Tag Archives: Margo Lanagan

A Rant on Misrepresentation and Rape in Literature

I use Grammarly for proofreading because rants aren’t always very well written, grammatically speaking, so a “second set of eyes” is always helpful.*

While I read a fair amount, I don’t consider myself truly well-read. There are too many books out there, and too many new books coming out on a regular basis, and I can read but a small number of them; and rarely do I choose the ‘cannon’ books or the best-sellers. That being said, in what reading I’ve done, I’ve become more and more aware of certain trends around rape in literature. In this regard, it seems that books featuring rape follow one of three different paths.

  1. Stranger Rape, Done Well: This category of books contains such non-fiction as Lucky by Alice Sebold, Rape New York by Jana Leo, Jane Doe No More by M. William Phelps and Donna M. Palomba. It consists of such fiction as Rape: A Love Story by Joyce Carol Oates, Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. These books take rape seriously; they delve into the ramifications on the life of the survivor and those around her. They tackle head on a difficult subject. The act also generally takes place in a dark alley, by someone or some group not intimately known by the protagonist.
  2. Stranger Rape, Done Poorly: In this category, we find authors in need of a dark twist, or an explanation for the heroine’s anger and hate, or perhaps just a dark and dangerous atmosphere. Rape here is an easy stand-in for ‘something that causes fear and a sense of danger’. Good job author, on taking the easy route instead of using any number of plot points and twists that happen to male protagonists in similar stories. As with the category I consider to be done well, this also generally occurs somewhere dark and scary where, come on, the protagonist shouldn’t really have been at that hour by herself etc.
  3. Non-Stranger Rape: Are we sure this is an actual thing? According to most authors who feature this type of event, it’s not. Rape or sexual violence by a boyfriend, a husband, a potential love interest, is generally a way to further the romance. It is supposed to be read, I get the impression, as actually sexy and lovely. The protagonist, obviously, comes to the realization that she did want it, and that she actually loves this person.

Now, I know this is rather generalized based on the small sampling of books that I’ve read in my lifetime (a notable exception that springs to mind is Daughters Who Walk This Path by Yejide Kilanko). But it is still quite common for books to fall into categories 2 and 3. And even category 1, in many ways, can be problematic. You may not want to know why, but I will share anyway.

The most prevalent type of rape in literature is stranger rape, especially in non-fiction. This type of rape occurs the least frequently in real life. According to RAINN, 73% of sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim. 38% are friends or acquaintances. 28% are someone intimate. 11% involve a weapon of some kind. 84% involve physical force. Why is it that this type of rape is not addressed in non-fiction? Why can we still not acknowledge that it happens? Why are we so fixated on the idea that rape is rape only when it is a stranger in an alley? Why do we insist on silencing the other, much larger, group of survivors?

Related to this, why do we keep seeing authors use sexual assault as a point to further a relationship? If we’re going to discuss silencing survivors, here is a great way to do it. And lastly, it’s a slap in the face to be reading along and come across something so violent and painful and raw be used as a plot point: especially an unnecessary plot point.

I understand, really, I do. It is terrifying to think that all the things we’re told we can do – behaving properly, not walking alone after dark, avoiding that alley, not drinking too much, etc. – that none of these things will actually help. That in many cases, it’s the friend or partner or acquaintance whom you trusted, who was your ‘protection’ from walking alone at night. It’s terrifying to have to acknowledge that this narrative is a lie. It’s easier to go with it, to keep using the stranger danger as a plot point for fear and character growth, and pretend that is the world that we live in, that is the fear that we must try to avoid.

I just started reading Alberto Manguel’s The Traveler, The Tower, and the Worm: The Reader as Metaphor and in the introduction is a line that really struck me. On page 4 he says:

But if we are gregarious animals who must follow the dictates of society, we are nevertheless individuals who learn about the world by reimagining it, by putting words to it, by reenacting through those words our experience.

It makes me wonder: what does it mean that we ignore the experiences of so many? What do we learn, or not learn, by not putting those experiences to words? 

*Disclosure: This post is sponsored by Grammarly, after having the opportunity to try their service out for myself, but all opinions and ideas within are clearly my own.

Further Thoughts: Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

Tender Morsels coverTitle: Tender Morsels
Author: Lanagan, Margo
Length: 436 pages
Genre: Fiction, Fantasy, Young Adult
Publisher / Year: Knopf / 2008
Source: BookDepository
Rating: 5/5
Why I Read It: I had heard too much about it, and too many bloggers I love and trust recommended it.
Date Read: 21/11/12

I’ve already reviewed this book in detail here, and I do recommend you check out that review if you haven’t already. I really loved this book and think it is an incredibly important addition to the shelves of young adult literature. We need books like this that deal with sensitive topics with which teens deal. Desperately need.

What I want to do here is discuss a specific aspect / string of events of the book that I’ve been mulling over. If you’ve not ready the book, you may want to skip the thoughts below. If you’ve read it, I would love to know your thoughts.

I’ve been considering this morning the bears in the novel.

Through the course of the novel, as the boundaries between the two worlds begins to grow holes, a couple of boys end up accidentally in the world of the girls as bears. They are said to be among the best men in their communities as they were chosen for the event during which they accidentally jump through and end up in the wrong place. While there, however, the bears act quite differently.

I’m thinking of this as a critique of the “boys will be boys” type mentality. Lanagan shows vividly that while boys and men may end up in very similar circumstances, they can (and do) act in very different ways. Despite being thrown into the same scary and different world, and being stuck in the skin of a bear, the boys in fact have completely different mentality because of how they were raised and what was taught to them.

We are taught in our culture that the correct responses to rape are to question the survivor and her actions / clothing / life, and the idea that what a girl wears should have any bearing on the validity of her story. Many feminists are constantly pointing out that questioning a girl’s appearance or setting rules on what girls should wear is in effect claiming that men can’t control themselves. That rather than being sentient human beings in control of their decisions and actions, they actually are simply animals acting on instincts they can’t control. Lanagan here shows through the actions of the bears the idea that men aren’t one monolithic group who can’t control themselves. She shows that instead there are a range of responses by men and boys on a continuum from terrible to fantastic – and that these responses are a choice.

One is respectful and kind, another tries to take advantage of one of the girls against her will. Clearly not all boys or men are terrible, and this is a beginning of Liga’s learning process and a part of their safety structure when back in the real world – they’ve already learned that some bears (and thus some men) are good and know how to be respectful, and this helps them to deal with those who aren’t. The difference is very much nurture over nature in the way these men behaved in the ‘safe world’ of Liga and her girls.

Thoughts?

Review: Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

Tender Morsels coverTitle: Tender Morsels
Author: Lanagan, Margo
Length: 436 pages
Genre: Fiction, Fantasy, Young Adult
Publisher / Year: Knopf / 2008
Source: BookDepository.
Rating: 5/5
Why I Read It: I had heard too much about it, and too many bloggers I love and trust recommended it.
Date Read: 21/11/12

Rape, abuse, incest, and other traumas – these are things that young adults deal with, but they are also topics that we rarely discuss with them. Think of the statistics: 1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted, 44% will be under 18, and of those, 93% knew their attacker. In reading, we all want to see ourselves and learn about life, about ourselves, and about how to cope. Sexual assault is a huge area around which we are largely silent, especially in our literature for teens. In this book, Lanagan has taken on these topics and explored themes surrounding sexual assault, helping to fill an important gap.

Liga, like many young victims, doesn’t understand what is happening to her, and only later comes to realize what exactly her father was doing and what it means. Her understanding grows, and along with it, her knowledge that she will also bear the shame and disgust of the villagers. The second assault examines the way that others often respond to and treat victims of abuse. When she tries to end her life, she instead has a magical encounter that allows her to escape. The result of this is two young children, Branza and Urdda, and, we come to find, a safe place.

For many who are assaulted (most?) there are stages that must be worked through. At various times, there are dreams of revenge, at others, the only thought possible is to escape. Using fantasy, Lanagan has explored these ideas. The dream of escape comes first. Rather than ending her life, Liga is taken to a magical world where she is safe. The villagers are kind and caring rather than harsh and judgemental, her children are safe, and she can slowly learn to cope with what has happened to her.

Through this ‘safe space’ fantasy, Lanagan is able to show Liga’s slow healing, and how slow it actually is. It gives a way to work through the escape desire and show the benefits as well as the flaws. Liga is safe, but she is also lonely. And despite being safe, she still has the memories and associated triggers affecting her that keep her on edge. The impossibility of true escape and safety is highlighted, as well as the myriad dangers surrounding isolation and a lack of knowledge of how to act and the needs of protection.

With the eventual return, Liga eventually tells Urda, the younger daughter, some of the events of her life. This leads to the revenge fantasy. In this part, Lanagan uses the fantastical element of the story line to have cut out men assault Liga’s assaulters, getting ‘revenge’ for their original acts. Here we see how empty revenge truly is. Neither Urdda nor Ligga get anything from this, they are still in the same position they were before, with the same feelings, though now Urdda also feels some measure of guilt.

The language that Lanagan uses was just off in dialect, which forced extra concentration and closer reading, ensuring that each point was delivered. The book was truly fantastic, and it tore me apart reading it. The Feminist Texican summed it up best when she called it “emotionally exhausting, but awesome”. For anyone looking for a different and interesting fantasy read, one that explores difficult and emotional topics, this is a book you won’t be sad you read.