Book club: Winnie M Li processes her rape in Dark Chapter

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First of all, this book is not a light read. In her award-winning (quite rightly) debut novel Dark Chapter, author Winnie M Li processes her experience of rape and retells the story from the perspective of both the victim and the perpetrator. 

Winnie M Li retells her traumatic experience through the character Vivian, a Taiwanese-American living in London. Vivian’s just finished her studies and is looking to start her career. She loves to walk and regularly backpacks to clear her head. Hiking near Belfast on a bright spring afternoon, she is followed by a stranger. She is 29; he is 15. He pushes her to the ground, beats her and rapes her vaginally and anally. Winnie M Li unsparingly describes the cruel event.

The teenager is Johnny. He’s an aggressive youth who lives in Northern Ireland’s capital, where he spends his time chasing, robbing and raping women. In his eyes, his behavior is normal. Women want it that way, he believes. For Johnny, Vivian’s “no” has no meaning.

Winnie M Li gives her rapist a spark of humanity

Right from the start, the story is being told from both the victim’s and the rapist’s perspective. The reader is forced to accept Johnny’s point of view, whether they like it or not, and is confronted with the unfamiliar family and social structures that he is exposed to – forces which may have shaped him to become a rapist.

Vivian, on the other hand, finds herself confronted with the feeling of powerlessness – an existential break. Stunned and terrified, she doubts she can lead a self-determined life again. Until the day of the trial. She knows that only by giving a statement there will be a conviction. And that it may be the only way for her to regain control of her life.

The rape happened to Winnie M Li in 2008. Five years later, the author began working on Dark Chapter. Even though the book is a retelling of lived experience, it is written in a fictional style. And for a good reason too. “It allowed me to write about private experiences and people [without fully exposing the truth]. This gave me more freedom during the writing process,” Winnie M Li explains in an interview with “On the other hand, I don’t really know my rapist – and didn’t really want to write about the real person anyway.”

But it is precisely this second perspective from the perpetrator that makes her work so insistent. At the same time, by putting herself into the fictional character Johnny, Li went through a healing process, she explained in the interview. For years, she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and claustrophobia. “That’s why I wanted to explore the thoughts of a young rapist,” the author explains. “Someone decides to commit this act. I wanted to understand the reasons behind it as much as possible and then show that people like him aren’t born rapists. I wanted to give the offender a spark of humanity.”

Winnie M Li’s Dark Chapter couldn’t be more relevant

With Dark Chapter, Li doesn’t offer common solutions and easy answers. And how could she? The unimaginably cruel isn’t logically explainable. The author shows courage and honesty. Her novel allows time and space for the characters to develop. Li shows how the act changes the lives of all those involved. Dark Chapter is not only the story of a horrible rape, but also a critical confrontation with our society where victims of sexual violence lose their voice and simultaneously no one speaks about how people become perpetrators in the first place. In the era of the #MeToo and the #WhyIDidntReport movements, her work couldn’t be any more relevant.

Do you need help or need to talk to someone? Contact the free and anonymous sexual abuse hotline: 0800-22 55 530.

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Frieda worked as a freelance journalist for over 10 years: She used to write about Easter recipes and style icons, about human metabolism and Michelin-rated restaurants. In short: about everything, except for sex. And for a good reason. Frieda always considered herself to be an average sexual person for all those years. Until a breakup persuaded her to stop taking the pill, which she had been on for 14 years. It was then, at the age of 28, that she finally discovered her wonderful sexuality and found her true, unique and hungry libido. Ever since, she has not only practiced a new sexuality. She writes and speaks about it too. And has never been as fulfilled as she is today!