Content Warning: discussion of rape and repression
I wrote a story for the second time last summer. At a time when churning out 10-page papers could be done mechanically, when my own hands could move without any connection to the brain, it took a surprising amount of time to write 845 words. But I loved those hours. I was supposed to be spending my time researching the silence of victims in Roman comedy but narrating the imagined life of a survivor who was able to express herself felt…fulfilling. Rather than remaining in the structures of Roman society that repressed victims, rather than giving attention to problematic texts that should perhaps be left behind completely, I felt compelled to write a different narrative that vocalized the experience of those so often silenced.I felt that I was stepping outside of the confines of patriarchal structures by speaking to the experiences of silenced women. And so, I trawled Roman comedies looking for the brief moments when victims would speak. One woman said she felt probed by all the questions that were asked of her; that discomfort became a narratological question in my story. Another complained that everyone dodged around the issue and never asked her to speak about her experience; In my story, I supplied characters that cared for my character and asked questions when she wanted to be asked. In my world, she could choose the questions she wanted to answer.
In Roman comedy plays, victims don’t get the chance to choose much of anything. That’s basically a one-line summary of my Latin thesis that I probably should have been working on instead. Victims, who are exclusively women, are systematically kept off the stage in Roman comedy; if they do get a line in the story, it’s a cry of pain from giving birth to the rapist’s child. Their cries, if allowed (rarely so), are cries of anguish, of violence, of trauma. If not to give a voice to these victims, attempts have been made to give a voice to other characters in Roman comedy that do express criticism: mothers, slaves—the subaltern and oppressed. Their lines, unlike those of male characters, are often accompanied by the Roman version of the oboe, which lends them a kind of force, of tempo, of forward movement, of narrative aid. It almost seems as if the play itself is lifting up their words.
This belief is only speculation, of course, widely persuasive as it is in the studies of Roman comedy. As easily as music could lend these voices support, so too could these instruments serve to drown out their voices in the wide-open arena of the theater. Or they could be a distraction from the message these subaltern people are delivering. Whether or not these instruments serve to support or repress the voices of women is an ambiguity that can never truly be resolved. This ambiguity may even be intentional on the part of the playwright, designed to appeal to the varied demographic of the audience. Survivors in the audience could take comfort that the play was lending force to traditionally oppressed voices, and rapists could pretend not to hear their words. “There’s something for everyone,” essentially.
When I began to spend hours on my story, re-reading, re-writing, to make sure that none of the same ambiguities that plagued Roman comedy were present in my story, I wondered if I too was an instrument that was serving to, even if not intentionally, drown out female voices. I am a cis male, narrating the experience of a female survivor, at times inspired by (one might say taken from) the experiences of survivors, and—if I were to be published—perhaps taking physical and literary space from underrepresented female voices. Perhaps these Roman authors were taking the higher road here: refusing to have female victims on stage to publicize their trauma, refusing to make the statement that they could accurately or fully represent their voices. Rather than potentially distort their voices through the lens of a male playwright and male actors, these playwrights instead chose not to put representations of victims on stage for endless public reproduction and criticism.
Although subordinate peoples (besides victims) are allowed to speak in Roman comedy, all the plays end in a marriage between rapist and victim. No matter how hard or how loud they voice their resistance and despite the sometime fantastical extent of their agency, subaltern people do not and at times cannot change anything. A Marxist would call this dynamic of powerlessness and ineffectualness “hegemony” where resistances are only expressed within the limits that the dominant class defines. A narratologist might classify this under “high modernist fiction” where the narrator has ultimate control over how characters are represented to the audience. How might I classify my own story, which resists the ending of Roman comedies and allows for a survivor’s recovery, but does not make space to effect change? Can there ever truly be an ethical way of representing a character that has violence done to them, even if they “recover” from it?
At the end of “A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” by William Wordsworth, the speaker makes known to the reader that he has been speaking to his sister, a presence that has been hidden throughout the poem; ostensibly, he has just been speaking to the air. A popular story about the poem’s creation goes that Wordsworth composed the entire poem in his head when walking next to the river, when it is more than likely that his sister was there to record down his wonderings and thoughts. The cult of “male genius” came at the cost of excluding a female contribution to the poem, even if the shape of her character was represented literarily within the text (she has/gets no words to say). If you read my published story, you’ll encounter shapes and representations of women, fictional constructs. I cannot say for certain that they are representative of the real lived experiences of women, that I could ever hope to fully represent female voices. These female voices will answer questions you might have, although they might not have been able to choose.
— Mackhai Nguyen, BFR Editor