Winnie M. Li is the author of the award winning DARK CHAPTER, out now from Polis Books. A Taiwanese-American who was raised in New Jersey and graduated from Harvard, Li went on to produce films and television in London. But then, one hike in Belfast, where she was attending an important conference for work, changed everything. Li was brutally raped and beaten on the hike and chose to press charges and go to trial. This experience ultimately became fictionalized in her raw and powerful book, where she also imagines the life of her assailant, both before and after his assault and the trial that sent him to jail.
Li has become a full-time activist speaking out on issues of rape and consent: She is the founder of the CLEAR LINES FESTIVAL, devoted to providing a forum for discussing sexual assault and consent, and is also pursuing her Ph.D. at the London School of Economics where she studies the effects of social media in community building and recovery for survivors of rape and assault.
Ms. spoke to Li about art and trauma—and why the voices of survivors need to be heard.
I’m really interested in the idea of using art and media to tell difficult stories, especially stories told by survivors. Why was fictionalizing your experience so important to you?
As a writer I always knew I wanted to write about this because it’s impossible to have something this life-changing happen and not write about it. Fiction, I felt, was the only way I could write about it and also investigate the character of the perpetrator. A lot of the approaches to rape in literature don’t really look at the perpetrator. That was something new I could do not just for myself, but for readers as well. To find the humanity in that character. I wanted to write a novel about two characters whose lives intersect in an act of violence and see how both of those lives were affected.
Has that act of humanizing your perpetrator had an impact on the activism you’ve done since the attack?
I think it’s important, though I don’t expect every survivor or victim to do it. Everyone has their own path towards recovery and their own way of dealing with their trauma. More broadly, as a society, we need to start thinking about perpetrators as human beings who have had experiences that have led to this behavior, rather than thinking of them as monsters. That behavior is learned, it evolves. There’s a whole set of attitudes towards women that leads to that kind of behavior. If we don’t address that we won’t stop it happening in future.
You’ve said that you’ve heard from survivors who have thanked you for the book as it makes them feel less alone. For other survivors, however, it must be difficult to engage with a dramatization of such a traumatic experience.
It is an ethical question in terms of how we tell these stories in the media. With art there’s a level of agency involved for the reader or audience. No one is forcing you to engage if it’s too traumatizing. With Clear Lines, the festival I founded to talk about sexual assault and consent, we staged four days of conversations using theatre, film, spoken word, visual art, comedy and panel discussions. Some people went with a sense of trepidation, but they went there because they wanted to learn more. Most of the people there were survivors. There were a lot of tears shed and it was an emotionally intense festival, but at the same time people found it empowering and reaffirming to know that there were other people who had gone through those experiences and had the same feelings.
Fiction is a way of reaching—if they want to be reached—people that are affected by the issue. But it’s also a way of reaching people who don’t know much about it and dramatizing that human experience. I wrote the book for several reasons; one is that I wanted to do justice to the survivor’s experience. The other was to reach people who don’t know much about rape or haven’t understood how fundamentally it impacts victims and to bring that to life. That’s why I wrote it as fiction – people are perhaps more willing to pick up a crime novel than a memoir about rape.
One of the places in the book where your experience diverges from Vivian’s is that she endures a trial, a scene that makes for enraging reading. I read it around the time of the recent trial in Belfast of four Ulster Rugby players accused of rape and other offenses, who were ultimately acquitted, and it rang depressingly true.
I wrote that section because in some ways I wanted the reader to be enraged. When I was researching the book, I sat through a number of different trials in Belfast and in London and I was always enraged by the way the victim was treated and the general lack of duty of care for the victim. I wanted to put the reader in the victim’s shoes: of being a victim of a horrible crime, of having your whole life turned upside down and traumatized, and yet, during the cross-examination process, having that barrister effectively saying “you’re making it up, you’re lying, you wanted it to happen”—it’s so insulting, and I wanted to dramatize that.
I was following the more recent Belfast case pretty closely. And of course, I was enraged. It was such a long trial and it’s hell for the victim.
You’ve said that one reason you wanted to write this book is to ensure the voice of the victim is heard. Is this missing from both media and artistic portrayals of sexual assault?
Yes! We know that rape and sexual assault are very prevalent, but a lot of people who aren’t survivors might not realize this. I wasn’t a survivor for 29 years of my life; I had this image of rape, a lot of which came from news stories, or I had read books where it happened but the book said nothing about the long-term impact on the character. And then suddenly I’m walking through this park, I get raped by this kid, and now I’m a rape victim. I realized that representations of rape are very different from the actual experience. I think that’s the case for so many rape victims and contributes to why it takes some victims days, weeks, months or even years to realize that what happened to them was rape. There’s so many different types of rape experience—not just stranger rape, like mine, but date rape, acquaintance rape, marital rape, the list goes on. You don’t see many of them spoken about from the survivor’s perspective in the media and I think that contributes to a lack of understanding about it, even for the survivors themselves. We’re doing a disservice to all of society by not having the survivor’s voice in there.