Walk yourself home...

By Amy Reiswig, December 2010

A new anthology offers an artful and therapeutic response to violence against women.

For many of us, December is a month of good cheer, a time for looking forward to celebration with friends and family. For others, however, it is a grim time of thinking back—to the suffering of friends and family and of how such suffering can be prevented in the future. 

December 6 is National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women in memory of the 14 women murdered at Montreal’s École Polytechnique in 1989. December also marks the anniversary of BC predator Robert Pickton’s life sentence. Being from Montreal, I will never forget media images of the Polytechnique dead just as I can now never forget the details of Pickton’s crimes and the sad fact of his even greater number of victims—all killed simply for being women.

Appropriately for December, then, comes the new book Walk Myself Home: An Anthology to End Violence Against Women. Published by Caitlin Press and edited by Andrea Routley, this 175-page anthology represents 50 voices on a serious subject, offering a mix of genders, genres and tones. Fiction, non-fiction, poetry and interviews by men and women range from brutal confession to beautiful reflection. Some are told with humour, some with anger and almost all with humbling honesty.

Be prepared. Many of these short works explicitly discuss or represent assault—at the hands of fathers, teachers, strangers, friends, neighbours. Routley also includes pieces addressing subtler forms of violence: derisive jokes, job discrimination and cultural assumptions around beauty, submission and gender roles. As she writes in the introduction, “In order to end violence against women in our society, we must be able to recognize it,” and this means recognizing not just actions but attitudes.

The book’s writers tackle topics such as emotional abuse, lost memory, travel dangers, bullying, washroom graffiti, child beauty pageants, aging, porn, medical exams, court proceedings, jail, men’s anger towards violent men—even the simple peace of a women’s change room: “I like to read/ bodies/ when women are naked/ together…offer my body/ to those who would read it,/ those who might need to know/ that every skin is marked.” So while hefting a heavy subject, the anthology’s purpose is not to burden readers but to raise awareness, break down stereotypes and, above all, create community.

“There is a balance,” the seemingly undauntable 30-year-old Routley explains over coffee at Caffe Fantastico. “Readers will be moved but not feel flattened at the end of it. And it’s okay if not everybody understands. It’s partly to make people who have had these kinds of experiences feel less alone or isolated.” Routley, a creative writing student at UVic, speaks from experience and bravely shares her own story of sexual assault in the book’s introduction. If I had room here I’d share mine.

Routley’s project and outlook obviously hit a nerve. Her original idea—a chapbook to benefit Victoria’s LoudSpeaker festival (which Routley co-organizes and which celebrates International Women’s Day)—grew into something more substantial, drawing submissions from across BC, Alberta and Ontario. Some pieces have already been in print, others were written specifically for this book, and well-published contributors (like Susan Musgrave, Kate Braid, David Fraser, Fiona Tinwei Lam, Christine Lowther) neighbour with newcomers from different backgrounds—activists, educators, social service workers, folk musicians, and carpenters are all represented here.

The result is a diversity of human experience and writing styles, from the poetic—“He never spoke of his childhood./ For us, he was only the Great Fire/ consuming his daughters/ for twenty-six years”—to the very blunt: “I try to exert control in a man’s world but it’s fucking hard.” Some readers may therefore feel that the collection is not wholly “literary,” but Routley defends her editorial choices: “I didn’t want to censor and decide what people want to express. I also wanted it to not just be professional or accomplished writers, but to expand it out to other people who also have things to say.” 

Having that forum to share often painful, hidden stories is part of what makes the book important, says Victoria contributor Yasuko Thanh. Thanh won the 2009 Journey Prize for fiction, but for this anthology wrote a non-fiction piece about part of her life that she has rarely written about head-on. 

Called “Hooked,” Thanh’s three-page personal revelation is one of the collection’s most powerful. “I wore silk and ate lobster. I wasn’t a victim,” she writes, but then in the very next sentence says, “One day I’m hanging by my neck from the living-room wall in our suite at the Robsonstrasse Hotel and I don’t want to believe it.” Thanh isn’t bitter, and her writing reflects a resilient, whole person’s heart and intellect looking at why things happened. “The first time he beat me,” she writes, “I hadn’t been afraid, but shocked. I’d felt surprised that people really did this kind of thing to each other.” 

Now almost 40 and a married mother of two with a book of her own coming out in 2011, Thanh wants people to realize that stereotypes are irrelevant. “I was an honour roll student,” she tells me, at times glancing down to her black and red shoes that say “Lady” and “Luck.” “I wasn’t someone who didn’t know better. Violence isn’t a problem reserved for people from certain backgrounds.” 

While it’s tough making the personal public, Thanh says this publication is an important step towards integrating all parts of her identity, and she hopes readers will feel similarly comforted and encouraged. “If one person picks it up, says, ‘Wow this happened to me,’ and feels like less of a freak, then that’s the point. I see the book as an alternate form of dialogue for people who don’t feel they can go to meetings, etc. The goal should be anything that leads us to a better understanding.”

Understanding, and perhaps change—what greater gifts could anyone ask for this December or at any other time of year? All royalties from Walk Myself Home will go to the BC Society of Transition Houses.

Writer and editor Amy Reiswig, like so many women she knows, has too often been shy and said nothing when touched or subjected to sexually-based comments by strangers, but hopes she will have the courage to confront discrimination wherever she sees it from now on.