20 years after ‘Speak,’ Laurie Halse Anderson is ready to ‘Shout’
It’s been lauded and assigned as part of the curriculum at schools around the nation. It’s been on the American Library Association’s most frequently banned list because of its subject matter. The one thing that Laurie Halse Anderson’s YA novel “Speak” hasn’t been, since its publication in 1999, is ignored.
“Speak” follows high school freshman Melinda Sordino, who is raped at a summer party and calls the police but runs home before talking to them or explaining herself to her friends. She is shunned by her peers for her actions and stops talking, until the truth eventually comes out.
Anderson’s career has taken off since the publication of “Speak,’’ and she’s published other best-selling novels, including “Wintergirls,” “Catalyst,” and “Fever 1793.” More than 8 million copies of her books have been sold. “Speak” was made into a 2004 feature film starring Kristen Stewart.
Now Anderson is back with a new book that is both a prequel and sequel, of sorts, one that has been in the works for a very long time. “Shout,” due out Tuesday, is a memoir told in poems about her own rape at age 13, the culture of shame that surrounds sexual assault victims, and the long fallout from her attack. Anderson will appear with Jaclyn Friedman Wednesday at the Brattle Theatre to talk about the new work.
“I never thought I was going to do this,” Anderson said in a telephone interview, regarding her decision to write “Shout.” “This was not on the agenda.”
So how did it get there? After publishing “Speak,’’ Anderson was inundated with invitations to speak at schools and other venues.
“Talking to hundreds of thousands of teenagers for 20 years, and adults, and hearing their stories firsthand made it very clear to me early on how prevalent sexual assault is,” Anderson said. “Most people lean on reports from the Department of Justice, and they do as good a job as they can do, but because so many people, and I mean all people, have been so shamed generationally, I think that the numbers of sexual violence and unwanted sexual encounters is way higher than anybody imagined.”
At first Anderson was stunned. She expected the conversation, especially at schools, to revolve around “literary things and metaphors,” but quickly realized that “no kids wanted to hear about that.” The students she spoke to were more interested in the story, and any personal truth behind it.
“I finally realized that I should be listening to what they needed and then I let them ask me more questions,” she said. “I realized that they really wanted to know me, like what happened to me. When I started opening up and showing them that I trusted them, they started opening up and showing me that they trusted me.’’
The final piece fell into place in the fall of 2017, as Anderson witnessed the rise of the #MeToo era and the toll that sexual assault took on so many lives.
“I was a very angry woman, what with the culture,” Anderson said, “And I started writing.”
Anderson gathers a lifetime of talking and thinking about the issues surrounding rape in “Shout.” She doesn’t shy away from marking the similarities between the fictional “Speak” and her own story. She and Melinda were the same age when they were attacked; both were assaulted by older boys whom they subsequently referred to as “It.’’
Where the two books differ is owing to the fact that one chronicles a real life. “Shout” traces the long-term aftermath of sexual trauma. Anderson looks beyond her freshman “year of living stupidly” — missing classes, getting high, drunk — and recalls the trust issues later in life and how her experience hampered her work as a journalist reporting on an assault.
In one poem, when a slightly older Anderson recalls being served a laced margarita and waking up “the next day broken,” readers are reminded that assault often isn’t an isolated situation.
“Writing this book and trying to connect, trying to use my own experience as a bit of a mirror of the larger rage that I see and what’s going on in the culture, and then trying to share in a respectful way some of the stories I’ve been told really brought home how stupid this is,’’ she said, bemoaning how little has been done to deal with the problem. “What a waste, what a waste, what an utter horrifying abomination of a waste of human souls we’ve created.”
Anderson said that she’s most frustrated because “we can fix this” with “a modicum of consistent, honest information” that should be taught at schools regarding sexuality, consent, and consequences. “Shout,” she hopes, will help start necessary discussions.
“But there are so many people who have power, who are invested, and who have decided not to change it,” Anderson said. “That’s why I’m loud in this book. That’s why I’m shouting. Because you know people don’t hand over power just because you ask politely. And making a ground-shift in how we treat conversations about healthy sexuality, about consent, and how we deal with the criminals who cause sexual violence and the victims they create, that’s what we have to change now.”