A Quick CW: I’ll be talking about sexual assault in this post. While nothing goes into graphic detail, please be aware and take care of yourself when choosing to read.
Sexual trauma in YA is nothing new. Underlying or overt themes of sexual assault and abuse are a prevalent topic and their inclusion and execution in teen and YA fiction, be it within books, shows, or movies, is a conversation that I see, but generally don’t engage in often. This is for a number of reasons tending to boil down to the fact that most of the time, there aren’t enough spoons to pull myself through the hundreds of voices sounding that probably don’t need my opinion on what’s a hashed-and-rehashed topic anyway.
Emergency Contact, however, is a book I feel should be discussed.
The way that Mary H. K. Choi handles sexual trauma is one of the most realistic ways I’ve seen in a book where the main character is a survivor of sexual assault—especially when it comes to YA. In watching Penny’s story unfold, I saw the reality of living post-assault, not painted in the hauntingly pretty prose and dramatized imagery that I’ve come to associate with victimized characters. I went in expecting pages of moody tragedy that felt like a hollow echo of what a person thinks living in the aftermath of a sexual assault is.
What I got was something deeper.
I got a young woman who is resentful of a mother who was unintentionally complicit to what happened to her, judgmental and somewhat jealous of the people around her who haven’t been forced to learn the lessons she has. I got the struggle of a young woman who doesn’t understand how to handle simultaneously being terrified of being touched by her boyfriend while still wanting to experience sex. She’s carrying all of this with her without even realizing it as she keeps people at a distance, creating scenarios where she doesn’t have to rely on others, not even her mother because that reliance is ultimately faulty.
None of this is framed overtly in the beginning or even for a majority of the book as ‘it’s because Penny was raped.’ Her college life, her personal life, even her relationship with her writing, is steeped in tells that show something has happened to her without centering her only as ‘ASSAULT VICTIM’ and pigeonholing her into a narrative role that ignores everything else about her.
All through Emergency Contact, you get a sense something is wrong with Penny. You know something deeper lies within the relationship and interactions with her mother, how it affected her relationship with her boyfriend, friends, and eventual love interest, Sam. But it’s never dramatized. It’s never used for shock value. You learn when Penny chooses to let it be known, and when it is known, everything leading up to that moment only feels more authentic. It makes sense. That feeling you had that you understood Penny more than you expected sinks in and the realization only feels more real. Choi even writes this without making Penny’s revelation about Sam, the boy she not only tells but who is also her love interest. It’s never used to further his character development; it’s all about Penny and her journey. As someone who has seen countless assault and rape narratives being written to fuel male love interests’ character arcs and development, it was beyond refreshing.
I think the thing that I appreciated the most about Emergency Contact was the fact I was given the chance to read about a young woman who was a victim, a human, and flawed all in one package. I loved seeing Penny grow as a person in spite of how her trauma changed her and how she regained the agency that, up until the later portions of the book, she was only clinging to. Chapter after chapter of this novel, I found myself thinking had this book come out when I was in high school, or even my first years of college, it would have made an earlier, profound impact on me. At one point, I was where Penny was.
When I read through the scene where Penny talks about her rape, it was written in such a straight forward way that I had to put the book down. I didn’t feel like I was reading a novel. I didn’t feel like I was peering from the outside in. I felt like I was having a conversation with Penny and as that sick, pit-of-the-stomach nausea set in I wanted nothing more than for Penny to be real so I could hug her because I got it. What she was saying is what so many young girls and women say when they speak on their assaults. It’s what was in my head every time I thought maybe I could tell this friend, or that friend, or my grandmother, or my partners.
It was such a shock to me because what I’ve gotten used to in rape reveals is speeches. They feel drafted, edited, redrafted, delivered. They never feel conversational, coming from the mouth of the victim. They sound… written. I think the biggest service to survivors who read is to give us characters who don’t feel like they’re rehearsed when they talk about their experience and Mary H. K. Choi did it so well, I’m not sure I’ll find a character like Penny who I feel exemplifies what it is to survive, endure, and heal.
This book surprised me.
It made me want more stories like it, where abuse survivors are treated like people in their own narratives as opposed to devices through which an author can dramatize and make poetry out of suffering. For this, I fell in love with Emergency Contact, Penny and Sam, and the hope that perhaps authenticity in our stories will be a prevailing trait in future books.
ABOUT MARY H.K. CHOI
Mary H.K. Choi is a Korean-American author, editor, television and print journalist. She is the author of the young adult novel Emergency Contact (2018.) She is the culture correspondent on Vice News Tonight on HBO and was previously a columnist at Wired and Allure magazines as well as a freelance writer. She attended a large public high school in a suburb of San Antonio, then college at the University of Texas at Austin, where she majored in Textile and Apparel.
If you want more of my thoughts on Emergency Contact, my full review is up on Goodreads.
Thank you for reading!