WORD Christchurch's 2021 festival has been postponed until later in the year due to Covid-19 restrictions. Dates and times mentioned in this post are no longer current.
"This school is grinding to a halt because some kid hosted a party without adult supervision, where some other kids couldn't handle their booze. What does this have to do with me?"
Sprigs is a great book about an unsettling subject. It's the story of a rape.
The rape happens within a culture of schoolboy rugby at the highest level. The perpetrators are in the First XV of St Luke's, a privileged all-male private school. When the end of year drinking session begins with tequila (supplied by a teacher), the party spirals out of control: Priya, a girl from their sister school, is raped. The incident is filmed and shared.
Rape and sexual abuse has been much discussed in the media this year with Christchurch school students responding to a survey on harrassment and abuse by their peers, with some heartbreaking statistics. Sadly, most of these 'incidents' have gone unreported. Priya's story honestly reflects these statistics.
Author Brannavan Gnanalingam himself acknowledges he has been a victim of sexual assault. Writing about Priya's experience, he says, enabled him to work through his own feelings. Gnanalingam works in commercial law, as well as raising a family and writing critically acclaimed stories. Sprigs is his sixth book and is perhaps his most personal. His approach? To limit shocking details in favour of analysing the aftermath and characters' reactions to it.
Gnanalingam's characters are what buoy the story up. I became really invested in the characters he has created.
Principal Denver is out of place – he went to a state school – and is the fall guy for the School Board: a group of very rich men (bar one woman), with "entitlement seeping out of their pores". The face of the school, its reputation, must be saved at all costs. Even with the evidence in front of them, the School Board's response is not to act unless the police do: attempting to cover their backs with a non-disclosure agreement. They even consider pinning it all on Richie, a Māori boy given a scholarship for his rugby skills.
"...are you going to tell the Police? About what you've done?' Tim couldn't stop thinking how there were hundreds of people at the party, and no-one, no-one, tried to stop it."
As in Donna Tartt's The Secret History, how the characters deal with what has happened is the reveal. The boys' reactions in the aftermath differ. The host of the party, who was left minding the gate, is horrified. One lad is full of remorse and confesses to the Principal. One thinks he's bullet-proof because his father is on the school board, another becomes threatening to the others for the same reason. The last, kept on another year at school purely for his rugby skills, disappears into the workforce.
The uncertainty and inattention of the referee in the violent and chaotic last game of the season mirrors the ineptitude of St Luke's principal, who puts his head in the sand. Both schools' handling of the 'incident' is disconcerting.
Neither principal in this story is concerned with Priya's well-being, or with investigating the incident at all. This is left to the police, and trial-by-media, while St Luke's school board employs a lawyer with a gagging order for those involved. This scene, from Priya's story, says it all:
"...Yes well, we've been hearing some concerning news about an incident involving St Lukes and your daughter. I might as well not have even existed in the room...
Yes, I was in hospital with her...Mrs Callander looked surprised...Ms Fletcher muttered, yes, she was off school for over a week. Mrs Callander gave a who knew face.
Anyway that's not the incident I'm talking about... a group of girls... interrupted their school production and accused students of that school of being rapists. It was the type of event that drew great attention, and... great shame to our school...That sort of carry-on might work at other schools, but we face our challenges with poise and fortitude.
Can I have some water, Amma asked, in a croaky voice. Amma took the water and even in this situation said thank you. I was annoyed at Amma refusing to stop her usual politeness even in a situation like this where I was getting humiliated. Amma stood up, with the glass, and threw it in Mrs Callander's face.
You animal, she screamed. Do you know what they did to my daughter. How much they hurt her. How long she was in hospital. The infections...They hurt my girl too much. How dare you tell me this... You are sick. This is how you treat girls who have had terrible, horrible things happen to them. I can't believe it." (p.406)
Priya's disclosure is the last word. The last quarter of the book is dedicated to her. Hers is of course the most powerful and harrowing segment. After receiving thousands of hate messages – racial, sexual, physical threats to her and her family, she is sent a gagging order from the St Lukes' School Board:
"... I wasn't ready and now I was expected to be ready and have an answer to peoples' questions. I was still bruised. And it was my story and nobody was asking me about my story, they were telling me my story."
"Teresa repeated are you ok and this time I said no... I said I didn't know what to do and I knew everybody knew..., so I was this slut and this useless bitch that everyone was going to mock and my parents were going to hate me and everyone in the Tamil community was going to hate me... and say Ganain's daughter went to parties and got drunk and had sex with boys, and people at school would say the same and the teachers would treat me like I was a rotten kid even though I was one of the nerds..."
Brannavan Gnanalingam has witnessed politicians platforming against immigrants and explores the effect of privilege with this book. Those who have are not very accepting of those who don't. He uses fiction to scrape the surface of camaraderie and sportsmanship, revealing a sinister underbelly - of entitlement, racism, sexism and bigotry.
What is considered 'normal' male behaviour? I think it depends on your perspective. I'd like to think that the 'boys' club' described here doesn't exist, however, I've seen how some male groups behave when they are together, especially when drinking.
Initially, Gnanalingham's text implies that the boys are too insecure to have committed such a heinous act. Yet perhaps this is a central theme. All of the young people in this story feel insecure: about their looks, behaviour, sexuality, achievements and whether they fit in. Is it this that drives their racist, classist, homophobic and sexual jibes? Is it the desperate need to fit in that has led to this outcome?
Pair this inherent insecurity with alcohol, and you have a lethal combination. Drinking culture is still very much a problem in New Zealand, where 'eating is cheating'. This is not helped by the rugby coach supplying spirits to the team. Priya herself has never drunk before, and does it to be like everyone else.
"She had no idea what to expect at a high school party... Priya wondered if she should drink or not. How would she say no, or say enough?"
Nominated for the Jan Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction earlier this year, Sprigs is in the running for a Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel in October (date to be announced) and is Christchurch City Libraries' nomination for the Dublin Literary Award in 2022.
Author Brannavan Gnanalingam will be sharing his insights in Unsettling Stories, at WORD Christchurch Festival on 29 August.
- Branavan Gnanalingam: There are ways of being a male without it coming at the expense of other people
- Follow the Ngaio Marsh Awards: Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel
- Dublin Literary Award
- Our WORD Christchurch 2021 coverage
- Not That Bad
- What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape
- Rape and Resistance