Jules' Tools for Change: Dancing in Red Shoes Will Kill You; an Interview with Donna Decker
Welcome to this month’s edition of Jules’ Tools for Social Change, a column that features a book, author or publisher whose work deals with issues of race, gender, sexuality, ability, colonialism, economic justice, or other social justice topics.See more details below
Welcome to this month’s edition of Jules’ Tools for Social Change, a column that features a book, author or publisher whose work deals with issues of race, gender, sexuality, ability, colonialism, economic justice, or other social justice topics.
This month’s featured title is Dancing in Red Shoes Will Kill You, published by Inanna Publications.
This month's feature is in acknowledgement and memory of the 14 women killed on December 6, 1989, during the Montreal Massacre. The events of this fictionalized story are based on the Massacre.
We remember the 14 women killed that day:
Geneviève Bergeron, 21; Hélène Colgan, 23; Nathalie Croteau, 23; Barbara Daigneault, 22; Anne-Marie Edward, 21; Maud Haviernick, 29; Barbara Klueznick, 31; Maryse Laganière, 25; Maryse Leclair, 23; Anne-Marie Lemay, 22; Sonia Pelletier, 23; Michèle Richard, 21; Anne St-Arneault, 23; and Annie Turcotte, 21.
From the publisher: “The Montreal Massacre is lodged in Canadian memory: on December 6, 1989, fourteen female engineering students were murdered in their classroom. Set in that tragic historical moment, on two college campuses fraught with gendered antagonisms, this novel follows the imagined lives of women as they happen headlong into the December 6 tragedy.”
I spoke with debut author Donna Decker over Skype about violence against women, her choice to write a novel on this topic, what we can learn and how to move forward with compassion and strength. A full transcription follows the link to the video of our interview.
‘Til next time,
Julia Horel: I’m here with Donna Decker, who is the author of Dancing in Red Shoes Will Kill You, published by Inanna Publications. Hi, Donna.
Donna Decker: Hi, Julia.
JH: So I have a few questions, and we’re going to go through them in an interview format. Hopefully everyone reading this will enjoy it! First, Donna, can you summarize the events of December 6, 1989 that inspired this book, for those who don’t know about them?
DD: On December 6, 1989 in Montreal, a 25-year-old man, who grew up in Montreal, entered école Polytechnique, the engineering school associated with the University of Montreal. He had been there about seven times before. I say that because his intention was very clear and he had done a practice run, if you will. What he did was enter a first classroom and asked about 60 men to leave the classroom, including the professors. They did, and when they did, he shot the women. He then went to the cafeteria, targeted and shot women, and then went to a final classroom and again killed women, and killed himself.
Ultimately, he killed 14 women. His intention, as evidenced by his suicide note, was to kill women – to kill feminists, is what he called them.
JH: Why did you choose to write this story, which is based on true events, as fiction?
DD: I’ll tell you, that took enormous soul-searching, and actually, over the course of a few years, I was back and forth. I initially planned for it to be non-fiction, and in terms of the research, years of research, personal interviews and so on, archival research, I really thought: “yes, it’s going to be non-fiction.” But then, I think what put me into the fiction zone– though I had been thinking about it, what put me over the edge to make that decision firm – was I listened to an NPR interview with Slavenka Drakulić, who is a Croatian writer. She had done extensive interviews with victims from the Balkan War, the Serbian rape camps in that war, and her intention was to write a non-fiction account, like a documentary kind of account. After she had done all the interviews, she found that the way she could best get across that interior life, that really emotional, psychological impact of what those women went through was to write a novel and to do some kind of composite characterization. I listened to her and I listened to her, and I thought: “that’s really what I want to get at. I’m going to write a book about this experience, but I want to tell the story of the women.”
I’m not interested in the killer. I teach a course on school shootings, and it seems perhaps crazy, but I’m not that interested in mass murderers so much as very much interested in the impact that those kinds of violent, hyper-masculine activities, these horrendous behaviours – how they impact on real people. I felt I was best able to do that by fictionalizing.
JH: Interesting, thank you. So, in the book, one of the main characters, Deirdre, is a student at a Kingston university. It’s called Aquitaine – obviously it’s Queen’s University – and she’s learning about feminism and consent, and there’s a nasty campus war going on between feminists who are demanding safety from rape and violence, and men who oppose their message. How are the events at Aquitaine connected to the massacre at CanTech (which is the pseudonym for école Polytechnique)?
DD: You know, I didn’t know that there was any sort of connection. I didn’t even know, in fact, about the No Means No campaign until I was in the course of my research and spent quite a bit of time up in Canada. Somewhere within the research, I read about this No Means No campaign, which happened just two months before the Montreal Massacre. I dug a little deeper, went to Kingston several times, met with a professor who was teaching at the time, and then did some phone interviews with some women who were actually involved in the No Means No campaign and taking over the president’s office and so on. They were very much interested in having that story told and sent me original documentation from 1989, like the list of demands they gave the president.
As I was hearing that story, knowing I was writing about the Montreal Massacre that happened two months later, and at that point, knowing that I was writing fiction, I really started to conceive of this entire project as a way to address for the general public the spectrum of misogyny. I thought, “I cannot give some sort of lecture on the spectrum of misogyny, because that’s certainly not going to appeal to a general readership.” It’s far more – I don’t know if academic is the term for it – it’s not the kind of thing that’s going to get at people’s souls and hearts and minds. Nevertheless, that’s clearly what I saw: that this was a spectrum of misogyny happening.
I think what finally clinched it, in terms of making sure that I had that plotline in, the No Means No, was that when I talked to some of the women who had been there, they clearly emphasized that the women from Aquitaine felt guilty – that, perhaps, what if this killer who hated feminists had somehow seen them on TV? Because the CBC was very prominent on campus at the time, it got a lot of national attention. They thought, “what if our activism – which we did because we felt it was making our women safe – what if that angered him, and are we culpable?” This is, sadly, the way women often feel. I really thought that this has to be part of the book, so that we can see how much guilt women take on about these things, when in fact, to my mind, they bore no guilt.
JH: You mentioned that – we had this conversation also prior to recording –you’re not interested in mass murderers so much as you are the effect of them. That’s part of the research you do and what you teach. Was it a conscious choice in this novel not to name the killer? Many feminist activists who memorialize the Montreal Massacre deliberately don’t name him. They name the women who were killed, but they don’t name him. Was that a conscious choice for you as well?
DD: Yes. In early iterations of this book, and especially when I was going to write this as non-fiction, I had this device wherein I used footnotes all the way through the manuscript. Footnotes told the story of this killer: for example, when he purchased his gun, when he got his permit, things about his family background – all things that all Canadian know now. I thought, “that will be an interesting way to do this. I’ll tell the story of the women, but will sublimate, literally, his story to the footnotes.” I thought I was pretty clever, I thought it was pretty unique, and people would like to know. And then as I was finishing the book, there came a day when it became clear to me that that all had to go. This was before it was published – obviously – but before I was well into that process. I just thought: no. No. That’s not the story I want to tell, and those footnotes went away. It was an enormous amount of work, and I think it served a purpose, because it clarified for me that I didn’t want to muck up the story of the incredible pain that the women, the survivors, the families, their moms, their dads, their boyfriends – what they went through, I wanted to honour and emphasize. Details about when the killer got the gun, you know, how his father beat him, I thought: nope. Not going to do that. Other people have talked about that. So: a very conscious decision not to name him, yes.
JH: That makes sense. It’s unfortunate: I know his name. I don’t know all the names of the women, and I need to work on that, too.
What lessons do you think we can continue to take from the events of December 6? What do you think has changed in Canada – although you’re an American, you’ve done some of research here – and in the world, and what hasn’t?
DD: Oh, goodness, yeah. I made some notes thinking about this very thing. Well, of course, in Canada there was the gun registry that seemed to be a way to heal, I think, some of this. That went away, so that’s deeply concerning. We [Americans] need to take a lesson from that, I think, because we don’t even go anywhere near that far. We had one of our most horrific shootings in the last few years was of children, as you know, in Connecticut. So far we have not been able to make any headway in terms of guns.
I think what we can do is: we can teach and we can talk, which is what I try to do all the time. What happens when you talk about feminist issues often is that you’ll get eye-rolling – this is from people who are not particularly fans – you’ll get laughing, as if it’s a joke or a little hobby. So I’m often trying to train my students, as well as myself, to counter that. I try, as often as I can not to counter it with rage, though I might very clearly be feeling rage. I try to counter it with a voice that can be heard. You think about the guys who were calling in after the Montreal Massacre, supporting the killer. To argue back with them and to express that rage is not productive, even though we are right, I would argue, in feeling it. I try to be as compassionate and loving as I can, and I try to teach my students that, but at the same time, to continuously resist. One of my favourite lines, when someone expresses something anti-feminist, anti-female, is just, “that’s not my experience. Would you like to hear my experience?” That’s been helpful to my students. Sometimes, we don’t resist because we don’t have the language for it. I think we have to practice that.
So I had something really interesting happen at a recent reading in Lennox, Massachusetts, which is my hometown. It was a small, adorable little bookstore, but it was quite packed. Up near the front was a little man, maybe 75-80, and his wife. He had a lot of questions. Among his questions was, “have you ever felt in danger or in fear because you’re a woman?”
I tried to clarified and asked, “do you mean because I’ve written this book, am I concerned about my safety?”
He said, “no, as a female, have you ever felt in danger or fear?”
I was really struck by that question because I’d thought it was a big duh. Clearly, he was genuinely asking this question. There was no tone, no attitude. So I said, “could I ask this question, sir, to the audience?” He said yes, so I said to the women, “can I get a show of hands of any of you who have felt in danger or fearful because you’re female?” Almost every hand went up. [Julia raises hand.] Exactly, Julia! Exactly.
I said, “sir, would you mind turning around and having a look?” And he did, and he was quiet. My intention was not at all to shame him or to make him feel bad, but just to see. That’s when I say talk and teach. I believe people don’t know this either because they don’t listen – it’s not that feminists haven’t been talking about this forever – but they don’t listen or they think it’s a joke, or they don’t want to believe. So we just have to keep talking about it and talking about it, and we need to – this is a very important thing to me – we need to educate our boys. We need to teach them that the only way to be a boy, to be a man, to be masculine isn’t a little box of rage and toughness.
I teach this in my school shooting class, I have first-year-students, and when I first teach this by way of a scholar named Jackson Katz and his videos called “Tough Guise,” they resist it intensely, until I tell them, “I think boys are done a disservice.” I have to put it this way. Boys are done a disservice, because they are only allowed to be so limited in their emotions. I think – and this may be a cop-out, I’m not sure – but if we approach it that way, and say, “why can’t we all be fully human, and cry, and laugh, and be vulnerable?” I try to teach this. I have a son, two daughters and a son, and I hope I’ve done that with my own child, to allow him to be fully human, and not have to stuff his feelings and so on. I think that’s a real key to what we can.
And there are feminists in Canada, in the United States, and all over the world. Jody Williams, who is a Nobel Prize winner, who wrote a blurb for my book, is kicking butt out there. She and the Nobel Women’s Initiative, they are all over the world talking about rape as a weapon of war. Malala Yousafzai, oh my gosh, we are a world that is – I was going to say waking up, but I don’t know if that’s what I want to say – we’re talking. We’re talking and we need to keep talking and not let this go, and not say, “well, this happened 27 years ago.” No, I have a list of the exact same thing that happened just a few years ago, a year ago. So, talking, talking, talking. But also marrying that with compassion, which I think is the hardest thing, especially as a second-wave feminist brought up with Ms. Magazine and Gloria Steinem and being so frustrated sometimes. So frustrated that we can’t be seen as fully human. So I have to meditate every day so that I can be compassionate so that I can then be effective.
JH: There’s an organization that’s based in Canada, but I think is international now, called the White Ribbon Project, which is also an organization for men by men to help them navigate through the world of masculinity and what it can mean, and anti-violence. It’s great.
DD: It is great. A couple of years ago, I was doing an article for Ms. on the Isla Vista shooting and talked at length with Todd Minerson by telephone. I admire that organization greatly, and he was vastly helpful to me. I’m a big proponent of that. This is when I call on my young men in my classes, to step up and resist when you see your guy friends doing something hurtful to women or making fun. Just step up and say, “knock it off.”
JH: Don’t be that guy.
DD: You don’t have to fight about it, just say, “that’s not cool. Cut it out.”
JH: Yeah. Exactly.
To wrap up, I want to ask you a bit about the process of getting published, since we talked about this a little before we started recording. You’re an American. How did you end up publishing with Inanna Publications, a publisher based in Toronto?
DD: You know, getting published is so challenging. You send out, in my case, 50, 100 query letters to agents, publishers and so on. But one of the first publishers I sent to was Inanna, because I had seen a quote that said something like, “smart books for people who want to read about real women’s lives.” I know I don’t have that exactly accurate, but I thought, I want to talk about real women’s lives, so I think maybe they’d be interested in my book. I sent it off, and it was 13 months later that I got an email saying, “yes, we’ll look at the manuscript.” With query letters, you are just asking for them to consider you. So I sent it off, and then it was about 5 or 6 months later that I got the email saying, “yes, we want this.” Meanwhile, I was sending off query letters and emails and so on.
I was delighted, because this is a publisher I admire greatly. I had read a number of other books published by them so I could get a feel for it, actually talked to some of the authors beforehand. Then when I launched, I was launching with a few other women, so I got to hang out a bit. Luciana, who is the editor/publisher there, Luciana Riccutelli, is – oh my gosh. Top-notch. I admire her so much. She just walked me through a process and challenged me to think about some of the ways I was saying things. We went back and forth and had conversations about what would be most effective. It was the most stimulating, soul-fulfilling work, to have someone who got what I was trying to do, but was helping me to make it better. I cannot express my gratitude for that. It was wonderful. I’m a very fortunate woman to have partnered with them. I’m so happy.
JH: That’s wonderful! Thank you so much for talking with me today.
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