As a recovering literature major, literary-based-activism will always jolt my feminist heart to skip a beat. Which is why I was so thrilled to speak with Lisa Factora-Bochers, a rad Filipina American writer, facilitator, and activist, and to discuss her new recently published anthology, Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence. Especially within the current context of public invalidation of survivors’ voices, Dear Sister is a fantastic example of community-building via the written word as it gathers the power of survivors’ own narratives.
In particular, I appreciated Lisa’s editorial foresight to categorize the anthology into sections, leaving textual markers for readers to take a break, as I did, to call a friend or a go on a quick walk. I’d recommend spending some time with Lisa’s introduction as well as the contributors’ biographies since they are great insights into the greater context of these letters. The contributions are diverse, and even at times contradict each other, which I really appreciated since it resisted the oh-so-convenient-yet-deeply-fucked-up “typical survivor story.” As an activist-ally, Dear Sister reminded me that my main job is to shut-up, listen, value the stories of survivors, and speak up when rape culture inevitability enters my day.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five with Lisa Factora-Bochers!
Suzanna Bobadilla: One of the things that I was most impressed by Dear Sister was your introduction, where you provided your own analysis regarding your title, especially regarding the benefits and limitations gendering survivors of sexual assault. Could you share more your decision making process?
Lisa Factora-Borchers: The process for the title alone was extremely difficult, and by difficult I mean good in the ways that your work is your own transformation. I started off with Dear Sister as a working title and I wrote about how we always come into our work through our own experiences, and I don’t think you should apologies for that. But I think in process of your activism or transformative work that you do you need to be aware of how your life experiences impact others, particularly if you’re trying to be inclusive. I was reflecting on the title and I was really thinking a lot about the survivors and the populations that I have worked with would largely identify with the word, “sister.” But with the contributors that I was working, editing and reading with, I was reading more about how survivors survive, it became less about how this called out unity or sisterhood and more about centering the focus on the diverse landscape of survivorship. It was less about that “we’re all sisters,” which is not true because that word can be exclusive and it can be very cutting to people who don’t identify with it.
I came to this decision rather late in the editing process and the book was already being sent to print. I talked with a number of contributors about that process saying, “Here are my options. I can change the title, or I can keep it.” They all had really brilliant and were very compassionate and helpful, but it made sense to keep the title and to use the introduction to explain about my own process, awareness, and deepening around feminism.
I hope readers don’t skip over the introduction, it’s really important piece of the work as a whole.
SB: What was it like to receive all of these messages from survivors all over the world? You mention that you created a P.O. Box, that you received many through list-servs, and I was curious to learn what it felt like to sift through this powerful intake.
LFB: Particularly in the beginning it was really overwhelming. It wasn’t so much opening it up through the different mediums because the majority came digitally and was responding via forwards where they found the submission. I think what was the most overwhelming was the variety in ways that people were sharing their story. That was difficult.
I think from anyone who identifies as a feminist activist, you’re aware that sexual assault is one of the biggest issues. It’s an interlocking issue that combines so much around reproductive health and all these other issues that we talk about, but to read the personal narrative of so many people from all around the world–it was a very visceral, almost bodily experience, it was very difficult to read through all of that. A lot of colleagues and co-writers said, “Do not forget to do self-care.” And you know, I’ve always been one of those people who thinks “Ooohh don’t worryyy about it. Self-care, whatever.” But it was true. It’s absolutely true when you absorb, and ingest and metabolize other people’s narratives and pain. The book is about hope, and the editing was tough.
The beginning was a lot of trauma, a lot of darkness. Each piece had to be specifically shaped so it was reader focused. That was very difficult, to shift each piece so it’s not about trauma, so it’s about surviving.
SB: How do you think projects like yours shift the rhetoric that is used to discuss sexual violence?
LFB: I think people need to be careful around how they consume information about sexual violence. It’s very very easy to get caught up in domestic and international coverage of rape. That’s not to minimize the outrage of that particular survivor, but mainstream will focus on one particular story and will extrapolate the particular survivor to cover the entire landscape of survivors. For example, there is very little attention paid to sexual violence on gender non-conforming folks. It’s very important for people to be aware that it also has a very limited perspective on who are survivors of violence. It’s limited to young, white fem women, and they are typically identifying male perpetrators, and these are obviously cases that need to be honored and listened to, but there is a whole other landscape that are not talked about. They need a space as well to talk about their story and that’s what I”m trying to do with the book.
SB: What advice would you give to young authors or young anthologists who are looking to build community via writing?
LFB: That’s a good question, no one has asked me that. Depending on the topic, especially if your topic is powerful, I probably would not have edited alone. I wish I had incorporated a community focus into my own practice. When something is community focused, it should be community run. It might be more difficult, it might be more difficult to coordinate, but for it to be a genuine work of community, and I believe that is the most powerful work that can be done with activism within the literary world, that needs to be reflected in the process of how it’s done. I wish I had been doing that from the very beginning with more than one editor.
My advice is the world needs more activists and writers and anthologists who aren’t going to be burned out by the time they are done with the project. They should have even more energy afterwards, and the only way to do is if you are doing something in a community.
That would be my advice-the true power of the collective, not just in the literary, but in the practice. Including community in the practice is very, very difficult, but overall it is the most worthwhile thing any activist could learn how to do.
SB: And finally, you are stranded on a desert island, you get to choose one drink, one food, and one feminist, what do you pick?
LFB: I would absolutely pick water. I’d pick probably popcorn. And for the feminists? Too many to name because of my radical women of color feminist collective. I would never be able to choose among Brownfemipower, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Sydette Harry, Mamita Mala, Hermana Resist, Adela Nieves…There’s too many of them that I love. I’d find a carry-on bag to fit them all to come with me.