Vivian Tan is 29. She is a London-based Taiwanese-American film producer whose passion for Irish culture has earned her a prestigious scholarship and ultimately an invitation to the tenth anniversary of The Good Friday Agreement in Belfast. Vivian is bright, talented and self-confident.
She’s fulfilled her immigrant parents’ dream of graduating from Harvard and is now trying to find her own path, whether on the red carpet or on hiking trails across the globe. She’s looking forward to completing a hike in West Belfast before flying back to London for the film premier she has to attend on Sunday.
Johnny is 15. He is an Irish Traveller. His parents have separated and he now lives in a caravan with his alcoholic father and his delinquent older brother. He eats the candy bars he steals, with the occasional meal brought over by a neighbour. He has been treated like dirt his whole life. He is at best invisible to the world outside his family and at worst an upcoming statistic of a society that has failed him. His head is still throbbing from his regular Friday night cocktail of cheap weed, pills and booze. He’s in a predatory mood. He goes to his regular hunting grounds, Colun Glen Forest Park in West Belfast.
High on a hillside over the city, Johhny stalks Vivian and attacks her, threatening to smash her head with a rock. He strangles her. He rapes her twice. Vivian is not his first, although she is unusual. Older, stronger, foreign. Still at his mercy. Vivian does what she can to survive.
The alternating quick-cut dual point of view works better here than later on during the climactic courtroom scenes.
What follows is both unsurprising and riveting at the same time. We are so inured to the rape culture we live in that I expected the victim to be put on trial. The real insight comes from realizing that the harshest cross-examination comes not from the defence lawyer but from Vivian herself, as she tries to make sense of her trauma.
She’s been raped by a teenager, in broad daylight. She has to repeatedly vocalize the absurdity of it all as she goes through the procedural hell of the immediate aftermath. How did this happen to her? Could she have done anything to prevent it? Did she maybe not fight hard enough? She knows she wasn’t “asking for it” by wearing a hiking outfit, although it does not deter Johnny’s defence from trying to claim she seduced him.
A word to the wise: this book is written by a rape survivor and does not shy away from the grim reality of sexual violence. What it absolutely does not do is swell the ranks of crime fiction, cinema, fantasy books, TV shows (I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones) et al which use the brutalized female body for titillation and / or in order to drive the male protagonist in his quest for justice. Stories matter. It is little wonder that we still teach girls that the onus of not getting raped is on them and their fashion choices or their lifestyles instead of teaching boys not to rape. It’s not my place to sermonize about rape culture and I believe that no matter how outraged we are, it’s crucial to listen to rape survivors instead of speaking over them.
One of the most poignant moments of reading Dark Chapter was seeing Vivian wonder if Johnny’s racist language during his confession would get any reaction out of the overwhelmingly white audience. “You do wonder,” says Li, laying bare the double dose of dehumanization that women of colour are subjected to.
These are the types of conversations that Winnie M Li has been involved in as an activist and cofounder of the Clear Lines festival, a four-day event which brought together artists, activists, survivors , therapists and the general public to discuss sexual violence and consent. Perhaps the most startling element of learning about Li’s stories from these conversations has been the coda in which her real life rapist is granted bail despite fleeing custody. The same judge goes on to deny the same treatment to a man accused of damaging a painting. All in a day’s work.
The book itself started as a short story written a few weeks after the attack, and grew into a fictionalized exploration of themes around misogyny, rape, social exclusion and recovery. Although it is at times imperfect in its execution, what Dark Chapter does best is incredibly important. The book is an eye opener about the burden of shame and silence society places on rape victims and a good starting point for realizing that talking about rape culture is the first step we can all take to fight
Sofia Fara – International fiction blogger. For latest foreign fiction news, events and reviews go to www.globooks.net