Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Fine Line Between Brutally Beautiful and Gratuitously Graphic: A Guest Blog By Gabrielle Harbowy

"It was important to me that the sexual violence, if I was committed to writing it, had to be intrinsic to the story. It’s essential. And it was equally important to me that it not be in any way arousing or glamorized." -Gabrielle Harbowy

The story only you can tell

They say you should tell the story only you can tell. For me, “Blood Magic” is one of those stories.
My goal was to take PTSD into a fantasy setting. I wanted to show the numbness of coping with trauma and the thin thread of hope that keeps us going through it. I wanted a character who was helpless but still had agency; one who never lost faith. I wanted to go to the literal extreme of “sometimes the only way out is through.”

And I wanted to do all of that in a framework of child sexual abuse.

"Aya sat up carefully, dangling one foot off the edge of the bed, and then both, and then took a careful hop to the ground that bypassed the thickly woven rug. The stone floor should have felt cold under her bare feet, she was almost hopeful that it would, but in truth she felt very little these days. She lived in the numb place, where the things that happened to her body did not affect her so much as they otherwise might. As a result, the chill of the floor was muted, distant. She recalled a ghost of the memory of what cold felt like, as if it was a thing she could imagine only because someone had described it to her. Her toes tingled in some strange sort of body-sympathy for the telling."

I started outlining this story in the car on the way home from Worldcon 2011 in Reno. I remember saying at the time that the story was too dark, unmarketable, and taboo, but even while I was saying it, I knew I was going to write it.

It was important to me that the sexual violence, if I was committed to writing it, had to be intrinsic to the story. It’s essential. And it was equally important to me that it not be in any way arousing or glamorized.
One of the reasons that acquisitions editors (including me!) shy away from sexual violence in stories, especially sexual violence against children, is that it’s often completely gratuitous. That is, it exists “as a shortcut to characterization. Want to let the reader know your villain is really evil? Have him rape someone. It's as easy as kicking a puppy, but with more shock value!” (http://jimhines.livejournal.com/437292.html)

I expected the actual process of writing to be more cathartic than it was; in reality it was cold and calculated. I didn’t gush my feelings onto the page. Instead, I considered each emotional milepost I wanted the reader to reach, and carefully crafted the words in order to evoke the reactions I wanted. I was completely dissociated from it. Dissociation is something that trauma survivors are good at. I went to that numb place, so that I could describe the numb place. By writing from a point of view that was so distanced, it was easier to balance in just enough inevitability and pain to make it uncomfortable to read, without either glorifying rape or overdramatizing the horror of it.

 Role models 

Around the same time, I started listening to the audiobook of Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels. Early in the story, a girl suffers a miscarriage without realizing what’s happening to her. The language is almost lyrical, the narrator is perfect, and the scene is brutal and gorgeous without ever using the direct words. It was exactly what this story needed to be. I listened to the rest of the book with an ear toward how she created the distanced, fairy-tale quality that enveloped such a hard, painful story.

A wonderful line from Strands of Starlight, by Gael Baudino, also guided me: "The flowered trim on the hems [of the dress] seemed superfluous, even frivolous, but at the same time it comforted her, as though the idea that a seamstress had thought to adorn clothing so innocently implied that somewhere, innocence was safe."

In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in the musical episode “Once More With Feeling,” there’s a song where Buffy says, “I touch the fire and it freezes me / I look into it and it’s black // Why can’t I feel? My skin should crack and peel / I want the fire back.” One of the most accurate representations I’ve ever seen of what PTSD feels like. I envisioned a scene where Aya (the POV character) is sitting with the other girls, doing her embroidery, but is withdrawn and can’t relate to the innocent prattle of the other young ladies. 

Thinking about that, made me think of this Suzanne Vega lyric: “Mother my friends are no longer my friends /
And the games we once played have no meaning
/ I’ve gone serious and shy and they can’t figure why
/ So they’ve left me to my own daydreaming” (http://www.suzannevega.com/bad-wisdom/). 

So, those were the swatches that set the mood for the story.

 Finding that line

 Those inspirational verses and lines helped me set the tone and the level of detail. The events are horrific enough without adding gratuitous horror, so I knew I didn’t have to. At the same time, I wanted no room for the reader to interpret or rationalize in a way that might soothe the conscience.

The answer to both those concerns was to make the story more about the emotions than the acts. Aya herself is detached, which enables me to give some detachment to the reader, while dragging you along on her journey. I want the reader to wonder if the story is really going to go there, and to be too emotionally invested to look away from it when it does. And then, because Aya’s sense of hope never falters, the story rewards the reader for enduring Aya’s ordeal alongside her. At least, that’s my intent.


 I fully expected that the subject matter was going to stand in the way of this story ever seeing the light of day. It’s tricky to publish a child abuse story, even if it’s well-written and has a hopeful ending. I passed it off to my usual First Readers, warning them about content and making sure they’d be okay with it.

The readers who had the strongest, most triggering emotional response to it were not abuse survivors. They were fathers of young daughters. This pleased me very much. It told me I’d hit that sweet spot where survivors could relate to it, and others could maybe come away with some insight into how it might feel to live through such a thing. Because I deliberately give no cues to Aya’s age, I’m always fascinated to see how old a reader perceives her to be.

I’m sure some people are going to be triggered by it. It’s something I wrestled with while I was writing it, and while I was submitting it. It’s also why I was very surprised (and honored) to see the story billed first in Witches, Stitches & Bitches. But maybe I shouldn’t be: it’s a story that puts words to feelings that are hard to explain—as I know well, because I’ve been searching for the words since I was thirteen, mentally collecting every shred of fiction and art that offered representations of what I didn’t know how to say.

So, my hope is that for every person who’s triggered by what happens to Aya, a dozen others will be able to hand “Blood Magic” to someone close to them and say, “Here. It’s like this,” when their own words are frozen numb inside them.

As we start to see e-books being pulled from websites due to their graphic nature. I bring you a blog from editor and author Gabrielle Harbowy. She graced us with her story, "Blood Magic" for the anthology, Witches, Stitches & Bitches. What is the line between art and pornography? I think you will find with this story as well as all of our stories, we push the edge in an artful and meaningful way. 
 Best Always, Katie 

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