Sohaila Abdulali has no “Shame Gene.” The “brown bisexual middle-aged atheist Muslim survivor immigrant writer,” or so she posits herself in her new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, has struggled for years to understand why so many rape survivors—including herself—are shamed for their silence, for their outspokenness, for their very existence. Abdulali argues she wasn’t born with a “Shame Gene,” thus justifying why she “has the nerve” to write this challenging, nuanced and altogether triumphant book.
When she was seventeen years old and living in Mumbai, Abdulali was gang-raped during a mountainside stroll with her childhood friend, a male. Four armed men, enraged that Abdulali was traveling alone with a boy, raped her and beat both her and her friend as punishment. They argued for hours whether to kill the two teenagers but eventually let them go. Three years later, while studying in the US, Abdulali returned to India and penned an article for an Indian women’s magazine detailing the events of that night and why she refused to keep silent. Another three decades passed, and the article suddenly went viral after a 2012 gang rape in New Delhi sparked global outrage. In response, Abdulali published a New York Times op-ed outlining why being a rape survivor is not “dishonorable,” arguing that victim-blaming itself is the scourge.
I spoke with Abdulali about why she decided it was time to write this book, the perception of the “good girl” versus “bad girl,” and why joy is an essential weapon in the fight against rape.
The Rumpus: In the book, you say that “rape drains the light” and that your hope is to “let the light back into the room.” You started writing this before the explosion of the #MeToo movement. What initially made you decide it was finally time to sit down and bring that light into the conversation about rape?
Sohaila Abdulali: Well, I think it was sort of admitting defeat, in a way. Thirty years ago, I had written that magazine article, now almost forty years ago, and then that was over, and I had a whole life that had nothing to do with rape. And then it kind of came back to life in December 2012, when there was a big rape and murder in India. And no one could find anybody willing to talk about rape. They could only dig me up from more than thirty years ago. So it suddenly came back, and so then I wrote the New York Times op-ed because I kind of felt like, well, I do have something new to say. And then after that I said I was done. But I got calls from agents saying, “Write a memoir.” Which, really? No. I’d rather hang myself by my toes than write a memoir. Especially because it felt completely fake. The rape is not the main event of my life, so to write a memoir based on that would just seem like it doesn’t make any sense.
And then I went on, I wrote a column for three years, and I was very proud of it. I had this idea of publishing a book of my columns and having a couple of long essays, but everyone that I showed it to would say, “Write a memoir about rape.” And so finally I sent it to Penguin India, who actually turned out to be one of the publishers of this book, and they had the same response: “Write a memoir.” And I wrote back saying, “I don’t want to write a memoir,” and instead of going away, they actually came back and said, “Well, you don’t have to write a memoir, but what about writing a book on the subject you actually have been thinking about for a long time? Maybe you have stuff to say.”
So then I came up with a proposal and sent it to my publisher in the UK, and they said yes, and then I signed my book deal last year, and then I started writing in September. And I think it was October when #MeToo happened, or something like that. It was a little bit into my writing. So then it was really interesting and exciting because I had to rewrite my whole introduction, which had said, “Nobody talks about rape.” I had a moment of thinking maybe I don’t need to write it. Because what I’m saying is no one talks about it, and now it’s become part of the conversation, so there’s no need for my book. But my publisher in the UK said, no, no, you have your own thing to say. A book is different than a tweet. And by that time I was completely into it. I know it’s a terrible topic, but I loved writing it. I just had the best time. I loved talking to all the people, I loved doing the research, and it was all very fast.
Rumpus: That’s really interesting to me, the fact that you were able to find a great deal of enjoyment in writing this book. Could you talk a bit about your writing process?
Abdulali: Well, I’m so happy you asked, because nobody else cares about the writing process, and you know, that’s all I care about. There were two parts of the enjoyment. One was meeting all the people I met. Because I met some amazing people. I had been afraid that talking to a lot of survivors would be a downer because, many years ago, I was a rape crisis counselor, and the survivors I talked to were all in crisis, and it was very heavy. But the people I talked to in the book are not people in crisis. They are people like me, who’ve dealt with it, and of course it’s always there, but they’re doing okay.
And then the other part that was good was as a writer. Because that’s what I am, and this was the biggest writing challenge I’ve ever had because I wanted to write about such a grim thing, but I wanted to balance it out with the fact that I’m actually not a grim person… I was really frightened of making it seem like I was making light of the subject or just trying to inject inappropriate humor. How do you honor the fact that it’s a horrifying thing, but at the same time stress that, look, this doesn’t have to ruin your life, and at the same time not put down the people whose lives have been ruined? You know? It’s a lot going on.
Rumpus: So you conducted all these interviews with sexual assault survivors, cited academic studies and articles and essays, and of course included your own experience. Was this research that you did specifically for the book? Or was it an accumulation of the decades you’ve spent working with survivors and teaching about rape?
Abdulali: Everyone seems to think I’ve spent decades, but I haven’t. There were a few years right after I was raped where I did my thesis on rape, I was kind of steeped in the subject, but then for decades after that I did millions of other things. But I’ve always been interested in it. So I guess the answer is both… Some of the survivors were people I knew or through people I knew, but some of them were actually—when I wrote the New York Times op-ed in 2013, I got about a thousand emails from survivors all over the world, and I actually wrote back to every single one. Because how can you not? And then I just felt I couldn’t delete the emails, it just felt so awful, so I put them in a folder and put them away, and then when I started writing this book, I thought, wow, I have a huge data bank. So I went back through it, and I picked who to contact again, and I wanted to pick carefully because people who had written to me very upset I didn’t want to write back because, after five years, they don’t suddenly want to see me pop up. But the people who had written to me who seemed to have already come to some kind of terms with it, I wrote back to a bunch of them, and a bunch of them responded, so quite a few of the people in the book are actually those people.
Rumpus: I was curious about the way that you structured the book. It features very short chapters, all split up by “brief pause” chapters in which you acknowledge a nuance, such as “A brief pause for horror” and “A brief pause for fury.” Can you tell us what prompted you to include these chapters and structure the book this way?
Abdulali: I didn’t plan the brief pauses. What happened was that I had been writing for a couple of months, and I saw this story in the New York Times that is the story in “A brief pause for horror,” the story about the girl with my same name, Souhayla, a Yazidi girl who was kidnapped and held as a sex slave, and it was just an awful story. And I looked at it, and I just got so upset. You know, I’d been writing along all calm and level-headed, and then something about that story was so upsetting, and I just started to think that maybe I’m being too calm. I’m being so careful to want to bring the conversation down from all this emotion, to talk sensibly about rape, but I don’t want to go overboard and forget that it’s an awful thing. So then I thought, let me write this chapter called “A brief pause for horror” and stick it in the middle of the book, just to remind people. So I wrote it, and I intended to only do that one. But then the other things just happened. So, in the end, those five brief pauses worked really well because I could be calm and rational the rest of the time, but I allowed myself these little pauses for emotion.
Rumpus: When you are describing the attack that happened to you in Mumbai, you write, “I talked my way out of oblivion, and I’m still talking.” Much of this book is a discussion of the importance of discussion—the title itself accentuates your point. Can you explain why you feel these discussions are so vital and why we don’t do it enough?
Abdulali: It’s vital because part of the huge reason why [rape] flourishes is because people don’t talk about it. There’s so much stigma and shame. Really, despite #MeToo and everything, let’s face it: There’s no place in the world where there’s much of a reward for [talking about rape] or there’s much of a system in place to comfort you. Because you deal with disbelief, and you deal with people thinking you’re too broken to deal with, or you deal with, depending on the country, not being a virgin anymore and then no one wants to marry you. All kinds of things. So it’s very difficult. And if everyone to whom it happened just said it, it would be a little harder to stigmatize every single person. So I feel like the silence protects perpetrators. I mean, look at all the stories in the press. Remember Larry Nassar, the sports doctor? Those girls tried; nobody listened to them. And they shut up. And he kept going. So it is important to talk because, if it happened to you, you need to deal with it. If you don’t tell anyone, you don’t get to process it, you don’t get medical help, you don’t get a chance to integrate into your life. And if you’re a perpetrator, it’s just so much easier to get away with it because you know no one’s going to talk. And also, we need to understand: It’s such a common thing. Even women who haven’t been raped, most of us have had some kind of sexually abusive thing happen. And yet, even when we’re sitting around with each other, it’s not so common to talk about this stuff. We feel like if we don’t talk about it, it’ll go away. But it doesn’t go away. So I believe—that’s one of the few things I am sure about. Nothing in this world is worse off for bringing it into the open.
Rumpus: You write that, although #MeToo is clearly a necessary, impactful movement, there are still so many “dark spots,” as you call them. You give examples of how, for instance, you’ll only rarely hear discussions on how trans people, Native Americans, and people with developmental disabilities are all far more likely to be sexually assaulted than some other groups. Why do you feel that, even with the progress we have made, there are still so many survivors excluded from the conversation?
Abdulali: I don’t know why, but I know that it’s true, and I think you don’t even have to look inside an oppressed community to find it. I’m also basing it on the fact that quite a few of the women I talked to were privileged white women. They grew up in America, have money, have families, and felt completely silenced. They couldn’t talk about it for many, many years because they felt like they would get no support, or they tried and they got no support. So I think it’s pretty easy to make the leap from, if people who really should have the most access to resources in the world have a hard time to get the help they need, then how much harder must it be, say, for someone who is in a wheelchair, dependent on a caretaker, not able to even get out to get help if they’re being abused by that person? It seems logical to me. Then I went and looked at the research, and it’s true. It’s true that the more disenfranchised the community, the more [rape] is likely to flourish.
Rumpus: In the book, you make an interesting mention of the confusing stereotypes surrounding the “good girl” versus the “bad girl.” For instance, you talk about how cultural narratives dictate that “good girls” don’t get raped, and yet, hold on, the only girls who do get raped are “good girls” because “bad girls” were “asking for it.”
Rumpus: You acknowledge it’s extremely confusing. So why does this happen? What perpetuates this cycle of victim-blaming?
Abdulali: I wish I knew. Really. I mean, I really don’t know. If you’re good, it can’t happen to you, but if you’re bad it can happen to you, but then it’s not rape, so in short the conclusion is that no one can be raped. So I’m not sure why. I think people still deep down think that rape is really just sex, and that we’re making too big a deal out of it, and that if you really, really, really didn’t want it, it wouldn’t happen. And even if you really, really, really didn’t want it and it did happen, how bad can it be? It’s just sex… To me it seems so clear that if you don’t want it and someone does it to you, it’s not sex.
Rumpus: One of my favorite lines in the book, because it’s sadly true and yet somehow funny, is when you say, “Flowers grow in shit.”
Abdulali: I just happened to be thinking of Donald Trump when I wrote that moment.
Rumpus: You’re saying Donald Trump, he fertilized #MeToo? You mention the election, the Women’s March, and all of this fury that has been growing since certainly before Donald Trump’s administration but has reached a sort of fever pitch now.
Rumpus: My question is: do you think the flowers are going to keep growing as the shit keeps piling on?
Abdulali: I wish I knew. I just don’t know. You know, it’s like, some Indian newspaper interviewed me, and they asked me, “Where do you think the #MeToo Movement is going?” and I said I have no idea. I think it’s hard to put genies back into the bottle once they come out. There’s no question about that—good genies and bad genies. In this country, we have a lot of bad ones, too. All the racism and anti-Semitism, all the things that are allowed to just flourish. So I think it’s hard to go back to where we were, but whether there will be permanent systematic change? I don’t know. I hope so. I really hope so.
Rumpus: Throughout the book, you remain grounded in the belief that, while rape steals joy, it does not mean a survivor’s life should be joyless. In fact, joy should be a weapon, something that helps you survive. Could you explain why you feel this way and why joy is so important in the fight against this horrible thing?
Abdulali: I think we can all agree that living well is the best revenge, generally, for anything bad that happens. Say someone goes through a bad divorce and then they find a great love. It’s sort of like, “Yeah! I beat it.” But I think for rape it’s particularly important… I do know that you don’t really get any material benefits, right, from raping? You don’t. It’s not like you rob a bank and get some money. All you do is rape someone. You don’t get anything. So, to me, it seems like a clear part of what you do is you’re just being mean, basically. You’re kind of spoiling someone’s good time. I was just a teenager when I was raped, and the rapists were very clear that they didn’t like that I was out there feeling all free on the mountain. They didn’t like that. They wanted to shut me up. So it seems to me that, given that I one-hundred-percent believe that’s part of the motivation, to show that you’re powerful, to show that you can control this person, then it seems like if you don’t let that fully happen, if you don’t let them succeed in doing that, and you manage to get out from under it and enjoy your life and have some good things, that just seems to me like the best way to respond. Not only for yourself but also because [the rapist] didn’t succeed.
Photograph of Sohaila Abdulali © Tom Unger, courtesy of Angela Baggetta.