Saturday, 19 September 2015

Speaking Loudly Again: Why Children's Writers Must Tackle Difficult Subjects - Lucy Coats


Last week I finished one of the most emotionally harrowing books I've read for a long time - ASKING FOR IT by YA Book Prize winner Louise O'Neill (just published by Quercus). I won't beat about the bush here. It tackles peer-to-peer rape and its after-effects, explicitly, honestly and yes, shockingly. That is why I have posted the trigger warning above, just in case reading about that might be a problem for any particular readers - but I am not going to apologise for writing this piece. 

ASKING FOR IT is not at all an easy book - the main protagonist, Emma, 18, and a beautiful 'queen bee' of her school community, is unlikable in so many ways. But that simply doesn't matter. However arrogant, selfish or self-absorbed she is, no young woman deserves what happens to Emma. No young woman, however she dresses or acts should have to go through what Emma suffers from the young men who gang rape and then publicly abuse and humiliate her via social media. No young woman should have to suffer blame and persecution from her parents, from her priest, from her own community. And yet so many do, even now. Victim blaming and shaming is a clear and present problem. Often the victims of rape (most recently Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders) blame themselves. We see and hear it every day - and rape convictions are currently falling, despite a rise in prosecutions.
'That skimpy dress up to her armpits - well, she was just asking for it.'
'What do you expect when she was falling down drunk - she was just asking for it.' 
No. She was NOT 'just asking for it'. This still all-too-prevalent attitude is why universities are now running courses on what is and is not consent. I wrote about my own abuse by boys from my peer group some years ago, as a response to the banning of Laurie Halse Anderson's novel, SPEAK, which also deals with teenage peer-to-peer rape. I wasn't raped, but since then, I have talked to many young women about their own experiences of rape and sexual abuse. 
Picture from

I've listened to many distressing things over the years, but one particular story from a young woman, now in her late twenties, really stuck in my head. Aged fourteen, she went to a party at a friend's house in her home town. She got very very drunk (her first real experience of alcohol). She kissed a boy she fancied. He wanted more. She said no. She struggled. But he raped her anyway (she had never had sex before). Then he took her downstairs, and with his male friends looking on and laughing, burned a tattoo of ownership into her with a cigarette end. She didn't say anything afterwards, although she now tells her story openly, as a way of helping other girls in similar situations to understand that it's ok to speak out, and to help young men to understand that no means no. It's one of her ways of coping. She told me that back then she had been afraid her friends and family would laugh at her and tell her she was making a fuss about nothing, so she kept silent, holding her secret inside herself. She felt shamed, dirty, and for years she believed the little voice inside her head (the one we've all listened to) which told her it was all her fault - though she wasn't 'just asking for it' either. She drank to excess to blot out the memories with alcohol, she sank into deep depression and developed an eating disorder (a way to be in control of what happened to her body), and although she eventually went to a therapist, she still struggled. This will be horrifying to most people - but it is not an uncommon story, and O'Neill's book brought it back to the forefront of my mind.

ASKING FOR IT is bleak and uncompromising and real, as is its stark ending. It is also important. As writers, not only of YA, but for all age-groups, we need to reflect the world around us in all its diversity. I think that includes some of us enabling our readers to open up conversations on 'difficult subjects'. I absolutely accept that not everyone wants to tackle them head-on in the 'gritty' way that O'Neill, and other writers like Tabitha Suzuma, Melvin Burgess, Keren David, Bali Rai, Malorie Blackman, Miriam Halahmy and the late and much-lamented Mal Peet do. But I do think it's vital for us as writers to think about such things. Only by enabling those conversations in a wider context can we break the silence and taboos that still exist around those 'difficult subjects' - and sometimes the characters we write can give our readers the courage to find their own voices. It's not a revelation to say that kids and young people often feel very alone with their problems, big or small. Opening the covers of a book and finding a world where someone has had a similar experience to you can be life-changing. But those books have to be written first - and that's up to us.

OUT NOW from Orchard, Cleo (UKYA historical fantasy about the teenage Cleopatra VII) '[a] sparkling thriller packed with historical intrigue, humour, loyalty and poison.' Amanda Craig, New Statesman
Also out now: new Beasts of Olympus series "rippingly funny" Publishers Weekly US starred review


Anne Cassidy said...

This is really interesting. The subject is compelling. I also have written a book about this called NO VIRGIN which is to be published in Jan 2017.

Anne Booth said...

Thanks for this article. The story you tell about the 14 year old is so sad - and I will look out for this book. It sounds like a very important book for teenagers to read, and definitely something I think I should read and talk about with my own four teenagers.

rjsolution said...

Een tafelblad dat in de tuin en in de woonkamer kan worden gebruikt? Kies voor het graniet tafelblad en ontdek al zijn positieve eigenschappen!

Lucy Coats said...

Thanks to both Annes. And yes, Anne B - it is a very important book for teenagers to read. Anne C - I shall be looking out for NO VIRGIN when it comes.