WRITING ABOUT RAPE IN YA
July 19, 2013
Beth Fehlbaum, author of BIG FAT DISASTER (Merit Press, tbr March 2014) asked me to write an article about “Talking About the Tough Stuff: Controversial Content” for Uncommon YA (July 19, 2013).
When you read the article, reprinted here, I thought about subtitling it “What’s a nice girl doing writing about rape.” Even after I wrote NO SURRENDER SOLDIER, it was difficult to admit to myself I had written a story based on that premise. (More on that later.) So writing this article at Beth’s request was an interesting exercise.
Most importantly, it made me think about the topic in a broader sense. I have wondered if teachers would be reluctant to teach NO SURRENDER SOLDIER in the classroom due to the premise. But then I remembered books with a similar premise already being taught in schools for 40-50 years! Here’s those books that we all know and admire. At the end of the article, I would appreciate if you would comment and add any titles that you feel would fit into this category.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (J.B. Lippincott, 1960) by Harper Lee
I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS (Knop, 1969) by Maya Angelou
SPEAK (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1999) by Laurie Halse Anderson
COURAGE IN PATIENCE by Beth Fehlbaum
THE LAST SUMMER OF THE DEATH WARRIOR (Arthur Levine Books, 2010) by Francisco X Stork.
TALKING ABOUT THE TOUGH STUFF: CONTROVERSIAL CONTENT
The premise of NO SURRENDER SOLDIER (Merit Press/Adams Media/F+W Media, January 18, 2014) is that a 15-year-old Chamorro boy, Kiko, discovers that his mother had been raped by a Japanese soldier during the WWII Japanese occupation of Guam. The teen’s emotional arc, which parallels the plot arc, is that of a secondary victim of rape. Concurrently, there is a WWII Japanese soldier, Isamu Seto, who has been hiding in the jungle for 28 years behind Kiko’s house. Seto, a survivalist, has a bad case of post traumatic stress syndrome.
Let me start out by saying that I never intended to write about rape, and certainly not about the rape of a boy’s mother. But as my editor, Jacqueline Mitchard is fond of saying, “It is what it is.”
Way before ever writing novels—with the exception of one practice MG novel which shall forever stay buried deep within my files—I was a journalist. My husband was a USAF officer. As a result, we lived in Hawaii, Japan, and Guam, and visited and worked in the Philippines, Korea, and many other Pacific Islands. I worked as a foreign correspondent and political reporter for the Pacific Daily News, owned by Gannett. (Most people know Gannett for its wire service and USA Today.) Like my dad, I’m a self-taught student of history.
When I learned of the atrocities—rape, forced labor, torture and death—that Japanese soldiers inflicted on people in the countries they conquered, I couldn’t understand why it took so long for the United States to send troops to liberate these people, especially Guam, the Marianas and the Philippines since they had been under the U.S. protectorate before Japanese occupations. (Guam and Hawaii were both US territories at that time. As a reporter I cover political status issues, such as Commonwealth hearings for Guam.) After all, General MacArthur had promised the Filipinos when he left, “I shall return.”
If you’re over a certain age, you’re probably shaking your head and wondering how I could be so dense. But keep in mind that I grew up in the rocket age of moonwalks and space shuttles and supersonic jets and stealth fighters. I’ve seen jets take off and land on the deck of aircraft carriers. It took me some digging into research to realize that airplanes during WWII could not fly that far in distance. I learned about China Clippers and why the U.S. soldiers were spending so much time building runways on little Pacific islands instead of sailing straight to the Japanese occupied islands and rescuing the people being abused.
At the same time I learned about the Japanese soldiers who hid and never came home after WWII. Their survival stories are blow-you-away unbelievable what they endured. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t either commit suicide, or come out of hiding and go home after Japan had surrendered. One case in particular that puzzled me was that of Shoichi Yokoi. He not only hid for 28 years in the jungles of Guam, but he dug an underground tunnel with a cannon shell and lived underground for the last eight years. (You can read Yokoi’s story and see pictures at www.christinekohlerbooks.com/disc.htm )
So, after meeting all of these wonderfully kind people throughout the Pacific-Asian rim, and learning all of these fascinating tales, and doing more research after I returned to the U.S. mainland, in 2001 a story began to pour out of me onto paper. But even though at the core, the premise, was this issue of the boy’s mother having been raped, I still committed a journalist’s worst sin—I buried the lead. Maybe it was my own puritanical upbringing that told me nice girls don’t discuss such topics as sex, and certainly not rape. Or maybe I danced around the topic of rape because I thought it would never sell in the children’s book market.
Several years after I had revised NO SURRENDER SOLDIER as far as I thought I could take it on my own, I attended an SCBWI workshop in Arkansas. I had gone the previous year and this was a great group of writers, all very serious about learning advanced craft. This particular year Michael Green, publisher of Philomel, was the guest retreat leader. I’ll never forget when it was my turn to report to his cabin to discuss his critique of my novel. Michael said very directly, “The boy’s mother had been raped. Just come out and say it.” I went back to my cabin and rewrote the first chapter and never danced around the topic again.
However, I still faced the problem of selling a novel in the children’s market in which a teen boy discovers his mother was raped. Even with a rise in the amount of YA novels being published in the 21st century, historical novels dwindled on those publishing lists. (NO SURRENDER SOLDIER takes place in 1972 during the end of the Vietnam War since it deals with the lasting effect of war on people.) So I talked to my friend Jane Yolen at a retreat she was leading. Since NO SURRENDER SOLDIER is a YA-crossover, I asked Jane if I should abandon trying to sell it in the YA market, and start submitting to the adult market. Jane said that her husband used to say, “The best stories are the hardest to sell,” and she urged me to keep it in the children’s lit market. So I stayed the course.
TO MARKET, TO MARKET
I still had my doubts, though, until 2010 when I read THE LAST SUMMER OF THE DEATH WARRIOR by Francisco X Stork (Arthur Levine Books, 2010). The premise of this contemporary novel is similar to mine in that a teen boy schemes to kill the man who raped and murdered his mentally disabled sister. I loved Stork’s book, and knew then that my book would be accepted in the YA market now. [As a sidenote, neither Stork’s nor my book are graphic or gratuitous concerning the rapes. In both stories it is handled off-page/stage before the story begins in Chapter 1, and is never dwelt on by the main characters in graphic details.]
I’m pleased that Merit Press is publishing NO SURRENDER SOLDIER because from the very first query, Jackie never balked at the topics of rape or war. Instead, after reading my story, she said this book has the potential to be a classic. When I talked to my editor, Jackie, on the phone about this difficult topic of rape, and how Michael Green had told me to come right out and say it, Jackie agreed wholeheartedly.
TEACHING TOUGH TOPICS
If you are a teacher and you’re wondering how to discuss this book in a classroom, let me encourage you, as a former English and journalism teacher, that teens today are more open, direct, and knowledgeable about topics such as war and rape then we were at their age. They have grown up with tv shows such as Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and read international news daily on the internet. Also, the advantages of putting a story in history and a foreign culture is that it removes the circumstances two steps from contemporary readers. They can identify with the main character, but not so much as to feel that they are living his life. It’s like the difference between having empathy for someone and having a total meltdown because it’s your life that’s messed up.
In NO SURRENDER SOLDIER Kiko can’t bring himself to talk to anyone about what happened to his mother during the war. As a result, it bottles up inside of him until he reaches a stage of rage. He wants to take revenge on the Japanese soldier he discovers in the jungle, even though this straggler was not the one who raped his mother. I’ll stop here before I give away any spoilers. I just want to end by saying that the reason I talk about really tough topics is because evil things do happen to innocent people, and talking about it begins the processes of allowing for emotional and spiritual healing to occur.