Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Dark Chapter: An Interview with author Winnie M Li

Winnie M Li's Dark Chapter is a remarkable book - a fictionalised account of her own brutal rape that explores not only the victim's trauma and recovery, but delves deep into the mind of the perpertrator too. Here she talks to Catriona Troth about the genesis of the novel and her own journey to recovery.

To begin somewhere slightly ‘off centre’, I was fascinated to read that you did your dissertation on Dervla Murphy. I read her Tales from Two Cities, about her experiences in Bradford and Birmingham in the early 1980s, when I was researching my own novel. She is a remarkable woman – an independent spirit to say the least! Can you tell us a bit about what drew you to her

So I’ve always been intrigued by travel, even before I was old enough to really travel on my own. I studied for an MA in English at University College Cork in Ireland, 2000-2001, and the focus of the course was Gender and Sexuality in Irish Writing. Most work by Irish women authors seemed largely to explore stories of repressed daughters and housewives in the Irish countryside — and I found this kind of depressing and difficult to relate to. So my professor (the excellent Pat Coughlan) suggested Dervla Murphy to me. Here was an Irish woman who in 1963 decided to cycle from France to Afghanistan entirely on her own. Now that sense of adventure — that desire to explore the world and embrace uncertainty was something I could definitely connect with. I was in heaven reading her travel writing — and the dissertation was actually a joy to write.

You have written very openly about the fact that you were raped in Belfast in 2008. What happens to Vivian in the book follows almost step by step what happened to you in real life. Why did you chose to write about your experience as fiction, and yet on the other hand to stick so closely to the actual events, rather than allow yourself a bit of creative distance?

I get asked a lot why I decided to write this book as fiction and not as memoir. There’s a few reasons for that. One is that there are already a number of excellent ‘rape memoirs’ out there, which were a great help to me in the year immediately after my assault (After Silence by Nancy Venable Raine and Lucky by Alice Sebold come to mind). I didn’t think I’d be contributing anything new to the field if I just wrote another rape memoir. So what I really wanted to do was explore the character of a young perpetrator, writing his perspective, and intertwine that story with the that of the victim. And that was something I could only do in fiction, since my real-life rapist was a complete stranger to me. Writing Johnny’s perspective was quite a creative leap, so I felt if Vivian’s experience closely echoed my own, that would at least ground the project a bit for me. In other words, Vivian’s sections wouldn’t require such a stretch of the imagination and could offer a bit of creative ‘rest.’

So as you say, Dark Chapter is written from two alternating perspectives. As well as walking us in Vivian’s steps, you delve deep into the mind of her attacker – the last place one would imagine you would want to go. Why was it important for you that you included Johnny’s perspective?

Yes, it would be an entirely different book without Johnny’s perspective, and probably a book that would have held much less interest for me to write. By writing Johnny in an empathetic way, I was trying to push the boundaries of what I felt capable of thinking and feeling as both a writer and a survivor. I also feel that we as a society need to start thinking of perpetrators as human beings whose experiences, upbringings, personalities, etc somehow lead to sexually violent behaviour — they are not born ‘monsters.’ If we’re not willing to understand the contributing factors that lead to perpetrators’ behaviour, we’re never going to be able to prevent this crime from happening in the future.

It must have been a very different, but equally painful process to delve back into your own experience. How did you deal with that as a writer, and how did you deal with it personally?

Writing Vivian’s sections was a very different process, but being able to switch back and forth between writing Vivian and Johnny kept things interesting, less monotonous, and less painful for me as a writer. Yes, it was difficult emotionally for me to relive some of the worst episodes in my life, which I had to do in writing Vivian’s trauma, PTSD, and depression. As a writer, using the close-third perspective offered a bit of distance, and this made it possible to look back on my own lived trauma and try to re-frame it as fiction. I also experimented to see how the language could best reflect the sense of isolation and fragmentation that Vivian undergoes at certain moments. Personally, I guess I cried a lot when writing some of these sections! But there was also a slight sense of power gained because I could tell myself: ‘Look, I went through that, but it’s over now. And now I can gain mastery over that experience by transforming it into fiction.’

I believe you wrote the first few paragraphs which were to grow into Dark Chapter just a few weeks after the attack. A few years later, this became an essay published in a book called Sushi and Tapas: Stories By and Of Young Women, for the charity Women for Women International. What prompted those first attempts to put things in writing? How did that differ from writing the novel?

Actually the essay in Sushi and Tapas was entirely different writing from Dark Chapter. That was written as short-form memoir, in first-person, present tense. So it was entirely open and up-front about my experience as lived truth, as reality. It’s true: the prologue of Dark Chapter was written just a few weeks after my attack, and that sparked the idea for the book (the intertwining perspectives of victim and perpetrator). Even though I knew I would have to wait years before I was ready to write this book. Writing for me has always been my way of making sense of the world — I’ve been writing since the age of 6. So it’s impossible for me to not write about things, especially something as momentous as my own rape. But still, the Sushi and Tapas essay was much more direct in portraying my own experience. It didn’t require any research. As fiction, Dark Chapter is significantly more crafted; I had to think a lot about creating character, plot, tension. I experimented with language, I researched heavily. That’s why it took two years to write!

In 2014, you returned to Belfast for the first time since the trial to begin the research for Dark Chapter. What was it like for you to go back? Have you been able to make some peace with the city?

At first, I was terrified at the thought of returning to Belfast. I associated it so closely to my trauma that hearing a Belfast accent would make me nauseous. But I also knew I couldn’t write the novel effectively if I didn’t go back to do that research. So even though I dreaded it, I forced myself to go back. I found that the people of Belfast whom I interviewed were incredibly kind and generous, and bit by bit, I was able to overlay those traumatic memories of the city with much warmer, friendlier ones. Now, I feel perfectly comfortable returning to Belfast and having made a lot of friends there, I even consider it sort of a secondary home.

Your own attacker pleaded guilty, which at least spared you the trauma of examination and cross-examination in public court. But as part of your research you attended trials where this was not the case. What did you learn about the way victims (‘complainants’, in the court jargon) are treated? And how would you like to see that change?

The court procedure really does not value the well-being of victims, and the main argument of the defence is to completely undermine the credibility of the victim’s story. This is incredibly insulting and damaging to a victim, and does not help with recovery. In addition, the prospect of testifying in public, in front of one’s own perpetrator is horrifying. This fear can be very disruptive to rebuilding a victim’s life. In the ideal world, victims would not have to face their perpetrators in court, there would be counselling support available for victims as they go through the criminal justice process, and the whole style of cross-examination would be handled differently. I’m also not a fan of trial by jury with these kinds of crimes, as I think the public harbours some very problematic misperceptions of how a victim should talk, behave, or even look in the case of rape. None of this is actually relevant as to whether or not a perpetrator committed the crime or not, and yet the victim is often judged. 

You clearly believe in the importance of art and creativity as a way of talking about rape and removing the stigma around you. A few years ago you co-founded the Clear Lines Festival aimed to “create a space in which to talk about rape and sexual assault.” Can you tell us some more about that?

I actually started Clear Lines when I was in the middle of writing Dark Chapter. I was feeling very lonely and isolated during all that writing, and I wanted to do something that could maybe combat that isolation and bring together all these artists, writers, activists, and survivors on the issue of sexual assault. I had started to realise how much art was being created to challenge this topic, and how many people out there wanted to engage with that art and not feel as alone. So if I could create some kind of platform or space for artists and audiences to come together, then that could be a positive, healing step in the right direction. It would also allow us to celebrate the value of creativity and community in addressing this issue.

I believe you now consider yourself a survivor, as opposed to a victim. You have even written, “the experience contains the potential for regrowth and recovery, the way a broken bone mends itself to become even stronger” – a remarkable and inspiring statement. If you could speak to the young Vivian now – perhaps the one sleeping on the floor by that window overlooking the Thames because she cannot cope with being shut inside her bedroom – what would you say to her?

It gets better. You won’t always be trapped by the trauma. You’ll be able to travel again, to live again, to enjoy the world again — and one day, you’re going to publish a book about this.

And is there anything you would say to Johnny, if you thought he was ready to listen?

Don’t be so mean to people. Stop and consider their perspectives. Because people are willing to consider yours.

Thank you, Winnie! We wish you every success with the book.

Winnie M Li is an author and activist. Her debut novel, DARK CHAPTER, was published June 1st by Legend Press and will be translated into seven languages. It is currently shortlisted for The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize, and was 2nd place in the SI Leeds Literary Prize 2016 and Highly Commended for the CWA Debut Dagger 2015. A Harvard graduate, Winnie previously wrote for travel guide books, produced independent feature films, and programmed for film festivals. After earning an MA in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, she now writes across a range of media, runs arts festivals, and is a PhD researcher in Media and Communications at the London School of Economics. She lives in London yet is somewhat addicted to travel. Twitter: @winniemli


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