Fiction reading, oh my

How do you know if you’re going to keep reading a piece of fiction?  Because the architecture of the sentences catches you up, makes you want to settle beside or gallop along with the phrasing, the hard or dreamy images concocted out of mere letters.  Because you like the character(s), want to hang around and find out what they do and say and how they get hurt and recover. Because you are given a path, something important in the balance, and you want to follow the trail to its heart. Because it’s another world that let you escape for  – or understand – yours.

We are creatures needing stories to survive.

Fledgling Conspiracies

Howl We Do It

For years, the women’s stories I’ve heard and read have made me want to howl.

A young mother in Congo, the “rape capital of the world,” offers a detailed account of a horrendous gang rape in front of her husband, who is then murdered. The trauma ends her early-term pregnancy. Her legs are shot so many times that one must be amputated.

This woman, made a penniless beggar by the horrific assault, painfully tells her story with no likelihood of receiving emotional support. Does re-traumatizing the victim this way serve anyone?  A note at the end of the article states that her “identity has been concealed for security reasons and because rape carries strong social stigma in the region.”1 As if there is a place in world where rape does not carry a stigma. In a year of assisting rape survivors in the US, I found not one of them wished to reveal her story publicly, some not even to their families.

In the Land of Blood and Honey, Angelina Jolie’s film, offers a harrowing story from the “rape camps” of Serb militia during the Bosnian war. An estimated 40,000-50,000 women were raped during those four years, finally motivating the international community to define systematic rape as a crime against humanity.

In Darfur, where I’ve had many conversations with women, sexual assault is still a common occurrence. The UN and NGOs guesstimate that tens of thousands of Darfuri women have suffered rape. There are no reliable stats. The attacks continue apace; the camp women have given up on UNAMID peacekeeper assistance. They have no legal recourse and usually receive no treatment for trauma suffered.

And, from around the world, statistics that vary widely from source to source:

  • A woman born in South Africa stands a greater chance of being raped than of learning how to read.2
  • A UK study concluded that between 75 and 95 percent of rape crimes are never reported to the police.3
  • In the US, victims 12-years (!) and older survived a total of 125,910 rapes or sexual assaults. (2009 statistics from Dept of Justice, the most recent available.) At least 50% of victims never report to police.  The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN.0rg) estimates the annual number of sexual assault victims at 213,000 with 80% under age 30.

My question: Why haven’t women taken to the streets, raging en masse to end the trauma meted out to them and their sisters around the world?  How could we possibly be cowed into silence, into believing the shame is ours?

It makes me want to howl. In fact, I tried it one night. Alone on the rooftop, I ended up whimpering quietly like a wounded pup. To be honest, it scared me to summon that primal noise.  But, when I got with a few other women, at night, at the beach, we could let go. Out there, maybe nobody heard us but we could hear ourselves growling, yipping, barking and howling our pain, our protest. It felt like releasing a grievance that, unspoken, would eventually main my soul.

I read up on howling, the signature communication of wolves. Wolf-lovers have learned:

When a wolf begins howling, other members of the pack tend to join in, seeking fur-to-fur contact. Howling appears to be the glue that keeps the pack together.

Wolves will howl to convey a location so they can reunite. When they are lonely or captive, the howl is a rising and falling sound with a long slide at the end.

No two wolves will howl on the same note but there is harmony. Some believe the chorus makes the pack sound bigger and therefore more threatening to intruders.

Wolves tend to be more active on bright-moon nights but evidently don’t “howl at the moon” as legend would have it.

Still, I’m for attributing wolf “motives” and capitalizing on the legend. The full moon, through the centuries the symbol of the rhythms of women, is the perfect occasion for a howl.

Think of The Howl as pro-woman activism, as public theater, a compelling aural reminder that women will not suffer quietly the violence inflicted on them.  Imagine the reaction of urban (or suburban or rural) neighbors to a few minutes of women howling every time the full moon rises. Then, the Howl ripples through time zones, around the world. The first couple times, people are wondering “what the…?” and perhaps feel edgy, puzzled. Then we state our message clearly through media outlets and blogs and social media and even on street corners. The Full Moon Sisters – a global movement – howling every full moon around the planet until the raping stops.  Who’s down with starting that?

Susan Burgess-Lent is the Executive Director of Women’s Centers International, a new non-profit dedicated to providing safe havens in Africa for at-risk women to rebuild their lives.

1  The Enough Moment Wall,  Jan 11, 2012

2  Carolyn Dempster (9 April, 2002). “Rape – silent war on SA women”. BBC News. Retrieved 11 December 2011.

3   Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, Without consent: A report on the joint review of the investigation and prosecution of rape offences, January 2007 accessed at [1] April 5, 2007 – p.8

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Back to the Writing Life

After  nearly six years of nose -to-the-grindstone in Darfur and daily work on my second novel (an effort that felt much like digging a well with a teaspoon), I’m resurrecting my writing life.  Time to get my novel WHEN ALL THE GIRLS STOPPED SINGING out in the world.  Then I can move on to a book of short stories, a memoir the years tromping around in dangerous places trying to fix egregious messes, and my third novel, a raging farce.  I’ve become a writer in a hurry.