For her first novel, Dark Chapter (Polis, Sept.), Li draws on her own experience as a rape victim.
Within weeks of my rape, I knew I wanted to write a novel about it. Even as I struggled day-to-day to function with post-traumatic stress disorder, the writer in me kept thinking, “You know, this is a really good story.” Here were two protagonists from completely different worlds, whose lives intersected in a single act of violence and were never the same afterward. How could I not turn this into a book?
Of course, I was one of those protagonists. In April 2008, at the age of 29, I was violently attacked and raped in a Belfast park by a 15-year-old stranger. When I turned to writing about the experience years later, I thought if I could start to understand the humanity of that person who had caused me so much harm, then maybe I could begin to make sense of this life-changing trauma. I knew I could use fiction to imagine the perspective of the other protagonist in the story: the person who had started it all, the perpetrator. What kind of life had led this 15-year-old to assault and rape me that day? And, in all the years since then, had he ever considered the irreversible impact of his actions on my life?
Dark Chapter is my creative attempt to provide a version of an answer—even though Johnny, the rapist character in my novel, is entirely fictional, perhaps a far cry from the real-life individual who will always remain a stranger to me. So the novel moves back and forth between the two voices of victim and perpetrator, from their different gendered childhoods up to the crime, then through the police search, the trial, and afterward.
Even though rape happens with alarming frequency, our society is often reticent to think of either victims or perpetrators as real human beings, with a past, a present, a future. There’s an implication that victims should feel ashamed of what happened, their identities hidden, that no one wants to hear about something that awful. But given the prevalence of this crime, I believe there’s a great hunger for engaging, authentic narratives about it. Rape survivors have told me they’ve never read a book like Dark Chapter that captures this accurately the aftermath of trauma. Yet I’ve also had hardened male crime readers say they couldn’t put the book down and it made them cry.
So perhaps through fiction, we can start to shift the public understanding of a crime that takes place every day, to victims who never deserve it. Is it asking too much to consider honestly how individual lives are affected by this kind of violence—or how the violence even started? I think it’s simply asking us to be human.