Heather Conn Blogs

spoutin’ about by the sea

Seven things I wish I’d known before writing my memoir

  1.  People will project their own emotional baggage onto your story. For example, if a reader’s mother died recently, s/he might think you’re being too harsh on your mom. If someone has unresolved shame, s/he might not want to hear about your related anecdotes or incidents. But never self-censor. People who are striving to heal and gain greater self-awareness will appreciate your vulnerability and honesty.

 

  1.  The manuscript might take a lot longer than expected to complete. My memoir took eleven drafts (!). Based on a rough estimate by a former MFA professor, I figured it would be at least half that. But each draft got deeper, clearer, and better. Every tale takes as long as it takes. Be patient. Let the story take you where it wants to go.

 

  1.  Agents have their own agendas and won’t necessarily share your vision for the book. Yes, you can be successful without an agent. Your book’s attitude or slant might appeal more to an offbeat or niche audience rather than a mainstream one. Are you adamant about advocacy and your agent wants straight narration? Ask yourself if s/he is a good fit. Don’t sacrifice your creative vision for someone else’s profit motive. I heard things from agents like “No one’s interested in incest — write about your India travels”; “Rewrite your book like a novel” and “Your subject makes me uncomfortable.”

 

  1.  People close to you might threaten a lawsuit. As a pre-publication courtesy, I sent portions of my manuscript to someone from my past mentioned in my book. He said he would sue me if I left in that content. The brother of someone I know told her the same thing with her memoir. Did I acquiesce? No. I just changed his name and some of the identifying details. To be safe, it’s best to consult with a lawyer about such things.

 

  1.  Expect strong pushback if you’re presenting an admired figure in a negative light. I tracked down a former colleague of my father’s, who said my dad was the most supportive boss he’d ever had. He wrote a glowing letter about him after my father died. When I mentioned incest, he said, “I think you should forget about the whole thing.” Present a balanced portrait of someone, but don’t censor the negative.

 

  1.  If you’re writing about sexual assault or incest, be prepared to have others’ attitudes shock you. Sadly, even among so-called feminists and supposed female allies, I received comments that implied my sexual assaults in India must have resulted from my own actions or else I didn’t respond properly. Our cultural stance of “Blame the victim” is far more entrenched than I thought. Share your truth. Don’t let others’ skewed views diminish your story. Use their comments to make your experience even clearer.

 

  1.  Family members can make stronger allies than you think. In a family of secrecy like mine, I expected my three sisters to lash out at me about my memoir. Instead, they agreed to be interviewed and offered revealing anecdotes about my dad. Their support meant so much to me. Revealing your secret will inspire others to share theirs. Help break the silence. You’ll find allies in the most unexpected places.
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July 31, 2017 at 2:45 pm Comments (4)

Movie owner’s stance on Fifty Shades of Grey deserves applause

I applaud the recent decision of Deb Proby, owner of Raven’s Cry Theatre in Sechelt, BC, not to screen the movie Fifty Shades of Grey. She said she was concerned what impact this portrayal of a sado-masochistic relationship would have on teen viewers, particularly girls.

Such sensitivity for impressionable audience members is rare in today’s cutthroat media market.

Proby has shared her own story in the news. She grew up reading Harlequin romances, succumbing to the myth of noble Adonis figures saving hankie-clenching, adoring females. But in her first marriage, she discovered the brutal, shadow side of this fantasy: her husband beat her.

Therefore, Proby didn’t want to perpetuate any further stereotypes that might wrongly influence young teens, either in suggesting that it was okay for men to physically abuse women (think Jian Ghomeshi) or that women should remain passive receivers of any male sexual whim or fantasy.

Today’s societies, in almost all cultures, already have far too many examples of skewed power dynamics that harm women in heterosexual relationships, whether it’s Ghomeshi or Bill Cosby or every rape and sexual assault that occurs between strangers or an intimate couple. At the extreme end of the spectrum, we have rape-murders and female genital mutilation.

I must say, up front, that I have not seen the film Fifty Shades of Grey nor read the book. I do know that the story portrays an S&M relationship between a young woman and an older business tycoon. It’s based on the bestseller by E. L. James, a woman, which has sold more than 100 million copies and has been translated into 52 languages. I’ve read and heard from people that the writing in both the book and movie is lousy.

It’s distressing to learn that this depiction of a sexual relationship has found such widespread appeal. Is sexual domination of a female the ultimate fantasy for far too many people?

Traditionally, men have controlled the images that we, as a society, are meant to see as sexually alluring or titillating, whether it’s in pornography or advertising. In most of these depictions, the woman’s primary role has been to tempt, then sexually satisfy, the man; her own sexual pleasure is deemed  secondary or irrelevant.

It’s disturbing to me that a woman wrote Fifty Shades of Grey, and she is now receiving outlandish rewards for her gender portrayals: she has a line of sex toys, wine, and other franchise merchandising. Sadly, as we’ve always known, sex sells.

In contrast, I think of a presentation by a female director I heard more than three decades ago in Vancouver. She made erotic films. Her movie clips portrayed empowered women choosing how and when they wanted to make love, with loving and respectful men who viewed them as equals, not as objectified symbols of their own lust.

However, she had difficulties encouraging her female actors in these positive portrayals; she encouraged them to improvise and explore their own fantasies and sexual fulfillment. Yet, most had worked in the porn industry. They were used to roles that demanded they start with giving a blow job, not seeking their own pleasure. They found the transition to self-empowerment challenging.

As for Proby’s decision, some have faulted her for not applying a similar restriction on violent movies. For instance, she recently screened An American Sniper, which one media outlet called “war porn.” Is her stance on sex versus violence hypocritical? Violent movies and Fifty Shades of Grey equally received an R-rating.

Ideally, it would be great if Hollywood movies were not so violent; I decry their power in influencing vulnerable minds. However, since most drama hinges on conflict, violence appears inevitable. If Proby were to eliminate violent movies from her roster, there would be little chance she could remain in business. Hollywood seems obsessed with violence.

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March 9, 2015 at 2:59 pm Comments (0)

India’s Daughter lays bare a cultural indictment of women

For International Women’s Day, it would appear to make more sense to see a documentary that celebrates women’s empowerment, rather than one about a death resulting from a high-profile gang rape. Jyoti Singh, a 23-year-old medical student, died in 2012 as a result of serious internal injuries suffered after she was repeatedly raped on a night bus in New Delhi.

Yet, I am grateful to have watched India’s Daughter last night for many reasons: it took the story out of the headlines and into humanity, onto the victim’s parents and their dignified anguish and the achievements of their daughter; it put faces on both the perpetrators and the thousands who protested, in outrage, against this horrific crime; and it laid bare the raw misogyny not only of a rapist and his defence lawyers, but of cultural attitudes in India that have viewed women as worthless for centuries.

From his Delhi prison where he awaits death by hanging, convicted rapist Mukesh Singh condemned the impact of the documentary itself: he said that it will now encourage rapists to kill their victims, rather than “just” dump them at the side of the road, as he did with his victim and her male companion. He thought the victim deserved what she got, especially since she was out “late” (past 9 p.m.) accompanied by a male who was not a family member or relative. In his view, she should have remained silent while being raped; then things would have been easier for her.

It’s a challenge for any gender to hear such hateful opinions, yet they need to be heard. We, as women, need to know and see who holds such views and to learn how widespread they are. Two of the rapists’ defence lawyers (males, of course) shared their own astounding prejudices. One likened a woman to a flower, saying it was a man’s job to protect her, and if she became damaged or soiled in any way, she no longer had value. The other vowed that he would pour acid on his own daughter if she defied or dishonoured him.

Within India’s caste system, these lawyers are among the so-called educated class; most of the rapists were raised in poverty in one of Delhi’s slums. Women’s devalued role spans all castes in India, where female infanticide is common practice. Girl babies are often aborted, undernourished or murdered.

Even the victim’s own brothers questioned their parents’ decision to take money from land reserves, essentially their own inheritance, and apply it to their sister’s education. She was only a girl, after all. And the young wife of one of the convicted rapists, who denied his guilt, said that if her husband was hanged, she’d have to kill herself and her toddler son because she’d have no one to protect and there’d be no reason left for her to live.

Censorship-prone India has banned screenings of this film, which is a gross disservice to all of its citizens, particularly women. I applaud the decision of both the BBC and CBC to screen on International Women’s Day this searing indictment of both a culture and crime that has hatred of women (not just one) at its core. Even while creating this post, I kept writing “India’s Children” instead of “India’s Daughter”; I felt like my subconscious was trying to remind me that this is an archetypal story that affects us all. Its ramifications live far beyond this one rape and murder.

While travelling solo in India for seven months in 1990/91 in my early thirties, I was sexually assaulted numerous times by Indian men. The prevailing attitude was that any western woman travelling alone was a prostitute. This view was heightened when my male Indian companion accompanied me; men from taxi drivers to waiters assumed that I was his hooker and some even denied us a ride for fear of backlash. (I write about some of these encounters in my yet-to-be-published memoir No Letter in Your Pocket.)

Thankfully, laws in India have since changed to help female victims of rape, incest, and similar crimes fight back and win in the courts. Sally Armstrong outlines these successes in her book Ascent of Women (Random House, 2013). At least the rapists in Singh’s gang rape, including a 17-year-old tried as a juvenile, were all arrested and convicted. One of them had reportedly committed hundreds of prior rapes.

For more info on India’s Daughter, see  Arti Patel’s feature “Watch ‘India’s Daughter’ No Matter How Much Pride You Have” on HuffPost Living Canada.

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March 9, 2015 at 10:38 am Comments (0)