On the 11th of August I attended a discussion about the novel When I Hit You, where the author Meena Kandasamy was present. The discussion was centred on blurring the lines between fact and fiction, and Kandasamy brought up an interesting point about the way we use the truth. According to Kandasamy when we are asking for the truth, what we are really asking for is the upper hand, the opportunity to make the other person feel small, to humiliate and shame. We value fact as noble, but sometimes fact can be a dehumanising mechanism. This is especially prevalent in the culture surrounding domestic abuse and victim blaming, which the novel addresses.
Miranda Doyle, was also in attendance to talk about her book A Book of Untruth, and both authors highlighted the way in which fiction trumps (sorry for the Trump reference) fact when trying to tell a real story. Facts can distance us from the reality of how abuse is able to exist, because we can say “this happened, but it did not and will not happen to me.” In the case of domestic abuse, often when we are demanding the truth, what we are really asking for is the power to say “this could never happen to me,” or invalidating the reality of it by saying “this can’t be real.”
This is particularly apparent on the subject of rape. Often the facts are reported but the story is not told. Kandasamy explained how an Indian woman may see a doctor and have the extent of abuse medically reported without being asked what has happened. The facts detach the emotional violence of the act, presenting it as a purely physical thing, and ignoring how damaging it actually is on personhood and identity, especially in a country (India) where marital rape isn’t legally recognised.The facts do not address the systemic problem, and we all contribute to a culture that allows it even here in the West. The facts isolate incidents and in this case, abuse becomes the victim/abusers problem rather than a wider problem.
The beauty of the novel is that it addresses the very human part of abuse that we often distance ourselves from. By writing what she calls “auto-fiction,” Kandasamy is able to humanise both the victim and the abuser through developing multidimensional characters. The reality is that abuse is more than just the facts. The power of this can be seen in the response from her readers, many of whom who wrote to her, thanking her for telling their whole story instead of simply selecting a few facts. For some it even gave them the courage to escape their toxic situation. In Kandasamy’s words “fiction liberates you.” If we want to tell the truth, we have to do more than state the facts.
Kandasamy says we enter novels wanting them to be real, but we question memoirs, and this is why she chose to address such a serious topic through fiction. The power of When I Hit You, is in the reader’s ability to put themselves in the story and relate. It means we understand domestic abuse as a process that can happen to anyone. The power of fiction enables the reader to see a fuller picture. Facts are there to aid our stories. When we choose to make them the focal point, we forget that we are human.
Written by Amara Lawrence