After reading Bronwyn Lea’s great post about why she won’t be seeing (or reading) Fifty Shades of Grey, I wrote the following comment:
I haven’t heard many women talking about this book; none, in fact. But the Bible Belt has a far different cultural climate than California, so probably all the closet 50 Shades readers around here are keeping it a secret from fear that their fellow church members won’t approve. I read a summary on Wikipedia and was thoroughly disgusted; I read reviews on Goodreads, too. There were two extremes: those who thought it was “brilliant” (really?) and those who trashed it. Horrible writing, rape disguised as sex, etc.
Life’s too short to waste time on trashy novels.
Then I went on (and this is what I want to focus this blog post on, so here’s a warning if rape is a hard subject for you):
Incidentally, some of my fiction has sexually explicit material. Rape, in both cases. I tried my very best to be as careful in my depiction as I could, because I couldn’t tell the story without some depiction. (The rapes play a large role in the plotlines and the stories.) But I tried not to be detailed, kept it short, and above all, tried not to show more than necessary to convey what happens. Those writing sessions were some of the most emotionally draining and intellectually difficult days I’ve ever had.
Obviously, I’m not writing erotica—although I’ve had interesting and annoying incidents where people apparently thought I was. I mentioned my novel writing to a group of women, and one asked about the subject matter. As we were within earshot of this woman’s young child, I said that I’d rather not talk about when kids were around. Sex trafficking isn’t a child-friendly subject. But these women made this sort of “ooo-la-la” sound, raising their eyebrows mischievously and winking, as if to say, “We didn’t know you’d be writing sexy novels!” (Ah, the joys of miscommunication.)
Writing about rape is difficult; it’s just as difficult for me, as a novelist, to write rape scenes. I don’t take pleasure in it.
Young writers are told, “Show, don’t tell.” But what if showing an action is unacceptable? What if it triggers someone who has been abused? What if I write badly and, instead of being horrified, the readers are titillated? What if I appear to be glorifying rather than condemning rape?
But on the other hand, simply telling is problematic. Is it effective to tell the reader what has happened in a just-the-facts manner? Possibly. But if the rest of the novel isn’t written in this style, it might feel like a cop-out, as if I were too lazy to deal with a difficult scene.
So when I approached writing this one particular scene, I thought long and hard about it. I searched for any Christian writers who had written effective violent scenes; I couldn’t think of any.
Then I thought two other novels that dealt with violence, though not rape.
One: Toni Morrison’s Beloved revolves around the murder of a child by her mother, a runaway slave fearing capture of her and her children by slave hunters. Rather than allow her children to return to slavery, she kills her young daughter. (She is stopped from killing the other children.)
It’s a haunting narrative. What interested me, though, is that Morrison never shows us the killing. We read everything up to and away from this point in the narrative, but she falls silent at the moment of the child’s death.
It’s as if she points the camera away from the action at the crucial moment, and we only see the bloodshed in our mind’s eye. Effective and chilling.
Two: Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife focuses on the character of Una, the wife of Captain Ahab (in Moby-Dick), and her life both before and after her marriage to him. At one point, Una is aboard a whaling ship; it sinks; the starving survivors in one lifeboat (hers) resort to cannibalism. (The theme of cannibalism appears over and over in Melville’s works, so this plot development is appropriate for Naslund’s story.) The captain’s son is dying, so someone shoots him, and you can imagine the rest.
What’s interesting here is that Naslund doesn’t describe the terrible act in detail. She doesn’t even use complete sentences, really.
One word lines.
Snippets of fact, sensory details.
Stacked one on top of the other.
Building a picture.
And in that picture, we create the scene in our minds.
We see what is happening in that white space on the page. We don’t have to have graphic, titillating detail; she’s given us just enough and no more.
These two works were incredibly helpful for me as I approached the rape scene in my third novel. I spent an hour or so brainstorming every aspect of what my character’s senses experienced: sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing. I picked one or two from each category, and built my wobbly word-tower (as Naslund did) and pointed the narratorial eye away at the worst moment (as Morrison did).
I won’t say it was brilliant; no one else has read it, so I can’t judge others’ reactions to this part, nor comment on its effectiveness.
I will say this: it was the most emotionally draining writing session that I’ve ever had, and I’ve had many, many sessions when my emotions wore me out. I was done writing for that day.
But it also gave me great empathy for my main character. I was early in the first draft, and though I knew part of what she’d endured as a sex trafficking victim, I hadn’t seen it all. I hadn’t put myself in her place and felt, seen, heard what she had.
Now, after this exhausting writing session, I had. I knew. And I knew I couldn’t let her story die. I had to finish writing this novel because I owed it to her, the fictional representative of the many trafficking victims in this world, to tell her story and ultimately, to give her (and her real life counterparts) hope.
Maybe I did that. I hope so.