Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson

Speak reminds me of the reason why I love Young Adult fiction. It was gripping and heart breaking, a story of acceptance, fitting in, and courage.

Upon learning that the novel was about a teenager, Melinda, who was raped in a summer party with friends, my brain automatically jumped to Perks of Being a Wallflower, one of my favorite novels of all time. This is a problem with my er, way of reading. Intertextuality is always overwhelming, but once I veered away Charlie’s world and perspective, I found myself immersed in Melinda’s thoughts and brokenness.

I seriously don’t know how to blog about this book. It was short and haunting, and it lets you wallow in depression and fear.

You enter the consciousness of Melinda, a freshman in high school who is deemed an Outcast for calling cops on their summer party. She starts her school year without friends and with a “I hate you” from her former best friend, Rachel. How do you go through high school without friends, worse, with people hating you?

You see how high school is ruled by popularity. People feed on reputations. It is a sad world where people miss out on characters such as Melinda, an intelligent and brave young lady who is witty and artistic, but because of a damaged reputation, people stay away from her. Once you see past the looming black cloud around Melinda, you will see an endearing character. She was actually witty and intelligent. She has a lot to say, and it is a pity how she was easily casted as an Outcast.

“Another alternate-reality moment brought to you by Adolescence.”

But then, it’s high school, and it is as cruel as it gets. It’s all about labels, and it’s everyone’s hobby to judge people.

I get hosted in Spanish. “Linda” means pretty in Spanish. This is a great joke. Mrs. Spanish Teacher calls my name. Some stand-up comic cracks, “No, Melinda no es linda.” They call me Me-no-linda for the rest of the period. This is how terrorists get started, this kind of harmless fun. I wonder if it’s too late to transfer to German.

To add to the pressure of fitting in, is the fact that you were subjected to a sexual abuse, an attack, even, and the people who you trust, the people who you were counting on are just, not on your side this time.

Heather: “You don’t like anything. You are the most depressed person I’ve ever met, and excuse me for saying this, but you are no fun to be around and I think you need professional help.”

Me: I was the only person who talked to you on the first day of school, and now you’re now blowing me off because I’m a little depressed? Isn’t that what friends are for, to help each other out of bad times?”

And what’s even more heartbreaking is that her parents concluded that she is a lost cause. I mean, I get it. It is easy to dismiss your daughter’s weird non-speaking habit to a result of adolescence or some intense mood swing or whatever, but they were her parents. I saw the frustration in her parents, but it was annoying and distressing how they just suddenly conceded.

Sometimes, high school is just so cruel that you end up in disillusionment.

It is easier not to say anything. Shut your trap, button your lip, can it. All that crap you hear on TV about communication and expressing feelings is a lie. Nobody really wants to hear what you have to say.

One of the most striking thoughts of the novel is how Melinda has stopped talking all of a sudden, well not stopped talking altogether, but more of how she chose not to speak. And what’s troubling is the fact that it was school, much more the society that has made her stopped speaking.

She went to school, and had a classmate who was brave enough to voice his opinion against an irrational teacher, and he was sent to the Principal’s office for speaking his thoughts. It was then that Melinda’s belief against speaking was reinforced.

David stared at Mr. Neck, looks at the flag for a minute, then picks up his books and walks out of the room. He says a million things without saying a word. I make a note to study David Petrakis. I have never heard a more eloquent silence.

David: “But you got it wrong. The suffragettes were all about speaking up, screaming for their rights. You can’t speak up for your right to be silent. That’s letting the bad guys win. If the suffragettes did that, women wouldn’t be able to vote yet.”

And then there was depression. It seems like depression is a normal thing for adolescents that sometimes, this has become less (?) than a psychological disorder, but more like a fad in high school. Whereas the bothering thought of someone who is depressed loses it essence and impact all together.

Melinda has come to a scary self-destructing phase, where she reached the stage that she forgets to wash her hair and she results to skipping class. She was looming.

My head explodes with the noise of fire trucks leaving the station. This is a real disaster. Rachel/Rachelle clogs up to the board, dressed in an outrageous Dutch/Scandinavian ensemble. She looks half-cute, half-sophisticated. She has a red laser eyes that burn my forehead. I wear basic Dumpster togs—smelly gray turtleneck and jeans. I just this minute remember that I need to wash my hair.

The snippets of the night, spoken in few words, mostly at the end of sentences and paragraphs haunt the reader, it sends shiver and envelops you in the same fear that Melinda feels.

Our frog lies on her back. Waiting for a prince to come and princessify her with a smooch? I stand over her with my knife. Ms. Keen’s voice fades to a mosquito whine. My throat closes off. It is hard to breathe. I put out my hand to steady myself against the table. David pins her froggy hands to the dissection tray. He spreads her froggy legs and pins her froggy feet. I have to slice open her belly, she doesn’t say a word. She is already dead. A scream starts in my gut—I can feel the cut, smell the dirt, leaves in my hair.

I open up a paper clip and scratch it across the inside of my left wrist. Pitiful. If a suicide attempt is a cry for help, then what is this? A whimper, a peep? I draw little windowcracks of blood, etching line after line until it stops hurting. It looks like I arm-wrestled a rosebush.

She had gone through a terrible phase in high school, and she sees adulthood as an end to all these.

Except for gossip, there is no real point in coming to school. Well, there are final exams, but it’s  not like they are going to make any difference to my grades. We have—what? Two more weeks of classes? Sometimes, I think high school is one long hazing activity: if you are tough enough to survive this, they’ll let you become an adult. I hope it’s worth it.

Mr. Freeman: “Art without emotion is like chocolate cake without sugar. It makes you gag.”

“When people don’t express themselves, they die one piece at a time. You’d be shocked at how many adults are really dead inside—walking through their days with no idea who they are, just waiting for a heart attack or cancer or a Mack truck to come along and finish the job. It’s the saddest I know.”

And then, what do you become when you are adult? Suddenly, adulthood has become not promising. Walking through souls that are lost as you is never inviting, but Melinda sees it as the only way out, where hopefully, people will be more understanding.

Melinda faced the challenges of both the cruel world of high school, of fitting in and the challenges of the real world, of dealing with rape. This reminds me of resonating themes of all rape stories. They all say the same thing—no one is safe, everyone can get raped. Everyone is subjected to power, and the strong not only prevails, but abuses and preys on the weak. It is how the world works.

But how do you become strong? Where does courage lie? Is it in speaking up or in facing it alone? In summing up all the courage in you and stay to the world, that I can do this, alone?

What do you get for speaking, really?

It was Rachel who Melinda had the courage to tell that she was raped, and she got the scream of a “Liar” as a response, followed by “you’re a twisted little freak” and “you are sick.”

But then, Melinda sought refuge in writing—she wrote on the bathroom walls “GUYS TO STAY AWAY FROM: Andy Evans,” it was simple and yet, after seeing how her schoolmates has basically supported what she wrote, which probably share the same misery with her, she felt liberated. She has once again found her voice, in numbers, and in support.

She fought the demon inside her, and even the demon that is Andy Evans. One of the most powerful scenes in the novel was when she has found the strength to fight her attacker. My heart went out to her and there was relief. She has gotten out of the self-destruct phase and has decided that it was time to face the world head on.

IT happened. There is no avoiding it, no forgetting. No running away, or flying, or burying, or hiding. Andy Evans raped me in August when I was drunk and too young to know what was happening. It wasn’t my fault. He hurt me. It wasn’t my fault and I’m not going to let it kill me. I can grow.

Anderson has made a character whose voice haunts its readers. The book has been sitting in my bag for days, but I could not bring myself to write the blog on it, for fear that I might not do justice to such a powerful novel.

Young Adult novels such as Speak make me think and see issues in a keener manner, which brings me to this post I found on my tumblr:

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One Response to Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson

  1. loverboy says:

    reading this made me realize how i’ve always tried to walk away from problems that i thought were too much for me, or to try to forget truths that, were so hurtful, i wish i never learned. maybe this is why i’ll never read this kind of book.

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