Roya Marsh on: Black Girl Magic, Knock-Knock Jokes, and Reading with Students in Mind
What books are currently on your nightstand?
I’m actively working on a decent sleep schedule and don’t invite books into the bedroom with me. Now, my dining-room table, that’s a different story! I’ve got a solid mix of poetry and novels that I’m working my way through. I’m constantly scouring for resources and new and relevant work to promote critical and analytical thinking with my students. On the table, staring right at me, are Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which features lovely drawings by Ellen Forney; Adam Falkner’s The Willies, in which he navigates queer boyhood, addiction, and appropriation; and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Water Dancer, a surreal masterpiece. Each of these works makes me question the status quo and consider the cyclical behaviors of our nation, the effects they have on our everyday lives, and how language and time can be bent in the telling and retelling of stories.
Where do you get your books? Library? Bookstore? Amazon?
I’ve actually never ordered anything from Amazon. Most of my books come from libraries, bookstores, and classrooms, or I get them as gifts or friendly recommendations. I’m diligent about supporting local and community bookshops as a means of fighting gentrification. Recently, I’ve been honored with the task of blurbing and reviewing the work of my contemporaries. So a lot of books also come to me courtesy of the publisher.
What’s a book that made you cry?
The Kite Runner.
What’s your favorite work of feminist nonfiction?
Thick and Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom is a must-read. I’ve attended institutions of higher learning where I’ve experienced racism and sexism and was forced to combat various inequities on a daily basis. McMillan Cottom’s approach is rigorous, analytical, intersectional and extremely accessible. The personal experiences that she describes resonated with me deeply. Thick addresses the tensions between popular and academic takes on the lives of Black women in America.
What’s your favorite novel of the last two years?
I am all about YA right now, and, honestly, there are just too many amazing projects to have a single favorite. I loved Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds (and anything else his mind creates), and everything from Elizabeth Acevedo, who makes room for my students to smile and laugh and hear themselves and love themselves and take up space that they didn’t know existed. These writers are telling stories that ring true for my students, challenging their ideas around violence, vengeance, independence, heritage and the meaning of survival.
What is a book that changed your life?
The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 2: Black Girl Magic, which was edited by legends Mahogany L. Browne, Idrissa Simmonds, and Jamila Woods. The anthology features some of the greatest and most daring feminist writers and contemporary Black women geniuses. It gives breath, energy and a platform to so many amazing voices from groups that are often silenced. Black girls, women, trans women, and GNC folks are absolutely magic and worthy of all praise. We are not a monolith. We are here. We are writing. We are teaching. On a personal level, this book put me in spaces I may never have otherwise entered. Visibility is a key component in my work and mission. Being published in this anthology was both affirming and inspiring for this Black butch woman from the Bronx.
What book are you confident recommending to anyone?
DAMN. by Kendrick Lamar. It’s not a book, but it could be (if you simply printed out the lyrics and bound the pages). That album earned Kendrick a Pulitzer and solidified his spot as one of the greatest storytellers of all time. The work speaks for itself. Listen to it. Read it. Honor it.
What do you read to relax?
I have been dog-earing and paperclipping Bobby Hundreds’s This is Not a T-Shirt for a few months now. I’ve always had a passion for fashion, and there are so many gems within those pages about perseverance in the face of doubt and building community through culture. But when I’m really, really, really trying to relax, I love to read knock-knock jokes and little-known facts. They’re the best space fillers for those awkward moments between poems during a reading.
Roya Marsh is a Bronx native and a nationally recognized poet/ performer/educator/activist. She is the Poet in residence at Urban Word NYC and works feverishly toward LGBTQIA justice and dismantling white supremacy. Marsh’s work has been featured in Poetry, Flypaper Magazine, Frontier Poetry, Village Voice, Nylon, The Huffington Post, Button Poetry, Def Jam’s All Def Digital, Lexus Verses and Flow, NBC, BET, and The BreakBeat Poets Vol 2: Black Girl Magic.
Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency
By Olivia Laing
Reviewed by Laurie Stone
For her debut novel Crudo (2018), Olivia Laing devised the narrator Kathy, who guides the reader through eight or so months of Laing’s life in 2017, when, fearing marriage, she married a man old enough to be her father and, when, stirring thoughts of apocalypse, Trump was threatening to bomb North Korea and Nazis gained a warmer reception in the US than they’d had in decades. Kathy is Laing as Kathy Acker, punk appropriator of any text not sealed in a bank vault. Kathy is every female who has attended the movie “Womanfuture” and walked out.
I loved Crudo and Laing’s jump cuts from memoir to news coverage to art criticism to namedropping gossip. I loved the effort she made to create the simultaneous big and little of things in a time of panic and disbelief. Her next book, Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency—a collection of essays and art criticism—has perhaps been rushed out on the coat tails of Crudo’s acclaim and arrives when life is worse. How do you even publish a book these days, Laing wonders. How do you publish a book as if things are okay? Same as it ever was. You don’t. You can’t.
Many of the pieces collected were commissioned as introductions to books or written as columns in the Guardian, frieze, and New Statesman, among others, and are addressed to readers assumed not to know much about figures as significant as Agnes Martin, David Hockney, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Hilary Mantel. The writing sometimes feels dutiful, and Laing seems a bit bored by her role as usher. We’re not sure what these figures mean to her. More often, fortunately, the writing captures the breathless sweep of Laing’s novelist voice, observing the way we keep living while the air burns and senile white men plot to bury us. Again and again, she asks what art can do at a time like this. The answer: No one knows, except to remember rapture and remind us of love. Silence still equals death, but so might speech in an age of lies.
Reading through these tributes to writers and visual artists, a through line of intimate involvement emerges. It’s about the AIDS crisis that burst into our lives in the 1980s when Laing, who is 43, was too young to have experienced it first hand. The through line concerns the directaction politics of Act Up that profoundly changed global consciousness about people with AIDS. Laing looks back with awe and longing to a time when activists had the agency to affect public policy. Four pieces leap out of this book especially, stabbing the reader with ideas and passion. One is about the artist David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992. Here Laing quotes a passage from his 1991 collection of essays, Close to the Knives, that makes the plague at once individual and epic: “the people waking up with the diseases of small birds or mammals; the people whose faces are entirely black with cancer eating health salads in the lonely seats of restaurants . . . piece by piece, the landscape is eroding and in its place I am building a monument made of feelings of love and hate, sadness and feelings of murder.” Later she quotes Wojnarowicz explaining his desire, as a visual artist, to “produce objects that could speak” when he no longer will be able to, and to make objects that make visible what legislation and other strictures sweep out of sight.
Laing deftly honors Sarah Schulman’s brilliant analysis of official forgetting in her review of Gentrification of the Mind, in which Schulman argues that, like the gentrification of the Lower East Side, where so many people with AIDS, who were also poor, were replaced by Wall Street entrepreneurs, so mourning the dead of 9/11 has effaced public grief over AIDS. Writes Laing, “It’s understandable that she might feel bitter at the institutional opulence of the 9/11 memorial to ‘the acceptable dead’, noting: ‘in this way, 9/11 is the gentrification of AIDS.’” (Note: I’ve preserved the British spellings in the quoted text.)
Laing begins her rapturous tribute to artist/filmmaker/writer/gardener Derek Jarman with a keyhole view of her childhood that snaps into focus the stakes for her to write about gay experience, the natural world, and art that doesn’t destroy things in order to be made. “My mother was gay,” she writes, “and the three of us [including Laing’s sister] lived on an ugly new development in a village near Portsmouth, where all the culs-de-sac were named after the fields they’d destroyed. We were happy enough together, but the world outside felt flimsy, inhospitable, permanently grey. I hated my girls’ school, with its homophobic pupils and prying teachers, perpetually curious about the ‘family situation’. This was the era of Section 28, which banned local authorities from promoting homosexuality and schools from teaching its acceptability ‘as a pretended family relationship’. Designated by the state as a pretended family, we lived under its malign rule, its imprecation of exposure and imminent disaster.”
Jarman, too, died of AIDS, just two years after Wojnarowicz. In summarizing the meaning of his nature writing to her, Laing writes, tenderly and pointedly, “Derek still seems to me the best as well as the most political nature writer, because he refuses to exclude the body from his sphere of interest, documenting the rising tides of sickness and desire with as much care and attention as he does the discovery of sea buckthorn or a wild fig.”
The fourth piece that stirs the reader with special intensity is “Feral.” Unique in the book in being entirely a memoir, it meditates on Laing’s decision in her twenties to drop out of university and become involved in the environmental directaction movement. The summer she is twenty, she moves into “a tiny protest camp in Dorset, established by locals to protect a strip of muchloved woodland from being bulldozed for a relief road.” She and the other protesters sleep in the trees to keep them safe (they succeeded). She writes, her descriptive powers at their giddiest, “Teddy Bear Woods was a beach hanger, falling steeply to a meadow. There was a net slung in the canopy, built as a defence for when the bailiffs came. Lying up there among the leaves, you could see the glittering blue ribbon of the sea a mile south. What did we do all day? We made endless trips to gather wood and water, sawed wood, chopped wood, prepped food, washed up. Without electricity, the most basic tasks took hours.”
What does she want? Community? Solitude? A walkabout free of social obligation? A way to get back to the garden that never was? She doesn’t know, and it’s her ability to stay in the unknowing place throughout the essay that gives it its urgency and tension. Living outside is another form of being homeless. “It was the sort of experience I’d longed for,” she writes, “but still I slept with an axe under my pillow... I was frightened all the time. I felt more exposed than I have ever since, almost unraveled by it, paranoid that I was being watched by the inhabitants of the scattered houses whose lights I could see winking through the fields at night.” The more Laing finds beauty, the more she sees risk of its destruction. The more she sees beauty destroyed—in the bodies of those with illness, in works of art that are silenced or erased, in the natural world that is defiled—the more ably she evokes life’s fragility. In May 1968, Jean-Luc Godard declared, “The problem is not to make political films but to make films politically.” The same might be said about essays—how to write them politically.
Throughout this book, Laing doesn’t ask readers to think about something other than their collective sense of powerlessness that does not produce a concerted front of resistance. She reminds us of it without shaming or virtue signaling. And she reminds us as well there is no such thing as distraction, maintaining that every moment in a person’s head has the weight of every other moment in that head. She values our precious and wasted moments, until there are no more moments, because we have died or the world has died. We think about the world dying all the time, Laing knows, and all the time we look at the sky, and plant iris bulbs, and stage stupid arguments with the people closest to us because peace is impossible and because friction reignites the tedium of existence. The gorgeous tedium of every day we are not detained at a border or made host to a virus flying free as a bird.
Laurie Stone is author most recently of Everything is Personal: Notes on Now (Scuppernong Editions, January 2020) and My Life as an Animal: Stories (Northwestern University Press/Triquarterly Press, 2016). She was a longtime writer for the Village Voice, theater critic for The Nation, and critic-at-large on Fresh Air. Her stories have appeared in n + 1, Waxwing, Tin House, Evergreen Review, Electric Lit, Fence, and Open City, among many others. Her next book will be Postcards from the Thing that is Happening, a collage of hybrid narratives.
Degrees of Difference: Reflections of Women of Color on Graduate School
Edited by Kimberly D. McKee and Denise A. Delgado
Reviewed by Carolyn Choi
Women of color constitute less than ten percent of full-time faculty across universities in the United States. While faculty, staff, and student-led demonstrations, combined with consciousness-raising movements like #MeToo and #CiteBlackWomen, are making visible the systemic injustice that indigenous women and women of color (the book uses the acronym IWWOC) in the academy face, the experiences of IWWOC graduate students remain still marginal to these discussions. Microaggressions and racism in academia do not materialize upon gaining an academic job; they occur much earlier, often at the beginning of our graduate education. Within white institutions, IWWOC and queer students sit within a complex and uneven web of power structures and relationships. Our futures are beholden to the whims of our advisors and committee members, many of whom are unaware of their racial and gender biases. Meanwhile, our labor as instructors, research assistants, and administrative staff largely goes unacknowledged.
Degrees of Difference, a collection of eight firstperson narratives of women of color in the academy, gives space to these rarely heard stories. Editors Kimberly D. McKee and Denise A. Delgado met as graduate students at Ohio State University and bonded over sharing strategies for surviving. A successful panel they produced at the 2015 National Women’s Studies Association meeting convinced them that IWWOC needed a book that would prepare them for the unique challenges they’d face in graduate school. The editors see the book “as a tool for women of color doctoral and master ’s students” as well as those just contemplating entering the academy to share in the knowledge of self-care, building solidarity, accessing pipeline programs, establishing mentorship, and creating lasting ties with communities and families. Degrees of Difference contributes to larger conversations about the systemic violence and injustice women of color face in higher education and works towards creating strategies for transformative change within and beyond the Ivory Tower.
Stories in this book are situated within the chronic failure of “diversity initiatives” in universities and departments to meaningfully confront the intersectional experiences that impact nonwhite women graduate students. Within neoliberal academic workplaces, commitments to diversity and inclusion have often served as mere illusive optics that ignore problems of racial wealth gaps within departments and university workplaces while exploiting those who have benefited from such programs by perpetuating notions of minority tokenism. This scenario played out frequently during my own graduate school career, starting even before applying to graduate school, when a male professor man-splained to me that “sociologists don’t like activists” and to “play it down.” In grad school, I was part of student efforts to bring attention to the low numbers of Black and other minority students in doctoral programs at the university to expose institutionalized practices of racism and discrimination. The administration responded by increasing “diversity enrollment” via international students, many of whom were accepted with government funding to study abroad. By ignoring the issues that students of color and IWWOC brought to the table, the university signaled its refusal to make reparations for a long history of racism, continue its whitewashing, and undermined the efforts of faculty and students of color for racial justice and the eradication of gender bias.
As a remedy, one of the important themes of this book is to encourage women of color graduate students to embrace different aspects and intersections of our identity and become our “whole selves.” Women of color graduate students are often told that to be successful academics they need to give up a portion of themselves—whether that means changing the way we look or dress or giving up the idea of children before tenure. Many of the stories in this book share the struggles of women of color in higher education having to choose between our families, communities, and careers. Carrie Simpson highlights the multitude of (often submissive) roles that women of color pursuing education are expected to play: dutiful daughters, sacrificing sisters and mothers, and Arated academics. Confronted with a dominant culture that is only willing to accept tamed and onedimensional versions of ourselves, women of color graduate students are not only forced to relinquish parts of their “whole selves” for their careers but to normalize these “superwoman tendencies”—what Soha Youssef describes in Arabic as sett bmit ragel, meaning “a woman as good as 100 men.”
In her chapter, Youssef introduces this Arabic phrase to critique the dominant tendency of normalizing, even idolizing, women who seem to “do it all.” In challenging patriarchal perceptions, Youssef, who is an international student, does not trade one culture for another in pursuing her educational dreams but preserves her whole self: she situates her educational moves as part of the larger women’s rights struggle in the Middle East while contesting the gaze of white faculty in her department. Youssef includes a fascinating discussion of being encouraged to dress more formally than her white peers. She writes:
The professor—a white woman, probably in her fifties—provided us with the typical advice that teaching students have to dress professionally on our teaching days…. She confirmed that women of color, like me, [needed to overdress] to overcompensate for our skin color…. For me, and probably for the other two women of color in the classroom, our professor ’s response meant extra work for us.
Dressing in white or western camouflage is further examined by Regina Emily Idoate’s essay about being asked to hide Native American cultural regalia at her PhD graduation. Idoate was wearing a stole (a Western academic tradition) with the insignia of her Native American Studies program and reflecting sacred Indigenous colors when she was told by an administrator to take it off during the ceremony. Although she acquiesces at first, the author stands up for the right to represent her “whole self” during this important moment in her life—and to honor the biography that inspired her to pursue a PhD in indigenous public health in the first place. Regaining control over our image is a powerful way to steer the narrative as IWWOC.
These battles are fought not just at the institutional level but within the private confines of our intimate lives, as Carrie Simpson’s chapter, which shares her experience of having children in graduate school, illustrates. Many women of color enter graduate school during prime childbearing years, but they do not qualify for paid or unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. These gendered structural inequalities of the workplace are exacerbated at home, where women are inundated by the “second” even “third shift.” Taking an intersectional approach, Simpson delineates how men of color are often implicated in the compounding of women’s powerlessness and oppression by upholding patriarchal, gendered structures within the home. Acknowledging the difficulty in navigating the unevenly gendered structures of intimacy she offers helpful strategies— such as letting go of cultural expectations to be the main caretaker of children or negotiating a more equitable co-parenting system with partners. Renegotiating expectations and responsibilities are key to creating a sustainable support system as graduate students, mothers, and partners.
Delia Fernández draws from her own experiences as a former McNair Scholar (a federally funded initiative to increase underrepresented students in academia) to outline a framework for cultivating our own supportive spaces by finding mentors, building friendships with people with shared backgrounds, and carving out time for ourselves. Building a community of women of color scholars becomes a challenge when institutional structures do not exist. This point is nowhere more poignant than in Délice Mugabo and Jenny Heijun Wills’s chapter. In it, they describe the power of a no-need-to-say-why connection between women graduate students of color, in their case, manifested in the form of a much-needed hug. These kinds of real connections allow women of color graduate students to sustain their day-to-day lives under oppressive conditions.
But a hug is more than a temporary support— these friendships serve as the building blocks for forming strong academic communities that can sustain the hard work of decolonizing the academy. In the same essay, Mugabo walks us through her experience in co-founding the Black Intellectuals’ Reading Group in Montréal as a supportive space for mentorship, community building, and emotional and cultural support for students of radical Black studies. In the absence of critical race studies programs in Canada, the formation of this group becomes a transformative moment in establishing a home base for Critical Ethnic Studies and Black Studies but also starting the process of writing into existence the erased legacy of settler colonialism and slavery in the telling of French-Canadian “history.”
The erasure of the histories and struggles of communities of color, however, does not just happen within the context of white academic institutions. Unfortunately, this also happens within progressive movements, many of which resist transformative change, and requires reflexivity among us. Aeriel A. Ashlee’s essay addresses the omission of Asian Americans in scholarship, examining systemic racism within the academy. Linking this omission to the perpetuation of the model minority myth, which portrays Asian Americans as a homogenously “well-off” racial group, she argues that this tendency redacts the long history of Asian American racism. Although Asian American women make up less than one percent of PhD graduates in higher education, Ashlee points out Asian Americans are often excluded from IWWOC scholarship, “dangerously contribut[ing] to the erasure of Asian Americans’ racialized experiences as people of color.” These internal divisions are not just found in the US context but across transnational lines. Wills’s work sheds light on the violence that occurs when US Ethnic Studies narratives conflate histories to establish racial consciousness on campuses in Canada in the name of a united front of “Continental North American Ethnic Studies.” Despite shared experiences of marginalization, the author underscores the reflexive need to decenter the US-dominant narrative of ethnic and racialized experiences in foregrounding the distinct history of the Canadian Ethnic Studies struggle.
While powerfully framing the need for introspection from the larger scholars of color network and community, this book emphasizes the critical and transformative role of self-care. As Audre Lorde has written, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is … an act of political warfare.” In her essay, Arianna Taboada describes racial battle fatigue as a daily grind in the struggle to “navigat[e] spaces in higher education where subtle institutional racism and microaggressions are constant and unrelenting.” This includes being subject to triggering remarks from racist faculty and grappling with the imperial roots of our respective disciplines. In addition to finding community and carving out time for our personal lives, medical student (now doctor) Nwadiog Ejiogu reminds us in her chapter to put our health and well-being first and simply survive. This means preparing our loved ones for the demands of graduate school, picking our battles in addressing inequalities in the classroom, and anticipating demeaning remarks from faculty and creating a self-care plan for that eventuality. Ejiogu counsels activist women of color not to be afraid to see a therapist, because “survival is resistance.”
Ejiogu’s tips came at a good time for me, a woman of color entering the last year of my PhD program. After more than five years of non-stop fighting—for our right to unionize on campus, for the rights of graduate students of color unfairly dismissed from our program, for a safe healthcare environment free of predators—I was depleted, hollow to the point that I wanted to give up. If not for my friends, fellow graduate students of color, I wouldn’t have made it. Being able to connect with other women of color graduate students through this book has, in many ways, renewed my strength and passion for doing this work. The book reinforced the truth that women of color must put ourselves first and survive. In a time of confusion and countless disappointments, Degrees of Difference guided me to embrace my “feminist killjoy” (as Sara Ahmed puts it) and stay true to myself—no matter what.
Carolyn Choi is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Southern California specializing in education, gender, and globalization. She has published in Sexualities, International Migration Review, and Global Networks. She is also co-author of the feminist children’s book IntersectionAllies: We Make Room for All.
Choice Words: Writers on Abortion
Edited by Annie Finch
Reviewed by Catharine R. Stimpson
In March, as the coronavirus pandemic was growing into a public health emergency as blatant as the siren of an ambulance, I read the landmark anthology Choice Words: Writers on Abortion. The collection’s editor, Annie Finch, wants “to make clear that bodily autonomy is key to human freedom and integrity.” The title—Choice Words—is a nice pun. The hundreds of selections focus on whether a woman can make decisions about her health, but “choice” also describes something of special worth, and the power to choose is worth fighting for.
In a poem by Sylvia Ramos Cruz, the heroine is an overworked, humane, harassed doctor “…[who] knows/ (safe) abortion is health care.” In 2017, the World Health Organization estimated that 25 million unsafe abortions occur around the world each year. I thought of this poem as some states were putting containment and mitigation strategies into place, such as delaying non-essential surgeries and medical procedures. Ever alert for opportunities to burden women needing terminations, the governments of Texas and Ohio quickly moved to define abortions as non-essential, cynically conjoining the public health crisis of COVID-19 with the public health crisis of abortion constrictions. If the coronavirus is nature’s creation, the vicious tragedy of unsafe abortions is a human one.
I never had an abortion—I was too frightened of getting pregnant, too lucky, and too much in love with women rather than men. Growing up, however, I attended several “shotgun weddings,” a code we all understood. The bride’s pregnancy had forced a marriage between two teenagers, given an unwanted child “legitimacy,” and “saved face” for a family. The children were born. Some “turned out well.” Some did not. Some of the marriages lasted. Some did not.
Finch did have an abortion—in 1999, when she was already the mother of two, an experience that came with an “initial sense of shock and loss.” A poet with a PhD in literature, she turned to her subject for help. Literature, she reasoned, not only provokes understanding of both self and others. It also offers poetic justice to women who have suffered but whose voices have gone unheard.
Searching through cultures of past and present in the United States and globally, Finch unearthed an astonishing diversity of authors who had written about abortion. Some—Amy Tan, Joyce Carol Oates, Audre Lorde, Margaret Atwood—are well-known; others are a cause for discovery and wonder. Together, they deploy a range of genres: fiction, poetry, plays, essays, autobiographies, liturgies, and rituals. Grateful though I am for this bounty, I missed the French and American manifestos in which women, some with the power of fame, publicly stated that they had had illegal abortions—potent weapons in the fight to legalize abortion. (Fortunately, another recently published book, Burn It Down: Feminist Manifestos for the Revolution by Breanne Fahs, includes Simone de Beauvoir’s “Manifeste des 343,” signed by her and 342 other women, some major celebrities and cultural figures, saying they had had abortions, then illegal in France.)
Inseparable from the variety of genres is the diversity of writers. Not surprisingly, then, they show the differences among women of “poverty, wealth, politics, ethnicity, (race), class, religion, marital status, age, geography, and/or nationality.” The authors live under disparate laws and customs. Abortions, and the larger policies about gender and reproduction in which they are embedded, have cruelly different meanings and practices nation by nation. Ana Bladiana’s ironically titled “The Children’s Crusade,” for instance, published in a student magazine and secretly distributed, condemns a 1966 decree that all Romanian women give birth to at least four children. An excerpt from Mo Yan’s novel Frog dramatizes the violent struggle by Chinese Communist party officials to force a village woman to abort her fourth child, a number that exceeds the family’s official allowance. “You Have No Name, No Grave, No Identity” is Manisha Sharma’s elegy for the Indian girls, perhaps more than six million each year, who are wiped away in sex-selective abortions (an antiseptic name) in a culture that too often values boys over girls.
In excruciatingly sharp contrast, “Sorry I’m Late,” by Kristen R. Ghodsee, tells of a lunch in contemporary Bulgaria in which an American interviews a local woman who works for an NGO. The Bulgarian apologizes for her delay, but she has had an abortion that morning, then had to run some errands and found herself in bad traffic. The abortion for her is neither traumatic nor shameful nor a “big deal.” Indeed, the writer muses, as birth control goes, a Bulgarian abortion compares favorably with her years of ingesting hormones.
Because of these demographic, legal, and social differences, and because of the stubborn ineluctability of individuals, each of the women in these texts has experiences specific to her. Desiree Cooper’s “First Response” depicts a chorus of women responding to their pregnancies and abortions: “Joyce didn’t have sex until she was married eight years later. Trish went back to work like nothing ever happened. We made a donation every anniversary. We were pregnant with memory for the rest of our lives. We never thought about it again.”
Unifying these diversities are two blunt facts. First, fertile women can become pregnant. Fertile men cannot. They impregnate. Second, women are neither playgirls nor playthings who giggle their way through abortions. Although some may be in denial, most intuit when they become pregnant. They then traverse the many chambers of the self, soul, and society. As Katha Pollitt (author of Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights) writes in her introduction, “Abortion is always serious. As serious as birth.”
To represent, narrate, and symbolize these facts, Finch calls on literature. She believes in the salutary powers of this fusion of language, perceptions, feelings, imagination, and craft. Although charged with metaphor and linguistic skill, the texts in Choice Words are relatively readable. Only a few—for example, those of Kathy Acker or Camonghne Felix—are formally experimental. Yet, all, from the most gentle of elegies to the most sarcastic and angry of condemnations, radiate a compelling honesty.
Inseparable from Finch’s belief in literature is her conviction in the necessity of women being able to use language, to speak and to write, whether we are professionals or not. One of the haunting themes of Choice Words is the price women pay for being unable to act as self-possessors of language, for being deprived of words, for the biting of the tongue and the suffocation of the mouth. The reasons? Shame, fear, vulnerability, poverty, isolation. In “She Did Not Tell Her Mother (A Found Poem),” teenagers in Kenya know young girls have died during an abortion. However, before her ghastly procedure, “She did not tell her mother. She started crying at night.”
Of course, people have also long talked or written about abortion. Especially, when abortion is illegal and/or socially shunned, language has taken three major forms: private or coded, lies, and public discourse. Accounts of the first appear consistently in Choice Words: speech that is solitary, or, if shared, is secretive, underground, words passed along a network. These are stories of a frightened young woman talking to a friend, or a mother, or a doctor who might understand. As texts by Judith Arcana and Paula Kamen remind us, in the 1960s women in Chicago could find safe illegal abortions if they had access to a piece of paper with a phone number and the code words “Call Jane” on it.
Although some private or coded language leads to useful communication, it also enables a second form of language: the lie. In Langston Hughes’s 1934 story, “Cora Unashamed,” a badly exploited black maid psychologically adopts Jessie, the “slow child” of her employers. When Jessie becomes pregnant, her mother takes her to Kansas City for an abortion from which she eventually dies. The official cause is a lie: fatal indigestion caused by big city food. Cora, at great personal risk, exposes the lie in the middle of a Very Respectable and Pure White funeral and accuses the parents of killing Jessie and her child.
As text after text dramatizes, the lies, if no Cora upends them, breed the most awful social hypocrisies, those enraging discrepancies between social appearance and reality. In “The Scarlet A,” Soniah Kamal interviews women who were once members of the same high school class in Pakistan. Unmarried women, who have lost their virginity outside of marriage, go for agonizing abortions to a “butcher under the bridge,” but married women, who have theoretically lost their virginity on their wedding night, have safe abortions with anesthesia in hospitals where they afterwards rest comfortably on pillows brought from home.
The third major form of language in Choice Words, public discourse, comprises the varying legal, political, philosophical, and religious arguments about gender, reproduction, and power. The abortion “issue” is fought not only about abortion as a practice, but about which narrative should prevail—for example, that of the “undeserving” girl who wants to fit into her prom dress vs. that of the rape survivor with a heart condition for whom abortion is a life-saving procedure. Katha Pollitt speaks to the frequent flatness that occurs in public speech about abortion when she recounts that her files were “crammed with articles” about abortion, yet, “… the debate over legal abortion is curiously abstract; we might be discussing brain transplants.”
By contrast, the literature of Choice Words is vividly concrete. Here are exact lists of medicinal herbs, the color of a pregnancy test, the look of the abortionist’s table, the sounds of metallic instruments in preparation for a curette, the chilly feel of the stirrups as feet are elevated and grasped, the smell of vomit, the excruciating cramps and pain, the look of streams and clots of blood, perhaps a glimpse of embryonic mucus, the stomach-clenching guilt. A woman cannot break her silence about abortion without deploying such physically, psychologically, and ethically precise language. It marks pain and scars, but it is also a breakthrough to memory, partial or full healing of trauma, and community.
Among the concrete experiences are being forced to listen to shouts of “murderer” or “baby killer” as a woman approaches a clinic. Some of the most powerful texts tell of these physical encounters and of encounters with punitive laws. In “Tweets in Exile from Northern Ireland,” Jennifer Hanratty tells of her 2018 journey, with a supportive husband, from Northern Ireland to England so they can obtain a legal abortion. Until the law was changed in October of 2019, women and health care providers in her home country could get up to life imprisonment for ending a pregnancy. The couple’s decision to go, like the trip itself, is “tortuous.” However, their son Linus, if carried to full term, would have been born fatally ill, suffering from anencephaly, the medical term for being born without a brain. Hanratty tweeted, she tells us, so people can understand “the real impact of the law: not in an abstract way, but its real visceral human impact.”
When the anti-abortionists have power, their punitive yearnings, if implemented, can take visceral form. An iconic figure in Choice Words is Purvi Patel, raised in an immigrant family in Indiana, who was sentenced to twenty years for “feticide” after a self-induced abortion. (Patel appealed, with the help of organizations such as National Advocates for Pregnant Women, and was released from prison in 2016.)
Because nothing is, or should be, alien to literature, writers must explore and imagine the lives of these anti-abortion activists. Thus, they are here in Choice Words: the protestors who stifle their doubts, the protestors who do not, the religious zealots who organize demonstrations and offer up a witchy woman to fight and a patriarchal God to worship. One such text, an Ursula K. LeGuin passage from “Standing Ground,” is a split-screen narrative. On one side is Sharee, seeking a clinic abortion, and her daughter Delaware, keeping her company. Sharee may be mentally challenged, but she knows why she wants an abortion. She was impregnated in a rape. On the other side are the protestors. One is a young woman, Mary, a common name in the texts that tear apart rigid Christian ideologies. Mary is scared, but feels at war, part of an “army of the Right.” For an older man, Norman, the protest is an outlet for two otherwise frustrated drives: aggression and eros. In lascivious detail, he imagines the women in the “Butcher Shop.”
Reading about Mary and Norman, I returned to a memory of being a young activist in New York working to legalize abortion. I am speaking on a panel in a school auditorium. On the right side, in middle rows, are our opponents: women dressed in pale, collared blouses. Voiceless, they are holding red roses. Their spokesperson is a middle-aged man who tells us about the travels of a sperm through the vagina and onwards, about the baby it engenders, and about the equivalent travels of an instrument that will murder the baby—only because a woman wi thout God selfishly wanted sex. Voice roiling with passion, he is turning himself on in public while wearing a suit and tie.
The organizing structure Finch devised places her texts in one of five sections: “Mind,” how women make their decisions; “Body,” the physical aspects of abortion; “Heart,” its emotions; “Will,” the “personal and political power inherent in our ability to give life, and the courage and determination that the exercise of choice can require even where it is legal and culturally acceptable”; and, finally, “Spirit.” These divisions establish artificial boundaries among the texts, which do co-mingle mind, body, heart, will, and, often, spirit.
Moreover, if Choice Words had been organized chronologically rather than thematically, I could have more easily discerned dramatic historical changes and comparisons in “real time” among countries. In the United States alone, change since Roe v. Wade in 1973 has included the growth of anti-abortion movements, their partial shift from violence to legislative activities, and the rise of pharmaceutical abortifacients such as RU-486. (My thanks to the anthropologist Faye Ginsburg for historical insight.) For example, in so ordering the poems, I would have started with “The Mother,” a tender, beautiful poem of 1945 by Gwendolyn Brooks, in which “the mother” remembers with grief and love “the children you got that you did not get.” Surely, this must allude to the children of enslaved women, ripped from them, as well as abortions; such children who are at once presence and absence. Then, I would have found the 1962 Anne Sexton poem “The Abortion,” a foundational text of “Confessional Poetry,” a far more self-lacerating narrative of the drive to an abortionist in Pennsylvania. Then, Marge Piercy’s adamant feminist declaration (1980), “Right to Life,” seizes the name of an anti-abortion movement and makes it her own. Defiantly, the speaker declares, “This is my body. If I give it to you/ I want it back. My life/is a nonnegotiable demand.”
Finally, I would have encountered a narrative about events in 2016, “River,” by Hanna Neuschwander. The anti-abortion presidency of Donald J. Trump looms on the horizon. However, a couple still has access to legal abortions. New diagnostic technologies of reproduction— ultrasound, a fetal MRI—also exist, but they inform the parents that their twenty-two-week-old fetus has severe brain abnormalities. Technical knowledge can make decisions harder. As so many others do, the parents mourn and bite on the truth that “there is no right way for your child to die.”
Through a Kickstarter campaign, Finch has raised money to donate copies of this book to clinics where literature might serve a woman sitting and waiting for her turn. Finch also hopes that the book will pollinate a collective and deeper understanding about women’s experiences within and across cultures. Choice Words tells us of decisions that demand some degree of moral and psychological and physical courage. None of these texts is about giddily throwing bouquets and confetti into the air, but the collection is asking for a kind of marriage: of understanding sex, of compassion, of common sense about a mother’s health and a child’s flourishing, and of respect for a woman’s capacity to say, “Perhaps there is no impeccably right way, but this is the best way now.”
Catharine Stimpson is a feminist scholar, University Professor of English, and dean emerita of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University.
Fiebre Tropical By Juli Delgado Lopera
Reviewed by Nino Testa
At fifteen, Francisca moves from her home in Bogotá to an ant-infested townhouse in Miami with her mother, sister, and grandmother; she struggles to acclimate to a new city, a new school, a new culture; and she grapples with budding queer desires while under the watch of her newfound evangelical community. If this sounds like a story or combination of stories you have heard before—the immigrant family in search of a new life, the queer teen coming out—you will find that the sentimental tropes you may have as reference points for such a narrative are deflated within the pages of Juli Delgado Lopera’s painfully funny debut novel Fiebre Tropical. As Francisca, our narrator, informs us: this is no “Choose Your Own Migration multiple-choice adventure.” There is no tidy moral lesson, no American Dream, and no pandering to a white, liberal, American-born audience. Delgado Lopera’s memorable and complex characters struggle to make sense of their lives and their relationships without much regard for how they measure up to the flattened figures that populate many mass media representations of immigrants. Instead, with wit and irreverence, Francisca invites us into the inner workings of what she calls her family’s “Migration Project.”
An early scene sets the tone of the novel: Francisca’s new church helps to stage a baptism for her mother’s first child, Sebastián, who died as an infant seventeen years prior. The family frantically checks off every item on the baptism to-do list: curating the music, buying infant crosses at the dollar store, cooking arroz con coco, and, of course, cleaning the face of the plastic baby doll that will act as a stand-in for Sebastián. Does this sound ridiculous? The characters have too much prep work to do to even consider the question. When the macabre ritual is over, no one knows quite what to do with the plastic Sebastián. Is he treasure or trash? Has the old Sebastián been saved? Will these rituals keep the family together, or further isolate them from one another? This new beginning feels, to Francisca, as if it is built on a warped familial inheritance and a new faith that looks like smoke and mirrors.
The Migration Project requires her to relinquish the signs and symbols of Catholicism—signs and symbols that were always complicated for a young queer, to be sure, but were at least familiar—and replace them with a newfound evangelical discourse. Her mother’s church places the highest premium on being born again, being made new for and by Jesus. Old traditions are flushed down the toilet, like holy water left over from her days in Colombia, rendered useless and devoid of its mystical properties in the ugly-as-sin Hyatt conference room that now serves as her idol-free church in Miami. Flush away who you once were, her mother insists. This is a new life.
But, of course, this new life contains the old, and a clean break is not so easy for any of the women in Francisca’s family. Her mother, haunted by the past, slowly loses her grip on her mental health; her grandmother succumbs to alcoholism; and Francisca just can’t seem to get into the evangelical groove. Should she just pretend to be saved? The Migration Project is threatened at every turn, not least by Francisca’s startling realization that she is in love with a girl. And not just any girl. The daughter of her pastors. Carmen, raised in the church, works tirelessly to convert Francisca, to save her soul. One of the most charming aspects of the novel is the uncertainty with which the reader might approach Francisca’s journey to accept Jesus in her life. Is she doing it to secure her proximity to Carmen, with whom she tries to spread the good news by handing out Christian pamphlets at malls across Miami? Or is this an authentic religious experience? What, in the end, is the difference between the two? She has, after all, used her church to build community and develop relationships, like everyone else there. For these characters, like for so many, faith isn’t really authentic or inauthentic, compulsive or transformative; it is a flawed discourse used to help them better understand their place in a hostile world.
Francisca’s narration of her own life story is compelling, but the most powerful moments of the novel are those that offer the backstory of her mother and grandmother. In two gorgeous flashbacks, their histories open up like cavernous expanses that both explain and complicate our understandings of this family. In an innovative device, Francisca omnisciently narrates her mother ’s and grandmother ’s flashback chapters. Where the women once stood as bizarre, unknowable obstacles in Francisca’s angst-filled life, they become complex figures struggling to navigate the same normativities and systems of violence that have made Francisca’s life feel so unlivable. We might expect familial anti-queerness to organize Francisca’s story—and in many ways, it does, as Francisca experiences anxiety that her grandmother is clocking her queer desires with a knowing glare—but this is not your typical “coming out” narrative. The great joy of the novel is in tracing how and when Francisca’s mother and grandmother themselves grapple with queer desires that could not find a solid grounding or take root in their worlds. What a gift to follow a young queer person—who worries about how her identity will be encountered by her religious family—as she narrates the scene of her grandmother’s own queer awakening as a young woman. A memorable scene involving a naked nun is simply perfection—and adds a layer of erotic humor to the family’s revocation of their Papist ways. In one sense, the novel is about how histories of queer desire work their way through generations, shaping families with regret, paranoia, longing, and failure. Francisca’s rich prose while narrating these flashbacks breeds a sense of understanding, of forgiveness, even, of her imperfect family tree. We see, in this story, the possibility of queer kinship across generations.
It is hard to write a review of Fiebre Tropical without considering another recently released migration novel, Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt, which has been clogging up social media feeds for weeks, reinvigorating an important discourse about who has the right to tell the stories of marginalized people. One of the most impactful responses to the American Dirt phenomenon has been the hashtag #MyLatinoNovel, which highlights the failings of the novel by specifically poking fun at its peppered-in Spanish phrases, not-so-subtly defined for non- Spanish-speaking readers. Queer Latinx advice columnist and Twitter star John Paul Brammer (@jpbrammer) offers an exemplary tweet that influenced the hashtag: “writing my Latino novel: ‘We fled late in the night, or la noche as Mami calls it. I’m always embarrassed when Mami says shit like that, but I forgive her because she’s one of eleven kids and is from el barrio.’” Cummins’s cringe-worthy use of Spanish reveals what the elaborate and highly successful marketing campaign for the novel confirmed: that the imagined audience for American Dirt was always a white, English-speaking audience. The genius of #MyLatinoNovel is how succinctly it encapsulates the liberal fantasy of the “immigrant experience,” which is always a homogenizing and dehumanizing fantasy. It is a fantasy that insists: I know you better than you know yourself, and what I learned about you from white people is all I need to know.
If you are looking for an antidote to the American Dirt phenomenon, Fiebre Tropical—which is written in a compelling and inviting Spanglish—doesn’t try to be the Great Migration Story. Francisca—a glorious creation, the likes of which you have most certainly never found in fiction before—cuts to the core failure of such a story in a way that only a goth-lite, disaffected, queer teenager who learned English by reading Sylvia Plath, can. Delgado Lopera doesn’t offer a reader’s guide to white, non-Spanish speakers like me, and that is what makes the book so wonderful. It isn’t all for me, and it doesn’t have to be. The novel’s refreshing disregard for the homogenizing tropes that characterize “the immigrant experience” is distilled in this reflection, by Francisca, on her decidedly deromanticized grandmother: “I wish I could say I remembered La Tata’s wise words about womanhood and strength (people always seem to remember having remembered a third-world granny saying shit that saved them), but really La Tata believed a trimmed pussy and one hundred dollars would get you anywhere.”
Nino Testa is the Associate Director of the Department of Women & Gender Studies at Texas Christian University, in Fort Worth, Texas, where he teaches queer and feminist studies courses. He lives in Dallas.