This past week, more than 100 writers from around the world participated in the Vancouver Writers Fest’s 90 events. One such event, entitled ‘Women in Peril’, had people flocking to Granville Island’s Performance Works on October 24 for an evening of intelligent and thoughtful discussion from the event’s panelists. Elisabeth de Mariaffi, Roxane Gay, Paula Hawkins, and Susan Philpott took to the stage with moderator Angie Abdou, a Canadian fiction writer and professor of Creative Writing at Athabasca University, to discuss their novels, violence against women, and feminism.
Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s book, entitled The Devil You Know, takes place in 1993. The protagonist, Evie Jones is haunted by the unsolved murder of her best friend in ’82, when both girls were eleven. As she gets closer to the truth, Evie becomes convinced that the killer is still at large – and that he’s coming back for her. Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State centers on Mireille Duval Jameson, the youngest daughter of one of Haiti’s richest sons. Mireille is kidnapped by a gang of heavily armed men in front of her father’s Port-au-Prince estate. She is held captive and tormented by a man who calls himself The Commander. The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins, is a psychological thriller that follows Rachel, a woman who witnesses something shocking while riding her commuter train one morning. Finally, Susan Philpott’s Blown Red focuses on Signy Shepherd, who is recruited to an underground railroad dedicated to helping women escape abusive situations.
Abdou began the panel discussion by asking what drove the authors to write a novel that dealt with violence against women. Each one stated a different impetus. Philpott, who worked in the mental health industry for 16 years, wanted to write about characters who shared characteristics with her clients, but would ultimately come out on top. de Mariaffi’s novel takes place during a time of immense fear in Ontario, when the Scarborough rapist was rampant. Following the arrest of Paul Bernardo, there was a publication ban on the case and de Mariaffi wanted to discuss the time period without exploiting, or losing, the victims. Hawkins explained that she started with a character and the idea of witnessing a domestic crime while on a commute.
Each author deals with violence differently in her novel. Gay explained that she wanted to write about violence in a way that would be difficult to read; she deliberately did not stylize it, like violence often is in television and movies, and wanted readers to have to look away. As Gay said: “It’s explicit, but not gratuitous.” Unlike Gay, de Mariaffi and Hawkins both avoided writing actual violence in their novels. In The Devil You Know, de Mariaffi explored the pervasive nature of fear and the mental energy women spend every day on ensuring their safety. She even altered her own running routes until she was only running out in the open and in broad daylight. It took months to break the habit. Similarly, Hawkins’ novel explores the psychology behind violence rather than the act itself, specifically, the frustration of an entitled man, which, Hawkins said, is why a lot of domestic violence occurs.
Roxane Gay, who also writes a great deal of nonfiction about gender, sexuality and reproductive freedom (and is very vocal on social media), is often accused of being a misandrist. When asked about this, Gay stated: “I wasn’t worrying about man feelings when I was writing. I was worrying about the story that needed to be written.” She wanted to shed light on the violence women face and the price they often pay for “the rage and impotence of men”. Paula Hawkins, who has also been accused of “man-hating”, said she believes she receives those comments because she “gave the voices to the women”. Her novel has three narrators, and they are all women. Elisabeth de Mariaffi was likewise cognizant of giving the voices to the women. Often, in cases of true crime, the act and the perpetrator become the story and the voices of the victims get lost. Her novel is about fear; Bernardo and the culture of fear surrounding the Scarborough rapist are simply the backdrop.
For all these novels, the focus is very much on the female protagonists – on their strength and resilience – and when asked if their books are feminist, all four women were emphatic in their answer of “Yes”. They went on to emphasize the importance of forward action and activism regarding gender equality, as well as finding comfort and hope in the women around you.
I left the event feeling inspired, energized, and empowered.
This, in part, is what the Vancouver Writers Fest is all about. Now in its 28th year, the sense of community – from writers to readers to supporters – on Granville Island during the festival is palpable. The variety, voices, and quality of events guarantee that this is one place where we can all find something to inspire us, and where we can all belong.