IN 2008, at age 29, Winnie M. Li was raped during an afternoon hike in Belfast’s Colin Glen Forest Park. Her perpetrator, a 15-year-old boy, was an “Irish Traveller” — an ethnic minority in Ireland who have lived on the margins of society in the United Kingdom and Ireland for centuries, and who continue to face discrimination in the country. He was sentenced to eight years in prison, and served four, after pleading guilty to the attack.
An American film producer based in the United Kingdom since her early 20s, Li was on a professional upswing. Her short film, Vagabond Shoes (2005), had been shortlisted for an Oscar and she was about to attend the premiere of her latest project, Flashbacks of a Fool (2008), starring Daniel Craig. Grappling with the psychological impact of her rape, she left her film career and is now a PhD researcher in Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where she studies rape survivors’ use of social media to communicate sexual trauma. In 2015, Li co-founded the Clear Lines Festival, dedicated to using the arts to promote discussion of sexual violence, and hopes to bring the festival to the United States in the second half of 2018.
In her debut novel, Dark Chapter, Li returns to the story of her rape and survival. Centered on two characters, Vivian and Johnny, based on Li and her own rapist, Dark Chapter explores the immediate, later, and enduring consequences of sexual violence across the spectrum of lives it touches. Li’s novel has already grabbed the attention of critics, picking up a 2018 Edgar Award nomination for Best First Novel and winning the Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize late last year.
Between meetings to discuss optioning the screen rights for Dark Chapter and writing her second novel, Li and I met over lunch to talk about her novel, the dark chapter of her life that inspired it, and coming out of the darkness that surrounds us all.
LAUREN YOUNG: You’ve said that when you started writing Dark Chapter you were very curious about the mindset of the perpetrator. How did you cultivate that curiosity? I don’t know if empathy is the right word — that seems like a really loaded term in this context — but can you describe how you came to a place of wanting to inhabit Johnny’s mindset?
WINNIE M. LI: I would use the word empathy. I think empathy is something that we as human beings could benefit from having more of. It’s hard, obviously, to address the idea of empathizing with your rapist, but that was something I wanted to do, or at least try to empathize with the fictional version of him to try and make sense of what happened. I wasn’t ready to do that right away; a trauma like rape obviously has a huge impact on every aspect of your life, and the last thing you want to do, really, is think about your rapist in the immediate aftermath of it. Even though I knew I wanted to write the book, I put the project to the back of my mind and I said, “Okay, for now I’m just going to focus on rebuilding my life,” which took years. When I had enough distance from the trauma itself and felt like I’d recovered enough, I thought, “Okay, now I’m in a place where I can start thinking about that person who raped me as another human being.”
Pretty early on, even weeks or months after the assault, I knew I wanted to look at those two lives: mine and the perpetrator’s. It might have been different if he came from a world closer to mine, but he didn’t. So the more I learned about him, which wasn’t very much, but I knew that he was 15 years old, he was from this Irish Traveller community, he hadn’t been educated, he was illiterate — the more I thought to myself: “What was that life like? What was his life prior?” So, although I was traumatized at the time, I wanted to investigate these two lives and how they crossed in this one act of violence and how those two lives were never the same again.
I tried to do research into the real-life individual, but I kept coming up against roadblocks in my research. Basically, the only option I had was the police, and they kept on saying “He’s got a right to his own privacy, so…” Eventually, I realized, it actually didn’t really matter, I didn’t need to know the real-life details of that real-life person, because I’m writing fiction. So, I just took the few facts I knew and filled in a personality and a human identity which could try to make sense of these actions.
In the book you acknowledge that Vivian’s recovery, like your own, takes place over years. Recovery looks different for everybody, but it’s usually not the months and weeks we see often represented in popular media. When you were writing, did you make a conscious choice to represent a relatively realistic timespan for recovery?
Oh, absolutely. I get quite annoyed when I see TV and film portrayals of rape where this awful thing happens to a female character and you kind of get your obligatory flashbacks, but you don’t really get a sense of that long journey. I felt it was really important to reflect that interiority accurately. I felt it was important to show that it’s not as if the trial happens, you have the outcome, and that’s the ending. That’s the happy ending that you see in Hollywood, but for a survivor that’s just the beginning. Once the legal process is over, your life isn’t on hold as much and you have to really focus on rebuilding. The last scene in Dark Chapter is set five years after the assault and it’s only then that Vivian starts to have the perspective to rebuild her life. The final scene is, in some ways, symbolic of where I was in my life five and a half years after the assault, when I quit my job in Singapore and I moved back to London to work on the book. Survivors often hear people say, “Just get over it,” or, “Pick yourself up,” but recovery is a very long process. In reality, it’s a very slow process of picking yourself up.
As an American living in Britain, do you notice a cultural difference in how people talk to you about your rape?
I think you can say Americans talk more openly about most things. Certainly, if you look at the conversation around sexual violence, it is more advanced in the United States than it is in other parts of the world. There’s also this sense of shame around sexual violence in Britain. Obviously, there’s a sense of shame around it in America as well, but I would say in Britain there’s more of a sense of, “Let’s not talk about the things that could embarrass us.” I think it’s even more pronounced in Ireland, that kind of refusal, or shame, to talk about sexual violence. Plus, in Ireland there’s the whole Catholic approach of not addressing anything sexual at all.
Your novel also introduces your international readers to the Irish Traveller community, a group that isn’t known by many outside the United Kingdom.
Though I started living in Cork in 2000 to 2001, it wasn’t until after the assault in 2008 that I actually heard about Irish Travellers. I think that, for me, what made the story interesting is that both Vivian and Johnny are outsiders. Normally, if you see rape and sexual violence portrayed in the media, the victim is typically a white middle-class, educated woman and the news media often self-select the stories they like to report. In reality, sexual violence is something that happens to the whole breadth of society and it’s important to show how these experiences feed into our sense of identity. Especially if you’re not somebody who fits that narrative. So I wanted to look at two characters who were already on the outside and how this experience of sexual violence, either from the perpetrator’s or the victim’s point of view, then went on to affect their identity within the larger world.
Did you come across any books that helped you think about how you wanted to shape your novel?
I’d read a lot of rape memoirs after my assault and they were really helpful in terms of validating my own experience and making me feel I wasn’t alone. Those memoirs really helped me through the recovery process. I wanted to do something new with my own novel, which was exploring these two lives. At various times, I tried to make Vivian more different from me, but I thought, “Well, I want to reflect the authenticity of what happened to me.” I don’t read that many books where you see the Asian-American character who’s kind of like me in some ways, who loves traveling, who loves the outdoors, who has that level of independence —
And who’s an artist, as well.
Yeah, exactly. A lot of times, if you look at Asian-American narratives, it’s kind of about that individual’s relationship with her culture. There’s a little bit of that in the novel. Of course, I also explore Johnny’s relationship with his culture, but it’s more about this cultural clash between Vivian and Johnny in terms of values and attitudes toward gender than it is about those things.
Vivian and Johnny’s perspectives portray how toxic masculinity develops and makes clear that it’s not just certain men who are violent outliers, but rather that it could be anybody. Do you think that the culture is generally becoming more aware of toxic masculinity?
Toxic masculinity is one of these catchphrases that maybe wasn’t around 10 years ago, but that kind of culture and that image and that attitude has been in our society for millennia. So has this notion of men having power and men being the ones that have strength and maybe not being able to control their sexual impulses. Toxic masculinity isn’t too different from saying, “Oh, boys will be boys,” and that’s often used as an excuse for why boys, why men assault women. You can’t excuse that. Men should know that they can’t just get what they want from women sexually whenever they want it. It’s important that we become aware of that notion of consent and that we start to incorporate that awareness not just in our everyday lives, but also in the media, in politics, in work and culture. I think it’s important that we’re at the point where we can be more critical of toxic masculinity and how visions of authority and power are constructed.
Did male publishers, in particular, have questions about whether this novel would speak to an audience?
In the United Kingdom, the people working in the publishing industry tend to be female, but the decision-makers at the top still tend to be men. My agents are based in Barcelona and they’re all women, so they were on board right away. We would run into female editors that were passionate about the book, but then the decision-maker at the top wouldn’t want to take the risk of publishing something about rape. I had a major publisher in the United Kingdom who, during the negotiation process, said: “You’d be great for publicity. We’re going to do a rooftop launch party, TV interviews.” That’s the kind of exposure every writer dreams of for their first novel. A week later, they reneged on the offer. What happened, I think, is that they’d gone up through the chain of command and there was a male decision-maker at the top who pulled the plug. The actual line that they gave me was: “We expect all of our debut authors to do publicity. We’re aware of the psychological toll this will have on Winnie as a rape survivor, and we don’t want that on our conscience.” That is a very patronizing, patriarchal explanation. Of course, I don’t know what the actual decision was, but they were so enthusiastic at the beginning and then suddenly there seemed to be a sense that I was such a liability as a rape survivor to be publishing a book about that experience. It was annoying, and it was heartbreaking. I went from thinking I had a big publishing deal to suddenly not having one at all.
In the prologue of Dark Chapter, Vivian talks about going back to save her younger self in the moments before her rape. I was struck by that because I think many women, whether or not they’re survivors of this kind of sexual violence, have an experience, or a series of experiences, they can look back on and say, “That could have gone a different way.”
I wrote that a few weeks after the assault and I don’t know where it came from. Maybe at the time, I wrote it from Vivian’s perspective to remind myself that, at some point in the future, I would be able to look back on that moment as something in the past. It was also about trying to capture that sense of what could have been if I’d realized what was happening, or that sense of why didn’t I realize what I was walking into. I think that’s something every victim thinks about. A lot of us have that gut instinct that kicks in, but that you don’t totally listen to because you don’t want to be rude or assume that this person is a bad person. As women, we’re socialized to be nice and be polite and, at the same time, we’re in a more vulnerable position sometimes just because we are women and are sometimes seen as sexual prey. If you look at that more gray area, the scenarios where you’re on a date with a guy and you go back to his place, and you don’t know the guy that well, there is a reluctance to be forthright and say: “I don’t want to do that.”
Reluctance and the fear of what will happen or the thought: “If I say this, will the situation be worse?”
Yeah. I think the Aziz Ansari case is very good for illuminating that sort of territory. A lot of guys don’t realize the impact that social conditioning has on women because we don’t talk about it. I think there is an ignorance that maybe men have about the impact of their actions in sexual scenarios. For women, that eventually wears away at your self-esteem, wears away at your sense of self-worth. That’s a little bit of Vivian’s experience with the boy in college, even though he realizes that she isn’t into it and ends it. I was probably a little bit naïve sexually growing up and it just didn’t occur to me that I might be in a scenario with a guy and suddenly he’s going to try to turn it into something sexual. I think that’s also part of the larger conversation happening with #MeToo. Sometimes, you feel like there’s a different language being spoken by men and by women in these situations.
And that’s also the case with men who claim to be feminists, the ones who are uniquely frustrating because they think they’re immune, as if an awareness of the issue is almost a kind of absolution. How do you think Dark Chapter might contribute to the larger conversation we’re having around sexual violence with #MeToo and Time’s Up?
One of the reasons I wrote Dark Chapter as crime fiction was to reach a different kind of audience. There is that trope in crime fiction, in which the novel opens on the body of a beautiful dead woman and you never know what happened to her and she doesn’t really have an identity beyond the fact that she’s a rape and murder victim. Most of the time, she doesn’t even have a name. That was something I was trying to counter quite a lot in writing Dark Chapter. As a rape victim, I think it’s important to show that people do survive these crimes, and there is a path to recovery, that these people have a past and that they will have a future. I thought maybe by rewriting this trope in crime fiction, this is a way I can reach a wider audience and get them to engage with this issue in a way that isn’t so obvious as a form of activism.