By Kelly Oliver
A couple of years ago, I was pitching my first novel, WOLF (KAOS press June 2016), in New York City, and when I told a group of young women authors about the subplot and themes of date rape, party rape, and rape drugs, and I said it was a humorous mystery, some of them were appalled. They didn’t see how rape could ever be funny. Obviously, I agree. Rape can never be funny. Books, on the other hand (even books that take on serious topics like rape), can be funny. In fact, humor often helps us deal with difficult subjects that might be too hard to face without it.
I’m of two minds about graphic descriptions of situations where women are harmed, included rape, human trafficking, murder, and domestic abuse. I suppose realistic descriptions of these horrible crimes may bring awareness to women’s issues. On the other hand, in my opinion, graphic descriptions also risk pandering to prurient interests at best and giving folks terrible ideas at worst.
I prefer to read and to write novels that leave more to your imagination when it comes to the gory details of women’s abusive experiences and focus on ways women can be strong and fight back, at least in the world of fiction–not always so easy in the real world. This is not to say that my novels take rape or abuse lightly. To the contrary. But, who doesn’t like a feminist revenge story where the fraternity boy would-be rapists get their butts kicked and our heroines prevent another campus rape?
My second novel, COYOTE (KAOS press August 2016), takes on human trafficking and drug addiction on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning, Montana. You can’t get much more depressing than that. But, some of my characters are funny, others are witty, and most of them (at least the good ones) are women! And, of course, the bad guys, those asshole human traffickers, are punished by our vigilante posse of tough, no-nonsense, women protagonists who show them who’s boss.
You’re probably catching on by now, I like a good feminist revenge strong on plot and even stronger on character. In my novels, I want to create strong women characters who can take care of themselves and each other. My main character, Jessica James, is a former cowgirl who not only rides and shoots with the best of them, but also quotes Nietzsche and is the queen of witty comebacks.
Her best friend, Lolita Durchenko, may be a Russian beauty running a high stake poker game that earned her the nickname “the poker Tsarina,” but she’s also a black-belt in karate and doesn’t take shit from anybody. Then there’s a whole host of fun and funny secondary characters like Amber Bush, the rescue-remedy dropping hippy hacker from WOLF or Madge Blackthorn, the Blackfoot tribal police chief who keeps a big bag of candy in her squad car, which she distributes liberally, along with slugs from her Beretta Storm shotgun.
A lot of my nonfiction work has dealt with some of these same women’s issues. And, for my fiction, I’ve done a lot of research, and much of it has been very depressing. I hate to say it as a self-professed feminist, but I’ve found the stereotype of the overly serious feminist with no sense of humor is occasionally true. It is important to have a sense of humor about serious issues, not just in order to live with them and live through them, but also to read and write about them—at least for me.
Humor and comedy allow us to face and process difficult issues that we might otherwise avoid or deny. A heavy hand is not going to be able to bring these issues to light and reach as many readers as a comic touch. As my grandmother used to say, “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” I guess in my novels, I’ve taken that advice to heart and I sweeten the pot with humor and wit even as I take on issues of date-rape, human trafficking, and in the next installment…the hidden world of IVF and egg harvesting.
Kelly Oliver is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University and well-known feminist philosopher. She is the author of fourteen nonfiction books, most recently, ‘Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from The Hunger Games to Rape on Campus’ (Columbia University Press, May 2016).
Kelly is releasing a new mystery trilogy featuring kickass heroine Jessica James, a Montana “cowgirl” and philosophy grad student taking on ripped-from-the-headlines crimes like date rape drugs on campus, sex trafficking, fracking and more. The adventure begins with trilogy debut Wolf (Kaos Press, June 2016) and Jessica’s adventures continue in Coyote (August 2016). Read more at www.kellyoliverbooks.com.