Book Review: ‘Dark Chapter’ by Winnie M Li

5 Jun

Dark Chapter book cover

by Rhea H. Boyden

A little over a year and a half ago I was in London to attend my good friend Erin Reilly’s birthday party and go to a few art exhibits. Erin has a wide and diverse circle of friends and she had invited a lot of fascinating Londoners to this party. I was a little overwhelmed, however, and not feeling the most sociable that night and so after awhile I told Erin that I needed to go home and rest. ‘But wait’, Erin said, ‘Before you leave I really want you to meet Winnie. She is an incredible writer and as a writer yourself, you really need to connect with her’, she told me. ‘Okay’, I said, and I was ushered over to where Winnie was standing, a brief introduction was made and we exchanged social media contacts.

Now, a year and a half later, I wish I had been in a more sociable mood that night and had stayed longer to speak to the incredible and inspiring Winnie M Li because I am now extremely interested in her story. Thanks to social media, however, I have been able to connect with and follow Winnie and her story is an intriguing one. She has just published a brilliant debut novel ‘Dark Chapter’ which is a work of autobiographical fiction that was inspired by a horribly traumatic event that she lived through: being assaulted and raped in a Belfast park when she was there on a business trip in April 2008.

Winnie Li, a Harvard graduate based in London, was enjoying a very successful film producing career when she was invited to Belfast to attend the 10th anniversary celebrations of the Good Friday agreement. ‘We were invited to take part in a symposium with various politicians. It was quite prestigious,’ she said. One of Winnie’s passions is hill-walking and hiking and she has travelled to many interesting and remote places to pursue this passion including hiking in Germany and helping to author guidebooks such as the ‘Let’s Go’ guidebook series. After the Belfast symposium she had intended to go for an 11 mile hike through Colin Glen Forest Park in West Belfast when she was followed and subsequently violently attacked and raped in the woods by 15-year-old Edward Connors. After the attack she walked out of the woods and called the police and then came the police statement, the forensic exam and the horrible realisation that she is now a rape victim. There is a section in her novel where her protagonist Vivian realises this in the full sense of time and tense: ‘I am now a rape victim. Was raped. Have been raped. Am raped. A nighmarish conjugation through all the many tenses, without knowing where this verb will take her. What happens in future tense? I will be raped…. I shall be raped.’


Winnie M Li

And why try and turn your traumatic real world, life-shattering experience of rape into a piece of fiction? And how difficult is this a task to undertake? Vivian, the novel’s protagonist is very much a representation of Winnie herself and her own lived experience and yet, this is a piece of fiction, and a very convincing and brilliantly researched piece of fiction too. Winnie has said that she read a lot of very helpful and interesting rape memoirs following her own assault but that she wanted to attempt something more ambitious; to also tell the story from the point of view of the perpetrator to try and gain a deeper understanding of what led him to commit such a violent act at such a young age.

‘Dark Chapter’ expertly describes the experience of both the perpetrator and the victim in alternating sections told in both of their voices. It recounts their role models, education (or complete lack thereof) and sexual experiences to date leading to the point where the two meet in the park in this violent encounter. It then goes on in their separate voices, to explain how they both deal with the aftermath of the ordeal. Johnny, the perpetrator, still high on drugs and alcohol from the night before goes back to the caravan he lives in with his Irish traveller family, or at least some of them. His parents are split up, with half his siblings living with his mother and he with his alcoholic and abusive father and older brother who are rarely, if ever, around to look after him. His shot at having a good life is pretty slim from the outset and for this you pity him. Vivian, on the other hand, flies back to London the next day to attend the red carpet premiere at Leicester Square of a film she has just finished producing. This part of the story is pure autobiography- Winnie herself, did in real life fly back to London the day after the attack, adorn her beautiful gown, cover her bruises with concealer to attend the premiere of ‘Flashbacks of a Fool’ starring Daniel Craig, which she helped produce. Another film she had previously produced ‘Cashback’ had been nominated for an Oscar.

woods one

When Winnie returned to London, she told her closest friends about the attack and she got a lot of support and was believed. This was such a horrific ‘stranger rape’ attack that no one could discredit her story. It was covered widely in the media and she waited months for the trial in Belfast, at which point her attacker, Connors pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 8 years in prison. Winnie got justice without having to testify, which helped in her healing process. Nonetheless, she still had deep depression, agoraphobia and post traumatic stress disorder, staying in her room and avoiding social contact. I think back to the night I met Winnie in London. I was not in an especially good mood and was not feeling particularly sociable that night. But I stayed and met Winnie and I am glad that I did. I cannot even begin to imagine the agoraphobia and social anxiety that Winnie has dealt with in the past years and it is hugely inspiring to see her turn her trauma into art, social action and literature in an attempt to raise more awareness around the topics of rape and sexual assault.

Winnie’s film career was effectively shattered by the trauma and depression that she experienced after her ordeal, rendering her unable to work for 2 years. She eventually got some work at the Doha Film Institute in Qatar where she served as program manager for the 2nd and 3rd editions of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival. She also slowly began to take hikes again and get out on her own in nature, though still traumatised and wary of strange men. She eventually asked herself the following question about her rape and assault: ‘How can I deal with this in a professional way that can have some kind of public impact?’ She has answered and is continuing to answer this question every day. ‘Dark Chapter’ is excellent and is a must read in order to keep an open dialogue about rape culture and also to honour all the victims who have not seen justice in court or who have felt shamed into silence. By taking on representing the role of the perpetrator and giving him a voice we see how an understanding of sexual consent is not at all to be taken for granted, but it is something that has to be learned. The novel describes Johnny’s influences who are his older brother and friends in the Irish Traveller community who effectively teach him that violently forcing women to have sex with you is okay, watching pornography is okay. Her command of the vernacular and the Irish colloquialisms is spot on and perfectly captured in her novel. In the acknowledgements at the end of her novel Winnie also states: ‘Resources and staff at An Munia Tober, Pavee Point and the Traveller Movement helped illuminate the challenges and uniqueness of Irish Traveller culture. To this day, Traveller society remains misunderstood and misrepresented and I do not intend for my novel (inspired as it is by my own lived experience) to portray an entire community nor to malign it.’ Her fiction novel shows the case going to trial and it is gripping and anger-inducing to read it. The lies of the perpetrator, his denial that he has done anything wrong, him saying how she wanted sex and was asking for it. Her character Vivian just standing in the courtroom crying and trying to control her rage as her rapist gives his awful and untrue statement. One section of the trial expresses just how violating the whole ordeal is to her: ‘How many more times does she need to be flayed alive in this process? Every single step of seeking justice involves exposing herself more and more. Until there is nothing left of her. And yet everyone watches on, wanting to see how she will react.’

Winnie was very relieved that she herself did not have to go through the ordeal of the trial and that her perpetrator pleaded guilty. But she also pointed out in an interview with the BBC that only 6% of reported rapes in England and Wales lead to a conviction and it is very damaging for a victim to be disbelieved, discredited, shamed and to not be given any social justice. And so Winnie continues her work of making rape an acceptable topic to discuss openly and she has gone very public with her own story completing television, radio, newspaper and magazine articles and interviews internationally to try and increase the dialogue between men and women about sexual violence and rape. She is also a co-founder of Clear Lines Festival in London, which explores issues around sexual assault and consent through the arts, discussion and debate.

Winnie and dog

Winnie has accomplished so much and her experience of how she has dealt with her rape should be an inspiration to women and men everywhere. I have been speaking to my friend Erin more about her and we are both in awe of Winnie’s work. Erin said ‘She is a powerhouse of both intellect and courage.’ That she most certainly is. It is impossible for me to list all the incredible things that Winnie has accomplished in her life to date but since 2015 she is also a Ph.D researcher in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics. She is researching the impact of social media on the public discourse about rape and sexual assault on an Economic and Social Research Council grant.

She also blogs for the Huffington Post and wrote a significant article about Brock Turner, the Stanford University perpetrator who was only sentenced to 6 months in jail last year after asssaulting and raping a 23-year-old female student. Judge Aaron Perskey defended him by saying that a harsher sentence would have a ‘severe’ impact on him. His own father also defended him by saying that his son’s life should not be ruined by ’20 minutes of action’. This sparked outrage on social media and the victim’s harrowing 12-page statement to Turner went viral and was widely read and shared. Winnie has taken a huge interest in this case because social media is allowing the victim to have a voice against this insanity. In the aftermath of her own rape many friends and aquaintances admitted to her that they, or an aunt, cousin, sister or someone they knew had also been sexually assaulted. Rape is shockingly pravalent in our society, but sadly, many, many victims remain silent. Winnie is certainly on a mission to change this with her own novel, activism, articles and festival work, opening a dialogue and keeping it open on a tough topic that our society still has trouble dealing with and speaking about. ‘Dark Chapter’ is a must read and Winnie’s story as a whole, one to be followed.

Photos courtesy of Winnie M Li

Author photo of Winnie M Li by Grace Gelder

‘Dark Chapter’ is published by Legend Press, London and can be ordered online. You can also support Winnie in her cause by asking your local bookstore to stock this brilliant and important novel.

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