Points of View: Gaijin and the Silence of Shindo

There is a very good, very fair review of my novella  Gaijin, over on Dear Author. What marks it as a good review is not that it is wholly positive; there are some very pointed and legitimate criticisms of the story, both in the reviewer’s post and in the comments.

One question posed in the comments was from Marumae: “The fact that the rapist doesn’t get a POV piqued my curiosity me and I wonder the reasoning for it. ”

Certain genres have certain narrative conventions. Often, Romance and Erotic Romance present the POV of both the heroine and the hero as a device for charting the individuals psychological journey towards love and commitment.

Gaijin is not a romance. I could never write it as a romance. As much as I enjoy fantasy, and even have a taste for non-con, I simply couldn’t – as a woman – envision any circumstances under which Shindo was forgivable or redeemable after his actions. I know there are authors who can do this and readers who want it. I’m just not one of them. I was interested in the main character’s physical and psychological survival, not in romance.

My main character, Jennifer, is in a place many expats have been, hovering on the outside of a society alien to her own. She has learned as much of the language as she needs to in order to be functional, and she is earning her living (I’ll be blunt here) exploiting the fantasies that a lot of Japanese men have about western women. But as that experience turns ugly, I wanted to give the reader an experience of that feeling of the impenetrability of the ‘other’ culture. Had I represented Shindo’s point of view, I felt that her sense of isolation would not have been as tangible to the reader.

Finally, at the time I wrote Gaijin (about 7 years ago, now), I simply did not want to represent the POV of the rapist. It was a personal, ethical decision at the time. I feared that to give him a voice in the narrative in such a powerful way might serve to legitimize or excuse his behaviour. Most men who rape do not think of themselves as rapists. They make elaborate excuses, and come up with some chilling rationales for feeling they have a right or the prerogative to force sex on someone who doesn’t want it. I was not comfortable giving air or credence to those excuses. Again, I know there are authors who feel comfortable writing a character who rapes and then feels contrition for it, and all is forgiven in the end. I’m just not that writer.

Several years later, I felt I had a better handle on the craft of writing and did, in fact, write a story that contains rape from the rapist’s point of view. Click was the product of that evolution. By then, I felt I could represent those rationales, those excuses, without allowing the narrative to somehow legitimize the actions. It’s really up to the reader to decide whether I managed to succeed in what I set out to do. However, if fictional depictions of rape are distressing to you, please don’t read that story.

Ultimately, writers make the decisions they make within the context the story, the level of their skills and their own personal code of ethics.  Had I set the story at a time in history or a geographical place in the world where the prevailing culture didn’t condemn rape in the same way we do today, I might have felt differently about my decision to not give Shindo a POV of his own.

There have been times in our history when a woman’s consent simply didn’t have any significance in the social order of the era. There are many places today where a woman’s consent is immaterial. But I’m a 20th century Western-born writer, and Japan has one of the lowest rates of rape in the world. In neither my reality, nor in Shindo’s culture, is it seen as acceptable to rape a woman. Within that context, I did not feel compelled to present his point of view.

  9 comments for “Points of View: Gaijin and the Silence of Shindo

  1. May 16, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    You answered my question and more! And actually gave me a LOT to think about in terms of my own writing and why one POV should and could be portrayed over another, especially when the character is doing questionable actions. Thank you for taking the time to answer so thoroughly!

    • May 16, 2012 at 1:58 pm

      Hello Marumae,

      Oh, I’m so glad!

      It took me such a long time to get a handle on exactly how POV is probably the most powerful choice a writer makes. I remember a very clear lightbulb moment watching ‘Deadwood’ – have you ever seen it? It’s a HBO series, ran for three seasons, and really worth watching if you haven’t. The character of the owner of the Gem saloon, the character played by Ian McShane, starts off as an absolutely evil son of a bitch. It’s not that he isn’t one. He is. But slowly, through the episodes, one starts, almost against one’s will, to like him. And really nothing’s changed. He’s still a despicable bastard. You just learn more about him and how he became the person he is. You don’t forgive him for his brutality. You just see it in the context of a much larger brutal society.

      I think, had I been a better writer at the time, I could have probably written some of the chapters through Shindo’s POV. But it would have been impossible, at that time, to do what I did with, for instance, Carl with a C, later. I just wasn’t that skilled then. And I think that to have attempted it, without the control I got later, would have been a real mistake. So, looking back, I’m glad about my choice. At that point, at that stage in my writing development, I would have probably fucked it up and made him too sympathetic.

  2. May 16, 2012 at 2:34 pm

    That is so true about POV being one of the most powerful choices. I really love hearing what you have to say about it this long after writing it.

    The bit you say about your main character is precisely why I liked Gaijin when I read it the first time. I think it was some of the first writing of yours I read. And you know what’s happened since and the state of me being ass over tea kettle for you.

    • May 16, 2012 at 2:42 pm

      Hey, I can cringe about my early work as much as the next person. Hehe.

      But yes… POV… fuck. It took me ages to see how it changed everything. The story, the tone, the texture. Everything.

      And I think you know the ass over tea kettle thing is mutual.

  3. May 16, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    Just to comment on a side note… I think it’s fair to say that Japan has a very low rate of *reported* rape. One reason for this is that police officers are rated on their ratio of arrests to convictions, and rapes are hard to get convictions for. I remember reading a chilling article there describing how police officers, upon receiving a rape complain, would do their best to convince the woman to not file a charge, so it wouldn’t go on their records. There was also, at least at the time I lived there, a reluctance to believe in rape by someone you knew (both by society and by the victim herself–I’m sorry, I don’t remember if that was also a legal definition). “Rape” meant a stranger leaping out of an alley. I don’t believe there is such a thing as spousal rape, unless they changed the laws in the last decade or so. Men cannot be raped.

    • May 16, 2012 at 9:24 pm

      I think that police willingness to pursue and prosecute rapists is pretty damn bad everywhere, Shar. There is no reason to believe it is any worse in Japan than anywhere else.

  4. Korhomme
    May 16, 2012 at 9:56 pm

    It’s a while since I read Gaijin, but I think you were right to confine it to Jennifer’s POV. She’s an alien, she doesn’t really understand the culture, and we see the effects of this through her eyes. Letting us know Shindo’s ideas and feelings would remove the mystery; we should experience as Jennifer does, with an incomplete understanding. You could have written it purely from his POV, but I guess this might have been very difficult, and yet it wouldn’t have explored her distress.

    Related to this is whether your readers think of rape as a primarily sexual crime — men’s unquenchable lust — or whether rape is about power, control and humiliation, with sex as the means of assault. Here, I’d say it’s the latter.

    • May 16, 2012 at 10:21 pm

      I’ve never really settled the rape is sex / rape is power thing in my mind. I think that may be because I’ve always perceived sex as about power, and rape is an extreme of it. That is not, as far as I know, the normative view. So I’ve never really been able to fully decide.

      No, she really doesn’t understand the culture. And she has played her part in exploiting it, both in terms of her superficial admiration for all the touristy stuff, and her interaction with a very small portion of the culture at work.

      • Korhomme
        May 17, 2012 at 1:50 am

        From what you say, I suspect that you, like me, were brought up with the myth that sex is something that a man does to a women (“lie back and think of England”), therefore it follows that your view is that sex is about power. I’d like to think that we have moved beyond this now, though it does take a considerable mental adjustment to make it (meaning, you have to undergo a “mid-life crisis” to appreciate that so much of what you were taught/what you learned was total bullshit; this isn’t a route to be recommended).

        Rape: power or sex? Confusingly, I think it can be both, though not simultaneously. Think of the Red Army invading Berlin in WW2; they were given 3 days to rape and pillage; surely, this is about power, as it is in the case of any victorious army. Yet in the UK, about 80% of (reported) rapes are “domestic”, where the parties know one another. These include rohypnol “date rapes”; now, these must surely be primarily about sex. So, I can see rape as a brutal physical (and mental) assault, but where the reasons can differ; the effect (penetration) is the same, but the motivation isn’t. Does that make any sense?

        Now, let me be a little provocative: if rape is about sex, then Gaijin is an erotic novel; but if rape is about power etc, then Gaijin is a novel about domination (and inter-cultural differences), but it’s not primarily an erotic novel (though there’s sex in it). Here, the sex is “secondary” to the humiliation etc, a necessary part but not the fons et origio.

        I don’t have the academic background to be able to offer a reasoned critique of Gaijin, and my ideas perhaps don’t stand up to professional criticism; but I enjoyed it, and I thought that the “smut” was an essential element in the development of the plot.

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