Thursday, January 30, 2014

Sexual Violence in YA Lit

So yesterday I did this video chat with authors Carrie Mesrobian and Trish Doller and librarian Karen Jensen about sexual violence in YA literature. The recap is here if you're interested. The conversation was only an hour. It could have been 8 hours and we would've still been talking.

But the truth is it sort of wrecked me afterwards. Which always happens when I talk academically about rape. Because I can distance myself and talk about my book, but when I'm done with that, the personal hits me like a ton of bricks. And the reality is that this issue is very personal to me.

When I "come out" as a survivor, the most common reaction is uncomfortability and awkwardness of no one knowing what to say. There are times when I don't discuss this part of myself because I feel like the Debbie Downer of the room/panel/etc. And yet, I will not hide that part of me either, because I have to believe that when I say it, there is someone else around me who cannot and who maybe feels less alone because of my words.

And strangely, this experience somehow gives me an authority that I otherwise would not have. Which I think is bullshit really. I do not speak for all rape survivors. My experience was different than other people's. If anything, I feel more able to speak with some knowledge about this because I was a rape victim advocate in hospital ERs for ten years. And what I mostly learned from that is that we're all different and no one reacts exactly the same. Which is why I am grateful for the numerous ways that YA authors have represented sexual violence in their books.

So sexual violence in YA? To me, before we can really have a conversation about this topic, we need to understand where teens are with their base of knowledge and why this topic is an important one. I have no empirical data on this. There are way better teen advocates who understand sex ed and what our schools are failing at than I do (Scarleteen, Cory Silverburg, Mr. Health Teacher). But I will say this from the teens and classes I have interacted with: enthusiastic/affirmative consent is not a part of their vocabulary, and what constitutes rape and rape culture remains incredibly vague.

So when I am asked why it is important to include these things in YA novels, my first reaction is: because how else will they know it? My second reaction is usually: because it promotes the development of compassion and empathy. Because statistically speaking, the highest rate of sexual assault is in 16-25 year olds. Therefore, if we don't have conversations with them now, when will we? And these books are not only for the benefit of survivors, they are for the benefit for everyone who interacts with survivors. When we fail to talk about sexuality, when we fail to clearly define consent, when we fail to acknowledge the various way that rape culture infuses itself into our daily lives, we fail our kids. We send them out into the world to build houses with a staple gun and some duct tape.

And more, we fail to ask the greater ethical question of: are we okay with this? Removing legal definitions of sexual assault from the mix, we still need to look at the ethics of sexuality and sexual violence in the world of teenagers. There was an incident in a nearby high school recently where the Winter Formal Court was being introduced at an assembly and each couple got increasingly sexual inappropriate as they were introduced, with the final couple being a girl bowing down to her guy and him revealing a dildo and whipping it around. The students in the gym went wild with cheering. The girl looked up from her bowed position (she did not know this was going to happen), was horrified, and left the assembly crying. Of course the whole thing went viral. And of course the school canceled the dance.

But here's the interesting thing: a number of parents and teens took to the Internet to complain about the school canceling the dance. From my perspective, the school was right. They sent a message: we will not have people feel sexually unsafe or unprotected in this school. But the backlash they got was incredibly illuminating to me. There is a gross lack of understanding about teen sexuality and safety in this world. More, there is a lack of understanding in the role that bystanders play in perpetuating sexual violence and rape culture. Every kid cheering the dildo boy in my mind was culpable. The same with every kid who did nothing when the Jane Doe in Steubenville was carried between two guys to four different parties.

So. When it comes to the inclusion of sexual violence in YA literature, I think it is not without tremendous consideration that authors choose to write about this topic. From my perspective, I think authors are attempting to create dialogues and fill holes in the lives of teens. To deconstruct cliches and cultural expectations of what boys and girls should be like, and instead allow for a greater understanding of what is really going on in some teens' lives. And further, to make this okay to talk about.

Because what do we say when a teen has disclosed sexual violence to us? Do we ignore it? Do we spend a lot of time discussing it? Do we offer platitudes or apologies or pity? Frankly, I know more what not to do than anything else. When people tell me they've gone through this, I say I'm sorry. I say I believe them (if that question is on the table, which it sometimes is). I ask them if I can help them in any way. I thank them for trusting me with this.

When we pretend "dark" issues don't exist in the lives of teens, we perpetuate silence. We ignore the notion that our teens might be contributing to a culture of sexual violence through their actions. We allow our teens a false sense of security and lack of accountability when this is the time they need it the most. High school shouldn't feel like a gauntlet that you must make it through. And the only way in my mind to undo that is to have open conversations. To talk about uncomfortable things in an environment that feels safe. That is the beauty of YA literature. Because sometimes teens will find a connection through a character, through fiction, that they wouldn't be able to get to otherwise. There are copious non-fiction resources for difficult issues, but I'm not sure that's where teens are looking. I think their grounding comes from different places (their family, their friends, school) and if YA literature provides one of those places for grounding, I think in general this is a very good thing.

Which brings me to my final point (and one of the topics of conversation in yesterday's chat) which is the notion of including sexual violence in a book for the sake of giving a character more depth. I'm not going to expound on this academically because Maggie Stiefvater has done so beautifully here. But I will discuss this in a personal way, because yesterday I was academic and said that these things are also a place to start conversation even if the conversation is, "stop doing that because it's reductive and terrible." But I've changed my mind on this because really, we've had the conversation of "stop doing that" and it's still happening. People are still including rape backstory as ways to define a character and they are not paying heed to the dialogue around this being problematic.

So I will say what I think today about gratuitously adding rape to a book: On a very personal level, when you add rape to a backstory for the sake of depth, it makes what happened to me feel unreal. It reduces me to one label ("survivor") and takes away all the awesomeness of my other labels (mom, editor, feminist, loud pain in the ass, friend, sister, warrior). It gives a tremendous amount of weight to this experience while simultaneously taking away my agency. It covers me in a blanket of "victim" and allows for no other parts. It also feels dismissive in this "well, these things happen to girls" kind of way that makes me want to poke someone's eyes out. My fight, my voice, the reason I tell my story to the world is to make these things not happen to girls (or boys) anymore. And eff anyone who thinks I'm "more interesting" because I'm a survivor. Eff anyone who wants to "make rape happen" so we have a character arc. This is not a character arc I would wish on anyone. So get off of that.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A few words about BLEED LIKE ME

So you know that thing where the girl is a hot mess and the boy is a hot mess and they get together and pull themselves out of the mess with their love? BLEED LIKE ME is not that book. It is this one...

Seventeen-year old Amelia Gannon (just "Gannon" to her friends) is invisible to almost everyone in her life. To her parents, to her teachers--even her best friend is more interested in bumming cigarettes than bonding. Some days, the only way Gannon knows she’s real is by carving bloody lines into the flesh of her stomach.

Then she meets Michael Brooks, and for the first time, she feels seen to the core of her being. Obnoxious, controlling, damaged and addicting, he inserts himself into her life until all her scars are exposed. Each moment she's with him is a passionate, painful relief.

But as the relationship deepens, Gannon starts to feel as if she's standing at the foot of a dam about to burst. She's given up everything and everyone in her life for him, but somehow nothing is enough for Brooks--until the ultimate test.

A piercing, intimate portrayal of the danger of love so obsessive it becomes its own biggest threat.

The release date on this book is October 7th. You can pre-order it from Amazon here. Or add to your GoodReads TBR pile here.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

On success and satisfaction...

So I haven't blogged in a while. It happens. I got into writing a story that I love. And I didn't feel like writing anything else. It's been a while since I've been so in love with something I've written. It's a nice feeling, remembering why I like to do this so much in the first place.

The other thing is that I have this weird health thing going on. Which is a big "I don't know" right now. Not always the most fun place to be with regards to health. But for all that it is, it has been good for my perspective.


Every time I seem to have lost my way, this thing gets placed in front of me to remind me how blessed and lucky I am. I wonder if the world works that way. Like you're stumbling through the woods, and the universe dumps a giant boulder in your path, and where you are becomes completely clear.

Sometimes this boulder comes in the form of people. My writer friends, the Fourteenery, my family, my community, my Sunday school kids, the survivors who have reached out to me, all of them in one way or another have been a boulder in my path over the past year, one I am incredibly grateful for.

Sometimes the boulder comes in the form of other things.

I have never made a secret of how much I love my day job. Getting to help authors, getting to read and edit all day, this is pretty perfect and magical, to be honest. And Samhain Publishing is a really good publisher to work for.

But it is a bit of a strange thing working on both sides of the desk because I see things that other people don't. I am grateful for this, and yet it is occasionally difficult wearing two different hats. Because success in other people makes me want to change what I do in order to ensure more success in myself. (I know that you will be SHOCKED to hear this but some of the sexy books I edit have sold more copies than my rape book. I know, it's baffling:))

That's a tricky word: success. Nebulous and ultimately unattainable until you decide how you're going to define it and stick to that.

Three months ago, I defined success as being able to fund a rape survivor testimonial writing workshop. I still define it that way, but now the possibility of MORE has been put in front of me. The idea that if I work hard enough, if my book does well enough, I could fund two of these workshops. Or even three. Or four. You see?

And I imagine it's this way for anyone, however you define success. You get two starred reviews, you want three. You sell 10,000 copies of your book, you want to sell 20,000. There's always more and it is hard not to want that.

But then the boulder comes and you gain some perspective and MORE doesn't seem like such a big deal anymore. Success gets redefined. I think that mostly our lives are comprised of stumbling through the woods in increasing states of self-absorption until the boulder drops and we realign, start over, and remember what it is that makes us really happy.

If what you do doesn't make you happy in its own right, you should probably stop doing that. If you need success that is beyond your control in order to keep going then you are maybe not doing the thing you're meant to be doing. I'm not saying we all have to be happy all the time, because frankly that's crap, but nor do I think the path should feel like chores and obligations. Especially with regards to this writer world. There's just too many other things to be done, too many other people who could use your help.

I don't know. I could be wrong here. Maybe some people need the ambition of MORE. It could be a great motivator. But to me, what is the actual point of the climb if all I'm doing is looking up?