Akshita Nanda

Culture Vulture: Raped and refusing to be silenced

"Quiet as it's kept," begins Toni Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye, appropriate for a book published in 1970 about issues difficult to raise, such as the aftereffects of sexual assault. -- ST PHOTO: SIM CHI YIN 
"Quiet as it's kept," begins Toni Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye, appropriate for a book published in 1970 about issues difficult to raise, such as the aftereffects of sexual assault. -- ST PHOTO: SIM CHI YIN 

Sexual violence is difficult to articulate, but the unspeakable and unthinkable can be dealt with by reading and writing about it

"Quiet as it's kept," begins Toni Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye, appropriate for a book published in 1970 about issues difficult to raise, such as the aftereffects of sexual assault.

Today, rape continues to be explored in literary writing, with the difference that there are more things we can talk about now.

As four recently released books show, narratives no longer shy away from a crime euphemistically and idiotically referred to as "a fate worse than death" in turn of the 20th century pulp fiction. Writers have moved on from stereotypes reinforcing the idea that a woman's honour is tied to her chastity and have also moved away from portraying the survivor purely as a victim.

Still, sexual assault is a topic many would like to ignore in public conversation and understandably so. Morrison's preface to The Bluest Eye shows that her goal was to shape the silence around the unspeakable.

Thoughts on sexual violence are difficult to articulate because of the deep repugnance the idea elicits in much of humanity. It is an unthinkable abuse of power and violation of another human being's rights, "choice theft" as China Mieville called it in his novel Perdido Street Station (2000). It is a crime with devastating emotional impact on the attacked and also on those who know him or her.

It is a crime easier not to think about, which is of course why so much literature on the topic has focused on lifting the veil, forcing our attention to the crime and its aftermath.

The unspeakable and unthinkable must be faced in stories so they can be dealt with in conversation. If not, one terrible consequence is that this silence can be exploited, as prolific American writer Joyce Carol Oates shows in her latest novel, The Sacrifice, released in late January.

The Sacrifice is one of the four new books tackling the topic of sexual assault from different and challenging perspectives, the others being My Sunshine Away, the debut novel of short story writer M.O. Walsh, released in February; Bad Feminist, a collection of essays by critically acclaimed novelist Roxane Gay, first published last September and recently reprinted; and The House Of Hidden Mothers by Meera Syal, to be released in June.

Oates often shapes stories around sexual assault, from Foxfire: Confessions Of A Girl Gang (1993) to Rape: A Love Story (2004), a haunting narrative of the ordeal a survivor faces in bringing her assailants to justice. The Sacrifice moves away from type. It is not a straightforward narrative of crime and aftermath, instead illustrating the difficulty of establishing the truth in allegations of rape, especially when the person attacked refuses to cooperate with the authorities and speak about what happened. While the novel is more ambiguous, the inspiration was a real-life case in which the alleged victim was judged to have fabricated her accusations.

The Sacrifice is hard reading but necessary, especially in light of the recent controversy over a campus rape story published by Rolling Stone magazine, but retracted this month over discrepancies in the alleged victim's account. The problem behind the article, as identified by the Columbia School of Journalism, was a failure of due diligence on the writer's part. The journalist did not press the alleged victim for details out of sympathy but neither did she ask tough questions of or chase down the people her source said would be able to give more details.

Anyone who has ever been sexually harassed or known someone who has suffered harassment knows it is easier to stay silent, to pretend this never happened, to sweep things under the carpet. This is why books such as My Sunshine Away are so important, because stories can influence our responses to the world. Walsh's novel is typical of many targeting young adults and shaped around the issue of sexual violence, such as Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (2001), in which a teenager who refuses to stay silent about being assaulted is ostracised by her peers, and The Perks Of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chboksy (1999), in which a teen boy finally finds the courage to speak about his abuser.

My Sunshine Away is told in the voice of a teenage boy with an unrequited crush on Lindy, the girl next door, who is brutally attacked one evening. It is a story of innocence lost which focuses on the boy's rude awakening to the horrors lurking in the world and determination to track down the rapist. The point of the novel is not his quest for justice but rather, how Lindy and those around her grapple with the fact of the assault. She deals with post-traumatic stress in various ways, including self-harm and self-loathing, but eventually finds her footing in life. By the end of the book, the rape is, if not forgotten, certainly not stopping her from pursuing a career and making a happy marriage.

The same is true of the women in Bad Feminist and The House Of Hidden Mothers, both of which also detail the trauma felt by a survivor of sexual assault but place the episode as only part of the survivor's life - a terrifying and horrific part, but one that can be survived and overcome. These are narratives of suffering and struggle, but the women make something beautiful of their lives anyway.

This is especially the case in Bad Feminist, which is not a novel but a collection of essays on matters from work ethics to body shape to popular TV shows. The author, novelist and academic Gay, also writes of being gang-raped as a teenager and how hard it was to go through high school after that. She was named and shamed as a "slut" by her assailants and developed body image disorders as a result.

Today, Gay is a professor of English at Purdue University, a tournament-level Scrabble player and writes social commentaries with wit, flair and tender humour.

She still experiences traumatic flashbacks in moments of intimacy with a lover, but this does not hold her back from relationships. Nor does it make her want to silence discussions on sexual violence or ban books on the topic - in fact, quite the contrary.

"Reading and writing have always pulled me out of the darkest experiences in my life," she writes in What We Hunger For, an essay on why she loves The Hunger Games trilogy. She says this is because it is the story of a woman who endures, as she has.

"Stories have given me a place in which to lose myself. They have allowed me to remember. They have allowed me to forget. They have allowed me to imagine different endings and better possible worlds," she writes.

She has reclaimed the story of her life from an assault that could have defined it, by refusing to be silenced.

Stories have the power to shape the world and this is the sort of narrative that needs to be talked about.

akshitan@sph.com.sg