Since I got home from France, I’ve been thinking about my ‘Trigger Warning’ piece in the latest issue of Overland. (I was grateful I was away when it was published.)
The first time I was raped, a stranger climbed into bed with me while I was sleeping at a friend’s house and fucked me. I was seventeen; he was twenty-eight. I didn’t know it was rape. It was just something that happened.
For a few weeks after that he said he was my boyfriend. I accepted that, just as I accepted being fucked. He treated me as you would expect and finally I said, No. I don’t want to see you again. Six months later he persuaded me to see him and sat opposite me with tears streaming down his face, asking me to come back. He hadn’t understood, he said. He really loved me. I said no. I felt a slight flicker of pleasure, perhaps of revenge. Fuck you, I thought.
Specifically, I was thinking of how it took three decades before I was able to name those experiences to myself.
I mean, I have always tried to write without fear or shame. I wanted to be like Dorothy Hewett and walk naked through the world. And even so. 30 years. This maybe shocks me most of all.
I always saw my experiences in the corner of my psyche, although I never directly confronted them, and barely admitted them. They were just scars, and not particularly interesting scars at that. I wrote it because I was so angered by seeing how the same things happen to young women now. I wrote it because other people were naming the same things and I realised that they weren’t scars. They were wounds.
I wrote that piece as honestly and unapologetically as I was able, as if I was writing a poem. I wasn’t sure that I would publish it, but the work wasn’t complete until, for good or ill, it was published and alive in the world. Because even though it was personal, it wasn’t really about me.
It reminded me that art is an act. This is obvious, but sometimes it is worth remembering what is obvious.
My action wasn’t ‘confessional’, no (what should I have to confess?) but a kind of decolonisation, a naming of a damaged identity.
Naming is a kind of magic: it is an act that both binds and liberates. The first act of colonisation is to name. The first act of freedom is to name the oppression. This is why power keeps the magic of naming for its own use. But we must be able to name our own experiences.
We are all damaged. We live amid violence that we don’t and can’t acknowledge, amid suffering we don’t and can’t acknowledge. We can’t face this violence, and we can’t face ourselves within this violence. And so the damage doubles and doubles, inside us and outside us.
It’s not that art can solve anything, but it does permit us to name. It permits a direct connection between ourselves and others and the world, a ritual enactment of cognition and recognition, of united intellection & feeling.
The knowledge art can give is almost the exact opposite of reportage, which gives us intellection stripped of feeling.
Reportage allows us to know things without the weight of understanding. We are freed from the intimacy of experience. And so we never feel, either, the weight and lightness of our own experiences, neither the beauty nor the pain. We are brutalised by this.
The complexities of feeling are reduced to mere sensation. Knowledge becomes an artefact of possession, power, status. Thought becomes ‘opinion’.
This is of course useful to anyone who desires to manipulate us.
Undoing this alienation is hard. Undoing this alienation is what art is for.
It’s why and how art is political. It’s also why art hurts, even (perhaps especially) when it most delights. Why I keep believing in it, despite all the failures, despite everything that says art doesn’t matter.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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