We are thrilled to announce that, between March and May 2021, Winnie M. Li will be joining the SHaME project as a Writer-in-Residence. She is a novelist and activist, who has curated an exciting series of panels, talks, and workshops for the SHaME team and the wider public. These events will explore the roles that creative writing and narrative can play in how both academics and society at large understand the topic of sexual violence. As a rape survivor herself, Winnie is dedicated to fostering survivor-centred dialogues and founded Clear Lines, the UK’s first-ever festival using the arts and discussion to address sexual assault and consent. Read on to learn more about Winnie’s work and her background.
After graduating from Harvard University, Winnie had a successful career as a film producer (one of her films was shortlisted for an Oscar) and wrote for a travel guidebook. Winnie’s career changed when, in April 2008, she visited Belfast to commemorate the Northern Irish peace process. While walking in Colin Glen Forest Park, she was raped and violently assaulted by a 15-year-old stranger. Winnie was 29 years old at the time; she sustained 39 separate injuries. Although her assailant was eventually convicted, attempting to deal with the rape and her subsequent trauma threatened to wreck her life. But she survived.
Her debut novel of 2017, entitled Dark Chapter, is a fictionalized account of this rape. It is an explosive book. The main character is a Taiwanese-American called Vivian, who describes the rape in harrowing details, including her attempts to ensure that she survived. In subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways, medical and legal professionals made Vivian feel ashamed for the new reality of her post-assault life. Even people who might sincerely have wanted to help her – medics and workers in sexual assault clinics, for example – let her down. Winnie’s account of Vivian’s desperation, anxiety over possibly contracting HIV, and loneliness are palpable. But Winnie goes much further. Winnie’s literary genius also resides in her imaginative attempt to represent the thoughts of Johnny, Vivian’s attacker. His story is told alongside that of Vivian’s. The impact on readers is physically and emotionally intense. The book won the Guardian newspaper’s “Not the Booker Prize” in 2017 and has been translated into ten languages. It was nominated for The Edgar Award for best first novel and shortlisted for The Authors’ Club Best first novel award. Winnie has since been conferred an honorary doctorate of law from the National University of Ireland, in recognition of her writing and activism.
In April 2015, the seventh anniversary of her own rape, Winnie co-founded “Clear Lines”, the first festival in the U.K. dedicated to using the arts to talk about sexual assault. Clear Lines aims to “create an open, honest, and inclusive conversation” around rape, replacing the “shame and silence” with “insight, understanding and community”. Winnie is committed to literature and art as “therapeutic means of self-narrative”. She argues that if survivors “are not heard and believed – if our own narrative is not witnessed and acknowledged by another – then we cannot begin to address the truth of what has happened to us”. When Winnie was asked what she wanted to change the world, she responded, “To create a world where sexual assault survivors can speak their truth, without shame”. We share this ambition and look forward to her residency with us.
The programme will be launched on Wednesday 03 March 2021 with an “In Conversation Event” with Amina Memon and Joanna Bourke, co-organised with Clear Lines. Please sign up for that event, and check out other happenings, including a panel discussion about literature on sexual violence and another on discourses of sexual harms in the arts and academia. All events are free, but you will have to register.
Let the conversation continue!
Literature and Sexual Trauma: Authors Writing Their Lived Experience
Wednesday 14 April 2021, 17.00-18.30 BST, Online
Sexual Violence and Criminal Justice: Approaches in Psychology, History, and Literature
Wednesday 03 March 2021, 17.00-18.30 GMT, Online
Event video and resources list