IN 2018, THE University of Oxford ran an essay competition that asked, ‘Are Men (Still) Beasts?’ Students were prompted to respond to an early twentieth-century essay, ‘Aren’t Men Beasts’, by feminist author Rebecca West. They were also asked, in the context of #MeToo, whether woman had become too censorious, imposing her own ‘restrictive conventions’ on the ‘natural’ tendencies of man and thus unfairly demonising him.
My reaction to these questions was visceral. I recoiled like a sea creature into its shell; I felt swallowed by an ocean. The natural tendencies of man?
In the same way breath expands a body, my reaction, when considered and unpacked, birthed realisations as obvious as they were startling. I poured myself a strong black coffee, shut my door and pulled out my laptop.
I wanted to criticise language that still exonerated man in the age of #MeToo and attempt instead to hold man accountable for his actions at every corner of the earth, even where no voices were heard. This essay would be my mean, dark roll of cloud out at sea; the shaking of a sailor’s knees.
I made two arguments. First: that man is not animal, beast; man is human, capable of critical reasoning, judgment and conscious decision-making. Second: that a man who harasses and assaults does so knowingly because he sees woman as Thoreau famously saw landscape itself: ‘soft and impressible by the feet of men.’ I considered, too, how Rebecca West may have responded to powerful men being ejected from their jobs for conduct that – while loathsome – may not break any law, and I did this by situating my argument in a workplace at the end of the earth: Antarctica. Here, in waters that are dark and deep, there are no laws.
I KNOW THIS because I’ve been to Antarctica. In 2017, I travelled by ship from Ushuaia in South America to the Antarctic Peninsula as an artist-in-residence. In a landscape that was impossibly huge and terrifyingly isolated, I stood on ancient ice and felt myself transformed by the stories embedded within it. Antarctica changed me in several profound ways, some of which I am still making sense of. And perhaps this rigorous internal interrogation of my own experiences – asking questions like, what does it mean to violate a body in waters unknown? – made me realise that, in isolation, loathsome behaviour is exactly that: loathsome.
Bolstered as I was by these stories of ancient ice and frozen bodies, I finished my essay, submitting it just minutes before the competition deadline. Two months later, I was stunned to find out that I’d won and was being invited to a celebratory dinner. Powerful, the judges said. And I believed them. It was powerful. I was proud of it. But I wasn’t done yet. I’d cracked open a sheet of ice as old and as thick as time, exposing more questions about rape and the words we use to talk about it.
Into this dark crevasse, I descended.
I began writing a novel about victim-shaming after sexual violence. What became of it, Below Deck, I set in international waters – beyond jurisdiction, beyond the rule book. Because in waters unchartered, a myth about rape can be dragged up from the deep, pulled from the water and yanked on deck like a fish. Unable to breathe, the myth flounders. It’s utterly exposed. The life in it begins to fade. And in the bloody mess of this myth sliced open, truth is revealed.
Unfolding across four oceans, Below Deck is set at sea, in international waters. In this chasm of blue, the boat serves as a microcosm for the world at large. My protagonist is Oli: a feisty young woman, fluent in the language of the sea, who knows her perpetrator – trusts him, even. His violation of her occurs not because he is yielding to his natural tendencies, but because he believes that the flesh he grabs is passive matter.
On land, myths about rape are tangled up in the words we use and the sentences we create. They’re so tightly woven into the fabric of society; it’s hard to get perspective. The clear majority of sexual abuse and harassment victims and survivors know their perpetrators. Language that reduces those perpetrators to beasts, animals and monsters – to lone wolves lurking in alleyways or at the edge of the earth – exonerates the man in bed with his wife, the man in the backyard with his neighbour, the man in the lift with his secretary. This language forgets proximity.
But at sea, with everything else stripped away, we get a fresh look. We see the story from a different angle. In sharp focus. And it’s not that this story is new; rather, we’re finally able to see it, to name it. And from that naming, we find a language adequate to our experiences.
In this way, I believe fiction is its own kind of international waters – a site for new perspectives, a place where we can name and create new language. In fiction, anything is possible. On land, justice is rarely served, especially when it comes to sexual violence. But fiction offers the potential to cross watery borders – to sail, if you like, over the horizon and into a place of promise, where the body might be reclaimed.
These stories are important because language matters. We make worlds out of words. It’s through language that Western ideology defines nature as a body distinct from culture. And it’s through language that ‘culture’ defines a very specific kind of human. White. Eurocentric. Straight. Male. And through this language, everyone else becomes other.
Woman. Black. Queer.
Even more problematic is this: if culture in Western ideology is active, then nature, by virtue of existing in opposition to culture, is passive. Flat surface spread out. Rendered inert, ready for the taking. Does this mean that a perpetrator who harasses or sexually assaults a woman does so knowingly because, whether consciously or not, they fundamentally believe that woman is flesh in isolation? A landscape, soft and impressible? In this way, they can refuse to see her for what she really is. Active; a body with autonomy; flesh with thoughts, feelings and desires. Infinitely complex.
The word ‘pollution’ comes from the Latin word polluere, which means ‘to soil or defile’. To defile, in its archaic use, meant ‘to rape’. In Below Deck, my antagonist tips oil into the ocean because to him, the water is surface spread out. Flat blue. A monochrome devoid of detail. He fails to recognise the world teeming beneath the surface. A body of water made up of many moving parts.
Like me, like Oli, the Southern Ocean at the end of the earth ebbs and flows; tides are continually shifting, flowing back and forth. Like woman, the ocean is plural, pulling and pushing. It is both these movements at once, desire and pleasure in one body. The ocean is not divisible into ones; multiple currents form a fluid whole. As Virginia Woolf wrote of one woman’s sense of self in To the Lighthouse:
beneath it is dark, it is all spreading, it is unfathomably deep; but now and again we rise to the surface and that is what you see us by. Her horizon to her seemed limitless.
Perhaps fiction can best be described with the same words used by the feminist philosopher Hélène Cixous to describe woman’s unconscious: that ‘other limitless country’ where the ‘repressed manage to survive’.
Because it is about survival. It’s about carving out space for the body to breathe. To expand. Space for whispers and words. Fiction is space for ocean screaming. If I’d written Below Deck as non-fiction, there’d have been no ending. Only lingering. The incessant hanging on. In me, like oil slick, then, now, forever.
ULTIMATELY, I WROTE Below Deck because I was angry. And it wasn’t just because my sea had been polluted, first at sixteen and again at twenty-three. No. I was furious because when I told a man I trusted about these violations, he shook his head and said, ‘But if you didn’t want it, why didn’t you just scream?’
And I couldn’t answer that question.
As a writer, it infuriated me that I had no words to explain myself, no words to justify my experience. As a human being, it enraged me to find that I had no language for the shape of this pain.
When I was younger, I’d had this idea of myself as the ultimate weapon. That I’d fight fiercely. I remember vowing to myself at fourteen that if a man dared try to force himself on me, I’d kill him. But then, in a room bordered by ice and stars, I wedged the word no between someone’s mouth and mine, and I was silenced with a kiss. Pinned against a wall. Swept off my feet, you could say.
In the struggle that followed, I formed a sentence with my bones. I wrote a message with my body in a language universally understood. I pushed him off me. I pulled up my pants again. And again. And again. I wrote a message so clear, and still I felt him ignore it, turn the page.
So then, how do I answer this question: why didn’t you just scream?
Understanding this, digesting it, took time. But what I realised, finally, is that this question was born out of the myth of the lone wolf. The myth that rape begins and ends with a stranger in an alleyway.
I thought, maybe that’s why people don’t scream. Because more often than not, they do know their attackers. If the attacker is a partner, or a friend, or a colleague, perhaps we give them the benefit of the doubt. We wait for them to listen, to read our bodies. We’re hoping, desperately, that they’ll recognise us, in all our beauty. That they’ll see us, human beings. People with their own desires and dreams.
We’re waiting for them to see us, and stop.
We don’t scream, too, because we’re conditioned to think about how that scream might affect their future, their job prospects, their reputation, their relationships – and not to think instead about how all this will affect our futures, our bodies and our minds. How it will affect us in those still and silent moments, when we’re getting undressed and stepping into the shower. When we’re stopped at a traffic light. Or when we’re lying in bed, waiting to fall asleep.
We don’t scream because we’re conditioned to believe we’re the ones who’d be destroying a reputation. That it’s us who are unfairly demonising them.
Writing Below Deck was my attempt at dismembering the myth of the lone wolf, exposing the truth. Sailing across the horizon, into that limitless back country where the repressed have managed to survive, I realised, in the end, that we do scream. Not in the way the damsel in distress screams from the tower, but deep down. We scream the way you scream into an ocean, into a body so vast it seems to stretch on forever, unchanged. A vast body that swallows our cries.
But sound travels in waves, and over great distances, over generations, our voices will rise from the darkest seabeds, first as tiny tremors, timid ripples. Not everyone has heard us yet, but that doesn’t mean no one has. These stories are undulating through decades, gaining momentum, building, climbing out. We’ve been silenced in the deepest part of the ocean for centuries. It will take time. But we are growing stronger, charging forward.
And one day, when we are huge waves breaking, this sea of voices will resound across the whole world, centuries of stories, a deafening roar.
We make our worlds with words.