I'm a survivor: Winnie M Li speaks about her novel which mirrors real-life rape in Belfast
Winnie M Li was raped by a 15-year-old boy on a visit to Belfast in 2008. She tells Joanne Sweeney why she needed to write her debut novel Dark Chapter, which mirrors her own experience
NINE years ago Winnie M Li came to Belfast to attend a conference to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the peace process. A gifted student – she was a George Mitchell scholar – and up-and-coming film producer, while visiting the city the US native was also keen to do some hiking, a favourite hobby.
She stayed an extra day especially to walk a forest trail in west Belfast – she was an experienced solo traveller and hiker – before being due back in London to attend the premiere, as the film's co-producer, of Flashbacks Of A Fool, starring Daniel Craig.
But fate intervened in Winnie's life in a way that would change it forever when she was viciously raped by an opportunistic 15-year-old who happened upon her as she walked in broad daylight through Colin Glen Forest Park.
Inspired by her horrific assault, she is about to publish her debut novel Dark Chapter and will return to Belfast for a reading during the city's annual book festival next month.
"I started writing Dark Chapter in the autumn of 2013 but pretty much shortly after the assault I had the idea to write about it, so, in some ways, it’s been a long journey as it’s been nine years since the assault," Winnie says, speaking exclusively to The Irish News.
"I’m obviously excited-slash-nervous about the book coming out because I’m not sure how people will receive it. The feedback so far has been that it's strong, that it’s intense but I had intended the book to be intense as it suits the kind of experience I was trying to describe."
Her novel was highly commended in the Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger awards and is being tipped by Amazon as its number one hot release under Northern Irish Crime.
Given the events of the real-life story, there is likely to be much interest in Winnie's book in Ireland, north and south. Her attacker Edward Connors – who described himself as a "monster" – was sentenced to eight years in jail in 2011. He was released in 2012 after serving four years, then broke his probation conditions and fled to Dublin.
Winnie's assault also made headlines because she bravely waived her anonymity in order to speak out about her experience after her attacker unexpectedly pleaded guilty on the first day of his trial.
Dark Chapter is set in Belfast and London and recounts the assault on main character Vivian Tan – like Winnie, an American visitor raped by a teenage boy while out walking in a park. Unlike Winnie's own experience, however, it deals with how the character then had to face her attacker in court.
"Writing this novel has helped me on a personal level, as in the aftermath of my assault I was pretty much driven by two questions," Winnie says.
"One, what was it that would drive a boy like that at 15-years-old to commit that kind of violence against a stranger – and what led up to that moment? And the second, does he have any idea of the impact that his actions have had on my life?
"I don’t know and I never will know, so those are the two questions have been haunting me as a survivor and that’s what drove me to write the novel."
Dark Chapter is shocking on many fronts, not in the least due to its intensity, its weaving together of both the victim's and the attacker's perspectives, but also for its rape scene.
"What I wrote in the novel is no way worse than what I went through in real life," is all that Winnie, now 36 and studying for a PhD in London, will say.
The rapist character Johnny Sweeney, just like Winnie's attacker, is a Traveller who chooses to plead not guilty, thereby further traumatising his victim with the ordeal of a trial.
Writing either role – of victim or attacker – in this book would have been challenging but what was the more difficult for Winnie?
"They were both difficult in different ways," she responds. "I guess Vivian’s point of view was difficult for me emotionally as a lot of it meant reliving the worst episode of my life. While I was writing, I thought, 'Why am I putting myself through this again?' But obviously I had to write about the experience for readers to understand.
"It was more difficult to write Johnny’s point of view from a writer’s perspective. Writing helped me come to terms with what he had done but it's not an answer, as in real life I don’t know that person; it's just a fictional character.
"But I suppose it helped me try to make sense of this completely random act of violence which has impacted me on the rest of my life.
"That was more difficult on a creative level, but also more interesting, as it challenged me as a writer and a human to find some element of humanity in the character who, I think, the majority of the public would not want to have much sympathy for."
Winnie carried out extensive research by speaking to other rape victims and professionals who work with them post-attack and went as far as attending rape trials in London, Dublin and Belfast in her bid to be as authentic as possible.
She also spoke to Travellers and to people who worked with them, and attended Traveller events such as the Appleby Horse Fair in Cumbria, England.
She dedicates her book to the victims and survivors and 'everyone in between'.
Where is she on this scale?
"I would say 'survivor' but if you had asked me a year or two after my assault I would have said I was a victim as my whole life had been changed," she says.
“There will always be negative impact. My finances are a lot worse as I wasn’t able to work for a number of years and my own career has been shifted. But now I would I would say I'm a survivor.
"I think it’s really important for survivors to speak out, but I’m not saying that everyone needs to speak out publicly.
"I don’t feel that I should feel ashamed of something that was never my fault to begin with. People should not think people are automatically going to be weakened and their lives ruined as there is definitely potential to recover and build your life. But it probably won't be the same way it was before the assault.
"That’s the fundamental injustice of sexual assault."
Dark Chapter by Winnie M Li, published by Legend Press, will be available from June 1, priced at £14.99 (hardback). The writer will be reading from her book as part of Belfast Book Festival on Thursday June 15, from 7pm at the Crescent Arts Centre. Tickets £7/£5.