What the Main Character of My Novel Taught Me, (And What I Hope She Teaches Readers, Too), a guest post by Hannah V. Sawyerr
Content warning: This post talks about sexual assault.
All the Fighting Parts is a novel in verse that follows 16-year-old Amina Conteh as she comes forward against her abuser, a prominent community figure and pastor. I started the novel in 2020 while awaiting a trial against my abuser, who was a youth leader and well-liked member of my former church. Although All the Fighting Parts isn’t a memoir, I wrote the novel from a desperate place with a deep longing to make sense of what happened to me. But it is, first and foremost, an act of love for my younger self and survivors like her. It is my hope that when survivors pick up the book, they may also learn to have compassion for themselves. In many ways, I feel like I’ve grown with Amina, and although she is a fictional character, it was through writing her story that I learned lessons that I still carry and will continue to carry with me along my own journey. Here are three brief excerpts from the novel, accompanied by the lessons they taught me. I hope readers will carry them after reading her story, too.
“My mind had a way of convincing me, / it happened because I had / too much lip / too much sass / too much body / My mind had a way of convincing me, / it happened because I had / not enough lip / not enough sass / not enough body.”
I think a lot about shame, and the role that shame plays in the lives of survivors. I also think quite a lot about the way it’s often absent in the lives of abusers. I spent many years bouncing back and forth, convincing myself that I was “too much” or “not enough,” in order to make sense of my experiences. In the novel, Amina often wrestles with her own guilt. Because she is a young teenager who has a reputation for always having a rebuttal, she often struggles with feeling like she should have been able to protect herself. I started writing Amina’s story around six years ago after coming forward. It was only after doing so that I truly learned abusers are master-manipulators, and the blame is theirs to carry–not survivors.
“There is so much they don’t tell you about surviving. You are a survivor because you overcame what tried to destroy you. / Maybe I am a survivor simply because I met fear, stared him right in the face, and chose to live anyway.”
For many years, I struggled with the parts of my story that made me feel embarrassed, ashamed, or fearful. Much like Amina, as a teenager I was also known to speak up for myself. So much so, that when I ultimately came forward, I was asked by members of my community, how something “like that” could happen to someone “like me.” These comments made me feel as if my fear was invalid or as if I was the person who should have acted differently, rather than my abuser. Amina also struggles with feeling like her fear is invalid when she is assaulted. In therapy, Amina grapples with the idea that she could have rewritten her story. It wasn’t until writing Amina’s story that I truly learned to believe that I am not at fault for not reacting a certain way to an event that should never have happened. I often say that I prefer to call myself a survivor, rather than a victim. It’s not because I don’t believe in the validity of both terms, but because for me, the word survivor is a reminder that I made it through something. Despite the fear I experienced.
“What happened will always be the fault / of a man who had / too much power / too much ego / too much pride / What happened is the fault of the man / who should have known better. / who should have lived better.”
I learned years after coming forward that victim-blaming is always a losing game. It leaves survivors questioning themselves rather than the abusers, who are actually at fault. Rather than recognize my abuser was a man who took advantage of his power and the trust that he built between him and my former community, I found excuses to convince myself that what happened was my fault, instead. As survivors, I find that we often question the validity of our own experiences, while many abusers never question themselves at all. Sexual assault at its core, is a crime which relies on power dynamics. In Amina’s case, Pastor Johnson abuses his position as a trusted member of the community to assault Amina and she eventually recognizes that despite Pastor Johnson’s influence and position, he is the only person to blame.
When I started writing Amina’s story, I wrote it with the understanding that there may be readers engaging with the story who may be struggling with similar feelings. Now that All the Fighting Parts is officially out in the world, it is my hope it reaches readers who need to learn the lessons that I did. If Amina, a teenage girl who is proudly loud, angry, and chaotic is worthy of love, then I am, and my readers are, too. Amina’s story has taught me so much about what it means to survive and it is my hope readers feel supported and seen by Amina’s story. And for readers who are not survivors, but choose to engage with her story anyway, I hope Amina’s story is one you feel compassion and love for.
Meet the author
Hannah V. Sawyerr was recognized as the Youth Poet Laureate of Baltimore in 2016. Her spoken word has been featured on the BBC’s World Have Your Say program as well as the National Education Association’s “Do You Hear Us?” campaign. Her written word has been included in gal-dem, Rookie, and xoNecole. She holds a BA in English from Morgan State University and an MFA in creative writing from the New School. Sawyerr is an English professor at Loyola Marymount University and lives in Los Angeles.
About All the Fighting Parts
In the vein of Grown and The Poet X, Hannah V. Sawyerr’s All the Fighting Parts is a searing and defiant young adult novel in verse about reclaiming agency after a sexual assault within the church community.
Sixteen-year-old Amina Conteh has always believed in using her voice as her weapon—even when it gets her into trouble. After cursing at a classmate, her father forces her to volunteer at their church with Pastor Johnson.
But Pastor Johnson isn’t the holy man everyone thinks he is.
The same voice Amina uses to fight falls quiet the night she is sexually assaulted by Pastor Johnson. After that, her life starts to unravel: her father is frustrated that her grades are slipping, and her best friend and boyfriend don’t understand why the once loud and proud girl is now quiet and distant. In a world that claims to support survivors, Amina wonders who will support her when her attacker is everyone’s favorite community leader.
When Pastor Johnson is arrested for a different crime, the community is shaken and divided; some call him a monster and others defend him. But Amina is secretly relieved. She no longer has to speak because Pastor Johnson can’t hurt her anymore—or so she believes.
To regain her voice and sense of self, Amina must find the power to confront her abuser—in the courtroom and her heart—and learn to use all the fighting parts within her.
Publisher: Amulet Books
Publication date: 09/19/2023
Age Range: 14 – 18 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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