No Brain Bleach Needed Here

Trigger warning: mild description of the circumstances of rape

I sat down with a fantasy book for adults that I wanted to like (I’m being discreet here, I won’t tell you the title). The prose was lovely, the young heroine interesting. About 70 pages in, the first niggling suspicions started up: She’s not going to get raped, right? She’s going to do something clever or one of those bystanders will step in… Right up until the heroine was gang-raped (yes, gang-raped) I didn’t believe it would actually happen. And then she was raped again. The description was not graphic; the rape wasn’t particularly violent, except, of course, it was rape. And it was enough to make me feel claustrophobic and sick and to wish that I had never read that and to put down the book never to pick it up again.

When I went to my YA book club and told my book club-friends I didn’t have enough brain bleach to remove the memory of that fictional rape, I realized that one of the reasons I enjoy YA is that bad things don’t happen to the main characters  just because they are female.

Sure, bad things happen. The main character might have to choose between saving her dad and saving her city; she might get locked away on the other side of a portal in Prague and separated from all her family; she might have to go kill other teenagers in a staged fight to the death; but none of these things happen to the characters merely because they are female. And for the most part, rape is not a part of most fantasy YA or really most YA at all. There are exceptions, but usually they are in contemporary YA, as backstory (i.e. not on the page) or issue YA (which I don’t read). Occasionally it comes up under the revolting pretense of romantic relationships that the author does not see as abusive and sex that is not identified within the story as rape but which I do see as abusive and as rape. (That’s a whole other post.) Usually my friends or the internet or my own good sense warn me away from those.

Getting back to why there isn’t that much rape in YA, it might be a rape-isn’t-suitable-for-the-childrenz thing or it might be because a lot of YA is written by women and most women don’t think writing about rape is fun. Not that being a woman means you automatically won’t commit rape as backstory, rape as character development or rape because it’s “realistic.” But it seems slightly less common. It might be any number of things, but thank god for it.

It’s no surprise that rape is normalized in fiction; after all rape and violence against women and children is normalized in our society. Lots of people have posted much more articulate posts about rape culture, so I’m not going to. I already have those rape culture paradigms installed in my head, thank you very much, however much I fight against the passive assimilation of them. I have my own firsthand experiences of violence and many, many women have confided in me their own stories of violence and rape–and those are just my friends, I’m not even counting the stories I heard while working at the District Attorney’s office as a domestic violence victim/witness advocate.

So why would I want to read stories that continue to normalize that experience and the expectation of violence? I don’t. Especially given the new studies coming out showing that read experience is, to some extent, lived experience.

I want to read stories that normalize equality and about worlds where women socialize safely with men without the ever-present worry about rape and violence hanging around like a third wheel. (If you think that makes for boring stories, you haven’t read Sherwood Smith‘s Sartorias-deles books where the urge for sexual violence has been eliminated from humanity.) And if not, then I want to read about worlds where the women beat the hell out anyone who tries to hurt them–whether physically or through quick thinking and intelligence. Or worlds where our own rape culture expectations are not imported whole scale and uncritically and where sexualized violence is not seen as expected or realistic.

YA, more often than not, gives me that reading experience.

And as a total PS, I now have to go read all of Seanan McGuire‘s books after her post Things I will not do to my characters. Ever.

PPS Off the top of my head, Malinda Lo has some posts about YA and normalization with regard to LGBTQ people/characters.

PPPS The photos automatically recommended by Word Press for this post were triggerific themselves.

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A Partial Set List for Friday Night at Viable Paradise

As reconstructed from my computer, which Leigh and Casey were using to look up lyrics. So there might be some mistakes.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden and Steve with a Hat on guitar and banjo. Theresa Nielsen Hayden, Casey Blair, Leigh Butler and Kevin Riggle on vocals.

I Want to Sing that Rock and Roll, Gillian Welch

I Feel So Good, Richard Thompson

Althea, Grateful Dead

Chain Lightening Steely Dan??? Or something with lightening in it?

All That Way, Oysterband

Oh, Mary, Don’t You Weep by Bruce Springsteen Slave spiritual, author unknown

Down Where The Drunkards Roll, Maura O’connell Richard Thompson

Look at Miss Ohio, Miranda Lambert Gillian Welch

Don’t Drive to Atlanta

Dream Cafe, Greg Brown

Lawyers, Guns and Money, Warren Zevon

The Other Shore, Luther Barnes Austin Lounge Lizards

On the Other Shore, Austin Lounge Lizards

Old Blevins, Austin Lounge Lizards

I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, Richard and Linda Thompson

The Wild Rover, Steve in a Hat

Over You For Now, Whisperado

When I Was a Boy, Dar Williams possibly: Read About Love, Richard Thompson 

Feel free to add anything else you remember in the comments.

Post Viable Paradise

I haven’t told anyone at home much about Viable Paradise. Not so much for “what happens at VP, stays at VP” reasons, but because I want to hug the experience to myself and not risk diluting it. I have a writing date tomorrow; I will probably share more with my writing friends, but even then, I might not be ready to talk about it for months.

I went into VP with a lot of trepidation, having participated in a critique group that wasn’t right for me and left me blocked for months. I was afraid I was going to cry at VP, that I would be one of those people who couldn’t hear criticism at all, and that I wouldn’t be able to write again, after finally getting back into a writing groove. Instead I found a group of really smart people who got it and who gave on-target, helpful, informed critique. And that was just the students.

The instructors gave me two things, one I knew I needed and the other I didn’t. (Actually they gave us many, many gifts, not the least of which was the gift of their time, but I’m going to just mention two here.)

The first was professional level, personalized readings of my story. The instructors told me exactly where I was failing and how, as it pertained to me. Not general advice, not general writing rules, not look at how so-and-so does this, but specific-to-me, right-here-this-sentence feedback. I needed that and I knew I needed it. I hope I can take all the tools they gave me and move off this plateau to a higher mountain.

The second thing the instructors gave me was a glimpse into their excitement. They were excited about reading, about writing, about editing, about helping us learn to write better, about us, about our stories and about talking about all of those things. At first I was too shy and impostery feeling to see it, but over the week, it became clear to me that they are editors and writers and instructors for the same reasons I am a writer: the thrill of picking up a book and discovering it is the story you didn’t know you wanted to read; writing what you cannot find on the shelves; hearing other people discuss a story you wrote. And one more layer over that, because they are the pros: helping other writers improve their writing, too.

They drew the parallels for us over and over again during the week. We were writers, like them. Writing is hard, for everyone. They could tell us about our mistakes because they made them, too. They were once where we are now.

I could call it validation, or finding a group of kindred spirits, or the intensity of a littoral, transformative experience. But what it felt like was the instructors and students infected me with excitement. They made me feel invincible, publishable and that being the writer I want to be is within my grasp. I have that memory inside of me now. I can call on it when I am writing alone in a room and my gloom-tinted glasses settle on my nose. I already have.