Finding the Words

I had planned for this week’s post to include part one of my latest short story. It seemed appropriate after last week’s erotica/writing sex post that I would show my own latest try at using sex as a literary device, but then last week Todd Akin happened. And then Steve King happened. Then I felt utterly, exhaustingly saddened. I felt anger and bewilderment and a cocktail of other emotions that in 2012, our elected government officials could make such destructive and dangerous statements about women and rape. I’m not alone (see Jezebel columnist Erin Gloria Ryan’s own post about the limit we all reach at some point on rape rhetoric:

I don’t have enough words to say to contribute to the political discussion over rape (the fact that we have to have political discussions about rape tends to stop me in my tracks). I’m not a political writer, but I am a female writer, so I want to do what little I can to join this conversation. In my own writing, I tend to veer away from overt sexual assault. In an undergraduate fiction writing workshop, I wrote a short story about a young woman who returned to her hometown and was raped by her ex-boyfriend. My professor (a woman, mind you) told me that the character wasn’t sympathetic or likeable enough and she didn’t really feel bad that my character was raped. I can’t remember the outcome of the story, the characters’ names, or its title, but I will always remember my professor implying that my character deserved her rape.

Just because I have at times shied away from this difficult topic in my own writing, doesn’t mean that we all should. I feel that as writers (or painters or musicians) female artists have a duty to contribute to this discussion. Because after a while, all the fighting turns into white noise and all we have left is our art. I tend to believe that creative writers tend to make the most powerful statements, as opposed to a faceless Twitter user shouting his or her opinions in all caps.

As I sifted through the news stories last week over the issues of “Legitimate Rape,” my mind continuously returned to Margaret Atwood’s powerful novel The Handmaid’s Tale. This is the kind of book I feel all women should read. It is incredibly hard to read because the dystopian future Atwood imagines doesn’t seem so far fetched, and that uneasy feeling that lingered on the periphery as I read through the book is hard to shake. This is why this novel is so powerful: because it takes all the discussions our country is having right now about women’s issues, rape, abortion, the war on women, and it ties them up and repackages them into a startling literary science fiction novel.

To summarize the plot: sometime in the near future, the U.S. government has been overthrown by a radical theocracy. Women are now entirely controlled by men. The main character Offred, as in “Of” plus “Fred” (newly named to show who owns her) lives as a handmaid, a sexual slave assigned to a couple for purposes of reproduction. The story follows Offred’s daily life with flashbacks detailing the initial government overthrow, Offred’s attempt to flee the U.S. with her husband and daughter, and her capture and time spent in a “re-education center’ that teaches women absolute obedience to men and the importance of childbearing. One of the most horrific scenes in the book (excruciatingly) details the sex act between Offred, Fred, and his wife. When I hear talk in the media about “Legitimate Rape” I imagine some kind of structured tier of the various types of rape and wonder where Offred’s violation would fall.

For a more recent writer’s response to the war on women, I look to Lidia Yuknavitch and her essay written for The Rumpus just last week ( Yuknavitch

writes with unbelievable honesty, not just in this essay “Explicit Violence,” but in all of her writing. She shows great vulnerability and nakedness when she writes about sex (she is another good example of writers who use sex to advance plot and develop character). “Explicit Violence” is an especially difficult piece to read as it highlights the history of Yuknavitch’s own experiences of sexual assault. She is a damn brave writer to lay it all out there, and I can’t think of a more powerful way to combat the hateful rhetoric surrounding rape than to write something that so profoundly addresses the topic. What I found to be the most effective style choice in this essay is the repeated lists Yuknavitch makes of the objects involved or related to the acts of sexual violence she experienced (“Purple crayon. Coffee mug. Vodka. Underwear.”). They are like inventories of these experiences, the physical world and things we attach to physical or emotional trauma.

I don’t know what will happen in the future regarding our government’s views of women’s right or what new injustice the media will latch onto for the week. I only know that I will continue reading the news stories, no matter how disheartening they may be, but I will also remind myself that there are female (and male) writers contributing to the national conversation with their startling, impacting art. I will find solace in this.

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