Arts·Shelfies

For women authors, violence is intensely personal — which makes their writing on it essential

"In a country that continually refuses to even name the legacy of violence against women, it's more important than ever that we read books that do this work."

Violent art is often designated the territory of men, but women's perspectives are more important than ever

Crop of the cover art for Tanya Tagaq's Split Tooth. (Penguin Random House)

Shelfies is a monthly column by writer Alicia Elliott that looks at arts and culture through the prism of the books on her shelf.

This week, tens of thousands of people around the world protested to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. While I'm always moved by the passion, ingenuity and determination of the women doing this work, I was struck by one particular photo of the protests. An elderly Salvadoran woman with a purple scarf tied around her hair stares straight into the camera as a young girl, perhaps her granddaughter, clings to her arm, helping her raise a purple flag, the symbol of their movement. El Salvador has the highest rate of femicide in Latin America; the protesters there demand that the government declare a "gender alert" to address this. As I looked at this photo, I wondered whether, in 60 years, that young girl would be wearing a purple scarf in another protest just like this, her own granddaughter holding onto her.

I must admit, I'm eternally bored by the question of whether art is political. Under capitalism, colonialism and imperialism, even the choice of what we eat for dinner is political. (How was this food procured? Was slave labour involved? Did the farming of this vegetable reduce the biodiversity of the region?) As authors, we choose what topics we think readers should be paying attention to, what types of people we think readers should be empathizing with. Which leads me to the way that violence against women is addressed in books. Although statistics show that women experience intimate partner violence "more often and more severely" than men, and although 87,000 women and girls were murdered worldwide in 2017, there doesn't seem to be much literary space for women to interrogate violence in their work. In fact, it would seem exactly the opposite: violent art is often stereotypically designated the territory of men. On numerous lists of the most violent works of literary fiction, very few — if any — women authors appear.

When you consider recent books written by women in Canada, of course, this trend seems ridiculous. Women authors have a unique perspective on violence — one born out of lived experience instead of misogynistic fantasy. Feeling afraid to walk down the street alone at night; holding your keys between your fingers like makeshift brass knuckles as soon as you leave your home after dark; learning from your mother that you should kick out the taillights of a car if you're ever kidnapped and shoved into a car trunk — these kinds of experiences change a person. So does knowing that you could become a statistic at any moment — another missing or murdered Indigenous woman, a person turned into a hashtag, a statistic for politicians to ignore. Your relationship with violence changes when it's rooted in fear and inevitability.

This is what women authors offer when they discuss violence: a perspective born out of stakes. Despite Canada's national identity of being polite and good — the harmless, ever-apologetic younger brother of the brash, violent United States — this country has a well-documented history of violence, particularly against women and particularly against Indigenous women. Consider the infamous Ecole Polytechnique massacre in Montreal in 1989; consider the Toronto van attack last year; consider that Indigenous girls, women and two-spirit people made up almost 25 per cent of female homicide victims in Canada between 2001 and 2015 and yet people still deny that this is part of ongoing genocide. In a country that continually refuses to even name the legacy of violence against women and Indigenous communities, much less address them, it's more important than ever that we read books that do this work — such as Sara Peters's experimental fiction I Become a Delight to My Enemies and Tanya Tagaq's novel Split Tooth.

I Become a Delight to My Enemies by Sara Peters. (Penguin Random House)

In I Become a Delight to My Enemies, released this year, Sara Peters documents the private and public horrors of The Town, a place where misogynistic violence is regularly inflicted on the women unlucky enough to live within it. The violence of the Town is both horrifying and horrifyingly mundane. The chapter "The Stages of Harriet" starts:

Harriet was given no love of any kind, for
the Townspeople wanted a mystic, and they
thought they could create one through tor-
ture. They believed a mystic would
bring spiritual complexity to their Town—
the same thinking that often leads rich peo-
ple to take up Buddhism later in life.

The last line references the world the reader lives in — in this case, a world where old rich people take up Buddhism to appear more spiritual — and compares it to the world of the Town — a world where an entire community tortures and abusively neglects a girl to appear more spiritual. By comparing these scenarios — and by making a dark joke of the comparison — Peters shows how acts that were once unfamiliar and cruel can eventually be considered familiar and ordinary; all it takes is us allowing it to happen.

What's especially fascinating about Peters's work is how she uses a simultaneously fragmented, highly organized and polyphonic form to structurally mimic the violent misogyny of the Town. The result is nearly hallucinatory: Peters captures so many voices at so many different moments in the Town's history that it's hard to feel anchored in any physical space or time described. In the chapter "MY SON COMES HOME WITH HIS WOMEN," for example, an unnamed woman describes the dread she feels when her son visits "with his fleet of women":

"To clarify, when he comes home it is only ever with one
woman, but I see all his discards following her like ghosts."

The narrator never attempts to explain what happens to her son's beautiful, educated "discards." Instead, she focuses on the qualities these women say they love about her son, ending with the seemingly harmless admission that her son "strides through my house examining objects, often / breaking them, and then placing them down again, in dif- / ferent rooms." The negative space between stanzas invites readers to imagine what that silence says, what the narrator would say about the objects her son breaks if she felt she could. And yet, within the margin itself sits a thought, presumably of the narrator, but potentially the thoughts of any of her son's women:

"You see, I
manage—
without
effort, or
intention—to
provoke
violent
feelings in
men. Over and
over again. You might
think it was
deliberate;
you might
think I was determined."

I found this plainly-put admission both terrifying and true — perhaps even more terrifying because of its truth. With this statement, it's clear that the women in the Town believe that they themselves are responsible for the violence men commit against them. This is the same logic abusive men use to justify their violence — she provoked me; she knows how I get; I couldn't help it; I love her so much it makes me crazy. It's the same logic battered women regurgitate to friends and family who happen to ask about their obvious abuse. It's the same logic society enforces every time a person hears about an abused woman and sneers, "If it was really that bad, why didn't she just leave him?"

There is a sense here, and throughout the book, that the margin notes, stanzas, line breaks, even page justifications are the result of force, not choice — the same way these women's lives are the result of force, not choice. Even when the women of the Town do try to make a choice, such as in the chapter "Z," it's questionable how free that choice really is: the unnamed narrator and her best friend Zenya "ate / cigarette butts, we rubbed / shit in our hair, we smashed / our teeth with hammers" in attempts to make themselves unattractive to men. Yet in the Town, the problem isn't that nine-year-olds prefer mutilating themselves to growing up and facing life with men; instead, the narrator explains, the problem is that, "in trying to vanquish my / body I have rendered it more / visible. I am marked over / and over again by my own attempts to vanish." There is such hopelessness in those lines, such easy surrender to the reality of seemingly unavoidable violence. In I Become a Delight to My Enemies, Peters shows that violence against women may only take one person to perpetrate, but it takes a whole town to simultaneously neglect and normalize.

Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq. (Penguin Random House)

In Tanya Tagaq's award-nominated novel Split Tooth, communal violence against women is looked at through the lens of colonialism, specifically the colonization of the Inuit. On the first page, the reader is plunged into the everyday violence of the book's world. During a party, the young narrator and another child run and hide in a closet:

"We giggle nervously as the yelling begins. Become silent when the thumping starts. The whole house shakes. Women are screaming, but that sound is overtaken by the sound of things breaking. Wet sounds of flesh breaking and dry sounds of wood snapping, or is that bone?

Silence.

[...] The door slides open and my uncle sticks his head in. Towering over us, swaying and slurring. Blood pouring down his face from some wound above his hairline.

'I just wanted to tell you kids not to be scared.'

Then he closed the door."

Beside that page is a black and white illustration of the scene: a bleeding man standing in the background, with two scared children sitting in the foreground. Tagaq gives us no choice but to see the same trauma the narrator is seeing, to carry the visual memory the narrator now has to carry. We must all collectively sit in a moment that spans both great violence (the blood, the sounds, etc) and great care (her uncle not only noticing the kids enough to realize they were hiding there, but also wanting to reassure them). Of course, what great care looks like after generations of intergenerational trauma is not what great care looks like without. There is an unasked question that lingers of the narrator's uncle and his fumbling attempts at reassurance: if the kids shouldn't be scared of whatever made him bleed from the head, what should they be scared of?

As the book goes on — seamlessly weaving together poetry, prose, illustrations, memoir, fiction, fantasy and Inuit stories— it is clear that, for the narrator, violence is not only normal but expected. Tagaq shows how constantly dealing with violence and trauma changes the way you see the world around you. Because the narrator of Split Tooth lives under the circumstances of violent and continued colonialism, she does not have the luxury of ignorant bliss that many settlers' children have. After she shoots and kills foxes with her father, for example, she muses, "There is danger in mourning for those who would not mourn for you in return. Empathy is for those who can afford it. Empathy is for the privileged. Empathy is not for Nature." This might seem like a strange thing for a young girl to say. It would be — until a colonial government has obliterated your community's capacity to create any safety, even in family homes. How else are you supposed to think under those circumstances? How else are you supposed to get through the day? Living under the thumb of settler colonialism "makes me want to hide in blankets and make bad choices," the narrator explains. "It makes me want to destroy what's in front of me."

How will this impact the narrator's ability to have healthy relationships with others? With her future children, and her children's future children? This is the double bind of growing up with intergenerational trauma waiting to swallow you whole: the lack of safety in your life leads to you create coping mechanisms to keep people away, yet when those coping mechanisms work and actually keep people away, you prevent yourself from ever really feeling safe. Tagaq acknowledges this problem with trauma-induced coping mechanisms, writing: "What keeps you alive in crisis can kill you once you are free." This is how intergenerational trauma and colonial violence poison Inuit love. And these are the coping mechanisms that residential school survivors and their children have to deal with long after those schools have closed. They cannot simply be gotten over because a settler says so. This is where Tagaq's book radically differs from Peters's: in Split Tooth, the men who perpetrate violence are often victims of violence themselves. Under violent colonialism, Tagaq reminds us, no one is safe.

In a country that continually refuses to even name the legacy of violence against women and Indigenous communities, much less address them, it's more important than ever that we read books that do this work.- Alicia Elliot

I don't imagine either I Become a Delight to My Enemies or Split Tooth were particularly easy books to write. Both stylistically and thematically, these books take on violence in ways that many other violent books don't, interrogating the ways that we enact, interact with and react to violence in specific contexts. While both real and simulated violence can be entertaining — as seen in pro wrestling, MMA and violent video games — it's also worth considering what that violence teaches us about whose bodies are considered worth hurting, whose pain is valued and under which circumstances a particular person's pain can be alleviated, if ever. After all, if we want to create a society that's safe for everyone — or at least as safe as possible for everyone — what choice do we have but to look at ourselves, at the patterns we keep enacting, at the histories we keep repressing and repeating, at the ways our trauma-informed choices can, in turn, traumatize and limit the choices of those around us? What choice do we have but honesty?

About the Author

Alicia Elliott is a Tuscarora writer living in Brantford, Ontario. Her writing has been published most recently in Room, Grain and The New Quarterly. Her essay "A Mind Spread Out on the Ground," originally appearing in The Malahat Review, is nominated for a National Magazine Award.