Activism and literature

This week we have an interview with author Winnie M Li, writer of the novel Dark Chapter which was described by the Guardian as “a defiant retelling of personal trauma.” Winnie also wrote an article for us about activism and literature – keep scrolling to read it!

Please note that this episode discusses assault, which some listeners may find distressing.

Asking the questions this week is Elspeth Latimer, a UEA postgraduate researcher in crime fiction who worked on the Noirwich Crime Writing Festival with us, courtesy of a CHASE (Consortium of the Humanities and Arts South-East England) placement.

Hosted by Simon Jones, writer and Digital Marketing Manager at the National Centre for Writing.

Activism and literature

Winnie M Li discusses whether novels can be a creative and effective way of exploring and drawing attention to important issues – and is fiction better at doing this than non-fiction?

When you live through a trauma, and that trauma changes your life — And when you realise that trauma is actually part of a much larger societal problem, then as a writer, it becomes vital to write about it. Or at least that’s how it was for me.

My debut novel Dark Chapter is a fictional retelling of something that happened to me ten years ago: I was followed by a stranger in a park outside of Belfast, and I was violently assaulted and raped. At the time, it was very much a matter of survival for me — not just during the attack itself, but in the months and years that followed. I felt isolated, cast adrift, often hopeless I would ever recover.

Along the way, I learned that sexual violence is actually something many people suffer: approximately one in five women become victims. And as I gradually became an activist around this issue, I realised how much readers need a novel that truly testifies to the survivor’s experience — the horror and the injustice of it all — while also showing a path towards recovery. I wanted to show how ill-equipped the criminal justice system can be for victims.  And If I could tell this story in the form of a compelling crime novel, then I could not only engage readers through the twists and turns of a plot, but also place them in the shoes of both the victim and the perpetrator of a crime. Through my characters, I could do justice to the experience of injustice.

Writing as a means of demonstrating injustice has long been an impetus for many a novelist. From Charles Dickens’ exposé of debtors’ prisons and the urban poor in Victorian London, to Harper Lee’s child-framed view of racism in the American South, novels have always been an important way of exploring societal inequalities.  Would we call this writing a form of activism? I suppose it’s up to the individual writer which word they want to use. But I’d say yes, these types of novels very much have activism at their root.

However, we often picture activism as being very in-your-face: protestors brandishing signs, shouting collective chants, chaining themselves to gates. Novels are more subtle. Instead of yelling angrily at you, novels win you over by investing you emotionally into the life of a character who might be suffering through injustice. They dramatise the human experience behind a larger problem, render that experience lived-in and relatable for readers.

This is why fiction, with its immersion into the mind of a character, can have an edge over non-fiction, which carries a duty to presenting actual, proven fact. Fiction also has a plot which can keep readers riveted. And it’s more likely to appeal to the general public. Not many people would want to pick up a treatise about squalor in Victorian debtors’ prisons. But peopled with Dickens’ colourful characters and an intriguing plot, that unjust, dangerous world can come alive in a novel. So by writing fiction around a form of injustice, we can reach a wider audience, and raise a greater awareness about what needs to change.

I’m really looking forward to discussing this in greater depth with two fantastic crime writers Eva Dolan and Mari Hannah at Noirwich this year. Through our novels, we all touch on ways in which society could be better at handling issues like violence, mental health, inequality, gender. Come along on September 15th to ‘Writing Wrongs’ and join in the conversation — after all, change can’t happen without a dialogue first.

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