There’s some heavy stuff going on in Sammy H.K. Smith’s Big Idea for her novel Anna, and while it’s a lot to take in, Smith explains how this particular journey is critical for her novel, and the characters within.
(Content warning for issues of sexual and mental abuse)
SAMMY H. K. SMITH:
It was another mandatory training day, and yet also the start of something more.
…’Fight, flight, friend, freeze, flop. These are the five ‘F’s that are instigated by the amygdala side of the brain as a means to protect itself. Which do you think your lizard brain would choose to survive?’
Those words from a renowned sexualised trauma specialist piqued my interest and The Big Idea was born.
What if I concentrated on the journey of a sexual abuse survivor and how the abuse affects their every choice and future relationships as they work through the trauma?
I had just started my dystopian novel at this point, and couldn’t pinpoint exactly what was needed. I had the idea, the storyline plotted out but something was missing.
Working within the field of domestic and sexual abuse, I don’t need to tell you that rape is not pretty. When the physical scars are long healed, the mental ones remain.
That lecture brought it together and I knew then what I needed. I knew that I wanted to write a story that portrayed the effects of the crimes on a survivor in an honest and stark way, but it was something that needed handling with care. It’s not a glib plot point to be used as a way to explain away a character’s (potentially) unusual reactions; and often in SF&F we’ve seen the antagonist rape and abuse their victims – but what of those victims? Who tells their stories?
My novel tells the story of one character who is physically, psychologically, and sexually abused and how she deals with the aftermath. Her PTSD forms and is laid out on the pages for us to experience, and hopefully understand and empathise with.
I stress, I’ve not used any of my survivors’ stories to form the events in Anna because to do so would be a gross violation of their privacy and trust, but nearly every person I’ve worked with has expressed the same trail of thoughts ‘what did I do to deserve this?’ ‘I should have fought harder’ ‘I shouldn’t have made them angry’.
By writing my protagonist from the first person point of view, I’ve brought the reader into her innermost thoughts and reactions, allowing a glimpse into the mindset of this strong young woman as she rebuilds and takes back control and bodily autonomy.
It’s not an easy read, and believe me it was awful and uncomfortable to write some of the scenes so starkly, but I make no apologies for that. I believe that if a writer uses sexual violence in their work then they have a moral duty to ‘own’ what they’re writing and make it authentic in its true, raw form, and show us how this offence affects the character. It’s not about titillation but honesty. It’s a grim and evil crime, with devastating consequences.
But it’s not without hope and strength. The journey to recovery can be long and difficult and sometimes the behaviour of a character can puzzle and frustrate us. My character shows us just how strong she can be even when dealing with everything she has suffered, and that you can face your fears – however long it might take.
I’m not the arbitrator of all experiences and reactions of abuse, but I hope to show one woman’s struggle with PTSD and the relationships she forms along the way.
Dystopian and speculative literature gives a great base for exploring the ‘what-ifs’ and gave me the platform that allowed me to search into the darker side of human nature. What would happen if society collapsed and there was no-one to trust, to rely on, and no laws to protect the vulnerable? I set the novel in a near-future dystopia in the aftermath of several wars when society has fallen and morality considered a luxury.
Anna is the story of one woman’s fight and journey through which thousands suffer daily.
Remember: I believe you. You are not alone. You are stronger than you know and this was not your fault.