Oblivion: A Memoir by Hector Abad Wins WOLA-Duke Human Rights Book Award


Washington, DC—The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and Duke University have named Hector Abad’s book Oblivion, A Memoir (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012) as the winner of the 2012 WOLA-Duke Human Rights Book Award.

Oblivion begins with the author’s memories of his father, Dr. Héctor Abad Gómez, who developed practical public health programs for the poor in Medellín, Colombia. The increasing violence and human rights abuses of the 1970s and 1980s led the author’s father to fight for social justice in his community. As a physician, he recognized the violence as a societal sickness in need of a cure, but his political views put him at odds with those in power, and they labeled his views as sympathetic to Colombia’s left-wing guerrilla groups. In Oblivion, twenty years after his father was killed by a right-wing death squad, Abad memorializes and pays homage to the man who continues to inspire him today, and he shows us the importance of standing up against injustice.



Judges for this year’s competition called Abad’s book “deeply moving,” “beautiful,” and “original,” recognizing it for its honest portrayal of the consequences of political violence for victims and their families and for stressing the importance of fighting for social justice and the respect for human rights, despite staggering opposition.

Award judge Holly Ackerman described Oblivion’s main accomplishment as its ability to “make us deeply feel the value of every human life and the terrible consequences of political violence wherever it occurs. It is a universal vignette. … The book sharpened and renewed my conviction that ‘recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.’”

According to Leonor Blum, the chair of this year’s award judging panel and Emerita Professor of History and Political Science at Notre Dame of Maryland University, the book “is a sensitive portrayal of the multiple facets of this modern Don Quixote who is idealistic to a fault, who cares about ‘el pueblo,’ who lives a middle class life surrounded by a loving family with its laughs, quirks, and tragedies.”

“It kept me up at night and brought me to tears and will bring, at least in my mind, something like eternal life to the murdered Doctor Héctor Abad Gómez.” says journalist, writer, and award judge Roger Atwood.

Robin Kirk, Faculty Co-Chair of the Duke Human Rights Center, explains that she chose this book “because it offers us something new and challenging, something surprising and hard—being an activist and making a difference can sometimes cost your life.”

On November 28, Abad will receive the WOLA-Duke Human Rights Book Award at Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC. The event will include a reading of Oblivion and a discussion of how the human rights situation in Colombia has evolved since the death of Abad’s father 25 years ago. After the event in Washington, DC, Abad will travel to Durham, North Carolina, to do a reading of his book in the Rare Books Reading Room of Duke University.

About the Award:
Started in 2008, the WOLA-Duke Human Rights Book Award is a joint venture of Duke University and WOLA, a leading advocacy organization based in Washington, DC. The award honors the best current, non-fiction book published in English on human rights, democracy, and social justice in contemporary Latin America. The books are evaluated by a panel of expert judges drawn from academia, journalism, and public policy circles. The 2012 judging panel included:

Holly Ackerman, Librarian for Latin America and Iberia, Duke University
Roger Atwood, Journalist, Author, and Former WOLA Communications Director
Leonor Blum, WOLA Board Member and Emerita Associate Professor of History and Political Science, Notre Dame of Maryland University
Robin Kirk, Faculty Co-Chair, Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute, Duke University

Previous WOLA-Duke Human Rights Book Award recipients include: Katherine Sikkink for The Justice Cascade in 2011; Victoria Bruce and Karin Hayes with Jorge Enrique Botero for Hostage Nation in 2010; Ambassador Heraldo Muñoz for The Dictator’s Shadow: Life Under Augusto Pinochet in 2009; and Francisco Goldman for The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop? in 2008.

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  • Kira 26/10/2012 at 9:01 am

    Merecido. Felicitaciones y gran saludo.

  • Jaime Zapata 10/11/2012 at 12:23 am

    Felicitaciones maestro, muy merecido. La desgarradora historia de la muerte de su padre, el Dr. Héctor Abad Gómez, es un testimonio desolador, pero brillante desde su estructura, de lo que fue la época magra de la violencia en nuestro país.Creo que los reconocimientos son pocos a tan prolífica obra literaria. Saludos.

  • Karen Slater 03/02/2013 at 10:20 pm

    I want you to know how much your book touched me. In fact, it played a large role in my decision to come to Colombia, where I am still, in Medellin. General stories about the terrible abuses of that time, about kidnappings, murders, crime were so common in the news about Colombia for so long that it was easy to “tune out”.
    But, people I know started talking about visiting Colombia recently, and I started to pay more attention. Then a friend mentioned your book to me last fall, and I read it on my ereader. I “devoured” it, laughing and crying alternately. I was moved by your desciption of your father’s passion for helping the least able to help themselves, and by your modesty. Your writing is exceptional and I only wish that more of your books are translated into English soon.
    Friday when I rode the MetroCable to the Spanish Library , I thought about your father and the sanitation and water problems of those tens of thousands of homes on the steep hillsides. I have told several people about your father since I arrived here in Colombia and in my blog I have written ,too about his work, and his death. ( I leave Medellin tomorrow evening for Cartegena, then briefly back to Bogota before returning to San Francisco where I live. I hope to be able to read more of your work in the future.
    Karen Slater