This March 2013 post by Sophia McDougall made me sit up in astonishment. Not because it talks about rape in fiction–I’ve seen article after article denouncing the tactic and bemoaning the unoriginality of it–but because the article talks about men being raped. Specifically, how uncommon that is in fiction, compared to the abuse of female characters. While the comments are filled with inevitable and heated arguments about whether McDougall did her research, attacking her reasoning, tearing down specific points, etc etc–the main point of the article is definitely valid and thought provoking. It made me think about my series with new awareness. (As did, of course, the comments and repercussive discussions, which I suspect will be rolling through various forums for months to come. I adored the post about Professor Feminism and mansplaining by Tiger Beatdown in particular.)
I’m going to talk about my use of sexual violence in my books, and whether, in my view, they’re “wallpaper” or “gratuitous”. Not to refute anything McDougall says; I totally agree with her points. Her article made me think hard about my own approach to sexualized violence, and I want to share my conclusions with my readers.
If the word rape makes you feel all squicky, you basically have two options: one, skip this post and go look at something more reassuring (which I do not intend as a derogatory or dismissive comment; I do understand that this is a difficult topic for many people), or two, keep reading–by which I mean, read the original articles I mention above, and others on the topic, as well as my post. (Set aside some time to read through the comments and follow links, this is one of those down-the-rabbit-hole, open-a-can-of-worms discussions that can eat hours out of your day.) Rape in fiction is an enormously complicated subject, and while it’s a squicky one on many levels, it’s also a very important topic, in my opinion, for writers to think about–because sooner or later, unless we’re writing for very young children, we have to face it in our fiction.
(Arguably we have to deal with it in writing aimed at young children as well, because they can also be victims, and their trauma should be acknowledged and addressed–but that’s a whole other can o’ worms that I’m going to leave unopened for the moment. The topic to hand is difficult enough.)
Fair warning: this is also a very long post, though I tried to keep it short.
Right. Disclaimers out of the way, so let’s get started. *cracks knuckles*
I’ll begin with a quote from the article:
“Rape as backstory, as plot point, as motivation – however badly handled, I can usually cope with it.
I found I couldn’t cope with rape as wallpaper.
When there had been two rapes of children (one of whom was also murdered) within about twenty pages of each other, when I realised I was physically tensing up every time a male and female character were in the same scene as each other, because something always happened, even if it was “just” sexualised verbal abuse, it occurred to me I was no longer having any fun with this book.”
I’ve seen similar sentiments expressed elsewhere. In this particular instance, McDougall is talking about the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin. And she has a damn good point. Rape and violence is often presented as a given in any story set in a less-than-civilized world. Women. Childen. Farm animals, in some cases. The problem comes in, as she points out, when the subject is treated with less gravity than it deserves; when it’s so commonplace that it’s like bullets spraying in an 80’s action flick movie.
Rape is a really damn difficult topic to write about, from any angle. I’ve written about it. I don’t minimize that. In the Children of the Desert series, I wound up with multiple instances of sexual violence. I tried to keep those instances to a minimum, and I’ve really tried to make it mean something; beause if I’m going to write about rape, it’s damn well not going to be wallpaper.
Let’s look at the setup, focusing on a few items from book one, Secrets of the Sands:
* Rosin Weatherweaver was a psychopathic bastard who really liked hurting people–spreading their guts all over the floor to see how long they’ll live, for instance. Having him spawn something of a rape culture isn’t at all a stretch, in my opinion.
* The Northern Church, as led by Rosin, was extremely mysogynistic. (It started off biased, but Rosin kicked it up several levels.)
* The last few kings have been less than intelligent/sane/compassionate, meaning there’s been no strong central moral authority to keep a relative level of sanity or rein in the atrocities that have been going on.
* The southlands are considerably more progressive. Scratha and Aerthraim Families are matrilineal and led by women; Sessin Family respects their women as equals; and even F’Heing and Darden, who treat their women like property, allow for strong-willed women to fight their way up to equal status.
* (Slight Spoiler) Desert lords, as part of their progression into “superpowers”, if you will, acquire an increased sex drive. This fades within a handful of years after their blood trials, but it’s fairly well overwhelming at first–which is why new desert lords are usually sequestered with an, uhm, specially trained set of servants, until they can control themselves. There are complex reasons for this, and these reasons are explained as the series progresses–as is the secret (and incredibly dangerous) way to avoid this situation. And these particular servants, called kathain, aren’t just around for fun. The complexities of their role gets explained as well.
On a more character-personal level:
* When the story begins, Alyea has been raped, once, at a fairly young age (around fifteen, at a guess), by an arrogant young southern noblemen, Pieas Sessin (who was completely out of his head on a cocktail of drugs at the time–not an excuse, especially as he was a jackass even when sober) — which directly resulted in her training in a self-defense martial arts/mediation form called aqeyva. While it’s not explicitly explained in the story, the meditation part of this training, as much as her new ability to defend herself, helps her to heal from the trauma. Helps, but doesn’t erase it–the encounter leaves her with significant trust issues, especially when it comes to southern males. She also tends to leap without looking first when presented with an opportunity to increase her own personal power–i.e., increased protection from future attacks.
* Idisio grew up on the streets–first as a beggar, used to garner sympathy from passerby, and later as a whore. He eventually became a pickpocket instead, due to an encounter gone very, very wrong. Overall, his attitude toward whoring is pragmatic–it’s a hell of a lot more profitable than pickpocketing–but that encounter left him more than a little jumpy about any form of intimacy, not to mention a lot of internal conflict about issues of power and dominance. (Which makes his discovery that he is, in fact, stronger on many levels than the people around him all the more disturbing for him.)
* Cafad Scratha’s entire freaking Family (not just “family” as in direct relatives, but “Family”, meaning every occupant of the fortress-city he lived in) was killed in the space of a few hours, while he was away from home on a desert lord training exercise. As a result, he spent a lot of time with the West Coast Families–because nobody was going to let a ten year old kid live in, let alone run, a Fortress literally soaked in blood. And the West Coast Families treat their women like property. So Cafad has always struggled with seeing women as people, he’s got a huge amount of rage in his heart, and he’s a desert lord. In spite of all that, he’s not only not a rapist, he’s also very nearly averse to sex altogether, because of the intimate connection involved–remember, he’s a desert lord, meaning that he’s psychically sensitive; he’s also more or less a war orphan, desperately looking for emotional stability. It was a big deal for him to fall in love with Nissa; and when he found out that she’d been lying to him…well. It’s surprising that she’s still alive. The aftermath of that one moment quietly informs a lot of what happens in the first book, although Idisio doesn’t understand the situation well enough to see it himself.
* Wian, Alyea’s former servant, undergoes a lot of extremely rough handling throughout the series. Her life experiences have made her cynical, very good at deception–and completely focused on taking care of number one, to hell with everyone else. She’s one of the most complicated characters in the series, in my opinion. Whether she’s a good person or not depends entirely on the reader’s personal morality, and that’s deliberate.
* In Bells of the Kingdom, there is a female character and a male character who were tortured, during the reign of Rosin Weatherweaver, to the point of madness and back multiple times. The female, under Rosin’s control, tortured her male companion repeatedly. Tortured other people in front of her companion. The male refused to participate in torturing others, even to save himself pain. One may safely assume that torture, in this instance, was as comprehensive as it gets. I chose to go very light on that picture, because what I did show already disturbed me enough.
* Also in Bells, and in Fires of the Desert, there are two young men traveling together who have the common ground of drastically abusive childhoods; one was fed aphrodisiac, addictive drugs to make him more pliable and the other–wasn’t. Their childhoods affect their current day choices, and shaped their personalities, strengths, and weak spots; without that information, their actions and reactions wouldn’t have made a damn bit of sense to the reader.
So there’s rather a lot of violence, sexual and otherwise, in the series to date. There are men and women struggling with their sexual appetites and histories; there are guys with every excuse to be rapists who refuse to go there, and gals with every reason to be compassionate who instead turn to sadism. To be entirely honest, I never intended to have this much darkness in the story. I remember feeling almost desperate at times, because each choice I made forced me into consequences that I wasn’t at all happy about; but to flinch away from that consequence, to downplay it, to minimize or alter it, was cowardly. It was cheating.
Here’s an example: Idisio started out life on the streets as a beggar and a whore (which are both totally commonplace in any genuine street-life scenario I can think of). He couldn’t be either of those things at the time Scratha met him, because then they’d have no reason to bump into one another (Scratha would have completely ignored him–Idisio would have been as good as invisible). What made Idisio turn to life as a pickpocket instead? Unexpected moral crisis? Not likely. Message from the gods? Also not likely. There weren’t many options but an encounter gone horribly awry, very nearly ending in Idisio’s death. And once I decided on that point, it would have been cheating Idisio’s character to simply leave that as wallpaper–such a profound experience would have marked him for life, and his newfound status would twist the knife in the wound: I never should have been in that position to begin with, I never should have been on the streets. Why didn’t my parents protect me? ….leaving him wide open to the events of Bells of the Kingdom.
I could analyze every single character with similar results. There’s a lot of violence. But in my view, it’s not wallpaper. I agonized over every piece of unpleasantness, making sure that it meant something, tied into the overall plot; making sure it mattered. As I’ve grown in my ability as a writer, I’ve tried to make unpleasant matters and good moments alike evoke a gut response from the reader. And to my vast relief, I can also say, as I’m working on the fifth and final book of the series, that the worst of that sort of thing is behind me: this one is much more political, set in the relatively liberal southlands, revolving around mainly southern viewpoints. The crazy people in this story aren’t sexual predators; they’re just nucking futs in that “everything I’m doing is perfectly rational, what are you talking about?” kind of way.
And, returning to the above quote briefly:
“it occurred to me I was no longer having any fun with this book”
…I can say that this fifth and final book in the Children of the Desert series, in many ways, is a lot more fun to write than the others were. It’s certainly less gut and heart wrenching than Bells. But I also know, without a doubt, that I couldn’t have made this one work without all the other stuff being set up first. For one thing, developing the background through the other books gave me an implicit framework that allows me to leave certain things as understood–and a gut sense of when things are going right or wrong, meaning that I don’t have spell the hints out. For another, it forced me to develop my skill as a writer, made me examine why the characters did certain things; made me learn how to show, not tell; made me learn to convey vivid moments with fewer words and a deeper impact.
It is a vast relief to walk away from the squicky stuff into more “ordinary” conspiracies and plots and centuries-old revenge plans. I don’t regret having done it. I will very probably not go there again, if I can avoid it. I know there is at least one book in my future plans that will require a brief return to that dark area of human perversity, and I’m not really looking forward to that segment of that book, but without it the whole story falls apart–and the whole story is, in my judgment, worth telling.
Whether any book involving any amount of darkness–or even the lack thereof–is worth reading … is a reader’s choice, and not one an author can reasonably argue. All we can do is tell the stories that come to us, and hope that the pathway betwixt mind and page is as clear of distortion as possible. After that … it’s out of our hands.