Written by Zoe Whittall
I met my first girlfriend at a Take Back the Night march in 1994, when I was a college student. I dropped out of school because I wanted to major in dismantling the patriarchy and writing poetry. I’ve held almost every sign in this mural – though not lately, maybe not for a decade. In fall 2016 I published a novel about rape culture called The Best Kind of People
At home after a lengthy tour, I tell my partner I’m tired of talking about the rape book. That’s what we call my new novel in private. It’s tiring when young men approach me before the reading, asking, He’s innocent, right? The girls were lying?
It catches me off guard at first, and then I get used to it, the way your book never belongs to you after publication. You can’t control the way it’s read. It’s no longer yours. I wrote a plot line about men’s rights activists that I think is clearly satirical. Serious young feminist men email me to tell me the MRAs came off too sympathetic.
In every city, I’m asked how it came to be that I wrote such a timely book. Like rape is a new subject. My first published poem twenty-two years ago was about rape. About sitting up all night in Old Montreal with a weathered female detective, while my girlfriend at the time described her assailant; it was all I could think about.
At the ceremony for our country’s most important literary prize, the two female jurists come up to tell me how important my book was to them, their daughters. The male jurists do not. When the women walk away, I know I will not win the prize, and I’m right.
A woman accuses an MFA department head of rape. He claims they had a relationship. She says they didn’t, that there was an assault. There wasn’t enough evidence. Almost a hundred of the nation’s writers write a letter to support him.
People talk about student protest these days as though students are going bananas silencing everyone, when it is clear they’re just trying to speak freely and finally address the issues that have been brewing for decades. They don’t accept that sexual assault is an inevitable aspect of their education, or the ways universities falter in the face of rape accusations, with patterns of institutional malaise and systemic victim-blaming, trying to silence those who speak out.
Writers are often asked about their ideal reader. Who are you writing for? When I get mail from young women reading the book in university classrooms, using it to talk about rape culture, I picture them cracking the spine, writing reviews, and I feel less tired, less burnt-out – that’s who I’m writing for. Their work causes those in power to be afraid, to rethink long-held beliefs, to create change.