Why write a particular story? What compels an author to pursue a certain tale over every other possibility? I am not certain I could satisfactorily answer that question for most of my stories. I would probably say things like this is what interested me at the time. Or this felt true.
I recently read Split by Swati Avasthi for a class. This is a Young Adult novel with a sixteen-year-old male protagonist. While I read, I wondered why Ms. Avasthi was writing this story. More so, I wondered why she was writing a teenaged boy. She addressed this when she visited our class, and she had a good answer.
Split is about family abuse. Ms. Avasthi is a lawyer (as well as a writer) who coordinated a legal clinic for abuse victims in Chicago. After years working with victims of abuse, she wondered why everyone asks, “Why does she stay with him?” and no one asks, “Why is he hitting her?” That is one of those questions that made me stop and reexamine. When I’ve considered the issue of abuse, I have thought that I would leave. Every woman I know would leave. We would not put with being hit. And I have thought about the psychology of being victimized. How a woman isn’t turned into a victim overnight, but there is a process that develops fear and dependence, coercion, shame, guilt, and I’m sure other reasons prevent walking away that I have never thought of. Ultimately, I believed of myself that I would get out at the first signs. I wouldn’t wait for the victim mentality to develop, which still, I’m afraid, questions the victim: why didn’t she get out before it got serious? Until Ms. Avasthi came to class, I am not sure I ever really examined the question “why is he hitting her?”
This suggests to me that our culture accepts domestic violence. When we find ourselves placing the onus on the victim to set out on her own, with or without children, with or without an income, insurance, a car of her own, against all sort of odds, and we are not, as a culture, scrutinizing the motives and actions of the abuser, then there must be a subtle, unspoken acceptance of abuse. Right? Boys will be boys. A short fuse will blow. She must have upset him. Even if we believe that all abusers should be stopped and should go to jail, we are not addressing the question “Why is he hitting her?”
Ms. Avasthi said that abuse has become “a woman’s problem, like breast cancer,” but while men don’t have much to do with breast cancer, they have plenty to do with abuse. Her novel focuses on the men, sons of the abuser: witnesses, victims, and possible future abusers themselves.
Split is a carefully crafted, intensely good read. The pacing makes it difficult to put down. The main character, Jace, narrates the story and his voice is present throughout. As he struggles to keep his past from screwing up his present, I worry for him the whole way. Knowing his mind means knowing what a danger he is to himself and those around him. Ms. Avasthi’s portrayal is strikingly real.
I noticed that Jace does not ask questions of the universe, he does not wonder why his father is abusive and why his mother won’t leave. He does not pine for a normal family. His situation just is and he handles it: an unplanned drive cross-country, a brother who might not want him, an ex with a grudge, a mother who might come after him, might bring their father down on them. Okay. Keep running.
When you live under a giant question mark—when will dad explode next? can I ever get away?—the constant stress becomes a player in the game. (The father only appears in flashback, but his presence is ominous.) Some people act out. Some people make allowances. Some fight. Some moderate. I am glad that Jace is struggling with real demons. Of course, I would never wish that on anyone, but in fiction, in a character, I am glad that Jace is true to his circumstances. It makes him a more complicated, believable, and tragic character. Because he does not want to be like his father, because he is fighting those urges, I am solidly on his side. I might be less on his side if he were less affected by his family situation.
And that situation is bad. There are some intense scenes in this book. Disturbing scenes. The stakes are high and we can’t all get what we want, but I find the ending satisfying. I am glad Ms. Avasthi wrote Split, that someone finally posed the question, “Why is he hitting her?” to the rest of us. I will never again think of domestic violence in exactly the same way because reading Split has caused my consciousness to shift. And I think that is why we write a particular story, to explore and possibly to effect a shift in consciousness.
* Visit http://www.swatiavasthi.com/ to learn more. Also see a trailer for Split.
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