Thursday 23 July 2020

Dark Chapter: Award Winner and Activist Winnie M Li Talks to Elaine Chiew About Her Novel Centred On Rape and A True Story

Credit: Grace Gelder


Winnie M Li is an author and activist, who has worked in the creative industries on three continents. A Harvard graduate, Winnie’s career as a film producer in London was disrupted, at the age of twenty-nine, by a stranger rape in Belfast. Since then she has focused on addressing the issue of sexual violence through the media, the arts, and academia. 

Aside from her award-winning novel Dark Chapter, Winnie writes across a range of media, including short fiction, theatre, journalism, and memoir. She has received grants from the Royal Society of Literature, Jerwood Arts, Arts Council England and Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Winnie is also Co- Founder and Artistic Director of the Clear Lines Festival, the UK’s first-ever festival addressing sexual assault and consent through the arts and discussion. Her PhD research at the London School of Economics explores media engagement by rape survivors as a form of activism. She holds an honorary doctorate from the National University of Ireland, in recognition of her writing and advocacy for women’s rights. She is based in London. You can find more information about her at her website.


Vivian is a cosmopolitan Taiwanese-American tourist who often escapes her busy life in London through adventure and travel. Johnny is a 15-year-old Irish teenager, living a neglected life on the margins of society.

On a bright spring afternoon in West Belfast, their paths collide during a horrifying act of violence.

In the aftermath, each is forced to confront the chain of events that led to the attack.  Vivian must struggle to recapture the woman whom she once was, while dealing with a society that judges and pities assault victims. Johnny, meanwhile, seeks refuge in his transitory Irish clan. But when he is finally brought to reckon for his crimes, Vivian learns that justice is not always as swift or as fair as she would hope. Inspired by true events, this is a story of the dark chapters and chance encounters that can irrevocably determine the shape of our lives.

EC: Welcome to Asian Books Blog, Winnie. An honour to have you. Perhaps we start off with how far your book Dark Chapter has travelled on its own victory lap. We want to cheer you on!

WML:  Well, it’s definitely been a journey — but if you asked me at the start of it, there were definitely times when I was afraid the book wouldn’t get published in the first place.  The book’s now been translated into ten languages, across twenty-four editions, and what’s interesting is how some publishers chose to sell it as crime fiction and other publishers as literary or women’s fiction. We’ve also had TV/film rights optioned, and of course, the awards and nominations were very exciting.  I was very surprised when Dark Chapter won The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize, which is voted on by the public. It was also nominated for an Edgar Award (the premier award in the US for mystery writing) and the Best First Novel Award in the UK.  But honestly, I feel like I spent at least two full years promoting the book, in addition to the time spent writing it.  And before that, it got rejected by at least fifty publishers! 

Credit: Grace Gelder

EC: It says that this novel is based on your own true story, I cannot even begin to imagine how hard it is to write, let alone having to go on a multi-continent book tour to promote the book, to have to tell the story again and again. How do you not let the ‘rape’ itself define you, while all the activities surrounding the book do?

WML: I think for me, a lot of recovery was about putting distance between me and the trauma (figuratively and literally).  Travel has always been an important part of my life, and I was very worried that the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and anxiety after the rape would prevent me from traveling on my own again. Which it did, temporarily.  But as soon as I was able to, I started traveling again, so I could reclaim that part of my life. Travel to me means exploring new territories, meeting new people, accruing new experiences.  These don’t necessarily block out the trauma, but help to diminish its significance and impact. Because you experience positive and reaffirming things, to counterbalance the negativity of the rape. So writing a novel, speaking to media outlets and new audiences about the book — sure, the conversation might be about my rape, but my experience of them actually is the opposite. It enables me to live something new and affirming, which I might not have done if I hadn’t written that novel or chosen to become an activist around this issue. That’s not the rape defining me. That’s me choosing what I want to do about the rape, which then leads me to these new, reinvigorating life experiences. 

EC: What was the point that made you want to go public with it in fictional form?

WML: I actually wrote the prologue just a few weeks after my attack, and that sparked the idea for the book: to intertwine the stories of a rape victim and her perpetrator, who came from very different worlds. My own rapist was only fifteen-years-old when he attacked me, and he was also illiterate, from a broken family. So on one hand, I felt like I had been given a lot of opportunities in life, which he didn’t have. I wanted to explore him as a three-dimensional human character, while also doing the same for the victim.  But I knew I would have to wait years before I was ready to write this book, and especially to have the distance from the trauma that would allow me to render it into fiction.  So I didn’t start writing the book in earnest until five years after the assault, when I had rebuilt my life and was in a stronger position to address the trauma. 

EC: Why novel instead of memoir?

WML: There’s a few reasons for that. One is that there are already a number of excellent ‘rape memoirs’ out there, which were a great help to me in the year immediately after my assault. I didn’t think I’d be contributing anything new to the field if I just wrote another rape memoir.  So what I really wanted to do was explore the character of a young perpetrator, writing his perspective, and intertwine that story with the victim’s.  And that was something I could only do in fiction, since my real-life rapist was a complete stranger to me. 

EC:  Being in the rapist’s head, hearing his voice, learning about his life, for me was particularly difficult. I didn’t want him humanised, I’ll admit. What led you to make the creative decision to include his voice? 

WML:  Dark Chapter would be an entirely different book without Johnny’s perspective, and probably a book that would have been much less interesting for me to write.  By writing Johnny in an empathetic way, I was trying to push the boundaries of what I felt capable of thinking and feeling as both a writer and a survivor.  I also feel that we as a society need to start thinking of perpetrators as human beings whose experiences, upbringings, personalities, etc somehow lead to sexually violent behaviour — they are not born ‘monsters.’ If we’re not willing to understand the contributing factors that lead to perpetrators’ behaviour, we’re never going to be able to prevent this crime from happening in the future.  To be honest, being able to switch back and forth between writing Vivian and Johnny kept things interesting, less monotonous, and less painful for me as a writer.  Also, using the close-third perspective offered a bit of distance, and this made it possible to look back on my own lived trauma and try to re-frame it as fiction. I also experimented to see how the language could best reflect the sense of isolation and fragmentation that Vivian undergoes at certain moments.

EC: You nailed his Irish brogue, the lilt, the vernacular. Was there a lot of research involved?

WML:  I actually know Ireland fairly well, so I already had a route in to exploring the Irish way of speaking. Several years before the assault, I lived in Cork (on the other side of the island from Belfast) for over a year, to do my Master’s in Irish Literature.  Then, when it came to researching for the novel, I spent a lot of time in Belfast and also developed quite a lot of friends and contacts there. So just becoming familiar with the different Irish accents and turns of phrase was the first step. Then, I had to decide on particular words or phrases that seemed suitable for Johnny’s place in life — his age, community, background.  Other Irish characters in the book might use other words or phrases. Language is used very colourfully and flexibly in Ireland, and it’s important to keep in mind how speech reflects the specifics of where an individual character is coming from. 

EC: This is a thoroughly gripping read (as Kirkus said: a page-turner), beautifully written and amazing storytelling. But the subject matter is traumatic. The UN reports that 35% of women have experienced sexual assault in their lives, while some other surveys actually document a level as high as 70%. It brings me to the subject of making art out of trauma: how does writing provide a way out of trauma?

WML: I think it just goes to prove that behind those statistics, there’s millions of human stories. Lives which have been impacted unfairly by sexual assault.  This is largely what drove me to write Dark Chapter, this realisation that so many women (and sometimes, men) are the victims of an often unspoken crime. 

Writing the book — and re-visiting the worst period of my life —  certainly wasn’t easy. But writing about my rape was obviously much easier than living through those experiences!  And it did allow me to transform my own trauma into a work of art that I had mastery over — something that was positive and productive, the exact opposite of the actual experience.  So I could look back on what I’d written and realise I’d created something valuable out of something tragic.   (I’ve done a little pocket guide about writing through trauma here:

EC: One thing you had indicated was that in the book you detailed the trial, while in real life, the perpetrator pled guilty. Tell us why you decided to include a trial?

WML: I think it’s important for the public to understand how damaging the criminal justice process is for rape victims.  So I wanted to show that by writing the trial, imagining what I would have had to go through, if my perpetrator did not plead guilty (in real life, he did this on the morning of the trial).  I did a lot of research, observing rape trials in London and Belfast, shadowing barristers in court, consulting with public prosecutors. And I was always surprised (and dismayed) by how impersonal and harrowing a trial can be for victims. 

The court procedure really does not value the well-being of victims, and the main argument of the defence is to completely undermine the credibility of the victim’s story. This is incredibly insulting and damaging to a victim, and does not help with recovery.  In addition, the prospect of testifying in public, in front of one’s own perpetrator is horrifying.  

But all these elements could create an emotional climax in the trial scene for Dark Chapter, bringing together the ideological message with the narrative tension for readers. So I was playing with readers’ expectations for the narrative while also trying to provide a realistic portrayal of what the experience would be like for a victim and perpetrator. 

Screenshot of Youtube video of Winnie M Li talking in Korea (link below)

EC: In your article in Electric Literature, you’d mentioned that the publishing interest in translating and marketing the book in Korea, China and Taiwan was immense, more enthusiastic even than in the West (see Winnies talk in Korea). What do you think might have been factors influencing this? 

WML:  I think possibly Asian audiences are curious to see a Western novel where the heroine is Asian-American.  On one hand, it’s so rare (unfortunately), but it also challenges a lot of stereotypes that exist in the West about Asian women being submissive, subservient, secondary characters. Dark Chapter might be interesting, because it’s the experience of an Asian-diaspora woman in the West, and encompasses some of the prejudice she has to face.  But on another level, it’s a more universal experience of a woman encountering something that happens to too many women out there.  

Conversely in the West, I think Dark Chapter may have struggled to find Western publishers because it didn’t fit into a conventional story about immigration and identity, which seem to be the standard for Western-published books about Asian characters. It’s frustrating to face those expectations because there are so many other stories that Asian and Asian-diaspora authors would like to be telling. 

EC: In your TedX London talk, you had brought out this very pertinent point that the public narrative around rape victims still focusses on the victim & her behaviour rather than on the perpetrator. What are some ways in our current discourse, especially with #MeToo, that you see things are changing, or what especially should we focus on in working towards changing this narrative? 

WML:  I do think there is still a lot of shame around the idea of being a rape victim. This is too bad, because the only reason a sexual assault takes place is because the perpetrator decides to do it — not because of anything the victim has done.  So the only person who should feel ashamed is the perpetrator.  A lot of the work myself and other activists have accomplished is  about trying to dismantle the shame a victim might feel, and to show that I, personally as an individual, am not ashamed of what happened to me. 

But overall, there is a value to so many women sharing their experiences. Through the book and my own activism, it’s been incredible to meet other survivors and advocates, to realise there are so many of us working together to speak out, share our experiences, and try to change the way our society handles rape and sexual assault. If we can all start speaking more openly about these experiences and stop judging victims, then we can address the truth of these crimes. I hope my book has helped us get one step closer to that goal.

EC: What may we look forward to in your next writing project? 

WML: I’m finishing my second novel, which also deals with #MeToo issues, but in a very different way.  It looks at the women who chose to remain silent in a workplace context — but it’s much less auto-biographical and much lighter in tone.  I think I needed that, after all the heaviness of Dark Chapter!  But again, I wouldn’t have written this second book, if it weren’t for all the very public sexual assault allegations which became prominent in 2017. 

EC:  We wish you the very best with your new novel, and thank you for joining us.

* Dark Chapter is available at all outlets and in online format globally at local prices. You can purchase it from Book Depository. More information about the simplified Chinese edition can be found here. For traditional Chinese, more info on the translation can be found here.