By Lyndee Prickitt
When a 23-year-old physiotherapy student was gang-raped and sexually tortured by five men on a bus driving around New Delhi in December 2012 India was outraged. I was outraged. As a women and a mother raising my daughter in India I needed an outlet for my fury and a way to raise awareness about the inequitable treatment of women. As a multimedia journalist I turned to familiar tools — the written word, video recordings, vox pops, stat graphics, photos — but I used them to tell a new kind of story. Because instead of adding to the piles of reports and editorials, I wanted to write a poignant fictional narrative from the point-of-view of a victim — a woefully disregarded and unheard voice in patriarchal India. But I also wanted to capture the real swell of anger that was marking a turning point in my adopted country, where the modern and the medieval knock against each other every day. I knew this 360-degree approach to telling this story could only be achieved in a digital format. And since there were no existing formats that embraced transmedia and hypertext storytelling well enough, I created my own.
From the first page of Weareangry.net the victim beckons the reader to look at photos, which are available to click on. When she questions her own credibility as a source of information the lines, “How do you know I’m telling the truth,” appear slowly, tauntingly on the screen.
Her narrative is interspersed with other vignettes from a society grappling over its treatment of women, from the police to the parents, from the doctors to the politicians. One page has just two flashing news headlines, which can be clicked on and the “news story” read. Another page begins with a video in which two police officers are seen prodding the unconscious, supine victim on the roadside with their lathis and speaking to her as if she’s a prostitute, which according to the narrative, is filmed by two students who post it on Facebook and it goes viral, leading to days of protests.
At this point audio and photographs from real protests are seen and heard. There are cartoons, when the victim is being sarcastic, dissonant music plays when she thinks she’s dying, thought bubbles appear with tangential contemplations. These are all devices that do more than add texture or “masala” to the text, they become part of the storytelling experience. We have the technology to create such new and vibrant tales. Let’s use it.
But these devices can be applied to any fiction (imagine the digital love story: while nothing should take away from the text — if the writer delivers a beautiful description of the hero’s conflicted grimace, we don’t need a picture of it — but if something can add another dimension to the story or even be a sub-plot in a different media, why not?). Mixed media sits most comfortably in non-fiction as some proponents of digital reportage are beginning to show and as educational publishing has been doing for years.
But issue-based fiction that captures a crisis moment benefits most from this digital 360-degree treatment, because every issue is based on real facts, stats, references, background information. Why not provide it all for the reader at one click or tap?
How often do you Google something when you’re reading a story, particularly one that has roots in a real issue (the holocaust, surviving HIV, working on Wall Street, even high art heists or CIA entanglements)? Why shouldn’t that supplementary information be part of the package? Yes, like school book annotations, but more.
In Weareangry.net when the victim obliquely refers to the December 16 rape, for those unfamiliar with the story they can click on the hypertext and a small pop-up appears with a tightly written summary of the crime story and then some URLs for those who wish to read more — not just a lazy link to a news article like we ubiquitously are given today. When there is a reference to killing the rapists a hyperlink goes to another pop-up with a carefully selected list of editorials on the death penalty debate that raged in India. When a protester shouts at a reporter about the low conviction rate of rapists a hyperlink gives the reader the real stats with a URL to the source material. When the same protester is questioned about the rise in false accusations an interactive image appears with the words, “Crying Wolf” and several flashing examples of such incidents.
This treatment is also paramount for literature that crosses cultural boundaries. Translation of foreign words that find their way into English texts can be easily provided — much the same way the Kindle Fire provides a pop-up definition of any word that’s tapped upon. But even culture references to things like lathis, paan stains, Eve teasing, can all be explained, making previously remote stories immediately accessible with a little tender loving hyperlink.
And one can mix genres too. In Weareangry.net almost every page is illustrated with a piece of real art created in response to India’s rape crisis, much of it found on the streets of Delhi in an effort to really capture the outpouring of angst. On the last page the mosaic background comes alive with a video wall and audio montage, including many of the music tributes, satires, infomercials all created in effort to help stop violence against women. But there is no limit to the inclusion. Inserts from theatrical plays could be dropped in a prescient moments. Dramatic dance can appear between chapters. Cartoons could be used for a subplot.
Electronic literature or digital storytelling will not replace the book because, simply, it is not a book. It is whole new paradigm in storytelling. And it’s at its most powerful when used to capture a crisis moment in our time.
Lyndee Prickitt is a multimedia writer and journalist, formally a senior producer at Thompson Reuters and now Executive Producer, Digital Fables, creator of www.weareangry.net, in Delhi, India.