1870-1905.

Here’s an excerpt from the publisher’s description:

Gavigan uses records of ordinary cases from the lower courts and insights from critical criminology and traditional legal history to interrogate state formation and criminal law in the Saskatchewan region of the North-West Territories between 1870 and 1905. By focusing on Aboriginal people’s participation in the courts rather than on narrow legal categories such as “the state” and “the accused,” Gavigan allows Aboriginal defendants, witnesses, and informants to emerge in vivid detail and tell the story in their own terms. Their experiences — captured in court files, police and penitentiary records, and newspaper accounts — reveal that the criminal law and the Indian Act operated in complex and contradictory ways.

At the launch, Justice James MacPherson introduced the book as one about the prairies, history and law by a woman who loves the prairies, history and law. He pronounced it a beautiful, literary, readable book, and praised Shelley as a master storyteller who had succeeded in bringing the men and women whose stories she’d uncovered in the archives vividly to life. Shelley spoke about connections between the past and the present, highlighting how the people and the issues she had encountered in her legal aid work as young lawyer in Saskatchewan in the 1970s had ultimately led her to this exploration of the relationship between Aboriginal people and criminal law on the Plains a century earlier.

I had the opportunity to hear Shelley speak about her research on a number of occasions during the writing of the book, and I credit her accounts of the pleasures and frustrations of archival research as a good part of the impetus behind the historical turn that my own research has recently taken. So you can imagine the eagerness with which I snapped up a copy of Hunger, Horses, and Government Men last night, and how keen I am to begin to read it.

For more information on the book, click here.

Weekly Roundup of News & Reviews, April 11-17, 2011

Photo by Grey Villet, from the documentary film The Loving Story

Below are links to some of the news stories and book reviews related to law and the arts that caught my attention last week, with a smattering of extras from the two weeks prior for which alas, due to the usual end of term madness, I didn’t manage to put together roundups.

In the midst of what has been described in the New Yorker as China’s “most intense crackdown on free expression in years,” well-known artist and outspoken human rights advocate Ai Weiwei was two weeks ago detained by Chinese police as he attempted to board a flight at Beijing airport (Guardian). Government officials claim that Ai’s detention “has nothing to do with human rights or freedom of expression,” that he is, rather, “under investigation on suspicion of economic crimes” (AFP). Few outside of China appear to be convinced. In the Guardian, Jonathan Jones opines: “Ai Weiwei has spoken out eloquently for the universality of human rights and the worldwide hunger for freedom. Even if all the charges China are apparently raising were true, it would not alter anything⎯and given his brutal detention it is reasonable to assume they are false.” Yesterday, an international protest organized by artists and curators was staged demanding Ai’s release. The New York Times reported beforehand that the form of the “planned protest⎯in which participants will bring chairs and sit down outside Chinese government buildings around the world⎯draws on an installation titled ‘Fairytale: 1001 Qing Dynasty Wooden Chairs,’ which Mr. Ai did at Documenta in Kassel, Germany, in 2007.”

The distressing news that the artifacts looted from Egypt’s museums and archeological sites during the recent uprising numbered around one thousand was leavened slightly last week by the odd story of the recovery of some of them. It was reported that four priceless treasures, including a gilded wooden statue of King Tutankhamun, had been returned to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo after being found by an employee of the Ministry of Antiquities in an unattended black bag that he happened upon in a subway station one morning on his way to work. A clip of the government news conference announcing the find can be viewed here courtesy of the Telegraph.

The Loving Story, a documentary film about the famous case of Loving v. Virginia in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute as unconstitutional, has garnered a few mentions on legal blogs in anticipation of its showing later this month at the Tribeca Film Festival. Read about the film at Feminist Law Professors, and a bit about the case, its aftermath, and a forthcoming book about it at Concurring Opinions.

The New York Times reports that new guidelines from China’s censors “all but ban TV dramas featuring time travel” on the basis that they “lack positive thoughts and meaning” and may “casually make up myths, have monstrous and weird plots, use absurd tactics, and even promote feudalism, superstition, fatalism and reincarnation.”

James Joyce’s estate, in the person of his grandson Stephen, is notoriously protective of copyright and has often proven hostile to requests for permission to use his work. Indeed, as reported in Discover Magazine, it recently sent a cease and desist letter to two scientists who had inscribed a line from Joyce’s work into the genome of a synthetic microbe. Against this backdrop, many found cause for celebration when singer Kate Bush revealed that “she has been given permission to use Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy from Ulysses, in a song to be released next month,” twenty-two years after an initial refusal. But, in the New Yorker, D. T. Max cautions against reading too much into this development. “After all,” he notes, Stephen Joyce “permitted the same passage to be used by Amber in the 2001 dance hit ‘Yes.’”

Warner Brothers has lost the latest round in the ongoing litigation over rights and profits between it and the heirs of the creators of Superman. A judge has denied its bid “to pry open secret documents that purportedly show an agreement between the estates of Superman co-creators Joel Shuster and Jerry Siegel not to make further copyright deals with the studio.” Warner Brothers “argued that the agreement itself was a violation of the Copyright Act and couldn’t be insulated from discovery” while the Shuster and Siegel estates maintained that “those documents were protected by attorney-client privilege.” (THR Esq.)

Controversy has surrounded the release of Joseph Lelyveld’s new biography of Mahatma Gandhi, Great Soul. It was first banned in Gujarat, a western state of India, on the basis of advance reviews in British papers which suggested revelations of a homosexual relationship, and proposals of bans in other states quickly followed (Globe & Mail). Some U.S. book groups then got in on the act, canceling appearances by the author (Boston Globe). Lelyveld asserted that the controversial passages have been taken out of context, telling the Times of India that he never alleged that Gandhi had a homosexual relationship and that “the word ‘bisexual’ nowhere appears in the book” (L.A. Times). The The Daily Beast reports that “three prominent descendants of Gandhi in India have publicly spoken out against [a] proposed [national] ban.”

According to Eric A. Posner, in A Thousand Times More Fair, Kenji Yoshino “argues that Shakespeare’s plays contribute to modern debates about law and justice, and he draws crisp lessons from twelve of those plays.” Posner concludes that “the quality of Yoshino’s readings varies considerably.” He praises the author’s capacity to “teas[e] out the meanings of complex passages,” but faults him for too often using Shakespeare’s work as “a bag of anecdotes to illustrate moral platitudes.” (New Republic) Gary Wills’ review is similarly mixed. Though he concedes that “the class on which this book is based is probably great fun,” he criticizes the limitations of Yoshino’s strategy of pairing plays with current events: “The plays are cut to such trite lessons to keep up the game of headline rummaging.” (NYT) Benjamin Ivry is more enthusiastic, finding Yoshino to be “a refreshingly engaging advocate for Shakespeare.” (Star-Ledger)

Crime, the fiction debut of German defense lawyer Ferdinand von Schirach, is described by reviewer Boyd Tonkin as a “bizarre and unsettling collection of 11 stories about crimes and their consequences.” He expands: “Each tale whips along, a shock at every turn, like some beast with eyes of red-hot coal panting down a forest track at night. For, courtroom procedure aside, the spirit of the German-language Märchen really drives this book: eerie tales of the uncanny, as practised by Hoffmann, Kleist, the Grimms and even Kafka.” (Independent)

Jane Jakeman praises An Uncertain Place, the latest Commisssaire Adamsberg mystery by Fred Vargas, as a “wonderfully intricate and Gothic work” that “add[s] to Vargas’s usual parade of satisfyingly weird characters.” In it, Jakeman tells us, the author “lets herself go in a riot of vampiric complexities: her delights in plot and language are dolphin-like, leaping with pleasure at obscure Cyrillic messages, tracing Danubian family history and sanguinary lore.” (Independent)

Margaret Cannon pronounces Michael Connelly’s The Fifth Witness, which features the return of Mickey Haller from The Lincoln Lawyer, “a superb novel” that “is even better than its predecessor.” (Globe & Mail)

In the latest Invisible Ink column, Christopher Fowler reminds us of the charms of Sarah Caudwell’s clever and witty mystery series that features a professor of medieval law as sleuth aided by four barristers who serve “as a kind of ironic, adult Enid Blyton gang to help solve crimes.” He tells us that Caudwell, who was herself a barrister, “used her knowledge of tax and inheritance laws to add realism to the cases,” but that “apart from that they’re quite potty, with members of the team tromping around exotic locations dropping barbed bons mots to their mentor.” People have been recommending these book to me for years, and this might just be the prod I need to finally pick one up. (Independent)

Weekly Roundup of News & Reviews, March 14-20, 2011

It’s too late to be a weekend roundup. But I figure better late than never! Below are links to some of the news stories and book reviews related to law and the arts that caught my attention last week.

A group comprised of more than 130 artists, curators, writers, and others are calling for a boycott of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi following reports by Human Rights Watch that document exploitation of foreign migrant workers in the UAE. The group is “demanding that the Guggenheim Foundation and its Abu Dhabi partner take immediate and meaningful steps to safeguard the rights of the workers constructing the new branch museum on Saadiyat Island.” Walid Raad, an organizer of the boycott, said: “Artists should not be asked to exhibit their work in buildings built on the backs of exploited workers. Those working with bricks and mortar deserve the same kind of respect as those working with cameras and brushes.” For more information, click here. (Clancco, NYT) [UPDATE: The Guggenheim Foundation responds.]

Last Monday, the UK government released a draft bill that would introduce dramatic reforms to the libel law of England and Wales, including a new public interest defense, a requirement that claimants demonstrate substantial harm, measures to combat libel tourism, and removal of the presumption in favour of jury trials (Guardian). The bill was welcomed as a step in the right direction by the Publishers Association and the Society of Authors, among others (The Bookseller). But many commentators, including spokespersons for the Libel Reform Campaign that has been so instrumental in the push for reform, say that the bill does not go far enough (Press Gazette). For informative and thought-provoking analysis and criticism of the proposed bill, see the New Statesman, Inforrm’s Blog, Lex Ferenda, cearta.ie, the Free Speech Blog, and The Trial Warrior Blog.

The student author of a sexually explicit short story, and the editor of the university newspaper that published it, were acquitted last week by a Maltese court of offending public morals. The Times of Malta reports that the presiding Magistrate found that the story was neither obscene nor pornographic “and that the police had failed to explain how public morality, which changed over time, had been breached.” The trial sparked “heated public debate about the limits of expression and the boundaries between literature and pornography.” According to Index on Censorship: “The court’s decision is a boost for all writers and artists in Malta, many of whom are part of the “Front against Censorship” (FaC) — a protest movement campaigning to liberalise Malta’s censorship laws.” (Times of Malta, Index on Censorship)

Recent weeks brought a flurry of legal challenges to library closures in the UK. But now the government has announced a review of the multitude of statutory obligations with which local authorities are required to comply with a view to doing away with “burdensome” ones. And among those under review is the sole legal grounding for the aforementioned challenges, the duty of local authorities to provide “a comprehensive and efficient library service under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act.” Library campaigners are understandably concerned by this development. (Guardian).

A little over a week ago, it was reported that the legal battle between Rick Norsigian and the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust over negatives alleged to be lost Adams’ work had escalated; now comes the news that the dispute has been settled. The precise terms of the settlement are confidential, but the parties indicated in a statement that Norsigian cannot use Ansel Adams name when selling prints from the negatives and that such sales can only continue “subject to a disclaimer approved by the Trust.” The Los Angeles Times reports that Norsigian’s asking price for prints has declined accordingly. (NYT, The Art Law Blog, LA Times)

Scott McLemee has interviewed Susie Linfield about her book The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, a finalist in criticism for the National Book Critics Circle awards, in which, he says, it is apparent that she “holds fast to Twain’s optimism about the power of images of suffering to create enormous moral and political effects.” (Inside Higher Ed)

Brian True-May, producer of British crime drama Midsomer Murders, was suspended from his job last week pending an inquiry after he stated in an interview: “We just don’t have ethnic minorities involved. Because it wouldn’t be the English village with them…. We’re the last bastion of Englishness and I want to keep it that way.” Critics of True-May’s comments have pointed out that his vision of an all-white rural England is very much at odds with contemporary reality. The series is already on the cusp of great change with the retirement of John Nettles, who played Inspector Tom Barnaby for 16 years, and the introduction of a new star, Neil Dudgeon, playing Tom’s cousin John Barnaby, also conveniently a police detective. It remains to be seen whether True-May’s comments and the ensuing outcry will provoke greater changes still. (Guardian, BBC, Racialicious)

In The Anatomy of a Moment, novelist Javier Cercas turns to non-fiction to explore the 1982 siege of the Spanish parliament. Anthony Cummins writes of the book, translated from Spanish to English by Anne McLean, that “its rigour and intensity are taxing” but that it is “a brilliant study of political conduct, which is well worth the effort required.” (Telegraph)

Alison Flood describes The Hanging Shed by Gordon Ferris, the first installment in a new mystery series featuring “Douglas Brodie, a policeman turned soldier turned reporter,” as “deft, disturbing and as thoroughly grimy as its 1946 Glasgow setting.” (The Observer)

In a review of Kate Atkinson’s fourth Jackson Brodie novel, Started Early, Took My Dog, Laura Miller writes of the series: “Each one of these books, including this latest, is a delight: an intricate construction that assembles itself before the reader’s eyes, populated by idiosyncratic, multidimensional characters and written with shrewd, mordant grace.” (Salon)

The English translation of Henning Mankell’s latest, and he says his last, Inspector Wallander novel, The Troubled Man, is due out later this month. According to James Urquhart, it provides a worthy conclusion to “the hugely absorbing Wallander casefile.” (Independent)

Poetry & Law: M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!



Poetry and law may seem to some as incommensurable as dancing and architecture. Not so, according to M. NourbeSe Philip: “Law and poetry both share an inexorable concern with language⎯the “right” use of the “right” words, phrases, or even marks of punctuation; precision of expression is the goal shared by both.” But language may be used to very different ends in each realm: “The law uses language as a tool for ordering; in the instant case, however, I want poetry to disassemble the ordered, to create disorder and mayhem so as to release the story that cannot be told, but which, through not-telling, will tell itself.”

The story that cannot be told, the subject of Philip’s most recent collection of poems, is that of the Zong massacre. In September 1781, the slave ship Zong set sail from the east coast of Africa bound for Jamaica under the stewardship of Captain Luke Collingwood. The “cargo” consisted of 470 Africans. The voyage should have taken six to nine weeks but, due to navigational errors, stretched into four months. By the end of November, sixty Africans had died “for want of water for sustenance,” and forty more had thrown themselves into the sea “through thirst and frenzy thereby occasioned.” A further 150 Africans were then flung into the sea to their deaths on the orders of the Captain who believed that if they died on board by “natural causes,” the owners would have to bear the loss, whereas if they died by drowning, the loss would be covered by the owners’ insurance policy as attributable to “the perils of the sea.”

Back home in England, a famous case resulted: Gregson v. Gilbert. It was not a murder trial, since the Africans who had been killed were regarded as chattels not as human beings, but rather a legal dispute that turned on the finer points of insurance law. The insurers refused to pay the owners’ claim, and the owners challenged that refusal in court. The owners won in the initial trial, but the jury’s decision was overturned on appeal by the Court of King’s Bench.

Philip describes that King’s Bench decision, the only part of the litigation to make its way into the law reports, as “the tombstone, the one public marker of the murder of those Africans on board the Zong,” and she opts to limit herself to that text, using it as “a word store” for the composition of her book-length sequence of poems. She literally deconstructs the decision, pulling apart the words with which it is composed, then rearranging them to construct her own text. Through the alchemy of poetry, she also thereby reconstructs the African passengers, so present aboard the ship, yet peculiarly absent from the legal decision. “In Zong!,” Philip writes, “the African, transformed into a thing by the law, is re-transformed, miraculously, back into human.”

These are poems in which the placement of the words on the page is as important as the meaning that those words convey. In the early poems, the words are spread thinly across the page, the spaces making visible the absence of African bodies and voices. But as the sequence continues, the poems become denser and denser, the words tumbling over one another, sometimes scoring one another out. The effect is disorienting, disturbing, and, ultimately, extremely powerful.

I recommend reading the book at least twice, the first time approaching the poems fresh, taking them on their own terms. Then again after having read the material appended at the end (Philip’s essay on the writing of the book, from which I’ve quoted above, and a copy of the Gregson v. Gilbert decision) to more fully appreciate how Philip has illuminated injustice by making poetry out of law.

A Foray into Italian Crime Fiction: Gianrico Carofiglio’s Involuntary Witness


A couple of months ago, when I tweeted a link to an article in the Observer that heralded “a new wave of Italian crime writers,” I quickly received a flurry of replies insisting that, of the writers mentioned therein, Gianrico Carofiglio was the one whose work I must sample without delay. One of my correspondents went so far as to dub Guido Guerrieri, the character at the centre of Carofiglio’s series of legal thrillers, “an Italian Philip Marlowe.”

Intrigued as I was by this description, it initially struck me as unlikely, given how thoroughly a product of 1930s and 40s Los Angeles Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe seems to me to be. But even if Marlowe is rooted in his time and place, noir certainly travels. The success of Akashic Books’ marvelous noir anthologies which serve up hardboiled crime stories from every corner of the globe amply demonstrates that point. It was undoubtedly the noir quality of Carofiglio’s books which my correspondent was lauding and, having now read Involuntary Witness, the first book featuring world-weary criminal defense lawyer Guido Guerrieri, I can echo the recommendation of him as a most intriguing noir antihero.

At the beginning of the book, Guerrieri’s wife leaves him and, despite the fact that he hadn’t seemed particularly invested in his marriage, this provokes something of a breakdown. It’s an existential crisis. Guerrieri hasn’t lost his life’s purpose so much as the illusion that he had a purpose in life. Work provides no counter-balance to his unraveling personal life for, there too, he realizes he has long been deluding himself. He had not become a lawyer out of a passion for justice as he had sometimes tried to convince himself. Rather, he “had become a lawyer by sheer chance, because [he] had found nothing better to do or wasn’t up to looking for it.” He had just been marking time in practice, “waiting for [his] ideas to clarify.” His wife’s departure brings a now unwelcome clarity: “Then the lid blew off and from the pan emerged a lot of things I had never imagined and didn’t want to see. That no one would want to see.”

But in the end, it is his work as a lawyer that brings him back to himself and into the world, when he is engaged to defend Abdou Thiam, a 31-year-old Senegalese pedlar who has been charged with the murder of a 9-year-old Italian boy. Thiam had been seen speaking to the boy on the beach on a number of occasions, and has been found to have a photo of him as well as some children’s books among his possessions. A bar owner has said that he witnessed Thiam walking towards the boy’s grandparents’ home on the day in question, and one of his fellow pedlars has said that he saw Thiam washing his car the day after. This tissue of circumstantial evidence, through the lens of the racism of witnesses, police, lawyers, and judges, is thought to add up to an airtight case. Guerrieri has no faith in his capacity to counter it, and initially advises Thiam to opt for “the shortened procedure” which would rule out an acquittal but perhaps lead to something less than a life sentence. But Thiam protests his innocence and wants to fight for an acquittal. Guerrieri’s growing belief in and sense of responsibility to his client, and the challenge of the trial gradually bring him back to life.

This is not a mystery novel. No attempt is made to get to the bottom of the question of who committed the murder. All of the suspense relates to the outcome of the trial. Following the process from beginning to end offers some fascinating glimpses into the Italian legal system. (The author served for many years as an anti-mafia prosecutor in Bari, the same southern Italian city in which the novel is set, so I’m confident that the depiction of the operation of Italian criminal law is an accurate one.) One facet of the novel that I particularly appreciated that Carofiglio has in common with some of my favourite Scandanavian crime writers is that he eschews the Hollywood version in favour of what seems a more realistic portrayal of the progress of a case through the justice system, adeptly conveying its plodding pace and bureaucratic nature without thereby producing a plodding read.

I was quickly caught up in Guerrieri’s life, and in Thiam’s fate, and found Involuntary Witness overall to be an always interesting, sometimes riveting, and ultimately very satisfying read. Carofiglio has written four novels featuring Guerrieri as the central character, three of which have so far been published in English translation, with the final one due out later this year. I am very much looking forward to continuing on to read the rest.