Mother Tongues

[TW: This piece contains graphic mentions of violence and blood.]

"Cassandra" by Max Klinger (1857-1920)

“Cassandra” by Max Klinger (1857-1920)

We have inherited the mouths of our foremothers.

Sweet cupid’s bow; pursed lips.

Inside, our cheeks ragged from biting down on them

every time we are too afraid to speak.

Philomela, raped by Tereus.

Brave princess threatened to tell,

so he cut out her tongue.

It’s a good thing she knew how to weave

to thread her story somehow

and pass it along to her sister.

In the end they both nearly died,

preserved only as songbirds.

O, Philomela, you sing so sweetly now

but at the cost of your very humanity.

Cassandra, raped by Zeus.

It was he who bestowed upon her

the gift of prophecy in the first place.

But we women know too all well that little

comes for free in this business.

After brutalizing her body,

he added insult to injury:

speak your prophecies but be cursed never to be believed.

O, Cassandra, so many of your daughters

raise their voices aloud

but are driven to madness by knowing full well

they only ever echo back.

Lavinia, raped by Demetrius and Chiron.

They must have known she knew how to write

for after they forced themselves into her

they tore both her tongue from her mouth

and her hands from her arms.

“Let’s leave her to her silent walks,” they said.

O, Lavinia, blessed wretch

be their mutilation of flesh or of metaphor

how many of your sisters walk silently?

For if a rape occurs in the forest

—a bedroom, a house, a car, a classroom—

does anybody hear it?

Does it happen at all?

Our tongues are bloodied now;

we taste iron.

Tears fall, the salt-water mixes with our blood,

and we swallow.

We swallow it down,

great gulps of this silence.

Bitter as it is, many of us would prefer to drink it

knowing the poison others await to eagerly drop into our mouths

if we should ever dare

to speak.


Your Words are Not Victimless: Rape Culture and David Choe’s “Bad Storytelling”

Trigger Warning: This article contains graphic discussions of sexual assault.

BooksIn my line of work, I read about a lot of horrible things, some of which actually happened.

As a doctoral student in English literature, whose research focuses on representations of sexualized violence, I study both fictional (novels, plays) and non-fictional (memoirs, auto-biographies) accounts of these crimes. Ultimately, my goal is to understand how writers and readers, and how survivors and witnesses, all make sense of the experience of sexual violation. At best, my job allows me to see the ways in which language, even language that is disturbing, raw, and graphic, allows the reality of sexualized violence to be made visible, to break free from the shackles of silence and stigma. At worst, my job forces me to think about the stories and the languages of sexualized violence that are used as weapons, that are turned back against survivors. Whether they come in the form of humour, in the form of gleeful boasting, or in the form of callous indifference, these stories always manage to hurt. 

One such story, one such incidence of the absolute violence of words, is one that was recently told by graffiti artist David Choe, on a podcast that aired in March of 2014.

I will be brief, and, I hope, not too graphic in my recapitulation of what Choe said. Over the course nearly half an hour, Choe recalled having repeatedly forced a massage therapist to perform sexual acts on him. Along with denigrating and fetishizing this woman, whom he calls “Rose,” on the basis of her racial background and her profession, Choe expressed both nonchalance and absolute merriment at having carried out these assaults. His co-hosts, who, while they called Choe’s behaviour out for being the actions of a rapist, nevertheless engaged in banter and joking about it. Choe showed absolutely no remorse, and seemed to take only mild offense at being termed a sexual predator. According to Choe, what he did was “rapey,” but he is not a rapist.

As if this apparent admission of rape were not horrifying enough, Choe took a somewhat predictable, if no less disturbing tactic in response to his critics.

According to Choe, none of this actually happened.

Choe, the one-time protagonist in his seemingly heroic tale of raping a woman, claimed that it was simply “bad storytelling,” and an extension of his art practice. More specifically, Choe wrote, in a response on his podcast’s website: “I never thought I’d wake up one late afternoon and hear myself called a rapist. It sucks. Especially because I am not one. I am not a rapist. I hate rapists, I think rapists should be raped and murdered.”

Now, can’t say that I’m surprised. Choe’s further defense of rape as a mere subject for his dark humour,is one that has been trotted out by comedians such as Daniel Tosh, in a now-famous controversy. [For an excellent discussion of ways in which Tosh’s joke in no way performs the often-recuperative function of humour, see Elissa Bassist’s article from The Daily Beast here.]

To be very clear: I am not suggesting that violence and humour are utterly incompatible, nor am I suggesting that violence and art are utterly incompatible. Obviously. I study violence that is featured in works of art every single day. I have often used humour in order to deal with my own trauma. There are some jokes about rape culture that are so spot-on and scathing in their critiques of  the problems in society. What I am suggesting, however, is that if one’s humour or one’s art are virtually indistinguishable from actual practices of violence and exploitation, especially when one is placing oneself in the position of the perpetrator, there’s a big problem.

The thing it, it’s all too easy to just shrug off these problematic positions with any number of excuses, which is precisely what Choe does.

It’s JUST art.

It’s JUST a story.

It’s JUST harmless fun.

I’m JUST kidding.

All of these “justs,” all of these excuses that people make, whether it’s for assault or rape or harassment or whatever, these are precisely the hallmark of rape culture. They’re used by bystanders who wish to shame, blame, or silence victims, and they’re used by perpetrators themselves. Here’s the thing: David Choe didn’t merely engage in a brief, off-hand joke, that could be possibly construed as thoughtless. This was nearly a half-hour of consistent, un-ending descriptions of sexual assault, that placed him at the centre of it all. That’s a lot of effort to put into “just” a story.



Men’s Rights Activists, who trumpet endlessly about the numerous false allegations made by rape victims against innocent men every year, point to the ways in which “it was just a story” or “I made it up” gets in the way of the pursuit of justice. Now, it’s important to remember that victims sometimes recant their testimonies precisely because they are terrified of any number of consequences: of not being believed; of retaliation on the part of the perpetrator; under pressure from families, communities, or institutions. Not all claims of “it was just a story” are made equal. So, too, does a lack of a conviction not mean that an assault did not happen: a case may not be brought to trial, or a defendant may be acquitted because of a sufficient lack of evidence. Assault cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute, but this is NOT because assaults are not, in fact, occurring.

The fact that actual false assault allegations constitute a small percentage of reports aside, why would anyone in their right mind want to further muddy the waters of justice by pretending to have committed a rape when they hadn’t? Why would you want to place any doubt in someone’s mind as to whether or not you condone rape, find it funny, or heaven forbid, may have actually committed a rape yourself? 

I think one of the things that bothers me most deeply about this incident is that as a researcher, I think it is vitally important to hear perpetrator narratives. If we want to understand how and why perpetrators rationalize their actions, or groom their victims, if we want to see them not as outliers, not as monsters in the night, but as human beings who do horrendous things, these are stories we need to listen to, as fundamentally disturbing and horrifying as they are. I have listened to perpetrators speak in some fairly eye-opening documentaries, and while it is confronting, it is a source of valuable information.

Whether or not “Rose” exists, and whether or not David Choe committed a rape is still unclear. I have my own hunches and beliefs about this, and I am suspicious of his feigned innocence. Regardless, this story has given us at least two pieces of valuable information: 1) that rape culture and rape as a source of humour (in which victims are the target) is still well and alive; 2) that even if this story was a mere piece of fiction, a mere fantasy, a mere figment of the imagination, that there will always be doubt in many people’s minds as to whether or not Choe committed a crime, and he alone is to blame for that. I have no pity for Choe, and no sense of sympathy for his pleas of understanding and to not be labeled as a potential rapist. He alone is responsible for the trust he has broken, for the survivors he has triggered, and for the contributions he has made to rape culture. And, if he has committed a crime, he alone is responsible for it: not the victim.

Many words and stories, like so many crimes, are not victimless. They hurt. They have a tangible impact on people’s lives. As Denise Riley so eloquently states in her book Impersonal Passion: Language as Affect (Durham: Duke UP, 2005), “in its violently emotional materiality, the word is indeed made flesh and dwells amongst us—often long outstaying its welcome” (9).

Thanks to David Choe, every survivor out there has just received one more unwelcome blow, yet one more hurdle to face in their attempts to be heard and to seek justice.

“Bad storytelling,” like assault itself, can have a lasting, if not a lifelong, impact.

Missing Is A Place: A Poem of Absence

303140466_51432a2263_p1668373I recently read Emma Donoghue’s novel Room, and, as such I’ve been thinking a lot about absence, abduction. What does it mean to live with both the fear of going missing, and the uncertainty and lack of resolution when a loved one does go missing? In particular, given that the novel is written from the perspective of a 5 year-old boy, I’ve also been thinking about how children might understand this issue. This poem is a reflection on my own childhood experiences/understandings of disappearance and violence. Michael Dunahee and I were born only a half-year apart, and his abduction in 1991 had a significant impact on my young psyche, as I know it likely did for many others.

This poem discusses themes of abduction and violence. May trigger. 

Missing Is A Place

I am four years old in 1991, when Michael Wayne Dunahee goes missing. He’s four years old, too.

Tousled blond hair, bright blue eyes, a wry smile: that’s the photograph in the poster.

I see that photograph for years, in the hallway to the bathroom of the fruit stand that my family and I visit every summer, when we’re driving through Keremeos. I don’t pay attention to it, I guess, because I’m always excited about summer holidays, and besides, I’m usually a little car-sick, three hours’ drive away from home.

The poster’s already a little faded after that first year.

They added an extra thumbtack to keep it in place.

I think I’m probably five when I overhear some little kid ask: “Where is Missing?”

I sneer, because I’m old enough to know that missing isn’t a place, stupid kid. If Michael Dunahee is somewhere, it’s probably a city like Winnipeg or Calgary. Maybe whoever took him dyed his hair or changed his name. This is what they say on the news, anyway.

At school, when I’m six, they teach us about good touch, bad touch, and that you’re not supposed to take candy from strangers. I find the candy-taking exception of Hallowe’en to be very confusing, but there are exceptions to lots of things, like i before e except after c and I guess I’m not supposed to question adults too much.

I’m seven when I call my mom from the school office. They keep giving us posters to take home to warn our parents whenever there’s some creep who might attack kids. I already know about no candy and no talking to strangers but they say you always have to be aware and stay safe. I’m crying on the phone and I wail, “Mom, what is a Caucasian?!” because I don’t know what that is and I want to make sure that I know exactly what to look out for. Eagle-eyes.

My mom gives me a key to my house when I’m eight, and it’s my job to walk down the street from my elementary school to my sister’s junior high school so we can go home together. By then, I am twice as old as Michael Dunahee was when he was missing, so I figure I’m strong enough to fight back or to be able to yell loud enough if some bearded guy in a white panel van starts following me. But I know never to walk on the side of the street with the bushes, just in case, because that year I also learned what rape is.

We still go to the fruit stand in Keremeos every year.

The poster’s taken down by the time I realize that I’ve grown up, and the boy in the photograph maybe hasn’t.


I love the city of Vancouver. I used to trek into the downtown core every week on my way to St. Paul’s Hospital, and I loved meandering past the striking window displays, smiling at passersby, and generally enjoying the treat of a small trip out of the suburbs. Today, as I sit in my home, nearly an hour outside of Vancouver, watching news coverage on my television, I am horrified by the violence going on in my beloved streets in the aftermath of the Canucks’ loss in the Stanley Cup Final. Police cars set ablaze, inebriated individuals lashing out every which way, windows being shattered, stores being looted, police in full riot gear, tear gas, smoke. Were I a young child, I might have nightmares about the Armageddon downtown. As an adult, I suspect I might have those same nightmares. I am already frightened of aggression: as a young woman, I have been instilled with the fear of drunkenness and violence out on the streets, but that fear, of men lurking in the night, does not compare to the terror of a mass of bodies bursting in ripe rage. I simply do not understand. And my body shudders at it.

This past spring, we saw Greek citizens rioting against their government’s impending financial collapse; Iranians, Libyans, and Egyptians rioting for freedom and liberation. But these Vancouver rioters were not organized towards any particular goal. There was no air of a means towards an end, simply the frenzy of Western, middle-class ennui.  I fear not only the injuries sustained by those caught in the crossfire, but I worry about how this impacts a new generation of Vancouver citizens. I worry about the bystanders, many of whom jauntily took cell phone footage of the fracas instead of attempting to aid police in restraining those committing blatant acts of crime. Most of all, I wonder about the identity of these rioters: are they brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters? Do they inflict even a fraction of this rage and violence upon their families or communities? Do they throw objects at their televisions when provoked by a sports teams’ loss? Do they put their fists through the wall when they are criticized?

As a woman who carries a great deal of untapped rage and anger within her, I too, understand what it is to be provoked. I know that blind joy of throwing a dish, or punching a pillow, or kicking a stray can out of the way because it is SIMPLY IN MY WAY. But the impulse to hurt others or to carry out acts of destruction has never entered my body, as much as I might fantasize about trashing my room. This is not about sports, not about the demographic of a particular civic space – this is about bodies under siege, bodies so fueled by both alcohol and a lack of empathy and decency that their power (perhaps only numbering 1000 out of the 150000 estimated to be downtown tonight) has wreaked havoc on a space.

Elizabeth Grosz has noted that the relationship between bodies and cities is a complex interweaving of geography, corporeality, and affect, and just as cities can leave their imprints on the bodies of their citizens, so too can citizens leave their imprint on the body of their city. As Georgia, Granville, Beatty, Robson, and other streets are swept tonight, let us not forget how those who will move through these streets tomorrow will be impacted by the violence enacted against/upon the asphalt and glass.

With peace and a sense of convergence as an act of community, rather than of coercion or cruelty, let us tend to ourselves and our streets tomorrow.

– L