Monday, November 25, 2013

On Contradictions, Gratitude, and Faith

Last week, my agent told me I was a walking contradiction. A sex-positive feminist building an army to deconstruct rape culture. An erotic romance editor who teaches Sunday school. A brutally dark writer who watches Nicholas Sparks' movies. None of these things feel contradictory to me, but I suppose from the outside they might. To me, there are no absolutes, and the more you know about people, the more you realize we're all contradictions in one way or another.

So. This post is going to be about gratitude and faith. And if you don't believe in God, that's okay with me. I stay on my own yoga mat as a general rule, but I also try my best to tell the truth about my life. And this is what I'm thinking about today.

We're going into Thanksgiving and Christmas and I'm admittedly very sentimental about the holiday season. I can't wait for Christmas music to air on the radio. I start knitting in early November to make teacher gifts, etc. I watch the holiday Hallmark movie every Sunday. I start prepping my kids for the Christmas Eve pageant.

Part of the reason I hang on to the holidays is that it includes traditions my sister and I started when we were kids and I'm grateful to pass those on to my own kids. For me, the holiday season is sort of a protected time. Which is strange because a year ago, we were dealing with kindergarteners shot in Connecticut, and I was dealing with the death of one of my best friends from college. So I guess the truth is: there's no protected time, not really.

And yet, I can't help but be grateful going into the next month. Grateful for my family, my friends, my job. Grateful that dreams can happen. Grateful that I've found a supportive community of writers who understand me.

Yesterday in church, our pastor talked about being grateful even in the hardest times. About taking grace and faith with you when faced with darkness. To be honest, this is not my inclination. I've always thought God was with me when I was at my best, not my worst. For me, gratitude is knowing that the gifts of my life aren't really mine and that when I'm given a gift, I need to acknowledge it's by the grace of God.

And to be really honest, when Michael died a little less than a year ago, I wasn't looking to God for solace, I was looking to God in anger. YOU let my friend down. He needed someone and I wasn't there, and neither were YOU. But of course, that's not how it works. We don't pick and choose the times we are protected. We are and we aren't. This doesn't have to do with God, it has to do with us. Our humanness.

Two days ago, I said to a friend: "Most of the time, I can't imagine that God is down here with me in the dark. I look up and think, can I ever make it out? Can I ever get closer?" But then, my friend said, "Of course He is. It's all inside. If you're quiet, if you still yourself, if you turn inwards, you'll feel Him. He doesn't ever leave." And of course, my friend is right. And I'm grateful for that. But I am still me, so I couldn't help but reply, "You mean She."

Happy Thanksgiving, friends.

Monday, November 18, 2013

On being Haitian and "staying" with rape survivors

One of the questions that has come up several times in book clubs or classroom settings around Fault Line is my choice to make Ben half-Haitian. Even though I've heard this question a bunch, I'm still startled by it. My lens is occasionally so narrow that I forget that not everyone interacts with Haitians on a daily basis like I do.

Usually, my immediate reaction is, "Yes, he's Haitian, why else would he stay?" Which doesn't really answer the question, but it's where I go first. (Note, fwiw: there's also a part of me that thinks Ben being half-Haitian informed his decision not to tell anyone & keep the matter private).

I'm married to a Haitian man. Most of what I know about Haitians comes from my relationship with Julio and his family. He and I have been together for over 15 years (married a few less than that). A few days ago I was talking to my brother- and sister-in-law about the book, and this question of Ben staying came up again. Not from them, obviously, but in me talking about how Ben's cultural background was an important part of his decision-making. That this fierce Haitian loyalty that I've experienced for half my life spilled over into my fiction.

And part of our conversation included a discussion about whether boys would stay, and how much their own backgrounds would inform that decision. For my own part, I didn't tell my story to Julio right away when I met him. It carries so much weight and it's hard for survivors to lay all that bare before they even know if someone is a keeper. But a few months in I told him, and why that was so easy was because I knew that would never be a deal breaker for him.

To the point that I forget it IS a deal breaker for a lot of guys. Especially younger guys. And I wonder if part of that is because they don't know how to talk about it. They feel paralyzed to change something that already happened and so they pull away. Or maybe it's more. Maybe they don't want the drama. Maybe they don't want to have to deal with the work required to be involved with a survivor. Not that it's work, but I do think there's a part of survivors that are always survivors and that partners need to be prepared for that.

But open communication about the issue can go really far in solving this. And the reality is that every time you get in the boat with someone else, you're inheriting their stuff. You're inheriting crazy uncles and dysfunctional family dinners and present-opening on Christmas Day instead of Christmas Eve and movie-talkers and everything else that comes with merging a life with someone. We all have stuff, and it only is insurmountable if we decide it is.

So yes, I will take Haitian loyalty any day of the week, but I don't think it's the only impetus to stay in a relationship with a survivor.

Maybe if there was less of a stigma against being a survivor, and more honest conversation about it, then it would be easier to stay. Maybe it would be less about loyalty and more about compassion and understanding. Maybe it would be easier to get the right help. Maybe the question for the Bens of the world one day won't be "why would he stay?" but "why wouldn't he?"

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Agony of Fear

Today I spent the afternoon talking to a class of Northwestern students about Fault Line. It was an incredibly smart and thoughtful discussion with lots of great shared ideas. And for as much as I'm awkward in public forums, I've actually gotten quite good about talking about my book. Or at least better than when I first started out ("It's a book where this horrible thing happens and it ends horribly").

But before I started today's guest lecture, we had all the students write down on post-its the reactions they thought teenagers would have to this book. Not necessarily the university students' reactions, but what they thought teens would say. And the responses were really interesting. Of course many wrote questions about the open-ending, but they also had lots of reactions including fear, shock, sadness, etc. One of them wrote, "it's too much".

That last one sort of cut through me. Made me pause and wonder.

Did these post-its have the right of it?

It's not a book you "like" in that way. It's a book that starts a conversation. And it did start one. A pretty great one, to tell the truth. But even as I was leaving, even as a guy came up to me and said, "I loved your book. I couldn't put it down. I wish all schoolwork were like this," I couldn't help but wonder if I'd messed it all up. If I pushed too hard, if in showing this situation in the way that I've experienced it as an advocate in the real world, I've inadvertently set up a wall between me and the teenagers who could use a book like this.

I don't doubt this book has engaged people. I've witnessed it over and over firsthand. But I find myself wondering if I could've been safer, if the gritty reality of this book made doors close that could've been opened. I don't have an answer to this. I wrote the book I needed to write. I will always hope that it means something to someone.

One month ago, I wrote a blog about standing on the edge of possibility of release day. Today, I find myself worried that I did it wrong. That I risked something of myself, and it didn't pay off. This fear comes from nowhere, really. I don't know sales numbers, I haven't looked at any reviews in months, the people in my world have said really nice things about it. And of course, it's been a month, anyone in publishing would tell you that it's way too early in any game to call it. And yet. The fear still exists. It has since before this class and I imagine it will for quite some time to come. Until I can settle into this published writer's life.

And unfortunately, I have found this fear setting the course of my writing. This need to be "careful" so that the words "it's too much" are never written on a post-it about my book. I once read an article about how you only write in a vacuum once. You only get the one debut. You'll only ever experience that for this heartbeat of time and so you should be grateful for it. You should hold on to that.

To me, I want the risky side of me back. The side that doesn't worry so much. The side that thinks if there's a wall between a teenager and my book, they'll figure out a way to climb over it. I miss that. I would like to wake up with it every morning like I did a year ago. I don't know if it'll ever return. I'm grateful I wrote several books in a vacuum so I'm not stalled out on my own fear.

I have more questions than answers. I usually do. That is my truth. And maybe that is the way to find my way back to the risky me. I don't know. And I guess that's okay for now.

Friday, November 1, 2013

On Protecting Ani: POV in FAULT LINE

I've been thinking about this for a while now. Every time someone asks if I would consider writing a sequel to Fault Line from Ani's POV. Every time someone asks why I chose to write Ben's story instead of Ani's.

And the answer is both simple and deeply complicated.

The simple answer is this: I didn't want to write from a rape survivor's POV because that's been done and done very well. Speak, Rape Girl, Where the Stars Shine, The Mockingbirds, Faking Normal. These are all incredible books I've read about sexual violence told from a survivor's POV. And each of these books add different and important insights into the survivor experience. 

The complicated answer is this: It would hurt too much. 

The thing about being a survivor and working in anti-rape activism in the way that I do is that I spend most of every day in that POV. People share their terrible stories and demonstrate their incredible strength and these things become part of who I am. These stories fit into the mosaic of me and make me keep fighting. They build me up so that crappy rape apologists and victim-blamers matter less, because what many of us are trying to do to end rape matters so much more.

I think all writers collect stories to a certain extent. And because of who I am and what I do, I tend to collect certain types of stories more than others. This is something I'm deeply grateful for. There is nothing I'm prouder of than being a person that survivors can disclose to and know they are safe, they will be believed and understood. You have no idea how important that is. It is frequently what keeps survivors from disclosing in the first place, this fear that they will not be believed, or worse, will somehow be blamed for what happened to them. 

But hearing stories also leaves me exposed in a way. I've talked about vicarious trauma before. It is common in anyone who works longterm in the anti-sexual violence movement. It is hard not to take on these stories as your own, especially when you have the ability to speak out and fight while survivors frequently have not found their voice to do so. And I've actually done really well with vicarious trauma over the past fifteen years I've been involved in this cause because I have an amazing support network of friends and family who have lifted me up and held me when I most needed it. And I have learned to make these stories part of who I am without losing the rest of me.

However, every time I even consider writing Ani's story I find I cannot. I'm too close. It's too personal. These characters have become real to me because they're comprised of so many real moments I've witnessed or experienced in my life. Getting inside Ani's head would require me to open the box of every story I've ever heard, open the box of my own story, and the real truth is those stories are sacred to me. I don't want them put out in the public to be criticized and torn apart. I don't want Ani left unprotected in that way, I guess.

When I first trained as a rape victim advocate, one of the things we learned was that our biggest responsibility in the ER was to do everything possible to re-empower survivors. Give them as many choices as possible. Let them know they could say no to things that made them uncomfortable. Assure them that we would advocate for them if they didn't feel they could do it themselves. 

I sort of feel the same way about Ani. In my head, I want to give her the choice to share her story or not. Even more, I want the people who know her story to recognize it as a gift, not to start criticizing her for choices, blaming her for whatever.

This post has gotten a little dark and I don't mean for it to be. I mean for it to be an explanation more than anything else. And I continue to be grateful for all the conversations started by this book. I continue to be grateful for all my readers. I continue to be grateful for everyone who is fighting in this cause. You all humble me.