“I was told I should not even send this story out–that people would hate me,” says Jessica Anya Blau, author of “Waiting for my Rape,” her fascinating and provocative story in the August issue of The Sun, the literary magazine based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Though The Sun doesn’t allow comments on the story on its site–we’ll have to wait for the next print issue to see if there are angry letters to the editor–the dozens of people who have posted on Jessica’s Facebook page are anything but haters. On the other hand, this is Jessica’s Facebook page.
When I read it, I thought immediately of “Cat Person,” the New Yorker story about a young woman’s uncomfortable sexual encounters with an older man that went completely viral this past winter. When I mentioned this, Jessica showed me the letter The New Yorker wrote her when they rejected the story, and apparently they thought the same:
“This piece is a complex meditation on knots of violence, desire, family, addiction, and inherited trauma. We appreciated the direct, sometimes comedic treatment of these difficult subjects, which reminded us of Curtis Sittenfeld’s ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ or Kristen Roupenian’s ‘Cat Person,’ but with a more bleak and ironic moral vision.”
That’s quite a rejection letter. I guess when you’re The New Yorker, you have a lot to choose from.
Since I read the story, I’ve been showing it to people in order to discuss it with them–what do they make of the idea that rape is so ubiquitous that we’re all just waiting for it? Was what happened in the story even really a rape? Why does she say it feels really good? What is the story trying to say? If book clubs didn’t already exist, this story would be a reason to invent them.
Since there’s nothing a book club loves like a visit from the author, I asked Jessica to sit down and answer a few questions about “Waiting for My Rape.”
Baltimore Fishbowl: What inspired you to write this story? Tell about its evolution.
Jessica Anya Blau: The opening scene, when she walks into the convenience store and thinks she’s spotted her rapists, happened to me. The next scene, where she has to pull over in some dodgy looking neighborhood because she sucked down a Coke Zero and has to pee also happened to me (and I did pee in the gutter next to the car). So, really, I was reflecting back to that day when I had the thought, “This is the day I’m going to get raped.”
I’ve been afraid of rape since I learned about it at a very young age, so whenever I’m in situations where I feel physically vulnerable and isolated, I worry about it. The other day I got lost in Central Park at dusk. I was in the brambles. If you know that area, you know that it’s bushy and overgrown and dark. There are many places to hide around corners. The only people I passed, as I tried to find my way out, were single men, all of whom were much larger than I (I’m five-foot-two.) My heart started racing. I pulled out my phone, not to call anyone, but because it was the hardest thing in my possession and I figured I could whack someone in the eye with it.
I always thought I’d outgrow this fear, but I didn’t. And maybe I never will. When I was a kid, a neighbor in a very well-manicured, tidy house was arrested and went to prison for raping to death a woman in her 70s. He was the captain of a cruise ship. She was a passenger. She bled to death from the injuries sustained in the rape. The fact that she was 70 changed the idea of rape for me, at a very young age, to something that has nothing to do with sex, even though a penis is involved.
BFB: But the rape of the narrator in your story is very different from that. It has all the elements that complicate the question of date rape vs. consensual sex: there’s lots of alcohol, there’s a scary dog, there’s a lot of encouragement, then no, and ultimately, there’s pleasure. Your character isn’t sure, at first, whether she’s been raped, and the guy in the story doubtless did not think he raped somebody. It seems like the story emphasizes that by contrasting the narrator’s experience with the violent rape of the Syrian poet she meets at the artists’ colony.
JAB: The story asks questions rather than answers them. There are instances of rape that no human person with an active neuron cluster in their brain can disagree with, like, in this story, that of the Syrian poet who was raped by force in a refugee camp. When a stranger breaks into a house, or a person is accosted and raped while walking through the bramble, no one disagrees that a rape has occurred. But there are so many other instances in a complex human life when two people are together, maybe undressed, and when things happen that are unclear to the participants. It makes it more difficult for outsiders to declare whether a rape has occurred or not. And I think women especially, who in general don’t want to stir up trouble and don’t want to make people uncomfortable, will sometimes doubt their own feelings about what has just occurred.
My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that most women who have or have had complicated sex lives, or sex with many people over an extended period of time, will have one encounter, where they’ll ask themselves if they were just raped. Sex can be such a trip. And when you add alcohol or drugs, things can get muddled. When you have power imbalances, they are further muddled. And our tendency to please people, or to want those around us to get what they have, complicates things even more.
And while you’re right that the guy in the story had no intention to rape anyone and probably doesn’t think he raped her — since they’re both wasted, we can’t even presume he heard the “no” — that doesn’t mean she wasn’t raped.
BFB: Wait, are you saying you can rape someone without knowing it?
JAB: (Laughs) Maybe–I don’t know. You can insult somebody without knowing it, you can hurt someone without knowing it. Like I said, the story asks questions rather than answers them.
There are some women who have very clear ideas about things, and I appreciate those women and am glad they exist. I think they give courage and power to the rest of us. In this story, I actually wasn’t trying to say she was raped or not raped. I was just showing one woman’s experience, an experience that I can understand, and how she processed it.
BFB: What do you think about it being in The Sun, a magazine known for progressive, hippie-style values? Was there any scuffle about political correctness/incorrectness? Did they make you change much?
JAB: First, I should say that the editor, Andrew Snee, who has edited all the stories I’ve had in The Sun, is brilliant at what he does. I’m very appreciative of him. There were a couple of lines, words, phrases that the magazine wanted to cut because they felt they were unnecessarily mean or cruel. For example, I had a line in there about her not wanting to go to the hospital and be tended to by a slow-moving cow-faced nurse, or something like that. And I was told that the line seemed cruel towards nurses. I laughed at that. I mean, it was one character’s opinion of nurses and not a slaying of nurses nationwide. I happen to love nurses as a group of people. My experience of them is that they are a bit wilder, freakier, and more fun than most people imagine. Anyway, I took the line out. And a few others like that.
BFB: But no pushback on the moral complexity of the story. Which is great. It’s what the New Yorker recognized, even in their rejection of it. And speaking of moral complexity, at the end. when she goes back to the guy’s house, is she waiting to get raped again? It’s become her masturbation fantasy, now she wants it again?
JAB: I’m not sure. There’s a knife in the glovebox, remember. And I put that knife there with great deliberation.