Jana Leo is an artist, architect, teacher and author of the book Rape New York. The book, which came out earlier this year, is a monologue about her experience of being raped in her New York apartment, reporting the crime, and processing the emotional trauma of what was done to her. The books is alternately inspiring and nauseating, as Leo describes the fear and frustration and myriad other feelings she experienced during and after the attack.
Leo, who is Spanish, is also the founder of two think tanks in Madrid that study urban spaces. For Leo, the connection between urban planning, gentrification and personal safety is an important one, since her rapist was able to attack her in part because he broke into her building. Rape New York addresses Leo’s attempts to make her building safer in the aftermath of the attack. She has also turned the experience into art.
Leo now splits her time between Madrid and New York. It was a pleasure to sit down her and talk to he about this extraordinary book, the political power of art, and the joys of ham.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Jana Leo.
Chloe Angyal: What made you want to write about your experience, and why did you choose to write about it in this way?
Jana Leo: It was my only choice. At the time that it was happening, I couldn’t write about it. I mean, when it’s happening, you’re dealing with shit, and you can’t write about it. But then, you think about it, and I felt angry with the whole thing. I felt angry with the situation, but also with the whole system, with the way things work. So it was a way to try to construct something positive from something negative. It’s not so much a way to express myself, you know, people say, “that’s great, you found a way to express yourself,” but it was just that I needed to have a structure to understand it.
I didn’t want a novel, and I didn’t want a memoir. It took me, like, four re-writes. The hardest thing was the structure.
One of the goals for me in the writing was to make it readable and interesting to the general public, because of the topic.
CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
JL: I don’t think I have one. I have them, but they’re my heroines for a while, but then I forget about them. I would say that my real heroes and heroines are my friends and co-workers, the people I admire.
CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?
JL: Last week in the airport I was passing this artwork, these metal silver sculptures, and it looked like an x-ray. There’s a series of them and they are in the hallway on the way from the plane to immigration at JFK. In the beginning, I saw them, and thought it was funny, because it’s a person in a suitcase. And then there were more and more of them, but then it made me so mad. By the time I got to immigration, I was so mad, because it felt like they were playing with people’s psychology as they were crossing the border. It felt political. They were kind of creepy and kind of funny, but they also depicted people as things.
CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
JL: One of the biggest ones is the way people see men as the Other. People assume that it’s always men who victimize women, and so they make men the Other, the enemy.
CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
JL: Dried ham, water and a friend who tells really good stories. Who likes ham, too.