If We Listen: A Conversation with Lisa Factora-Borchers
I am not wrong: Wrong is not my nameMy name is my own my own my own—June Jordan, Poem about My Rights
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In 2012, I participated in a VONA/Voices workshop at the University of California at Berkeley with other writers of color. Over the course of a week, my class built a remarkable bond. Lisa Factora-Borchers is one of the 11 writers whom I met there, and I am grateful to call her friend. Her writing is deeply felt, smart, and clear-eyed. After a more than decade-long process from conception to publication, Factora-Borchers’s book Dear Sister is in the world, courtesy of community, hard work, dedication, and the excellent eye of AK Press. Lisa spoke with me last week, and you’ll find our conversation below.
This book includes over 50 letters, poems, and other prose pieces written by and for survivors of sexual violence.
Please keep this in mind as you read the interview, and take care of yourself regarding content.
Thank you, Lisa, for talking with me about your project, your book, and about the importance of listening. Stay tuned at the bottom of the post for links to resources.
Topics of conversation: Dear Sister; editing process; rape advocacy; emergency room; Aberdeen, Washington; worst moment of your life; writing; community; resilience; inclusion; exclusion; gender nonconforming people; queer; transgender people; survival; surprise; trauma; sexual violence; rape; violence; Aishah Shahidah Simmons; NO! The Rape Documentary; intraracial sexual violence; bell hooks; Sut Jhally; media criticism; subjectivity; funding for women artists of color; film funding; Saturday Night Live; forgiveness; rape stigma; stigma; listening
At first pass, three words came to mind with this anthology: nourishing, nonjudgmental, and inclusive. When did you first conceptualize this project?
[Laugh] it was a long time ago: 2001. I was working as a legal and medical advocate for survivors of rape and sexual violence in a small town in Washington state, Aberdeen. I was working there, case after case after case, doing hospital runs. I had a beeper that went off every time someone was admitted to the ER.
When I think back—every spectrum, every dot along the spectrum [of sexual violence] was represented in my time there. People with and without resources, people with and without homes. I never knew whom I was going to meet, but the one thing that was common among all of them, the one thing that they shared, was—up until that moment—that that was pretty much the worst moment of their life.
I think that I, just personally, came into an awareness of my human limitations. I was so humbled and honored to sit with [people] in their time of pain, darkness—and shock for most of them—but it brought me into this awareness of, “There is not really a whole lot that I can do.” There’s all this information, and the support, all of the things that advocates and survivors can say, but an advocate can’t move in with a survivor, they can’t be with the survivor, they can’t do the things that need to happen. That’s up to the community, right?
It just brought it home in this really visceral way: this is the work of the community, not one person.
I wanted to be an advocate. It was something I wanted to do with my life, just something … I wasn’t sure why.
Then, in 2007, my friend [Alexis Pauline Gumbs] wrote an email and said someone in her community had just been raped, and she was asking her community from all over the world, “Could you write a letter to uplift this survivor?”
I thought to myself, “This is such a beautiful gesture.” That would be wonderful if every survivor could receive something like that from people she may or may not know—receiving an affirmation of presence, an affirmation of nonjudgmental support.
I remember asking myself, “Is there a book, is there something we can give to survivors in the aftermath?”
Three years later, in 2010, I finally sent out the call for submissions.
I would love to be able to say I knew exactly what I was doing, and I had some vision. I didn’t. I just had an intuitive sense that I just knew I wanted to put something together that affirmed survivors. That was it.
And that took around two and a half years of editing! [Laugh] At first I wanted around 20 letters. That’s all I wanted. And then I just started adding pieces. I outreached to activists to talk about their work, and their healing, and how it related to their survival. Then it just kept growing and eventually—when I sent the book proposal out for publication—it was about 50 letters. It was really amazing: there was poetry, prose. It was a genuine body of work.
Aishah Shahidah Simmons wrote the foreword to your book. I had the opportunity to screen my documentary at the same festival where she screened “NO! The Rape Documentary” back in 2006. It was an honor. For a long time, she struggled with funding for the production and post-production of “NO!” Her documentary—work for which spanned well over a decade by the mid-Aughts—specifically focuses on the rape of black women.
At one of her screenings, something Simmons said really stuck with me. She said that any time we watch a film, we are asked to inhabit the subjectivity of the protagonist, or protagonists. bell hooks talked about this in her “Cultural Criticism and Transformation” film with director Sut Jhally. [Transcript here; will open as PDF.]
Simmons’s documentary asks each viewer to talk about and “experience” the subjectivity of black girls and black women. She posed the question: whose subjectivity are we asked to inhabit as consumers of film and video?
We, as viewers, are not often asked to inhabit the subjectivity of black women, much less people who experienced rape at the hands of another person, and she believed that this was one reason why it was so difficult to get funding for completing her project. On her film’s website, NoTheRapeDocumentary.com, there is a blog portion. I remember reading Simmons’s posts in 2003 and how she had no more money for the film, was living off of credit cards trying to get the project off the ground, and despaired at the prospect of ever finishing it.
Now it’s 2014, and Simmons has screened her documentary the world over.
She also did something extraordinary: she focused on intraracial sexual violence. She’s ahead of her time.
Yeah. And she’s paying the price for it.
Yes, and “Saturday Night Live” is finally getting press for hiring two black women writers—a first—in our allegedly postracial world. And it’s 2014.
How did you choose Simmons as the person to write your book’s foreword?
After the skeleton of the manuscript was done, the heart of it was finished, I thought really hard about how I wanted it to open. I also thought about who—symbolically—ushered me into a safer space to explore all the conditions of survival, community, and sexual violence, and [Simmons] just came to mind.
I mean, she was—if not the most—one of the most powerful feminists, women of color, and her work is … I don’t really think that there is a word to describe not just the documentary she did, but how she did it and all of the sacrifices that she made and gave for her work.
Off the top of my head, I cannot think of another artist or scholar or activist so dedicated to an issue and her art who persevered the way she did. That’s what I wanted to open the anthology with, and there was no one that came close to her.
Can you tell me more about the title?
[Laugh] Yeah, that’s a heavy topic.
I’ll just answer honestly. That’s the best thing I can do. Dear Sister was the very beginning of a working title, and it was through the process of working with such diverse survivors—of gender, sexuality, background, through the process of the publishing piece—that I experienced my own process as an editor that the word “sister” was such a loaded term. For example, in my communications with Lex [Alexis Pauline Gumbs], she and I use the word sister very freely. And for Lex—when we talk about her work within black feminism—it is a celebrated word of love, companionship. Then for other contributors I know the word is completely exclusive. It doesn’t include them. “Sister” is focused on the feminine, on female-ness, and does not have the same inclusive spirit for gender nonconforming people, transgender women, queer people, people who just don’t identify with that word.
I came to the conclusion that I was using the term as a stand-in for community, a commonality of survivorhood. But I learned that the spirit of survivor doesn’t need to rally around gender, it doesn’t need to really around sexuality, or any kind of physical identifier like that.
But the commonality and the source and spirit of community, it comes out in these people who are willing to look and share the most—one of the most—painful parts of their life. In the real time of editing and publishing, this realization came too late. I wrote about it in the introduction, and hoped that readers would read it and understand that it was a process [for me] as well.
What else startled or surprised you during the process of putting together Dear Sister?
One of the biggest shifts was learning about how people survive. In rape and sexual violence advocacy work, there is a narrative of helping survivors, helping them find themselves, helping them regain control. That has a time and place—we all need to be aware and sensitive. But I want to be really clear that survivors have this strength, resiliency, resourcefulness within themselves and that they should not be judged for that. And that was one of the hugest shifts for me: realizing how strong survivors are.
Or how strong humans are. We’re built to survive.
Yes. We’re built to survive. Survivors make mistakes, they adjust, they relearn.
Another piece I’d like to mention is a dialogue on forgiveness with [anthology contributor] Sofia Rose Smith. It’s about how some things are only possible in conversation with another person because—alone in your own thoughts and in your own self—it’s almost impossible to talk about possibilities with something as deep as trauma.
What I learned in talking with Sofia, she gave all of these instances of ritual and practices to consider what it means to forgive. Not to forgive in the known form, but what does it mean to forgive? We covered questions of justice and circular conversations. Like what does it mean to live after sexual violence? These are things that can only be answered by each individual survivor.
Dear Sister doesn’t offer any easy answers and that’s one of the reasons why I love the book. For people who find it difficult to talk about rape or who don’t think that sexual violence is a problem, what do you hope that this book can offer?
For people who can’t talk about rape, those families and communities with difficulty expressing or finding terminology, read the book. Reading the book is to listen to what survivors have to say. There’s so much difficulty in talking about sexual violence because people don’t know how to listen, and if you listen first it might be easier to talk. I think that this book, with over 51 contributors, are giving opportunities and prompts of how to talk about it, and that can begin in agreement and support of one, or, “I didn’t understand that piece,” or, “What is she or he talking about with this piece?” It’s a rich book to begin a conversation.
You can first learn to talk about sexual violence by starting to listen.
Did working on this book give you insight into the stigma surrounding people who experience sexual violence and why it still exists?
I think that—deep, deep down—everybody knows that they’re part of the problem. It’s a problem that has persisted for a long time, and I think it points to something about the human condition, gives an indication about the human condition and our inability to really look at ourselves. Why is this still going on? Well, we all have an answer to that. We’re all a part of the problem. We’re all a part of—it’s not a rape culture. It’s our culture. It’s our culture that’s producing this. It’s not a separate culture that causes other people to rape other people. This is our culture that’s setting up this permission to let other people be violated and traumatized in such a terrible and horrific way. We are all a part of that. And I think, deep down, people know that, and that frightens people because it means that we all are a part of that, and we all have to act.
And that’s why I think most people are so quick [laugh] to participate in the stigmatizing of it. It’s so much easier to do that.
What do you most wish would change about the persistence of stigma for survivors, and in talking about sexual violence?
I truthfully wish that people would just learn how to listen. It is a universal problem. If we really, really, really listened, there’s no way that you wouldn’t feel empathy.
If you really listened, there’s no way that you wouldn’t help a friend, or someone in pain. I truly believe that listening is becoming this lost, lost skill.
And it’s the practice that I tried to do in putting the anthology together so that I could learn and so that I could be a better person, advocate, writer, human. I wish people could just start there.
Thank you for talking with me.
(1) Book cover image courtesy of AK Press.
(2) Other links and resources:
- Matt Atkinson’s book, Resurrection After Rape
- Matt Atkinson’s Resource Page, including information for male survivors of sexual violence
- Matt Atkinson’s Letters to Survivors, an accompaniment to his resource workbook, Resurrection After Rape