Interview with Em Kwissa: Author & Poet.

Em Kwissa PI

1) You recently published a book entitled 'Am I Not' with the online company Lulu. Your book tells a story of abuse - abuse you and your family unfortunately suffered at the hands of your Step-Father during your childhood - on publication, how did you feel, being able to finally voice this story after such a long time?

Most of my friends and family already knew that I had been through abuse in my childhood, but I hadn’t given details on what I had been through to anyone. Even the journals I kept when I lived with my step-father and the ones I wrote in during the healing process skimmed over the details. There was a part of me that thought keeping it a secret would make it less real. At that time, when I was in my pre-teen and adolescent years, I wanted very desperately to be able to find a story that would mirror my own, that would validate my experiences. I purchased many books about abuse, but none of them spoke to me on the level I needed. When a friend of mine told me that my story would change people’s lives, I realized that the reason I hadn’t found the book I was looking for all that time was because I needed to write it. To have seen it through to the end, through all the difficulty of reliving the experiences and the exhaustion that comes with that, and to have received so much support, is incredibly rewarding. Many people knew, but few understood. I feel like I am making myself understood for the first time.

2) Out of respect for your abuser's privacy, you changed his name and were careful to exclude any identifying details in his description. However, due to a complaint on the part of the abuser, the book has been 'pulled' from the site, with the claim of 'defamation of character', among other accusations. Surely, though, in removing your book, Lulu have done exactly the same to you...?

I don’t feel as though Lulu is saying that I’m a liar by removing the book. It takes a lot of courage to actively choose a side, especially one that requires the assertion of untruth on the part of the other side. Lulu, unfortunately, like many people and businesses when it comes to violence, has not shown the strength that such a choice would take. As they have said in multiple statements, they are not judging the merits of the claim made against me – therefore what they have done is removed the book without deciding whether they think it is true or not. They haven’t summoned the gumption to choose what to believe. I have been disbelieved before, and I can stand it. What I can’t stand is being told that the truth is too ugly or too controversial to be told. Lulu’s policy of removing any book that receives complaints is cowardly, and it’s cowardice that allows abuse to continue.

3) Britain is meant to be a country where freedom of speech is very much honoured and encouraged. However, this act of censorship goes against such freedom; particularly poignant when the victim of abuse has been brave enough to come forward and share their story. What do you think this act says about the media's attitude towards victims of abuse?

This says something very positive about the British media’s attitude toward survivors. I find that, because our legal system places the burden of proof on the accuser instead of on the accused, there is a sentiment that survivors must be treated as though they are lying until they can prove that they’re not. This isn’t the case. I firmly believe in the integrity of “innocent until proven guilty,” but it doesn’t mean that every survivor who comes forward with a story of abuse is lying. It only means that there has been no legal determination as to what happened. There should be room for the media to show compassion to survivors without passing judgement on the accused. This was my mindset when I changed my abuser’s name in my book. My story is my story, my survival is my survival, and neither of these things belong to him. My truth doesn’t have the end goal of making him pay for what he did to me. If I thought that I could bring him to justice through the legal system, I would try; I published instead.

4) You have engaged in communications with Lulu's Social Media Marketing Manager about the removal of your book. What has been said?

Meg Crawford, the Social Media Marketing Manager at Lulu, contacted me in the hopes of having a discussion about the situation. She offered to clarify anything she could with regards to the matter. I was, and am, open to discussion with Lulu, because I do need clarification on their policies and on how they led to my book being removed. I didn’t pretend to understand what’s happened. I sent an email asking questions about their removal policy, and I stated that I thought what Lulu had done was not malicious but cowardly. Ms. Crawford replied that she would provide me with a more detailed response the next day, which she didn’t. Two days later, I received an email from Rachel Braynin (Senior Manager, Customer Voice) at Lulu, who informed me that she had received my account on referral from Meg Crawford and that the matter was continuing to be reviewed. It has been three days since I received that email, and I have heard nothing from Lulu since.

5) Do you think Lulu would have reacted in the same way if you were a male Author publishing your story and a complaint was made?

It has been my experience that adults who were abused in childhood are met with disbelief or fear, regardless of sex or gender. Whether this is indicative of the numerical truth of the matter, I honestly can’t say.

6) Since Lulu removed 'Am I Not' it has receieved over 300 downloads from your website (and counting). In removing your book and attempting to 'silence' you - siding with your abuser - do you think that they may have actually helped you gain publicity whilst - in turn - damaging their own name?

Oh, definitely. My family has been joking that I should be sending thank-you cards to my abuser and to Lulu for all the publicity. Before the book was removed, I had sold twenty-six copies. Now it is being downloaded by hundreds of people all over the world. I have been given the opportunity to connect with people I would never have met otherwise. It’s been very difficult to yet again be in a position where I have to defend myself from people who think I’m lying or who think that the truth ought to be kept quiet, and I’ve had to be very careful to take care of myself through this whole process, but in the end, it’s been more beneficial to me than to the people who started it. My goal was to reach people, and I have been able to do that.

7) What words of advice or encouragement would you give to anyone reading this who feels their art has been unfairly censored?

There will always be people who don’t want to hear what you have to say. Keep saying it.

8) Has there been anything positive to have come out of this experience for you?

I have been receiving letters from fellow survivors who are grateful for my book and who have been inspired to tell their own stories. That’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything. If I could have helped even one person to come forward with their truth after having kept it a secret, that would have been enough, but there are dozens of people who are coming out to their friends and family about what they’ve been through, and that’s magical to me. These people are so brave and so strong, and if it weren’t for the initial negativity of this situation, I would never have met them.

9) What has this experience taught you, if anything?

This experience has taught me that there is way more good in the world than I could have banked on, and it’s winning. I have many moments of cynicism after what I’ve been through, and I often speculate that the world is going to hell in a handbag. It’s not. For every person who’s ever been cruel to me or stood by and watched the cruelty happen, there are ten who are turning up to support me. I know it can be incredibly difficult to find support in this world, but we cannot stop looking. It’s there.

10) Are you working on any other projects at the moment? What's next?

I’m going to be performing at Canada’s first national youth slam this weekend, Youth Can Slam 2013. I’m being named a poet of honour. Between practicing for that show and all the craziness surrounding the book, I’m being kept pretty busy. Once this dies down, I’m planning on starting my next book – fiction this time. I’m very quickly becoming tired of talking about myself.


To download Em's book visit:

Follow Em on Twitter: @TheKwissa

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