When Marlee Liss first wrote poetry after someone sexually assaulted her in 2016, she saved her work in a folder called “poems dark as fuck”.
She said the plan at first was to suppress her darker emotions, and she wrote the poems for an audience of one.
"I was really adamant that this was something I’d never share.”
Nevertheless, Marlee came forward to tell her story, as did thousands of women in 2017.
Re-Humanize the book has sparked a movement, and created a community of folks dedicated to eradicating objectification and sexualized violence in Toronto.
After I attended Re-Humanize’s event Dance Up a Movement and felt that community's power, Marlee and I sat down to discuss her book.
Natasha Faroogh: In your epilogue, you express how sharing your experience is “terrifying work, this inner-demon-exposure-type stuff: sharing this book that I initially wrote with no intention of sharing, all makes for the ultimate vulnerability hangover”. What prompted you to start sharing your narrative poetry even though it comes from such a vulnerable place?
Marlee Liss: I was spending a lot of time with my mom and my sister and they knew what had happened and that I was really not present. I started thinking that these poems could be our translator and show them where I’m at and how they could best support me. It was so good because it made me feel less alone in it. They started supporting me so beautifully.
I started sharing with close friends after that and it really impacted them. A friend found the book to be healing and supporting.
At this point I started considering that this is much bigger than myself. This [book] is helping supporters and survivors and that’s when I started considering showing it to an editor.
I felt that the book was finished on the winter solstice of 2016. The next day, my mom, sister and I went to a women’s circle. Mom was sitting beside this woman named Lindsay (Marlee’s editor Lindsay R. Allison from The Awakened Press) and they connected. When we came home mom added Lindsey on Facebook.
Lindsay has truly become one of my closest people. She ended up remembering some of her own experiences by reading my work. But she was really grateful and felt this explained so much and this could truly help her heal. Lindsay was really encouraging and felt this book needed to be shared.
NF: What was the process like of taking your journal writing to publishing it in a book form?
ML: I was adamant about not editing the poems. I really wanted to capture the raw pain and the raw journey of navigating sexual assault. We are often shown the polished version of a survivor and we don’t get to see their pain. But it’s really important for people to see the messiness. I really wanted to give people that doorway that I was looking for — the pain that comes with survival. And if I edited those, I would have taken out so much of that and it would have minimized what I went through.
NF: Perhaps what is unique about your book is the way it provides facilitated discussion questions that can be used in a variety of settings. To me, these questions invite reflection and potential for personal growth and healing. When and how did you frame these questions? Was it during the poetry writing process or afterward?
ML: They were part of my own process. I was writing for myself to process these things. And as I was going I just had so many questions myself. The questions zoom out and look at culture and society on a more macro level. So the questions were just questions that I had, things that I was asking myself about our own culture. It is really important that people ask these questions in a preventative or responsive manner; they are change-provoking and kind of a call to action.
NF: Your book starts with your experience of being sexually assaulted through incredibly poignant poetry. It continues with a broadening of your subject and with the use of second person, “you”. You encourage the reader to think about objectification, success, power, and other constructs prevalent in society as well as “fierce compassion”, “victim blaming”, “mental health” and other topics that are all interwoven. What do you hope that readers ultimately take away from your book?
ML: That was my process. At first it was narrowed into the horror of sexual assault but as I was navigating survival I realized how every area of my life was affected by this one incident. The way that bodies are objectified and commoditized in the media was a trigger. Even Trump being elected felt related. It comes to a place where we consider “how are we treating others as humans?” and a really broad look at pain.
People can come at it from various places.
What I hope comes out of it is that people give themselves permission to feel their pain and look at their wounds so deeply they realize how much healing is required. Pain gets swept under the rug and we don’t realize how much there is to deal with. There is such a gift for us if we are able to look at our pain and see how much healing is required. I felt more called than ever to see how we can radiate love and healing. It begins with our own healing before we can radiate it outwards. This book and this movement and the community it creates around it can create this safe space.
It really challenges the idea that survivors should be silent, or thinking that we have to deal with this in silence when so many of us are sharing this pain and really challenging that notion.
NF: How did the book Re-Humanize turn into a movement? Was it conceptualized as a movement from the beginning or was it something about the response to your book?
ML: The decision to share the book in itself was the start. Even when choosing the book title, I thought it sounded more like a movement than a book title. I didn’t consider it as a movement from the beginning but I wanted it to have the space to grow into one. It was really obvious to me during book readings that we were gathering in a space and bringing a lot of awareness to the issue. It was pretty much already a movement — we were already raising awareness and building community.
And I let it grow even more and it naturally unfolded into that.
It’s only going to continue growing. It feels like in our culture it’s finally time to deal with this issue. Even with the whole #metoo thing, it feels like our culture is really looking under the rug. It is the perfect time to make this into a movement. If this was five ten years ago I wouldn’t be getting this much support. It really feels like the right time.
NF: How did the partnership between Re-Humanize and End Rape on Campus form? Why did you choose End Rape on Campus as the beneficiary of your fundraising efforts as opposed to other groups that also attempt to combat gender based violence?
ML: I thought a while about that. A week before I was raped I was in this place where I was deeply inspired to challenge objectification and sexual assault. I was actually coming back from this healing centre that spoke a lot about that. I watched The Hunting Ground on the morning of the day I was assaulted — hours before I was raped — and messaged someone right after to create an event about it. Annie and Andrea founded End Rape on Campus.
And then that night I was assaulted — which was pretty crazy.
The women in that documentary were like my support group. I felt such deep inspiration about how they navigated their experiences and was moved by the work they are doing.
NF: When was the seed planted for Dance Up a Movement? Why dance?
ML: Dance was always my outlet for emotional expression and feeling. I actually did a 10-week session with Army of Sass and it was a really empowering experience for me. I was at a point when my sexual self was really shut down and it was just a really beautiful empowering thing that had nothing to do with objectification in it. It really inspired reclamation of body for me.
The other facilitators were also totally in line with that. Celebrating your body and doing what feels good instead of any focus on aestheticism. I was inspired to pass along the healing that comes from movement. There is so much healing in moving our bodies with the intention of challenging objectification.
NF: What kinds of events do you want to host through Re-Humanize in the future?
ML: This was the first big fundraiser event. Other exciting ones planned include: a yoga fundraiser collaborating with Dianne Bondy. She does body positive yoga, working with all shapes and sizes and focuses on making yoga accessible. Others: a women’s self defence night, a Zumba night, an ecstatic dance event combined with sound healing.
NF: Your book’s cover and illustrations really add to the message. Can you describe your working relationship with your illustrator Marielle Rosky?
ML: She is an amazing woman I met travelling in BC this summer. She has been studying the question “what does it mean to be a pretty girl” for four years at school. She has a lot of body positive feminist fat activist art and I really connected with her.
Initially, I didn’t plan on having illustrations at all. I had a lot of control issues wrapped up in the book. But I was so inspired by her work that I got to this place after some time and some healing and thought it would be a beautiful collaboration.
The whole process was really a beautiful female power collaboration.
NF: Who else showed up for you throughout the process?
ML: My family and friends, my mom and my sister, my close friends who were really there to support me. Because a) I would never have shared this and b) I wouldn’t be where I was now without all these people who supported me.
NF: Do you imagine taking Re-Humanize into the field of education?
ML: Yeah it is something I’ve definitely thought about. A bunch of people have said this should be in the curriculum. The discussion questions are already there and facilitated. I feel like it is a matter of getting people into a circle.
I really strongly feel the book is important for men to read – for young boys – for ANYONE navigating a culture of objectification to read. For anybody contributing to that culture intentionally or unintentionally. A big dream of mine is for a group of male athletes to sit down and discuss these discussion questions.
This is a conversation that we all need to have.
Especially at an age where they are still developing and haven’t necessarily been brainwashed by the idea.
As a survivor, I would see that as such a gift.
To participate in future events by Re-Humanize or to order a copy of her book, please visit https://www.marleeliss.com
Natasha is a teacher living and working just outside of Toronto. As an immigrant to Canada at the ripe age of three, Natasha straddles various linguistic and cultural identities which inform her feminist and queer perspectives. Don't ask her where she's from though... she wears plaid far too often, toques even in summer and speaks half decent French. She's Canadian as far as she's concerned. She also really likes tea.