How writing fiction helped me to cope with trauma of my sex attack in Belfast
A former film producer who was raped by a teenager while hiking in a Belfast forest has revealed how writing a fictional book based on her sexual assault has helped her deal with the attack.
Winnie M Li was visiting the city as part of a business trip when she was raped by the 15-year-old in Colin Glen Forest Park in 2008.
Edward Gerard Connors was convicted of the rape and jailed the same year.
He had fled to Dublin, but later gave himself up and was sentenced to eight years in prison with two years' probation. He served four years in jail.
Despite the trauma of her ordeal, the 38-year-old decided some weeks later she would explore the events surrounding violent sexual assaults from both the victim's perspective and that of the perpetrator.
Much of her debut novel, Dark Chapter, is drawn from that day in west Belfast.
"I've always been a writer but I never thought my first published book would be about my own rape," she said.
"Writing is what I have always done to deal with life or try to make sense of something. So after this life-changing and dramatic event, it was impossible for me not to write about it.
"Shortly after the assault I had always wondered what had happened to that boy. What led to him behaving in that way, to commit a crime that had such a big impact on me. I often wondered what was the other side of the story and how he came to be so violent. Had he ever thought about the impact his actions had on my life?"
At the time of the attack Winnie was a successful film producer and was attending a conference to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the peace process in Northern Ireland.
But her dreams of a flourishing career, relationship and a family vanished after she went on an 11-mile hike.
In the months following the rape she suffered from severe anxiety and depression and was unable to work for two years.
She added: "I was in shock for months and depressed. The impact was massive. The only way I could make sense of such a life-changing event was to try and understand his behaviour.
"I did a lot of research and spoke to forensic psychologists and social workers who work with juvenile offenders."
She spent five years going through therapy and attempting to rebuild her life.
In 2014, six years after the rape, Winnie returned to Belfast.
"That was a very big step for me because for a long time I thought I could never go back to Belfast. It's a city I always associated with the rape," she added.
"I reached out to people I needed to speak to in order to help understand the city and the justice system and the community.
"That made me realise it's a city full of friendly people."
Her novel, which was published in June, has been shortlisted for The Guardian's Not The Booker prize.
Since her ordeal Winnie has dedicated her life to advocating for change in how society handles sexual assault. She is also exploring the issue in her PhD and has co-founded The Clear Lines Festival in 2015, which is the UK's first platform dedicated to addressing sexual assault through the arts.
"I think it's important for people to understand what rape victims go through," she said.
"In writing the novel, I wanted to do justice to the people who have survived these crimes."