Reading Speak has brought to my attention that I need to read more novels about trauma. Narratives are a reflection of society and its values, as well as how individuals make sense of these narratives. Even if characters within the stories have false, misogynistic or contrived perceptions, this itself tells us about how society makes sense of phenomena, and how individuals make sense of such things – real or perceived. (On that note, the fact that this book has been banned is very telling about the institutions that have banned it.) With something as traumatic and (unfortunately) socially, politically and culturally contested as sexual assault (especially in patriarchal societies where victim-blaming is a heinous reality), it is necessary to engage with the victim’s narrative especially when there have been repeated, systematic attempts to silence and censor them.
Speak is a sexual assault narrative that explores the impact of the act on the survivor’s psyche. It portrays the trauma, the struggle for normalcy, the daily horrors, the helplessness, the pain of living for another day, and the anger, guilt, shame and sadness. The trauma that the main character, Melinda, endures is understated, intricate but never glorified. The pain is raw and indisputably horrible. The beauty in Anderson’s writing is its subtlety; the flurry or dormancy of emotions, thoughts and horror that Melinda experiences are conveyed in either soft whispers or actions that translate to screams.
For a character that is defined as her condition of a victim, Melinda was surprisingly witty. I enjoyed her casual quips about her school council being ‘Overbearing Eurocentric Patriarchs’, or the debate that transpires between the ‘animal-rights activists, who say it is immoral to own fish, and the red-blooded capitalists, who know lots of better ways to make money than investing in fish and eating their young’. Melinda is smart and has a lot to say, but her trauma creates a gulf between her and her peers, as well as a disconnect from the world around her.
So, I did like Speak. The problem with Speak, however, is that it tried to be many things at once, and as a result, its lack of a cohesive, overarching purpose diminished its impact. Speak is a narrative on sexual assault from a victim’s lens, but it placed a strong emphasis on the social labyrinth of high school, her complaisant and shallow friends, and her art project with the tree. Sometimes the latter two were disjointed from her trauma, and the fickleness of the theme was confusing. There were fleeting moments where its themes wove seamlessly together to paint a detailed illustration of the different corners of Melinda’s life, but my biggest gripe was the inconclusive, vague ending, which left me feeling unsure and skeptical.
Though the book centers on her liberation and finding the ability to speak, the ending was rushed, unsatisfying and incomplete. I mean, Melinda finally speaks, and this in itself is a victory, but what about the impact the revelation has on her parents? On her friends or peers? On the school? On the perpetrator? And more importantly, what is the effect on Melinda?
The difference between silent-Melinda and speaking-Melinda is indistinguishable. There is no discernible change in Melinda after everyone finds out what happens to her. It would have been the ideal way to drive the message home – to elucidate Melinda’s uncertainties and doubts, and to show the sheer, inevitable impact of what happened to her becoming public knowledge. Does Melinda becomes stronger when others finally know? Does everyone knowing what happened to her cripple her? Does it make her anxious or terrified because of people’s misconceptions and assumptions of sexual assault? The reader has no idea at all; they can only guess. With so much riding on the ending, it was a missed opportunity. What a shame.
Regardless, for its subject matter Speak is a sensitive, honest and mature narrative, and I applaud Anderson for making this accessible and readable. The unfortunate reality is that many sexual assault victims do not get the time of the day, and their silence is not attributed to lack of strength, but it could be legitimate reasons such as fear, shame, embarrassment and/or social stigma. Bearing in mind that experiences are varied and unique, for a book to engage with makes it an important, necessary book within the young adult genre. Speak is revolutionary because it tackles a subject people refuse to talk about, but in terms with opening up an avenue where there can be constructive dialogue on what happens after every person you know what has happened to you, it could have been more.
Book Name: Speak
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson