Welcome, all of you who have wandered this direction from various tweets and posts, and to our regular Wonderland crew. We're here with author Shana Mlawski, author of THE HAMMER OF WITCHES, and today, Shana's gonna give us some author-chat on... rape.
Yeah, big downer, huh? And yet: if you're writing historical fiction... history is the story of violent conquest. Period. And, unfortunately, devastatingly, rape is a part of violent conquest - historically and presently.
You might be wondering, why did we ask Shana to talk about this? -- and make no mistake, we did. We invited her to talk about this because it is uncomfortable. Mucho uncomfortable. There was a squickness about a few scenes in HAMMER OF WITCHES that we didn't want to shove under the rug. Baltasar Infante is a product of his culture and time. And rape was also a product of that conquest and that history... but, there's just no good way - nor good reason - to talk about it... Or, maybe there is a good reason?
Should We Write About Rape?
Writing about rape is tricky.
I know: understatement of the year, right? The thing is, I don't want to write about rape. I wish it didn't exist, period, but barring that I wish it weren't such a major part of our history and our lives in 2013. I hate writing about it. I have to write about it. Maybe we all have to write about it.
HAMMER OF WITCHES is a book for young people. It's a fun adventure story filled with genies, witches, swordplay, and a little romance. But it's also set in 1492. We can't know exactly what happened when the Spanish began their conquest of the Americas, but various reports suggest brutal acts of violence, including rape, were not uncommon. This is not to say there was no rape in the Caribbean before the arrival of the Spanish. There's evidence that the indigenous people of the West Indies “stole” women, too. There's also a “charming” story in Taino mythology about a trickster god who went around raping provincial leaders' wives. The patriarchy: it's everywhere! But the Spanish had special incentive to attack Taino women. The women weren't Christian and therefore were not considered quite as human as the ladies back home in Europe. Use your imagination. Or don't. It's depressing.
In any case, we know rape exists in the world and has existed for a long time. The question writers must ask themselves is, “Should we write about it, and, if so, how?”
As I said, these questions are tricky. I can't give you an answer, but I can show you how my thought process went when I was writing HAMMER OF WITCHES. Behold!
OTHER SHANA: “Shana, you're thinking about writing a rape scene? Why? Does every book featuring a female character nowadays have to have one? It kind of seems that way.”
SHANA: “I hear ya. I hate that 'rape is a fun backstory that makes female characters into badass superheroes' trope. But there WERE rapes in the Caribbean in the 1490s and 1500s, Other Shana. If I don't mention them, it would be a harmful act of whitewashing, a lie!”
OTHER SHANA:“This is a young YA book, First Shana. It could almost qualify as middle grade. Parents and teachers don't want their kids reading about this stuff.”
SHANA “That's absurd. Young adults already know about rape. They go to the movies. They hear the 'jokes.' Doesn't TBS run Law & Order: SVU reruns twenty times a night or something? And as miserable as it is to say, we have to acknowledge that too many young adults have been raped themselves.”
OTHER SHANA: “Ugh, I can't even bear to think about that right now. Fine, I'll mention rape in the book, but I won't use the actual word. I'll say 'the Taino women were taken advantage of' or something.”
SHANA “That's ridiculous! That blunts the violence of the thing! Readers need to feel in their gut how horrible it is! Use the damn word!”
OTHER SHANA: “Okay, okay! Wow. I'll use it once. Maybe twice. But I won't show it.”
SHANA “I'm with you on that one. When you show rapes in books, it can seem pornographic. The last thing we want to do is titillate young readers with a description of one of the most horrific crimes there is.”
OTHER SHANA: “Yeah, that... but mostly I really don't want to write a rape scene. That is not something I can handle doing right now.”
SHANA “Fair enough. We'll have it happen off-screen.”
OTHER SHANA: “But if it happens off-screen, will it seem less horrifying to readers? As I said before, they need to feel how horrifying it is.”
SHANA “Then we'll have one of our protagonists see it, and she can report back. She'll tell us how horrifying it was.”
OTHER SHANA: “Let me get this straight. We're going to have a named character talk about unnamed characters being raped off-screen. Are you saying the raped women don't need names, because they're not really people, you're only using them to make a political statement? Tell me that's not what you're saying, Shana.”
SHANA “Yeah, I can see there are unfortunate implications there. But the book is from the perspective of European characters. I can only 'see' what they see and know what they know. Argh! This is why I need to write a sequel from the point of view of a Taino character! Blerghhhhhhhh!!!”
OTHER SHANA: “Interrupting your blergh-ing for a second. If your named European character is at the scene of the crime, why doesn't she stop it?”
SHANA “She only sees the aftermath. Why? Should I have her fight the rapists?”
(IN SWOOPS MY AMAZING EDITOR STACY, WEARING AN AMAZING SUPER EDITOR CAPE!): “Yeah, have her fight the rapists! She has magical powers. Let her use them!”
OTHER SHANA (WAVES GOODBYE TO STACY AS SHE SWOOPS AWAY, BATMAN-STYLE, TO SAVE ANOTHER NEUROTIC WRITER FROM OVER-LONG INTERNAL DEBATES): “Thanks, Stacy! I'll do that. But wait. Now doesn't it look like the Taino women are mere objects to be raped and then saved by white Europeans?”
SHANA: “Yep. It probably does look that way. But to be fair there are other parts of the book where Taino people save white European characters. There are White Saviors here, AND Taino Saviors, AND Other Race Saviors. So it's not like we're being totally racist here.”
OTHER SHANA: “Sure. You keep telling yourself that, Shana.” (BOTH SHANAS CRY AS WE FADE TO BLACK.)
And there you have it. Did I learn the one true way to write a rape scene? No, clearly I did not. But I picked a way, and although I have some concerns about it I'm mostly okay with how it came out. Rape is not a major part of the book, but it's there, hanging around the margins, a reminder of the terrible reality of Columbus's celebrated voyages.
For all you writers out there, my feeling is that there's no single right way to write about rape. All I ask is that you think about what you're writing as you're writing it. Think about what your artistic choices might say to readers. If you find the implications make you uncomfortable, consider a rewrite. If you're fine with what the scenes imply, more power to you.
"But history is history. I'm not going to whitewash it. We have plenty of people doing that already. In the year of 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue—and Spain conquered Moorish Granada, the Inquisition tortured people, the decimation of Taíno civilization began, and the world's largest Jewish population was sent into exile. It's a complex, fascinating era, but it's a tragic era, as well." - Shana Mlawski
And, so, here you have it: there are no good ways to write about some topics. And yet -- those topics still need to be written, especially within the context of historical fiction, where reality and story conflate to bridge the gap between real people's stories and today's living history, to enable us to take the lessons from the past and use them to illuminate today.
Thanks again, Shana, for coming by and talking about a topic both challenging and potentially divisive - and for sharing your thought process.
Yesterday, Shana was at The Reading Zone, talking about writers writing reviews - yea or nay? Next Monday she'll be at The Book Cellar, and the following Thursday at Margo Dill's blog, Read These Books and Use Them!
ETA: Synchronicity! Shana's at Diversity in YA's Tumblr today, too! Don't miss.
Final quote and author photo courtesy of Lee & Low site.