What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape

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‘Unflinching and nuanced… Her structure is disruptive and powerful for it—never letting us forget that there is a person who suffers, a body that gets broken. And, when a body is violated, all of society is at risk. This book could not be more timely, nor could there be a better thinker—herself a survivor—to write it. If the #MeToo campaign is to have any lasting impact for change in women's circumstances across the world, it will be because of books such as this’ —Preti Taneja


Thoughtful, provocative and intelligent, this game-changing book looks at sexual assault and the global discourse on rape from the viewpoint of a survivor, writer, counsellor and activist.

Sohaila Abdulali was the first Indian rape survivor to speak out about her experience. Gang-raped as a teenager in Mumbai and indignant at the deafening silence on the issue in India, she wrote an article for a women’s magazine questioning how we perceive rape and rape victims. Thirty years later she saw the story go viral in the wake of the fatal 2012 Delhi rape and the global outcry that followed.

Drawing on three decades of grappling with the issue personally and professionally, and on her work with hundreds of other survivors, she explores what we think about rape and what we say.

She also explores what we don’t say, and asks pertinent questions about who gets raped and who rapes, about consent and desire, about redemption and revenge, and about how we raise our sons. Most importantly, she asks: does rape always have to be a life-defining event, or is it possible to recover joy?

Business Standard

16 November 2018
On the night of December 16, 2012, two of my friends— a man and a woman — had gone to watch Life of Piat a movie theatre in South Delhi. Failing to make it in time for the last Metro, they decided to take an autorickshaw and my male friend had to accompany the woman right to her doorstep. There is nothing unusual with this account, except when they woke up the next day to a chilling account of a young woman’s gang-rape and brutal assault. She was watching the same film in the same theatre, possibly even the same show. And yet, her night ended so violently different from my friends’. Most people in Delhi would remember where they were when they heard the news of the 2012 gang rape case. Widespread protests followed, the Justice Verma Committee was set up and the government announced the Nirbhaya Fund, a non-lapsable, Rs 10- billion corpus dedicated to women’s safety. For Sohaila Abdulali, travelling on a train from Boston to New York, a young woman’s rape had an entirely different impact. An article Ms Abdulali wrote for Manushi 30 years ago had become viral on social media. This piece detailed her ordeal as a 17-year-old gang-rape survivor in 1980. In three decades, Ms Abdulali had learnt to academically engage with and detach herself from her own trauma, but it all came crashing down in 2012. Her phone rang incessantly and her inbox was choked with emails from friends, family, rape survivors and the ubiquitous trolls. Ms Abdulali’s book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, is a product of her nuanced engagement with the subject of rape. It would be naïve to assume that she is qualified to write a book on sexual assault solely because of her own experience with it. If that were the case, countless women in India would be churning out books by the hour. While her own experience is a constant reference point in this book, her ability to examine rape as though it were a tangible, three-dimensional object comes from her theses on the subject, protesting for change, raising funds and working with survivors at the rape crisis centre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. What We Talk About… is a book like no other for various reasons. For one, as Ms Abdulali points out in the Introduction, this book is not a compilation of essays, does not fit into the sociology or psychology genres, cannot qualify as research nor is it a memoir. As she exultantly declares, “This is just what I want, because in this space lies my freedom.” The book, she adds, explores both what we say about rape and what we don’t. Second, it raises questions about rape survivors, rapists, about empathy and loss of power and it defiantly answers none. “In this book, I will contradict myself. Rape is always a catastrophe. Rape is not always a catastrophe. Rape is like any other crime. Rape is not like any other crime. It’s all true.” But despite its myriad contradictions and needling questions, Ms Abdulali’s prose is in no way confused or confusing. She uses pithy phrases to put forth piercing arguments, offering a degree of refreshing perspective that at once emotionally charged and objective. For instance, in a chapter titled “The official version”, Ms Abdulali writes about the time when she was called for jury duty in the US for a rape case. As is the norm, the judge asked if anyone had been or knew someone who was sexually assaulted. Ms Abdulali was one of the several people who raised their hands. She was called into the room for a brief interrogation and was soon judged unfit to be an unbiased member of the jury. “If you’ve been raped, then you can’t have an opinion about it because you’re too biased, too emotional, too close to it. Yes, I know. Crazy. But true,” she writes. She goes on to talk about the language in which rape is defined, the way in which a criminal or a survivor is addressed and how the official version is important no matter the statue of limitations on the crime. In her own case, the official version states that nothing happened on the night she was raped. Ms Abdulali is joyously irreverent and does not shy away from using colloquial phrases such as “the system universally sucks” or “d*** conquers all”. For an (the) Indian readership particularly, calling a spade a spade is the need of the hour.  There is enough anecdotal evidence from the reaction around #metoo that suggests that we are still a country not equipped to comprehensively talk about and deal with the issue of gender-based violence. What We Talk About… not only sets the record straight, but it also explores the yet unthinkable idea that a survivor’s life isn’t ruined after he or she is raped, that his or her identity lies beyond the victim checkbox. Remarkable is too feeble a word to describe Ms Abdulali’s courage, surreal is a misplaced word to define something that is so firmly rooted in the reality of our times and delightful seems rather inappropriate an adjective for a book about unimaginable pain. And yet, all three capture the essence of Ms Abdulali’s book that resolutely escapes all efforts to be pegged.

Natasha Badhwar, Live Mint

16 November 2018

When I get stressed from words, or trying to frame something stressful in words, I often, quite suddenly, become very sleepy.

As I read Sohaila Abdulali’s new book What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, I found that I would often be holding the book open in my hands and doze off into a dark, black sleep. My guess is that my mind was trying to escape from having to consciously think about rape and sexual assault. A vague anxiety would get triggered in me. If this is a subconscious response to just reading other people’s stories and experience, imagine what it is like to be the victim of sexual assault. To have to find a way to survive, to seek justice, to rebuild one’s trust and deal with recurring trauma. To have to console the distress of others. To tell one’s story and have to face the confusion, wrath and callousness of those who are unable to deal with your truth. “Rape is no different from any other trauma,” writes Abdulali. “You can’t make it unhappen. No matter how much you heal, you can never be unraped, any more than you can be undead.” The trauma returns repeatedly in the survivor’s life.

Abdulali was gang-raped over three decades ago when she was 17-years-old. Four men had overpowered her and a male friend she was with. Through a long, gruesome night, they raped her, wounded both of them and left them alive only after the terrified victims managed to convince them that they would never speak of the crime to anyone else.

“I must be missing the Shame Gene that other Indian women are born with, because, for all the guilt, horror, trauma and confusion that followed my rape, it never occurred to me that I had anything to be ashamed of,” writes Abdulali.

Three years later, she wrote a first person account of the crime that was published in Manushi, a women’s magazine. Her undergraduate thesis was on rape and her first job out of college was at a rape crisis centre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “If we don’t put it out there, this conversation will always be muted,” Abdulali quotes a marital rape survivor to explain why she has felt compelled to write and talk about rape, even as she remains determined to never allow the assault by four strangers to define her. “Words are the enemy of impunity,” writes Abdulali. “They can create real change.“ In the same chapter she adds, “But words are also a luxury.” To talk about sexual abuse takes courage, she reiterates. For many survivors, speaking up can be lethal. For some, their livelihood may be at stake. For others, speaking up about incest or rape can literally mean death. “I want to be very clear that it is never a victim’s obligation to speak up, or report, or do anything but survive. Her first responsibility is getting through it.”

Throughout the book, Abdulali’s analysis is clear-eyed, unsentimental and searingly realistic. She is unafraid to repeat that she doesn’t know the answers to the questions she raises. She insists on underlining nuance again and again.

Abdulali refuses to divide the world into a permanent battleground of men versus women, or even good people versus bad people. She articulates the connection between rape and desire, violence and sex. She insists that it is important to verbalize the dynamics of date rape and violent stranger rape without diminishing the horror of both. We cannot influence the minds of others until we learn to examine the complexity of human motivations. It is here that Abdulali’s gift as a writer comes to the rescue. She creates pauses to express rage, fury, confusion and even ennui. She wishes she were writing a book about art and music instead of rape. She gives the reader a glimpse into the fear that still revisits her unexpectedly, slamming into her with a rush of sheer terror. Yet, this is a book that is as much about happiness as it is about destruction. It is also a tribute to Abdulali’s parents. Her father who wrapped her in his arms after she had been gang-raped and asked her, “What do you want? We’ll do whatever you want.” Her mother who tried to discourage her from working as a rape crisis counsellor, but when Abdulali got the job, joined her team every afternoon with cake and “just sat there, knitting implacably against fear and horror and isolation.” This is a book about rape but it is also a book about the rest of life. “Hi, I’m Manassah. I was raped, I’m happy. I’m not happy I was raped, but I’m happy,” Abdulali quotes a survivor who introduces himself with these words every time he starts a talk. He wants all of him to be seen together. Abdulali insists on dealing with the totality of life—what Zorba the Greek had called “the full catastrophe”. Birdsong and brutality don’t cancel each other out—they co-exist. She refuses to step back from paradoxes that may be hard to categorize, from realities too complex to process. There is no right way to heal, she writes. Some people are destroyed by rape, most are not, Abdulali has learnt. They come through it, “wearing with great dignity a mantle of bitter grace.” But they shouldn’t have to, she reminds us. And they certainly shouldn’t have to do it alone. With this book, Abdulali hopes to end some of the silence around rape, to illuminate the shadows. “I want to let some light back in,” she writes, handing over the rest of the responsibility to the reader. It is the rest of the world that is culpable in the silence around rape. This book spells this out clearly. Allow yourself to be immersed in Sohaila Abdulali’s words. There is hope and laughter here, there is redemption and forgiveness in the stories narrated. There is humour, compassion, wisdom and light on these pages. The author’s search for answers is bound to resonate with yours and mine.
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The AU Review

8 November 2018
Combining memoir, social science, and collected stories, author Sohaila Abdulali provides readers with a well-researched exploration of the many discursive threads surrounding rape and sexual assault. It is, quite simply, a vital piece of literature for the post #MeToo world and beyond. All around the world, definitions differ, and coping mechanisms vary, making the topic both black and white AND full of shades of grey. The goal of What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape is not to narrow that definition. Indeed, far be it for anyone to tell someone how to respond to their own trauma. Instead, the goal is to explore the jarring impact of these mismatched ideas, of the dangers of differentiating between good girls and bad girls, and of the problems inherent in telling people how not to get raped instead of defining consent and, pretty much, just telling people not to rape. Throughout this short book, Abdulali, drawing on both her own experiences as a gang rape survivor and as former head of a Boston rape crisis centre, as well as extensive research, eloquently examines how the way we choose to talk about rape impacts our ability to understand what is happening, judge how it should be punished, and empathise with survivors. The reality is that our general view of rape, what it is, who it affects, and who perpetrates it is so narrow, so contradictory, and so damaging that the aftermath can seem worse than the crime, with victims made to feel like they must rank their suffering against that of other survivors, or, worse still, feel that they themselves were responsible in some way. What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape rages fiercely against that, filled to the brim with stories of men and women who suffered not just during or as a result of their assaults, but also when they tried to get on with their lives after the fact. Whether choosing silence and repression or speaking out and risking everything, the evidence Abdulali has gathered is clear: the odds are stacked against survivors, and not just in the courts. Abdulali has a wry and occasionally quite blunt sense of humour and when you’re dealing with such heavy, sensitive subject matter, it’s an absolute godsend. There are moments when you can almost picture her eyes all but rolling out of her head as she recounts some of the stories – the outcomes are, after all, what many women have come to expect, and there’s very much an attitude of ‘same shit, different day’, that will likely appeal to readers of forthright writers such as Clementine Ford and Caitlin Moran. Oh, and speaking of shit: “Flowers grow from shit”. Ultimately, that’s the message we need to take from What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape. Not everyone survives it. Not everyone moves on. But the tales of resilience and rehabilitation that abound in this book make for an affirming exploration of refusing to let an act of sexual violence define a life. It’s a heartening counter to the often stomach-churning trauma discussed throughout, a real testament to the strength of the human spirit. We absolutely need to talk about rape, but we also need to change how we talk about it and ensure that we wrestle control of that conversation from those who would silence victims with blame and shame. Sohaila Abdulali and writers like her are providing us with the means to do that. Pick up this book and lend a hand, won’t you?
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Publishers Weekly

27 October 2018

Sohaila Abdulali has written two novels, three children’s books, a newspaper column, grants, annual reports, web copy, op-eds, blogs, articles—you name it; her eclectic list of credits will be familiar to any freelance writer. But she didn’t intend to write a book like What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, which the New Press will publish in November. As she recounts in the book’s opening pages, Abdulali was raped by four armed men in the summer of 1980, shortly before she left India to start college at Brandeis University. Three years later, back in India to do research on her undergraduate thesis about rape, she published an article about her own rape in the women’s magazine Manushi. It created a stir in India—where it was not culturally acceptable to discuss such things in public—but, Abdulali writes, “the next issue came out, life went on, and 30 years passed.”

Then in December 2012, a female student was raped on a bus in New Delhi and later died from her injuries. “I thought all the protests were great, but it had nothing to do with me,” says Abdulali, who is now 55 and lives on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “But then somebody found a copy of that article and posted it on Facebook. The whole thing went crazy; the media kept calling and asking, ‘Do you have something to say?’ I really didn’t, but I looked at the piece again and thought, ‘Boy, I was really young then,’ and it seemed like maybe I did have something to say. So when the New York Times asked if I wanted to be interviewed, I said, ‘No, but I might write one piece’—you know, keep it classy.”

Abdulali’s op-ed ran in January 2013 and garnered a huge response. She received emails from some 1,000 rape survivors and made a point of acknowledging each one. She was less responsive to agents who called suggesting that she write a memoir. “The rape isn’t the main thing in my life, and it would be fake to write as if it was,” she says. “So I said no to everybody and moved on. But every time I pitched a book to someone, they would say, ‘Why don’t you write a memoir?’ I got annoyed.”

Abdulali was mad enough to write “a real stinker” to Penguin Random House India editor Manasi Subramaniam. “She wrote me this really intelligent email saying, ‘It doesn’t have to be a memoir, but you have a lot to say on this subject; think about another kind of book.’ It never occurred to me that I could write about rape but not as a ‘rape victim.’ I got excited and wrote this completely crazy proposal, which I ultimately sold to Candida Lacey at Myriad Editions in the U.K.”

The resulting book incorporates the individual stories of rape survivors into a wide-ranging consideration of the multiple issues relating to rape around the world: what constitutes consent, rape as a political weapon, the “rape culture” of male entitlement, the healthiness of anger, and also the possibility of forgiveness. Abdulali writes about these thorny subjects in a blunt, conversational style spiked with the same humor evident in her conversation. “I’m not a terribly serious person, but this message is serious,” she says. “So I just wrote as I talk and trusted Candida to cut parts that were too flippant, which she did. I wanted this balance: rape is serious but, like everything else in life, you can be light. In fact, part of the whole problem, certainly in India, is that if you’re raped, you’re supposed to be overcome with heaviness and die.”

“I found there’s a lot of positivity in how people cope with rape,” Abdulali continues. “My friend Sarah McNally, who owns the McNally Jackson bookstore, put me in touch with her friend Yasmin. She was amazing, talking about how she and her friends would go into a mob situation in Cairo during the Arab Spring, when men were assaulting female demonstrators, and try to rescue women. That made me think, ‘I want to write about heroes,’ so I did. Themes emerged from people’s stories. For example, among the first four people I interviewed, every single one of them told me that when they told someone—mother, lover, whomever—the response was, ‘What did you expect?’ So I wrote a chapter called, ‘What Did You Expect?’ Some of the stories were from friends, some were from the people who wrote me about the op-ed piece; I avoided the ones who seemed immediately traumatized, because it seemed unfair five years later to say, ‘Remember this?’ But I contacted the ones who seemed when they wrote to have come to some kind of terms with it, so I had this pool of survivors from all over the world.”

The abundance of material was initially intimidating, Abdulali says. “I said to Candida, ‘How am I ever going to stop?’ She said, ‘Just write and see what happens.’ I thought, ‘I’m just going to keep going until I’m done.’ I would write and write and write, talk to people and write; I thought it would just go on forever. Then, one day in March, it was done. I actually turned it in ahead of the deadline.”

By that time, Lacey had sold subsidiary rights to Meredith Curnow at Penguin Random House in Australia, Ellen Adler at New Press, and—coming full circle to the initial inspirer of Abdulali’s proposal—Manasi Subramaniam at Penguin Random House India. Each of them made her mark on the text, Abdulali notes: “Candida said, ‘Look, I’m your editor, but why don’t we open it up? Why don’t we send everyone the first draft when we’re done with it and see what they have to say?’ I was nervous at first, but they have been amazing. They all read it three or four times, and they all had extensive comments. They were great, and they were putting in so much time that I felt I had to respond to all the comments: I’m using this, I’m not using this and here’s why not. I got this input from four continents, and they didn’t feel like rivals—I call them my four wives!”

In addition to not intending to write a book about rape, Abdulali says she didn’t intend to write any more nonfiction books after publishing the novels The Madwoman of Jogare and Year of the Tigerin India. “Madwoman was set in the village where my parents lived for many years and sold orchids; that’s the book of my heart, but it’s out of print. Then I thought it would be fun to do a New York novel, so I wrote Year of the Tiger—McNally Jackson actually carries it. I thought of myself as a fiction writer after that; I loved writing fiction. But then I got the column for the Indian newspaper Mint, and I loved that too. And this book was so exciting to write—I cannot tell you what fun I had. So I don’t know what I want to do next. I might write another novel. Maybe this time I can get it published here.”

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Staunch Book Prize

27 September 2018
Written post-Weinstein and #MeToo, Sohaila Abdulali has produced a timely, deeply affecting and comprehensive work on the subject of rape. In it she notes how shamefully victims are often treated in comparison to their assailants, and investigates the not-so-simple question of who gets raped and who are the rapists. One minute calmly, the next in anger, Abdulali challenges misconceptions, prejudices and misogynistic thinking, demanding to know why rape is so prevalent and so casually excused. Using both anecdote and cold statistics, she never flinches from asking tough questions or from bringing us back sharply to the often catastrophic affect rape has on the lives of victims. Reasoned, realistic and unwavering, gang-rape survivor Sohaila Abdulali is a compassionate voice of authority who refuses to let that experience define her. She has achieved something quite remarkable here – a book that, without sensationalising this highly emotive subject, manages to be both a burning roar of outrage and coolly sensational.
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3 September 2018
In 2013, Abdulali wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about her own experience of rape and its aftermath. This book expands that essay, examining rape and rape culture on a global level and in the wake of the #MeToo movement. In the three decades since her rape, Abdulali has worked at a rape crisis center, interviewed survivors from around the world, and written extensively on the topic. But her book is by no means meant to be the final word on rape; she intends, in fact, to start a dialogue. In the introduction, she admits that she may contradict herself but that hers is no simple topic, and individual experiences of and responses to rape vary dramatically. She writes in a conversational style and injects a levity that, rather than betraying the seriousness of her subject, makes it more possible to handle the necessary yet horrifying details of rape of all kinds. An important book working towards an important goal: meaningful and thoughtful discussion of a taboo subject.
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Publishers Weekly starred review

3 September 2018
Abdulali (The Year of the Tiger) brings precision, clarity, and style to her exploration of a topic often treated as more confusing than it is. A former coordinator of a rape crisis center, she uses her own brutal rape as a touchstone and springboard for this series of extended reflections on the discourse surrounding rape, with stories from Australia, Egypt, India, Italy, South Africa, and the U.S. Drawing on interviews, personal emails, government reports, and other documents, Abdulali discusses varied scenarios, from date rate, marital rape, and incest to gang rape and war crimes, acknowledging the high rates of rape perpetrated against trans people and sex workers. She approaches debates about consent, responsibility, motive, honor, and prevention with deep compassion, humor, a healthy dose of irony, and anger. Though Abdulali doesn’t claim to have answers, the book’s assertions are clear: victims deserve belief, support, and a fair hearing; rapists, not their targets, are responsible for rape; and survivors can go on to live full and joyful lives. Her clear-eyed assessments, grace, and literary touches will make this book valuable reading for sociologists, therapists, feminists, and anyone who believes women should be able to move through the world free from fear.
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Kirkus Reviews

27 August 2018

In an expansion of her popular 2013 New York Times op-ed, novelist and rape survivor Abdulali (Year of the Tiger, 2010, etc.) calls for franker conversation about rape. Modeling discourse about rape that is at once direct and nuanced, unblinking yet subtle, the author tackles the complexities of sexual violence head-on, rightly criticizing simplistic shibboleths. For example, she encourages survivors to talk about their rapes, yet she recognizes that ‘telling’ is sometimes costly and ‘doesn't always come with a reward: comfort, closure, justice’. (Abdulali acknowledges that when discussing her own rape, she has sometimes worried that people think she should just get over it.) The author insightfully asks whether the ‘yes means yes and no means no’ model adequately accounts for a woman who ‘chooses’ to be raped over being killed or a woman who ‘give[s] in’ to a man who holds power in her professional world. Abdulali also calls attention to the ‘institutional…scaffolding’ that allows ‘abuse to flourish’—e.g., the family systems, political and economic arrangements, and workplace norms that deprive women of meaningful agency and that sometimes reward women for going along with systems that are ultimately disempowering. The book is distinguished by its global view; Abdulali includes examples and illustrations from the United States but also from India, South Africa, and Egypt.There's a little bit of snark and dash of self-help. Spliced throughout are shorter chapters (‘A brief pause for ennui’, ‘A brief pause for confusion’) that offer snapshots of the author’s emotional landscape: a feeling of rage that overtakes her, seemingly out of nowhere, while attending a bat mitzvah, or her envy of writers who get to write about bird song and other happy topics while she’s pondering brutality and violence (‘Art! Joy! Life! It’s so much more inviting than discussing getting gonorrhea from one’s older brother or rape as a weapon of war’). Susan Brownmiller, vitally updated.

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