Agnes Török talks about her book, We Need To Talk, and why it is is so important for her to use her poetry to about sexual violence.
Warning: the following article contains sensitive and triggering content on rape and sexual violence.
'this is the book I wish someone had given me when I desperately needed it so I decided to write it myself' - 'this is', from my book We Need To Talk
I never sat down to write this book. I just wrote, and it seeped into my writing. It started becoming impossible to keep out.
Eventually, I had so many poems about sexual violence that I couldn't not put them together and see them make a whole. For my own sake, for the sake of my fellow survivors, for our loved ones, for our representatives and politicians, for the change we need to make together.
It became impossible not to speak, so I spoke. It became inconceivable not to do something, so I did something. It became unbearable to think I had done all that recovery from my own abuse for nothing to change, so I decided to be part of changing it all.
Last year, on November 25th (the UN's international day against gender-based violence), I published a book about survivorship and solidarity. About sexual violence and, most importantly, how to end it.
In the lead up to the book, I worked with Swedish consent activism organisation FATTA. The book tour, both in Sweden and in the UK, connected with local Women's Aid, LGBTQI+ support services and rape crisis centres. On publishing the book, I promised to donate 10% of proceeds to these organisations, to help support victims and end sexual violence. I have kept that promise. I will continue to keep it.
Because my poems need to be more than words. They need to create real change. Otherwise, why would I keep writing in a world that looks like this one?
'every 98 seconds
someone is raped
out of every 1,000 rapists
end up in prison
WE NEED TO TALK'
- 'statistics', from my book We Need To Talk
My book, We Need To Talk, is certainly not the start of a conversation. It is one voice in a choir of voices, just like I hoped it would be. It launched in the midst of the #metoo movement, and a broad international discussion about how to recognise the prevalence of sexual violence and how to do something about it.
Writing is always political. It is an act of activism to choose to share quieted stories. To choose to amplify unheard voices. To choose to break silences.
But that activism is often indirect. It is about broadening the types of lived experience and ideas for change that we interact with. To me, it doesn't end there. The real challenge is putting those ideas into practice.
'if I could write just one poem about sexual violence
it would be this:
- 'the only poem that matters', from my book We Need To Talk
While I tour internationally and release much of my work online, Stockholm is my home base. And Sweden has made for a great example in the last few years of how to fight for a society free from sexual violence.
For years now, several organisations that work with support services for victims – and ones that work with making political, legal and attitude change in the public happen – have teamed up to get a new law through Swedish parliament. The law seeks to replace rape legislation with consent legislation. To make anything less than a yes legally defined as a no. To place the burden of evidence on the police and the perpetrator, and away from the victim's clothing, life choices or previous sexual behaviour.
The change was proposed in parliament towards the end of last year. If all goes well, it will pass into law before the end of this year. With it, we are lobbying for consent education alongside sexual health education in schools. We are pushing for mandatory education on dealing with cases of sexual violence for those working in education, in health care, in the legal system and in the police force.
Consent legislation won't end sexual violence, but it's a massive step forward. It’s a giant win for victims. When we make noise, when we refuse to back down, when we present other visions for what society can and should look like, we are engaging in activism. Poetry is part of that conversation, and that change. And it should be.
In the last eight years of my hosting, performing at and attending spoken word events, I don't think I have ever been to an event where there wasn't at least one poem about sexual violence or gender based violence. Or a poem about sexist, racist, homophobic or transphobic violence.
Poets from all over the world are contributing to this conversation. That is massively important. We have to keep writing, we have to keep telling our stories and breaking those silences. But we also have to push ourselves to connect our words with our actions. We must always believe and support victims. We must never let perpetrators off the hook.
This is especially true in arts communities, where some individuals can hold so much informal power, and where there is no HR department to turn to when someone sexually harasses, assaults or abuses someone else.
It is important to write stories about sexual and gender-based violence.
It is important to support victims within and outside the spoken word scene. To never buy into the idea that doing nothing is neutral, when it is in fact actively doing harm to the victim. To never ever let people off the hook when they support or give platforms to known abusers or rapists.
It is important to be part of this changing conversation.
I welcome you on board to this movement within and beyond poetry. To the change we can make, and are making, together. To break silences and let victims' stories be heard. Because it is political. Always political.
is a call to arms.
A voice in the silence
The beginnings of a plan on How To Change Everything.
Let's start right now.'
- from my book We Need To Talk
Agnes Török is a word performer, author, TED speaker and workshop leader from Stockholm, Sweden.
Török writes, publishes and teaches in two languages. Her work has been published in three collections, one spoken word album and monthly crowdfunded spoken word videos.
She has toured on four continents, won the Edinburgh Fringe's Best International Spoken Word Show Award (PHB) and produced new work in collaboration with BBC, Films for Action, Dangerous Women Project, Upworthy, Roundhouse Theatre and many more.
Török’s work exists at the intersection of art and activism. She runs writing workshops, produces poetry videos and writes books about the issues she feels most strongly about – solidarity, mental health, gender based violence, and social change.
Her book We Need To Talk is published by Burning Eye Books and can be found on: www.etsy.com/uk/shop/AgnesTorokPoetry