Laurie Halse Anderson Speaks Out Against Sexual Assault
In our recent profiling of authors who make a difference, Laurie Halse Anderson showed herself to be a strong advocate against sexual assault. Since the publication of her groundbreaking novel Speak—the story of one teenager’s fight to find her voice after being raped—Anderson has tirelessly spoken out against abuse and fought to give the survivors all the support and tools they need.
As Speak celebrates its 15th anniversary, Anderson and her publisher Macmillan are teaming up with the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, the Rape and Incest National Network (RAINN). This is the second year of their campaign, this year called #Speak4RAINN15, and once again Macmillan will be matching donations—up to $15,000. The campaign runs throughout the month of April, Sexual Assault Awareness Month. We spoke with Anderson about her role in the project, her connection with the survivors of assault, and the changes she would make to Speak if she were writing it today.
Bookish: Can you tell us how you first became involved with RAINN?
Laurie Halse Anderson: When Speak was published in 1999, I began to hear from rape survivors, most of whom had never told anyone about their attack. Reading the book helped them realize that they needed and wanted to speak up, but they didn’t know how. I started looking around for a national organization that could offer them support and solid information. I found RAINN, which does all of that and much, much more.
Bookish: Speak has not only inspired survivors of assault, it inspired your work and the #Speak4RAINN15 campaign. When you look back to when you first began writing Speak, when you didn’t know of the impact it would one day have, how do you feel?
LHA: Baffled and grateful. I never thought that Speak would be published. When it was, I never imagined it would sell more than a few thousand copies. Then it exploded and everything changed. I’ve somehow been given this amazing life in which I have the chance to help others find their voice and recover their strength and joy. I get to tell stories and try to make a difference. I’m the luckiest girl in the world.
Bookish: What’s the best advice you can give to readers who do struggle to speak—whether it’s opening up about a traumatic event or simply saying what’s on their mind?
LHA: I wish I could give them a hug. Feeling scared and alone is horrible. Writing down what you want to say is a great place to start. Talking to someone like a hotline volunteer or a therapist is a safe way to speak up for the first time. Give yourself permission to take small steps and remember that bravery is not the absence of fear… bravery is speaking up despite the fear. You are brave and you can do this.
Bookish: Last year the Steubenville rape cases brought speaking out into the public eye. When two high school football players we convinced of rape, many mourned the loss of their promising talent, rather than focusing on the girl’s terrible experience. Some even blamed her. What steps can we take to prevent that culture from permeating?
LHA: Getting the media—news reporters, editors, and producers—to remove their heads from their butts would be a great place to start. Generally speaking, the news media is appallingly ignorant about rape and thus, they help perpetuate rape mythology. We must shift the blame away from the victim and back to where it belongs, to the rapist. American parents must also step up to the plate and find the courage to talk to their kids about informed consent.
Bookish: If you were to write Speak now, instead of in 1999, would anything change based on how sexual assault is discussed and dealt with now vs. then?
LHA: The emotional truth about sexual assault and other traumas hasn’t changed, but the details about how the attacks take place and the social aftermath has. If I were to write Speak today, I’d include the impact of technology. (My novel Twisted, which came out eight years later, has cyberbullying in it.) On the positive side, it is easier to talk about sexual assault now than it was 15 years ago. We are finally having real conversations about consent and rape culture. I’m seeing progress. It’s not fast enough, but it’s progress.
Laurie Halse Anderson has received both the Margaret Edwards Award and the ALAN Award for her contributions to young adult literature. She has also been honored by the National Coalition Against Censorship in recognition of her fight to combat the censoring of literature. She is the author of the National Book Award finalist and Printz Honor Book Speak and of four other much acclaimed young adult novels. She and her husband live in northern New York State. Follow Laurie on Twitter @halseanderson and visit her website, Mad Woman in the Forest.
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