Author of DARK CHAPTER, an upcoming novel based on her experience as a survivor of assault
By Nicole Torres AB '11
It’s Friday morning in Los Angeles and mid-afternoon in London, and Winnie M. Li AB '00 and I meet over Skype to discuss her upcoming novel Dark Chapter. (Photo credit: Grace Gelder)
Born in New Jersey, Winnie Li was drawn to literature and storytelling from a very young age. In particular, she had a fascination with Celtic culture and mythology that she can pin down to a very specific memory from her childhood. “I traced it back to one incident, I would’ve been quite young, like 6 or 7. I was in a travel agency in suburban New Jersey at the time and my mom was booking a holiday to Florida or something like that. I remember sitting and looking at all these different travel brochures and I found these glossy travel brochures about Ireland and Scotland and there were all these crumbling castles and I was fascinated with it.”
Her fascination continued throughout high school, and when she was accepted to Harvard and realized at prefrosh weekend they had a Folklore and Mythology concentration where you could specialize in Celtic languages and literature, she was sold. At Harvard, Winnie also wrote for the Let’s Go travel guide, which gave her the opportunity to visit the countries she studied and admired from afar.
Her senior year at Harvard, Winnie was selected to be a Mitchell Scholar and assigned to the National University of Ireland in Cork, where she switched to studying English after realizing studying Celtic was no longer the most relevant. However, although Winnie’s career path appeared to be headed down a more literary route, a decision to volunteer for the Cork Film Festival exposed her to an entirely new world of possibility.
Winnie had always had a love and fascination for film. She had taken some courses in film studies at Harvard, but had never really considered a career in film. However, her time volunteering for the Cork Film Festival sparked a new passion in her, and she began to see a career in film as a possibility. After finishing her master's in December 2001 at the National University of Ireland, she moved to London to give a career in film a shot. She recalls, “I think I said I’ll give myself six months and if it doesn’t work out, then I’ll travel around the world for a year and then move to LA to work in film.”
Fortunately it did work out, and quite well too. Winnie started as an intern for a producer at Ugly Duckling Films and gradually worked her way up the ranks. “I became her intern and then her assistant and then her development executive and then kind of an associate producer. I wasn’t really getting paid very much at all but it was a great, hands-on way to see how a film was being made.”
Winnie’s description is quite humble, since during her time there, she was involved in producing six award-winning feature films and two shorts, one of which was Oscar-nominated and the other Oscar-shortlisted. She attended the Oscars in 2006. She continues, “I was at Ugly Duckling Films for about six years and I was working for them up until the assault happened.”
By this, she means her violent 2008 assault and rape by a 15-year-old stranger in a Belfast park, which was widely covered in the local media at the time. The event also brought an abrupt end to her flourishing film production career.
Winnie recalls, “The assault took place the day before a red carpet premiere of a film that we had. I was on the verge of being a producer on a feature film when the assault happened. I was in Northern Ireland for the tenth anniversary of the peace process because I’d been invited there as a former Mitchell Scholar, but when I was there I was having meetings with potential financiers for this film that we were going to make. It was going to be my first film as a full producer, and that was an adaptation of some short stories by a Northern Irish writer. So that was meant to happen, but then the assault took place, and that changed everything. I haven’t returned to producing since then. I think a lot of it was the PTSD and the agoraphobia and the mental health consequences of that kind of trauma. It was impossible for me to do my job, which was obviously sad at the time. Even in the autumn I was still trying to pretend to be a film producer and still trying to get that film to happen and I just realized, ‘I’m never going to get better and recover if I’m still trying to do my career at the same time.’”
She devoted herself to her recovery and rebuilding her life, especially after her perpetrator was convicted in Spring 2009. An avid travel and adventure lover, she spent much of 2009 traveling, and embarked upon a solo three-month backpacking trip to Southeast Asia. In 2010, she began looking for employment and after substantial difficulty came across an exciting opportunity to work for the Doha Tribeca Film Festival and Doha Film Institute in Qatar.
Originally the position was temporary, as they were recruiting people with a background in film to move out there and work on the festival for several months. However, the position soon became permanent and Winnie was offered the opportunity to help start up the Qatar national film institute. Winnie recalls the time fondly: “I worked there for a number of years in the programming department for the festival. Also they wanted to have a year round screening series, so I oversaw that whole process and that was really interesting. Imagine working for a film festival that had zero budgetary concerns. But it was interesting and I was getting to still engage with film in a slightly different capacity and making things happen. At the same time, I was living in a place where nobody knew about the assault so I felt like I was sort of not addressing that part of my life.”
She briefly moved to Singapore after being offered the opportunity to work on an ecotourism project. Although she found the work interesting, ultimately she knew she wanted to return to her literary roots. She states, “I had negotiated a six-month contract because I was thinking of going back to do my creative writing master's. When my six-month contract ended in Singapore I didn’t renew it and moved back to London. The day after I landed in London, I went to class for this creative writing course, and the novel has been an all consuming project since then.”
When she returned to London for the creative writing course, Winnie already knew what she wanted to write about. Even though she didn’t officially start working on Dark Chapter until five years after her assault, soon after the incident she knew she needed to write about it. She explains, “As a writer the way I always process the world, or try and make sense of life, is through writing. So actually the prologue of the book, the first two pages, I wrote a few weeks after the assault.” She continues, “But I knew I had to get to the point in my life and recover and rebuild my life, which is why it was five years before I could start writing the novel. I needed the distance and the perspective from the trauma itself, and I myself needed to be able to say this is a choice I’m making to leave this other job which has given me a salary to write this novel because the novel’s that important for me.”
Why a novel as opposed to a memoir? Because several other memoirs had already been written by rape survivors and Winnie wanted to bring a different viewpoint to the table. She knew she wanted to include a trial, for although in reality she was fortunate enough to have been spared from one, from a narrative standpoint she felt it was a more dramatic choice. She also particularly wanted to explore the perpetrator’s perspective and felt that fiction was the only way to do so. She elaborates, “The key thing for me in writing the novel was trying to figure out why did he behave the way he did. So I had meetings [with] and interviewed a number of social workers and psychologists that work with juvenile sex offenders.” Driven by a strong desire for authenticity, her research for the novel was incredibly extensive. In addition to the aforementioned she also sat in on various rape trials and did extensive research into the Irish Traveller community. Like her real-life perpetrator, Johnny’s character is an Irish traveler and she wanted to do justice to his portrayal as such without criminalizing the entire community.
One wonders how difficult it must have been to undergo this entire process. Winnie remarks that the most emotionally challenging part was writing Vivian’s storyline, as it was essentially reliving her own experience. However, creating Johnny’s character was more challenging from a creative standpoint. Not only is his character’s literary voice in stark contrast to that of Vivian, but it involved researching and creating a character from an entirely different social world, which she found more interesting creatively. Also challenging was the process of actually editing down the novel, which is punishment for any writer. The last section in particular was a source of constant negotiation between Winnie and her editors. Ultimately a majority of it was trimmed down, but there is a slight difference between the U.K. and U.S. editions, the latter of which has two additional scenes.
Now that the novel is complete, Winnie is focusing on the present. Dark Chapter has been attracting strong media attention and acclaim in the UK and Ireland, and promoting it enables her to bring in her activism. She is pursuing her PhD at the London School of Economics researching the impact of social media on the public discourse about rape and sexual assault. Winnie is also planning the 2nd edition of the Clear Lines Festival, the UK’s first-ever festival dedicated to using the arts and discussion to address sexual assault and consent. In many ways her activism has been driven by her frustration at the improper portrayal of assault in television, film, and society as a whole.
She explains, “Living that experience is totally different from what you expect from film and TV and books. In some ways it’s all over the media and yet a lot of the media representations don’t actually accurately represent the lived experience.” Through her research, Winnie hopes to be better equipped in her activism efforts.
Would she love for Dark Chapter to be adapted for screen? Certainly. But for now she’s just taking it one day at a time. “One thing I learned from the assault is you obviously can’t predict what happens in your life, so I don’t really plan ahead. I just do what I feel is important and see where that takes me.”
Her debut novel, Dark Chapter, is currently out in the U.K. and will be available in the U.S. September 12 with Polis Books.
Follow Winnie on Twitter at @winniemli!