Friday 20 November 2015

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Sex in Teen Lit Month II - Interview with Kirsty Eagar

Today, I'm so glad to have fantastic YA author Kirsty Eagar here to answer some questions about her novel Raw Blue and rape survivors.

Kirsty EagarHow did you come up with the idea for Raw Blue?

I’d felt strongly about the subject matter for a long time, but the catalyst for me to actually write the story was some very profile sexual assault cases that went to trial in Australia in 2005 and 2006. The victims were on trial, rather than the perpetrators: in the courts, in the media, and in the court of public opinion. Having witnessed that, I could completely understand why someone who’d been sexually assaulted might choose not to come forward. There is so much focus on the victim, and what they should and should not do in response to this crime. My view is that unless we can guarantee a decent safety net for them, we can’t expect them to jump. I also don’t think anyone can dictate the terms of another person’s survival. The focus and pressure needs to shift to the men who commit these crimes.

Throughout the novel, as I was swept along with Carly’s struggle and rooting for her to get through, I could feel your passion for telling her story. Why was it important to you to tell the story of her survival?

If you’ve been through something traumatic early in your childhood or teen years - whether it’s sexual assault, or bullying, abuse ... anything where you’ve felt powerless, unable to negotiate the outcome – quite often the aftermath is going to involve anger and shame. So, in that sense, I feel like Carly’s story is a story for anybody who has had shit happen (to paraphrase Ryan in the story).

For me, there was a driving urge to communicate: Yes, you will get through it; you will feel joy again; you are so much more than what happened to you – don’t let shame reduce you. Also, I hope it successfully makes the point that there is a human being behind every headline.

With teen fiction, it’s rare to read about sex as something to fear. What’s it like for Carly when the realities of rape hit home, and becomes something to fear?

Probably not answering the question directly here, but it occurred to me while writing it that the most powerful thing Carly was going to do was reclaim her own sexuality. And she does that. But she can’t until it’s with the right person. Ryan does earn her trust to an extent, but I also had the feeling that there was a strong sense of urgency for her. I didn’t want her to exhibit perfect, socially approved, ‘good girl’ behaviour. I wanted her to be real. Real is helpful to the reader. Perfect just makes people feel like they fall short. I’m not interested in perfect at all. It doesn’t exist.

Carly has a really tough time dealing with what’s happened to her, but she tries to move forward, getting out and starting over. She shows her strength by attempting to get on with her life and leave the past behind.

Yes. Although, I don’t feel she would have gone to the extent she did to start again if her family situation had been different. At first glance, there’s nothing hideously dysfunctional or wrong with her family, but she can’t tell them what’s happened. It all comes back to the relationship she has with her father, who is very much the controlling core. She’s voiceless. What’s surprising is the amount of feedback I’ve had in response to that part of the storyline. Dads and their daughters – it’s an interesting dynamic; one you don’t see explored as often as mothers and daughters. Her father views her with a distrust that she hasn’t done anything to earn. It’s sad.

I was surprised by Carly’s thoughts on the media and people in general’s thoughts of rape survivors, how everyone wants to know the details of their experience. It made me think, and feel quite ill. Is this a belief you have, or something that came up as you wrote the story?

Raw Blue by Kirsty EagarIt’s a belief I’ve held for a long time. There’s sometimes a voyeuristic, or sensationalist component to the way things are reported that’s not healthy or helpful. Once again, why don’t they focus on the men who do it? Why don’t they delve into things like their background, their beliefs, their sexual history, whether or not they were drunk when they did it, the clothes they were wearing at the time, so we’d know what to look out for? (Okay, I’m being facetious with that last point, but only a little bit.) Even if the need to know is well intentioned, the victim still becomes a symbol, rather than a human being. There’s a point in Raw Blue where Carly reacts to the way rape is used for entertainment value in TV shows – quite often those storylines are hackneyed, lazily written and insensitive, and the majority are written/directed/produced by men. (Bechdel Test, anyone?)

It was a tricky thing to balance in the writing of Raw Blue, because, of course, the reader has to find out what happened to Carly. My take on it was to give small details, but never the whole – make the reader solve it for themselves. And she had to be well and truly established as a human being first.

When arranging this interview, you mentioned that some people were more uncomfortable with Carly being able to start having a healthy sexual relationship with Ryan rather than the fact that she was raped. Why do you think this is?

Actually, to be fair, I should stress that on the whole there was overwhelming support for that same thing. But, in answer to the question, double standards and issues with female sexuality in general, probably. One person expressed her unease by saying that Carly should have at least waited until after ‘seven or eight dates’. Carly did whatever Carly needed to do, and, in view of her situation, playing by The Rules wasn’t really high on her priorities list. Ryan wasn’t mentioned, so presumably the date count didn’t apply to him. The good thing, though, was that the point was raised, and there was a resulting discussion. That’s the way attitudes change. It’s slow, but it’s happening.

Possibly people also had problems because that scene with Ryan didn’t just fade to black (for people who haven’t read it – I’m talking about the first time Carly and her love interest have sex, which is her first time since the assault). I do have some sympathy for that concern (see my answer to the last question, below). But let’s not forget the protagonist in this story is nineteen, so that in itself provides a guide to the reading age. Basically, that scene between Carly and Ryan could never have faded to black. It was such a major thing for her. And it’s not just her viewing it in the context of her history, it’s also about the little insecurities and anxieties that anyone might feel when they’re with someone for the first time.

What do you hope readers get from Raw Blue?

I feel like I’ve sort of answered this above, so forgive me for diverging here. I get a lot of emails from people who have sought the book out specifically because they have been sexually assaulted. It’s not something I expected at all, in that it’s obviously tremendously brave to read something that’s going to touch on the personal, in this instance. The feedback is that they feel known, not so alone in their feelings, and having that sense of shame identified is freeing. But the best thing is, the thing that always blows me away, is that they can see themselves in that decision to keep living, to rebuild. They are proud. I love that.

What do you think about how teen fiction deals with sex, generally? And sex crimes in particular?

In terms of sex crimes, I don’t feel I’ve read widely enough to be able to comment.

With regard to sex in teen fiction: my view is that in a world full of porn, there is a definite place and need for stories that deal with sex as openly and honestly as possible. I’m not sure what the stats are in the UK, but here, in Australia, the estimate is that by the time boys reach fifteen, 100 per cent of them have viewed violent pornography (Courier Mail, 20 September, 2015). I think we need stories that illustrate what ‘real’ sex might be like, and also stories that make a case for intimacy.

That said, I also understand that teen fiction is a tricky category, because what is suitable for a sixteen-year-old could be completely unsuitable for readers at the younger end. I wish there was some way of re-categorising things to allow a space for Young Adult stories that deal with sex. I know there’s New Adult, but the general perception seems to be that NA is a different thing.

Basically, I see the need for a lot more discussion about this subject, which is why I was so glad to partake in this, Jo! Thank you for having me.

Thank you, Kirsty, for getting involved, and for such incredible answers! There are some really interesting points here. Check out my review of Raw Blue, which is such a fantastic story, I really recommend you all read it.


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