There’s a question at the heart of every book, perhaps an irresolvable problem, and writing towards a solution is what drives you to that final page. With my new novel, The Best Kind of People, I didn’t set out to write a book about rape culture, I started with a question: what would it be like to realize the person you’re married to is capable of horrifying things? What if you have no idea until cops show up at your door?
I was standing in my kitchen listening to an interview on the CBC radio program The Current. A psychologist was talking about running a support group for women who found out their partners were sex offenders and still wanted to stay in the relationship. It was 2010, and every day new details were unfolding about the Russell Williams case. No one could understand how his wife didn’t know. As I listened to the doctor speak with compassion, I still judged the women in the group. I felt uncomfortable with that feeling. Sometimes unbearable discomfort makes you want to look away, and other times it moves you to explore the feeling through character.
During the last few years, when writing the book often left me emotionally depleted, I was encouraged by a surge of articles by women writers talking about sexism and rape culture in the literary community. Finally women were talking about it openly, and not just to each other behind the scenes, but in our national newspapers and literary magazines. It was something I never thought would shift. When I began my writing career as a creative writing student at Concordia in the 90s, the thought that men would be called out seemed insanely unlikely. The first poem I ever published was about rape culture, though that term didn’t exist in 1994, a time when the queers and feminists had their own literary circles that rarely overlapped with mainstream ‘legitimate’ writers. (Even though we were all very young, and likely united in the fact that we were all desperately bad at writing, no matter our politics.) I would sit in workshops in the Hall building and know that what I wanted to write about would not be taken seriously, that I would have to hide or emulate in order to graduate, and so it wasn’t surprising that I dropped out.
Decades later, it was heartening to read feminists making themselves heard about the gender politics in Creative Writing programs and in small incestuous literary circles. These are conversations that aren’t just happening on the margins anymore, and it’s something to celebrate for International Women’s Month.
Here are the women writers who have inspired me with their candor on this issue:
Zoe Whittall is the author of The Best Ten Minutes of Your Life (2001), The Emily Valentine Poems (2006), and Precordial Thump (2008), and the editor of Geeks, Misfits, & Outlaws (2003). Her debut novel Bottle Rocket Hearts (2007) made the Globe and Mail Top 100 Books of the Year and CBC Canada Reads’ Top Ten Essential Novels of the Decade. Her second novel Holding Still for as Long as Possible (2009) won a Lambda Literary Award and was an American Library Association Stonewall Honor Book. Her writing has appeared in the Walrus, the Believer, the Globe and Mail, the National Post, Fashion, and more. She has also worked as a writer and story editor on the TV shows Degrassi and Schitt’s Creek. Born in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, she has an MFA from the University of Guelph and lives in Toronto.