on the necessity of brutality: why i went there

There’s an oft-made argument in genre fiction circles that sexual violence shouldn’t be used as a plot point. It’s regressive. It’s demeaning to women. It’s gratuitously violent, grotesque, and unnecessary because we don’t need to see violence against women to know that this was a historical truth, we know it well enough–

Except we don’t.

The Poppy War is centered around the 1937 Rape of Nanjing. This also happens to be what I wrote my thesis on. I have spent over a year reading personal accounts of the bystanders, victims, and perpetrators. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned after months of research, it is that the west frankly does not care.

The west has never done a good job of caring about sexual violence done to women who aren’t white.

I’m not interested in writing utopias. I don’t like writing the alternate histories where gender equality is taken for granted. I love reading them–I understand why some like to write them and I understand their importance–we must be able to envision alternate futures for ourselves if we can shift from the present.

But healing comes only after a stark analysis of the past. And as long as these women’s stories are elided, disputed, ignored, mocked–we can’t heal.

Did you know that the Western world would likely never have heard of the Rape of Nanjing if Iris Chang had not published her brave and despairing book in 1997? (I know it’s been contested by historians since, don’t @ me. Those are details. The larger point remains.)

Did you know that still today there are Japanese scholars who say the Rape of Nanjing didn’t happen? The evidence is all fabricated. And if it isn’t, then it’s exaggerated. And if not that, then mayyybe it happened–but it was committed by Chinese soldiers.

The women? Who cares what they said? We shot most of them after we raped them, anyways. Corpses can’t talk.

(I wonder often what they would say if they could.)

I would rather not fade to black. I’d like to depict the acts in bloody, brutal, stark, detail. Stare at it. Let it burn your eyes. Let it carve marks into your skin. Watch until the finish and never forget what you saw here today.

Take care of yourself, readers. If you can’t finish the book–don’t. If you know you shouldn’t pick it up, I’m warning you now. Here are all of your content warnings in one place. This book is about:

  • Self-harm
  • Suicide
  • Violent rape
  • Sexual assault
  • Murder
  • Massacres
  • Brutalization
  • Mutilation
  • Torture
  • Substance abuse
  • Abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Relationship abuse
  • Human experimentation
  • Chemical warfare
  • Genocide

The most triggering chapter–the Rape of Nanjing chapter–is Chapter 21. The Unit 731 chapter is Chapter 24. These aren’t the only chapters where the CWs above are discussed but they are the ones that almost every single reviewer has reeled from.

Please, for the love of god, if you cannot handle mentions of these things, then for your own sake don’t pick up the book.

But here is why I wrote it: because silence hurts so much worse.

52 thoughts on “on the necessity of brutality: why i went there”

  1. There’s nothing wrong with writing about sexualized violence in itself.
    There’s only everthing wrong with using sexualized violence as a plot vehicle if the author shys away from also illustrating the devastating effects such acts leave on the victims and their families.
    Authors should write about it, they just should never treat as nothing more than a convenient trope thrown into the narrative without thought and consideration, and never without following up on its repercussions.

    This said, sincere thanks for the warning.


  2. Reblogged this on The Toy Soldier Saga and commented:
    Content warnings also apply to the Toy Soldier Saga. Keep in mind I consciously patterned it after elements of the Napoleonic Wars, World War II and the Vietnam War. I mention a very similar variety of horrors, all of which are based in real events I pulled from history. And I went there because I believe it’s important to tell these stories, as cautionary tales if nothing else, so we don’t repeat them – and the fantastic medium allows us to take politics out of it and look at it all with some perspective.


  3. I can only “like” this status because I believe the story indeed needs to be told. When other authors are consistently attempting to paint this event as a “PRC information op,” there’s a big problem.


    1. I wanted to say thank you for writing this. You are right, we rarely know/are taught much about the issues facing women currently and historically in other countries. The West likes to turn a blind eye to many things. I took a long while reading about Nanjing and the later ‘comfort women’ of WWII. I can’t say it was a comfortable read but it has broadened and changed my understanding of the region. Thank you for being so daring as to write this book. I look forward to follow up books.


  4. So, I came to this website originally because I was enthralled with how the book was laying out. Military, war, young people! And I came across this post and…it prepared me. Not in the numbing way I was thinking. There was an anticipatory dread building up in me because I had NO idea where this was going to fall. I was thinking, this is a YA (I think) so it can’t…can’t be THAT bad.

    And I was wrong. Which in itself was a good thing. Because I didn’t NEED to be numb to this. I needed to feel the full impact of this. As a woman, as an African-American, I know the people carry trauma like this in their soul. And I know that people need to talk about this. They don’t want to, they need to. Just as Golden Neese’s (sp? I’m an audiobook girl) story needed to be told and felt by those who witness it, the Nanking massacre doesn’t just need to be a regional story of great horror. People need to know. I commend this because when we read about horrors like this, we are removed. We don’t know these people, we feel a disassociated sort of sickness. When a writer takes something like this as…makes it relatable through characters, and thus people, we have grown to love, the punch to the gut is so much more visceral. This book tackles things adjacent to war. We are used to the death and the bombs and the guns, but the ruin violence leaves in its wake is often forgotten, glanced over or ignored.


  5. I’m totally with you on this one, even if some of the descriptions made me cringe. I read ‘The Rape of Nanking’ years ago, but it’s still vivid in my mind. I’m mid-chapter 23 at the moment (gotta work for a living, what a drag!), but I had a feeling the story of Unit 731 was coming and am not surprised. Might as well say it now, even if I haven’t finished reading yet: I absolutely loved your book, pre-ordered the Dragon Republic on Amazon.co.uk, can’t wait to read it. You’re awesome, rock on!


  6. This is a fantastic novel and this is a great way to draw attention to those atrocities. I think a future edition of the book might contain an epilogue or commentary with some more obvious allusions between the Second Poppy War and the Second Sino-Japanese War, between Golyn Niis and the Rape of Nanjing, between the Speerly experiments and Unit 731. I’m not sure many readers have picked up on this or know the history. If part of the intent of the novel is to draw attention to them, the readers may need more direction. Many reviews on Goodreads, for example, seemed to find the 180 between life at Sinegard to the graphic details of war jarring and unnecessary as just plot points. They’ve missed the bigger picture you’ve tried to convey.


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