Earlier this month, Bookish announced our must-read spring books and it’s no surprise that Laurie Halse Anderson’s SHOUT made the list. Anderson first hit the scene in 1999 with Speak, a novel about a high school girl dealing with the aftermath of being raped by a classmate. Based on Anderson’s own experiences, Speak is a book that continues to resonate with readers and survivors of sexual assault. This spring, Anderson delivers her verse memoir SHOUT. It stands on its own as a moving account of Anderson’s experiences as a daughter, writer, survivor, and advocate; it is also in direct conversation with Speak. After reading, I had the honor of interviewing Anderson. Here, she shares the meaning behind SHOUT’s title, the ways the YA genre has changed during her career, and the importance of sisterhood.
Bookish: Can you tell me about the significance of the title SHOUT and how it relates to the title Speak?
Laurie Halse Anderson: About ten percent of Speak is my story, specifically the feelings of shame and the silence I built around myself after my attack. I was raped when I was thirteen years old, a few weeks before I started high school. I didn’t speak up about what happened to me for 25 years.
The first person I told was my therapist, whom I was seeing for help with PTSD and depression. I told her what happened in a whisper. When I started writing Speak a few months later, the title was an obvious one. I hoped that a novel about the aftermath of sexual violence might open the door to much-needed conversations in our culture.
Sadly, not much has changed since Speak was published. The growth of the #MeToo movement, started by Tarana Burke in 2006, has been followed by a hideous, misogynistic backlash. My rage at the backlash transmuted into poetry. I’ve moved from speaking up to shouting. I no longer want to just open the door. I want to rip it off its hinges.
Bookish: You open the book with a poem about your mother, father, and the ways their experiences (not related to sexual assault) kept them silent. Why did you choose to start this way?
LHA: Readers frequently ask why I didn’t tell someone after I was raped. The simple answer is that I was afraid my father would kill the boy who attacked me. The deeper truth, however, has everything to do with the complex dysfunction of my family at the time. My parents were battling with their own traumas and pain. By presenting their struggles first, I hope to offer readers the context of my decision to retreat into silence. I think women deploy silence as a survival tool.
Bookish: In “Cave Painting,” you use the word “persisted” in talking about your writing and it reminded me of the now famous quote “Nevertheless, she persisted.” Was that intentional?
LHA: Indeed, it is! Persistence, resilience, grit; those are the qualities required to survive and thrive in the world. Women have been persisting against patriarchal attitudes and policies for a very long time. Artists dig deep within themselves to find the motivation to keep going in the face of rejection and failure. The creation of my books and course of my life occupy that precise overlap of feminism and art.
Bookish: SHOUT is divided into parts. What does each section mean to you and why did you decide to divide the collection this way?
LHA: The first half of the book covers the events that shaped me into the woman who wrote Speak. The second is what I’ve learned from my readers. The book hinges on the writing of Speak. Other than having my children, writing that novel had the greatest impact on my life.
The short, final section is a contemplative coda looking at death, renewal, and gratitude.
Bookish: As you mentioned, readers have confided in you over the years, sharing their own experiences with assault and some of those experiences even found their way into this book. What does it feel like to have that trust?
LHA: When someone shares their truth, it’s an honor.
Bookish: In the book you reveal that you were told you’d be lucky if Speak sold a couple thousand copies because “teenagers didn’t like to read.” These days there are entire conventions and festivals for teens who read. What do you think changed?
LHA: A perfect storm of creativity and demographics shaped our current golden age of YA literature. In the late 1990s the first wave of millennials entered high school, just as books like Speak, Walter Dean Myers’ Monster, and Ellen Wittlinger’s Hard Love were published. In 2000, the Printz Award, given for the best book written for teens, was awarded for the first time. That was also the year the fourth Harry Potter book was published. Last, but not least, a new generation of English teachers and librarians began to put contemporary YA literature into the hands of teenagers, instead of demanding that they read dusty, canonical books. Teenagers eagerly responded to the books written about and for them and in doing so, they changed our culture for the better.
Bookish: Throughout the collection there are references to mythology, particularly Greek and Norse myths. What brought about that choice?
LHA: I’ve adored mythology ever since Mr. Edwards, my eighth-grade English teacher, taught it to us. Mythology is the storytelling which simultaneously defines culture and explains the world. It is magic distilled into words.
Bookish: In SHOUT, you point out that there’s a common vision of a rapist as a villain in a dark alley. You acknowledge in multiple poems that it’s often someone you know, someone you trust. How do we begin to dismantle that first image?
LHA: We need to educate parents about the facts. According to the Department of Justice, 93% of juvenile rape victims know their attacker. For adult victims, 80% know their attacker. The overwhelming majority of rapes are committed by acquaintances, friends, and family members. Parents who don’t teach their kids about sexual violence, consent, and healthy sexuality are setting their children up for devastation and sorrow.
Bookish: There are many mentions of sisterhood here—of protecting each other, supporting each other, building each other up. Why was this theme important for you to include?
LHA: Because where there is love, there is hope.
Editor’s Note: If you or anyone you know needs help or support in dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800-656-4673) or chat with them online.