For the record, I do not write autobiographically. One reason is that I value privacy (despite the public display of typing in front of your eyes) and another is that most of my real life stories sound like made up nonsense. On the rare occasions that I share an anecdote in conversation, I sound like a liar. Even to myself. If I ever told you the Bon Jovi dildo story, you’re nodding right now.
So I prefer the cleaner, less dubious forum of fiction. In a story, I can nix the unlikely coincidences and make the narrator reliable. Unlike me. I can structure events so they seem more believable.
Who believes women, anyway?
The past two weeks I’ve been trying to think back about when I first started hearing stories of sexual assault from other women. I think the first time was when I was about twelve. A classmate slammed her locker and yelled all they care about is your boobs, you know what I mean, right? And I guess I stared at her not understanding as I do now that I was tall for my age and she assumed or hoped I had been assaulted too. I did nothing at all to validate her. I mean, come on, I was twelve.
The most recent story I heard was this week. It was a case of marital rape. The woman came in for help and then refused to involve police. When she realized the staff believed her and would take action, she minimized the seriousness of her charge and defended her husband. She said, “He was just trying to show off.”
There’s decades between these two stories and many more stories in between. I don’t have time to tell you every story I’ve heard. I don’t have the energy, because each one is traumatic and draining. I once thought I’d make a living through my ability to listen, but thankfully I am done with that now. I can’t carry all the stories. I won’t eat all the sins.
I learned when I trained and worked as a counselor that if you ask about sexual assault in a safe environment with no prejudice about gender, about half as many men as women answer affirmative. That’s a lot of men, isn’t it? That’s because sexual assault is not about sex. It is about power.
Consider the implications: Sexual assault is not about sex.
I think we need to be careful about pitting women and men against each other right now. Besides, can we please have more than two genders? Thank you. I’m glad that’s taken care of.
I’m not denying the unique dangers and risks of possessing a uterus. I have one of the damn things. I’m asking for a more expansive conversation about power differentials and about the complexities of sexual assault and systematic oppression involving class, race, age and gender. I’m asking the oppressors to shut up and listen. If they don’t, they’re going to get killed. I know they will. I’ve heard the voices.
“Silap Inua” is a story about power and possession and voices. I didn’t write it to capitalize on a movement. You can’t read it yet because the book it will be in from Transmundane Press (“In the Air”) won’t be out until next year. I mention it because it is not autobiographical regarding any singular entity, but autobiographical in that a collective and sublimated rage drives it.
Last weekend, when friends messaged me to participate in a women’s blackout to show solidarity with survivors I went through some mental gymnastics trying to decide what to do. I kept coming back to “Silap Inua.” It’s a story that never quite gets free of the politics of disappearance. In the end, the heroine finds power but not empowerment. I wanted to change the uncomfortable arc when I wrote and (almost endlessly) rewrote it, and every time I tried, the story didn’t feel true. Do you know how sad this makes me about the world we live in?
The story took a long time to write and meandered in a way that discouraged me. I thought about scrapping it and laid it aside for long stretches of time. When I read the long, meandering folk tales of the Inuit people, where lone heroes starve and freeze and every happy ending is tinged dark with losses incurred on the way, I found soulmates for the story’s arc. In the deprivation of the tundra, I found a mirror for Leandra’s emotional landscape, her struggle to survive in a world that sent her on her journey with inadequate resources.
Although I started with “The Snow Queen” and found Russian and Finnish fairy tales and other models of winter stories, “Silap Inua” and its uncooperative heroine Leandra refused to go in any alternate direction. I promise you, I tried to get Leandra to make better choices. I tried to find a simple, clear model of good versus evil. I tried to find a happy ending. Leandra and her story were not having it.
In the end, I find the story a bit weird and unsettling. For that, I don’t apologize. We live in weird, unsettling times. Polarization is the social rule of order right now, with everyone claiming to be the good guy and calling the other side evil. I’m not comfortable with such a simple dichotomy. I guess that’s why I didn’t succeed in writing a fairy tale. What I wrote became something much more difficult and uncomfortable.
I’m pleased with this failure. I hope it says something to survivors. Because I believe you.