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Sexual Violence in Northern Literatures

February 24, 2015

(part one, part two, part three)

I’ve been noticing something that perhaps you all may have noticed too: the prevalence of scenes of rape or sexual violence in northern literature, especially texts written by women. I wrote about the doubling of generational violence in Vendela Vida’s Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, but I didn’t, in that post, write about rape as more than a plot device to incite certain characters towards specific actions. I’ve also mentioned Lesley ThomasFlight of the Goose, but again, I did not go into any details of the plot, which centers on the story of a young orphan girl who had been sexually abused and exploited by her foster parents. Just off the top of my head other novels that fall in this category include Velma Wallis’ Bird Girl and the Man who Followed the Sun and her story of Bird Girl who is captured by a different Indigenous people from her own and is repeatedly raped and humiliated; the protagonist of Eden Robinson’s story, “Queen of the North,” who is sexually molested by her uncle (a survivor of a residential school run by a predatory priest); Dana Stabenow’s Alaskan mystery novels (both the Kate Shugak series and the Liam Campbell series routinely have characters or plots motivated by child sexual violence and domestic abuse); and not exactly northern, but Louise Erdrich’s haunting novel Tracks is suffused with trauma, most notably the gang rape of Fleur, witnessed by Pauline. Of course there are also scenes of sexual violence in stories by men. Zacharias Kunuk’s film Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner shows Atuat being raped by her former suitor when she thinks her husband, Atanarjuat, is dead, killed by the same man. Seth Kantner obliquely writes about sexual violence against young girls in Ordinary Wolves when his narrator mentions hearing a 13-year-old girl ask for diapers for her baby over the local radio. The conclusion in the novel: if you want to party with older men who will give you alcohol, this is what will happen. The mystery novels of John Straley include an Inupiat woman sexually molested by her white father. And as mentioned with Robinson’s story, the violence isn’t just against women, it’s also against men and boys: Thomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen beautifully and horrifically illustrates sexual violence against boys in residential schools by the people who are supposed to be “more equipped” in the eyes of the state to care for them than their own parents and extended families.

I haven’t come to any conclusions yet, but I want to start teasing out what these episodes of reoccurring sexual violence mean in both a literary, that is representational, scale and as a real fact of northern life. In CNN’s investigative article, “The Rapist Next Door,” John Sutter states: “Alaska’s rape rate is the highest in the country — three times the national average.”

The extent of Alaska’s problem with violence against women is both horrifying and clear: Alaska’s per capita rate of reported rape is the highest in the country, according to 2012 FBI crime data. An estimated 80 rapes are reported in Alaska for every 100,000 people. That’s nearly three times the national average of 27; and almost seven times the rate in New Jersey, the state where reported rape is least common. Those comparisons are imperfect, of course. But localized surveys in Alaska paint an even bleaker picture. A majority of women – 59% — have experienced sexual or intimate partner violence, which includes physical violence and threats; and 37%, nearly four in 10, have been raped or sexually assaulted, according to a survey of 871 adult women in Alaska, published in 2010.

Rape, as the above statistics all too depressingly show, is endemic and ubiquitous in Alaska and I’m sure these statistics are similar in other northern communities where the Indigenous population has little economic and political autonomy. But it is not just a horrific problem in northern communities: non-northern Indigenous communities and reservations have a much higher rate of sexual violence against women and children, and violence against women on college campuses is in the news everyday.

I’m not a sociologist, I won’t be discussing all the cultural and social factors of sexual violence; what I want to understand is why do women include scenes of rape in their novels? Are the reasons and the effects the same as when men write about rape or have a character experience sexual violence?

Another literature with which I’m familiar that also stems from a region with heavy and ongoing colonial violence that divides communities and pits them against each other is that of South Africa. Almost every South African novel I’ve read includes rape or some kind of sexual violence: J.M. Coezee’s Disgrace, Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist, Mark Behr’s The Smell of Apples, Alan Paton’s Too Late the Phalarope, too name just a few. And interestingly, these are all white writers of mostly English descent. Rape, in these novels, sets up power relations in which some people are expendable, to be used at the hands of others. Sexual violence is metonymic of colonial relations, it epitomizes the everyday violence done to those without power. Rape, it is often said, is not about sex, but about power. And in violent colonial interactions, in war torn countries, in virulently masculine societies, the rape of women is ubiquitous and it will be reflected in the literatures of those places as a symbol of social relations, historical atrocities, and the despair of having one’s identity constantly reshaped to someone else’s desire.

Linking South African post/colonial texts that include acts of sexual violence with northern literatures, even though social, racial, political, and historical contexts seem to be quite different, Sutter’s article lists seven reasons why sexual violence is at such an epidemic level in Alaska. One important reason is colonialism: “The history of cultural trauma, abuse, disease and dislocation imposed on Alaska Native villages has led to a cycle of despair and violent behavior.” Another is silence. No one is speaking up or out about the individual trauma of sexual violence, the generational trauma of rape and abuse, and the systemic violence that marginalizes rural and Indigenous peoples. That said, while I do think scenes of sexual violence in some novels try to be purely symbolic, the excess of the violence and the statistics of actual violence make the essence or the structure of that feeling when one reads about rape, too much. The actual violence done to women in the north cannot be far from these representations. The bodies of real women and children are being violated, there is no clear distinction between imaginary and real—women in the north include rape in their work as a warning, as a caution, as an image to a statistic that unfortunately is not decreasing.

While in most of the northern titles I mentioned at the start (and please add more titles in the comments), the authors and characters are Indigenous—Alaska Native, Inuit, Canadian First Nation, American Indian—the story I’m going to work with in more depth in the next post is another indisputably northern tale, but a little different from the others: famed Norwegian author Sigrid Undset’s Gunnar’s Daughter.

  1. I was wondering if you might mention northern Europe as well. Check out Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. There’s a significant amount of rather overt racism against blacks in places like Denmark, too. I wonder if it’s a similar story regarding sexual violence in Iceland. Then again, there’s plenty of sex-based crime in the literature of the southern U.S. as well. Intriguing, thought-provoking post. In essence, how do factors such as climate and latitude and altitude in different cultures affect criminal (sexual) behavior? And is it reflected in literature as part of life or exaggerated by the authors for some reason?

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment! I am going to be posting soon on Sigrid Undset’s Gunnar’s Daughter, she’s from Norway and writes in the style of the sagas. I haven’t read the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, or much of the bountiful crime dramas that come from Northern Europe, perhaps you can comment on those? However, I have seen some of the TV adaptations of these books and American TV adaptations of Scandinavian TV series like The Bridge, The Killing, etc. Right now, I’m not really interested in a more sociological perspective that would answer questions like climate, latitude and cultural norms regarding the prevalence of rape in these literatures, although these are all good questions. Instead, I want to figure out the literary or rhetorical use of sexual violence–sexual violence as a literary device–AND as a very real phenomenon in the lives and cultures of the women writing these scenes in fictional texts.

  2. Lesley Thomas permalink

    Another great post! I can’t wait to read your further insights about Gunnar’s Daughter, one of my favorites.

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