Raped on a trip to Belfast by a 15-year-old, the vicious attack inspired Winnie M Li’s widely acclaimed novel, writes.
AT 29, life was good for Winnie M Li — a Harvard graduate and one of the first recipients of the prestigious George Mitchell Scholarship, she was steadily carving out a promising career as an Oscar-nominated film-maker in London.
It was April 2008, and Li who had studied for her master’s degree at UCC between 2000 and 2001, had been invited to Belfast for a few days to join the celebrations surrounding the 10th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
Li was enjoying the opportunity to meet some of the key players in the peace process. She was also using her visit to Belfast to carry out some research for her first feature film; a movie adaptation of a book of short stories set in Northern Ireland. And then she was stalked and raped by a 15-year-old in broad daylight.
It changed the course of her life.
The day before she was scheduled to fly back to London, where she was due to attend the red-carpet premiere of a feature film she had been working on, Li decided to hike through the beautiful Colin Glen Forest Park just off the Falls Road. It was a gorgeous afternoon, she recalls, and initially, there were lots of other people around.
About 10 minutes into the hike Li was approached by a teenage boy who told her that he was lost.
“He kept talking and I felt he wasn’t making much sense,” recalls Li, who says she eventually made her excuses and left, explaining that she had to make a phonecall.
She continued her hike, but didn’t realise she was being followed by the teenager until she had reached a remote part of the park.
“He became very aggressive and violent,” recalls Li, a native of New Jersey, who says she tried to run away.
A physical struggle ensued and she was punched, choked and raped — according to the police report she sustained 39 injuries. “I went for a walk and everything changed,” she recalls now.
Li rang a friend who contacted the police on her behalf.
Severely traumatised and badly bruised, but vowing not to let her assailant rob her of her big celebration in London, she flew back to the UK the next day, and attended the premiere. But she was numb.
“I was still in complete shock. I was like that for days and months after the assault,” she recalls now.
The teenager was arrested, convicted and sentenced to eight years with 50% remission, in the end serving four years.
But for Li, the impact of the attack was to last much longer than that.
“My life was drastically changed,” recalls Li, who recently returned to UCC for a reading and discussion of her widely acclaimed, award-winning novel, Dark Chapter, which was inspired by the rape.
Following the attack she suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, which she says now, left her unable to work and “made it very hard to function”.
“It was like I had been gutted like a fish. I went from being a self- confident woman to a ghost of the person I had been before.
Although the conviction and sentencing of her attacker helped, the overall impact on her life was enormous.
“At least I was able to see that he was in jail and draw a line and move on. The conviction helped a lot — once he was sentenced, the cloud lifted to an extent.
“However, I was unable to find a job. I was unemployed for two years, and this led to further depression.
“I was 30 at this stage and in a very different place to my friends who were getting married and moving on. It was really hard — there was no straightforward path as to how to move on from a trauma like that.”
In 2009, some months after the sentencing, in a bid to bring some normality back to her life, she backpacked through South East Asia for three months.
“I knew the old Winnie would have loved that and I was essentially seeing if I could fit back into the old Winnie.” It worked, she recalls: “I had a great time; it helped me create the necessary distance between what had happened and where I was now.” In 2013, five and a half years after the rape, she started to write Dark Chapter, a highly successful novel inspired by the assault.
“I wrote it as fiction, because I wanted to weave in the perspective of the perpetrator, but the novel was inspired by the events.”
The book, which has been translated into eight languages — Li was about to leave for Korea to launch the Korean edition shortly after we spoke — won The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize in 2017, and is currently nominated for the sought-after Edgar Awards — Best First Novel.
THE success of the novel is heartening, if, at times, she says, exhausting.
“The publicity is very much about my rape so I am constantly talking about it.
“We need to have open conversations about sexual violence but it is exhausting,” says Li, who is currently studying for a PhD in social media and rape narratives at the London School of Economics.
Repelled by its inherent misogyny, she never returned to the film industry, instead focusing on her studies and her work as an activist in the area of sexual violence against women and girls. She co-founded the Clear Lines Festival, which aims to challenge the silence and stigma that surrounds sexual
violence and was also one of four sexual assault survivors profiled in the TV3 documentary Unbreakable: True Lives, which aired last September. In 2017, she was nominated for the Irish Tatler Women of the Year Awards, in a Special Recognition category for her work against sexual violence.
“Some of the strongest people I know are rape survivors,” says Li.
“It’s very important to see rape survivors as people who have overcome severe trauma and have the potential to recover.”