Seven years after being sexually assaulted in a Belfast park, Winnie M Li embarked on a PhD at LSE to investigate how social media can help rape survivors heal.
In June, Winnie's debut novel Dark Chapter was published to widespread critical acclaim. While re-living the experience has been painful, Winnie’s studies and the resulting novel are helping to foster more open conversations about sexual assault.
Within a week of being published, Dark Chapter was Amazon’s No. 1 bestselling title for “Northern Irish Crime”, prompting a flurry of media interviews and speaking engagements.
How has writing Dark Chapter helped you in your healing process?
To be honest, I first had to heal from the trauma of the assault before I could be in the right place to explore this event through fiction. So while I had done most of my immediate “healing” in the five years between the assault and starting to write the novel, I would say that writing Dark Chapter helped me build upon the trauma of the rape and its aftermath. It’s given me a deeper, more neutral understanding of the human experience for both perpetrator and victim.
How difficult has it been to weave an intensely personal and raw experience into an academic study?
This has actually been more difficult than weaving it into a creative work of fiction. I find the nature of academic work does not allow much room for emotions – and this is challenging when you personally have so much caught up in an issue like rape.
It’s quite common for academic researchers to develop secondary transferred depression as a result of their work on difficult subjects, and this certainly happened to me. At the same time, I do think that survivor-led discourse and research is vitally important – so I’ve learned to build self-care into my research design.
The book is unusual in that it also provides a perspective from the attacker – what were your reasons for doing this?
I felt it was important to understand a perpetrator as another human being, whose life experience and other factors somehow contributed to his predatory behaviour. If we aren’t willing to consider where perpetrators are coming from, we won’t be any closer to preventing crimes like this from taking place in the future.
What message would you like people to take away from this book?
That crimes like rape leave an indelible, often lifelong impact on victims, which is hardly ever spoken about. Yet at the same time, it shouldn’t always be seen as a story of weakness and ruined lives – if anything, there is great strength and resilience in survivors. And there are a great many more survivors in our society than we probably imagine.
What’s next for you on the horizon?
Finishing my PhD! (I’ve had to interrupt my studies to promote the novel.) Of course I also have ideas for the next three novels I’d like to write…
Dark Chapter is published by Legend Press, £14.99.