I write about myself a lot on this blog1 and one of the reasons I feel justified in doing so is the long-standing literary importance of autobiographical writing.
The influence of writers’ lives on their output stretches backwards from those trendy, contemporary, essayistic things I love, through memoirs and autobiographies and letters and diaries to the birth of literature itself. Writing that is ostensibly a “true” representation of a life has always been eropular, but, alongside that, so has autobiographical fiction.
Let’s define what I mean by that (other definitions are available). By “autobiographical fiction” I mean: Stories that trade not so much in “what” happened, but in a fictionalisation of the emotions and events under consideration; autobiographical fiction does not contain assiduously-remembered fact, but literarily-evoked stories, it takes life and twists it, making texts that are more real despite being less “factual”. To truly evoke an experience, a life, an event, it has long been common practice to liberally use the author’s life. And why not? “Write what you know” is a common phrase thrown at aspiring writers, and what does anyone know better than their own life?
This tradition includes great recent novels (Ferrante the obvious big example), pretty much every good American novel of the 1920s did it, some parts of Dickens, Austen, Laurence Sterne, use events from the writers’ lives, y’know… Autobiographical fiction has long been the source of great and important works of literature.
Is anything in Fitzgerald’s oeuvre as heartbreaking and beautiful as Tender is the Night? No. Does it matter that names are changed, that a writer becomes a doctor? No, because the story it tells, one of physical and psychological collapse and a mutually-destructive but passionate marriage, the story it tells is weighty and moving and [sadly] timeless. That novel works, and the alterations to “fact” F. Scott makes are justified by his creation, his evocation, of a truth that is more human and universal than what he could achieve with a straightforward retelling of his own growing alcoholic collapse and Zelda’s (what would turn out to be) permanent incarceration in a psychiatric hospital.
Dark Chapter is an autobiographical novel that is similarly about a serious topic, and similarly has major differences between itself and standard memoir. Dark Chapter is a novel about a violent sexual assault that happens to an American tourist in a park on the edge of Belfast, which is an experience that the protagonist – Vivian – has in common with the author, Winnie M Li. Dark Chapter is about Vivian’s assault, the events that led up to it and those that followed (both the legal process and Vivian’s personal recovery). What is surprising about this text is not its weighty detail, its contemporary relevance or its crisp, direct, prose, but a huge – and important – structural decision. Dark Chapter is not only the story of the victim of the assault, but also of its perpetrator.
Half of Li’s novel tells of Vivian’s life and how it is interrupted by this unexpected “dark chapter” (hence the title), while the other half dramatises the life of Johnny, an illiterate Irish traveller who, by the age of 15, has already become a selfish, self-obsessed, serial rapist.
Li has been writing and speaking on sexual assault for several years, and co-founded the Clear Lines festival. I believe – unless I’m reading incorrectly – that key to her message in relation to sexual assault is the importance of speaking out. It is important to be open and honest about sexual assault – rape, to use a blunter word – because it is silence – and a sense of shame in the victim – that allows perpetrators – rapists – to continue doing physical and psychological damage. Silence and shame are the rapist’s friend, and Li’s novel builds on the valuable work she has already been doing as a public speaker to normalise and destigmatise discussion of this topic. With Dark Chapter she presents a personal and deeply moving piece about the huge repercussions of sexual assault and how seriously the police and legal system take accusations of rape.
If judging the book on its didactic merits alone, it is Li’s presentation of the police that is probably most valuable – here they are compassionate, considerate, kind and take their job of protecting the public very seriously. “The police and prosecuting lawyers are good people and deserve to be trusted” may sound like an unfashionable sentiment to find in 21st century literature, but in the context of this book it is important and appropriate. Rapes are often unreported, and encouraging trust in the police will help to change that.
However, to judge Dark Chapter merely on its didactic merits is reductive: Li’s novel is a taut piece of fiction that left me in places both terrified and weeping deeply, and concluded with the most satisfying upbeat ending I’ve encountered since Get Out.2
Johnny – the rapist – is presented as someone with no thought for the wellbeing of others, especially women, and the reader – who bounces between Johnny’s and Vivian’s perspectives section by section – witnesses him assault another woman before he encounters Vivian. This scene is especially unpleasant as we see it from Johnny’s unashamed perspective, and we then witness him – guilt-free – boast and laugh and brag about his exploits to other young men who seem to share his attitudes, concerns and – possibly – behaviour.
Johnny is “underprivileged” (to use a buzzword): he is poor, with no education, no permanent address, and part of a large, separated, family. Johnny’s father is an abusive alcoholic and his older brother is in and out of prison for petty crimes. He is not a pleasant individual, his concerns are visceral, immediate and base – he wants sex and intoxication and nothing else: he steals, he lies, he injures, he cons, he is cruel and aggressive and feels no remorse. Johnny doesn’t go to school, he doesn’t work, he doesn’t do housework. He contributes nothing to society but does plenty of damage. Vivian, however, is the opposite.
Vivian is Taiwanese-American and comes from a very supportive family. Her parents are moderately successful small business owners and – through hard work and merit – both her and her sister have attended Harvard and secured impressive jobs. Vivian travels the world, is a producer in the film industry and has a huge network of friends, all of whom seem to be successful, too. Vivian is explicitly not into either casual sex or cocaine, and she works hard but not at the detriment of a social life. She is happy and balanced (work and play) and well-behaved, hurting no one. This contrast between the victim and the rapist may sound a little black and white in summation here, but by giving half of the text to Johnny’s perspective Li moves him away from being a stereotype, or archetype, to being a fleshed out – and occasionally sympathetic – character.
However, class isn’t as significant a theme as gender in the book, and Vivian’s status is important literarily because it doesn’t make her invulnerable to Johnny’s violence. Anyone – no matter how hard they work and how well they behave towards other people – can become the victim of serious, life-altering, crime. Rape is not just something that happens to weak people, to meek people, to foolish people – Vivian is none of these things, she just happens to be in the – cliché alert3 – wrong place at the wrong time.
As a reader, we know the rape is coming before it arrives, but when it does it is as brutal and unsettling as we are expecting. Li is unrelenting with her graphic, violent, detail – as is appropriate – and when Johnny is throttling Vivian the evocation of her primal fear is deeply harrowing. There is nothing about this encounter that is pleasant to read, but things like this happen in real life. Something very similar happened to the writer of this novel. It is unpleasant, but it happens. What is also unpleasant – but real – is cross examination of victims of crime in law courts; what is also unpleasant – but real – is that forensic examinations of rape victims necessitate further unwanted bodily contact. In fact, the scene in the novel that made me cry the most – the scene where I had to put the book down for a few minutes as I couldn’t read the text through my tears – was when Vivian was being examined by the police after her assault. The kindness coupled with bluntness of the doctor, the powerlessness of her friend, the confused knowledge that she was now safe, but hadn’t been so recently, the beginnings of reflection, regret, shame, anger… I found this deeply moving.
Dark Chapter is a novel about rape and recovery. This is explained from the off, and even with this clear plot, the book never fails to be engaging as a narrative piece. The inevitability of the attack gives a weighty menace to the first half of the novel, and similarly the trial is very tense due to a reader’s prior knowledge of the way rape trials function: i.e. accusing the victim of lying.
For me, the most arresting moments of the book were Vivian’s interactions with acquaintances and friends of friends who had also been raped. As other people share their experiences with Vivian (and thus the reader), a dark portrait of unreported abuse appears. Vivian – significantly – is not ashamed. She is the victim of a crime and behaves like the victim of a crime, and this is the only place where her high status helps her: as a driven, highly-educated, successful woman she is able to understand her own lack of blame. You don’t get better prosecution lawyers because you’ve got a job in the film industry, you don’t get a more sympathetic jury because you went to Harvard. But you don’t even get the rape to trial if you’re unable to believe in your own lack of culpability. It is only thanks to this knowledge that justice is able to be served.
Reading this book from a male, heterosexual, perspective obviously caused a lot of weighty reflection in my own mind. Toxic male sexuality, machismo, is something I do not like, the pressure to behave in/actively tolerate certain behaviours and attitudes makes me feel very uncomfortable.
A few months ago, during a particularly low period, I said to a therapist that one of the things that truly made me hate living in this society, in this world, is the fact that I believed – believe – that I – and men like me – could probably get away with rape.
This is an impression I get, not a knowledge based in personal or anecdotally reported experience. That impression comes from the way that the narrative PERSISTS that it is women who must protect themselves from rapists, not men who must not rape. I believe that things are changing, but when I was at school and when I was an undergraduate the matter of rape was treated, very much so, as something that happens to women who do something ill-advised. You get too drunk, you trust the wrong man, you wear clothes too revealing, you have “too many” lovers, etc. Women were advised to wear longer skirts, drink sensibly, not to “sleep around” because then men will think you’re always “up for it”.
I remember my “freshers’ pack” contained reusable plastic bottle caps for women to use to stop men from pouring Rohypnol into their drinks. Women were told to never leave drinks unattended in a bar or club, women were told to tell their friends when they’d arrived home safely, or – better yet – not to go home either by foot or taxi or bus or train unless you had someone with you. What I never heard said to a man – still haven’t heard it directly said, to me at least – is “do not rape”.
Women who were raped were “asking for it” because they were good-looking and/or dressed up.
Women who ignore male sleaze have “slut” shouted at them WHICH DOESN’T EVEN MAKE SENSE.
The LTDA have been driving a massive board around London recently telling women that if they take Ubers instead of Black Cabs they should expect to be assaulted.
It’s female dress being in the news, it’s women’s bodies being in the news, it’s the never-ending stream of films and television where young women’s murders are central to the plot, it’s the jokes and the comments that men make when women aren’t listening – dialogue that Li captures unpleasantly accurately in the scenes between Johnny and his peers – it’s the election of Donald Trump and the popularity of blokey banter; it’s the way men shout when they’re drunk in pubs, the way men leer at women in the street, the way every single woman I know has stories of being – at best – patronised and harassed by men. It’s how casually rape is joked about – by men – in both mainstream and “alternative” comedy shows. It’s the fact that people behave like I’ve admitted to something terrible when I state that I’ve never watched pornography; it is the normalisation of aggressive male sexualities; it is the disparities between the way men and women are expected to dress, to behave, to think about and engage with sex.
It disgusts me, it repulses me, that this is the case, that this is the world, that this is how it is and that I’m expected to see it and take advantage. There do not seem to be any more repercussions for being “bad” than there are rewards for being “good”. The rules aren’t made for heterosexual white men, and it may be hard to understand how confused lots of other heterosexual white men seem when you try to tell them that you feel uncomfortable about that.
Men – heterosexual men – are encouraged to feel pride and entitlement with regard to sex, while women are expected to feel shame. It is this narrative, these gross societal norms, that men are able to exploit in order to get away with terrible things. Because they can and they do and that isn’t right. It isn’t right that language can be used to shift guilt from perpetrator to victim, it isn’t fair that this happens.
What Winnie M Li’s novel does is evoke BOTH the worst excesses of selfish, self-important male sexuality in a painfully believable4 way, AND the effects this has on the physical and psychological wellbeing of a very real person, who thus becomes a victim.
As a non-diminutive white man, I have never felt sexually threatened, though when I was younger and handsome (i.e. had hair) I did regularly receive unwanted sexual attention from older men. For me, and for most men, there is a significant difference between unwanted sexual attention and sexual threat, there is no presumption that the former will become the latter. Whenever I received unwanted sexual attention, I rejected the offer and that was it, the man would go away. That is the closest experience I – and the vast majority of men – have ever got to sexual harassment and therefore sexual assault. This – as Dark Chapter indicates – is not how most women experience unwanted sexual attention. There is always the fear, the risk, that it will turn threatening.
I would advise any men struggling to understand why women dislike unwanted attention to read Li’s novel. Her prose brings a reader close into the personal perspective of a woman as she is bothered, harassed, followed, stalked, assaulted, attacked and raped. Li’s crisp prose makes a reader part of this terrifying experience, pulls us inside the mind of the victim. As literature, it is powerfully moving; as a piece with a purpose, it is highly successful.
Li switches between a male, heterosexual, voice that embodies the worst excesses of chauvinism and a measured, articulate but – understandably – emotionally-affected female voice. Male readers (see footnote four) will recognise the worst things they’ve heard men say and then witness them acted out, understanding the fear caused by atrocious male behaviour. Li’s novel evokes Vivian’s fear and pain, as well as her blamelessness for what happens. The portrait is of a character both vulnerable and strong, both victim and (judicially, at least) victor.
Li’s rendering of Johnny – very much the villain of the piece but far from a pantomime one – is an evocation of a type of man and the effects this has on himself and the world he inhabits. His family situation is problematic, but there is some hope for him at the end. We do not like him or trust him, but we are not expected to hate every member of his community. He seems real – unpleasant, but not undeveloped. Li did extensive research into Irish Traveller communities, and there is nothing that feels unbelievable or damagingly stereotypical here.
Dark Chapter engages with very important issues – ideas of gender, ideas of sexuality, ideas of safety, personal freedoms, the legal system, a bit on class. The novel is naturalistic, believably evoking two very, very, different lives that are connected by a single afternoon. This is important reading, especially for other heterosexual men. It is important that people learn, that people listen. Violent rape is the eventual – extreme – conclusion that comes from extending many of the normalised ways men speak about and engage with women. The way a man looks at a woman, speaks to a woman, can make her very uncomfortable because women have spent their whole lives being warned about possible rapes, while men – at least not my generation, though I acknowledge progress is being made – very rarely get told to hold back their urges, their desires, never get told to not rape. This novel is significant in its honesty, in its humanity, in its nuanced and engaging evocation of a serious and unignorable problem.
And it is, the thing that I keep coming back to, based on something that really happened. Li’s own experience gives an authority to her novel and as upsetting as it is for a reader to keep remembering that this horror is something she lived through, there is relief to be found in knowing that – for her, at least – recovery has happened. Li’s book is being published to huge acclaim in numerous countries, and it’s getting a lot of attention in many newspapers. It’s an important read, a serious and unignorable piece of autobiographic fiction and a text that – I hope – will be read by lots of people and should go some way towards changing the kind of attitudes that stop women from feeling – and being – safe.
The world cannot be changed if we do not listen to other people’s opinions, other people’s experiences. And here Winnie M Li offers us a fictionalised account of a dark chapter from her own life. It is well told, it is socially significant, it is unpretentious: Dark Chapter is unarguably a good book that very much deserves attention. Look out for it.
Winnie M Li appears in at least one June 2017 episode of Triumph of the Now TV.
NB: Winnie M Li was a classmate of mine during my MA at Goldsmiths a few years ago, and I was amongst a group that travelled with her to the Stow on the Wold gypsy fair, a trip I (partially) wrote about here. But, as I’ve said when reviewing texts by people I know before, if I didn’t like it I’d’ve either written that or just not bothered to review it and made my excuses next time I encountered the writer. “Oh no, I lost it/my dog ate my copy/I dropped it in the toilet” etc. See, it’s easy.
1. Not too much, as some people might allege, it’s literally what it is for: IT’S “MARKETED” AS A “LITERARY LIFESTYLE BLOG” NOT A ONE-MAN MAGAZINE. ↩
2. If you’re annoyed about that film “spoiler” you’ve got no right to be. I don’t watch many films (TV is the new film, hashtaghashtag) and I’ve seen Get Out. If it really bothers you, swap Get Out with Maurice, but that reference makes me sound much less trendy, especially as I don’t mean the Hugh Grant film, I mean the unloved book.↩
3. This is why I describe myself as a “blogger”, not a “writer”.↩
4. I’m afraid sexist banter is a normal way for men to interact, which is why I kept pointing out last Autumn (when that whole “grab ‘em by the pussy” thing came out) that any man who tells you he’s never encountered men speaking like that is either lying or living a life even more reclusive than mine. Or they have very, very, liberal friends and never eavesdrop. ↩