About twenty years ago, I had an abortion and discovered that literary writing exploring the experience was not easy to find. So I began editing an anthology of literature about this major, suppressed literary theme, a physical, psychological, moral, spiritual, political, and cultural reality that navigates questions of life and death.
It turned out to be a daunting job: there was great writing but much of it was forgotten and overlooked, hidden within longer works; other pieces were still unpublished, or even unwritten, to be coaxed from their authors by the anthology itself. I was considering abandoning the project when the confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh brought it new urgency. I made it my top priority to complete the book at last, and it was published on the eve of the pandemic under the title Choice Words: Writers on Abortion.
With this week’s news that the Supreme Court has voted to overturn Roe v. Wade, the poetry, fiction, literary nonfiction, and drama gathered in this anthology—the first major collection of literature about abortion—are more urgent and timely than ever. Choice Words spans six centuries and five continents and includes work by Margaret Atwood, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Langston Hughes, Ruth Prawar Jhabvala, Ursula LeGuin, Audre Lorde, Joyce Carol Oates, Dorothy Parker, Anne Sexton, Ntozake Shange, Leslie Marmon Silko, Edith Sodergran, Amy Tan, Mo Yan, and many others.
For this discussion, I asked seven contemporary contributors to answer a few key questions: Judith Arcana, Josette Akresh-Gonzales, Desiree Cooper, Camonghne Felix, Kristen Ghodsee, Jenna Le, and Manisha Sharma.
Annie Finch: Please share, if you like, a brief passage from your contribution to the book and tell us about the greatest obstacle, internal or external, that you faced in writing your piece. What was the most important permission that you needed to give yourself?
Judith Arcana: “Every week we went to a meeting, but not like now. No one stood up and said, My name is Jane and I’m an abortionist. No. Because we didn’t want to stop, we weren’t trying not to do it. We sat in apartments, passing the cards.”
Because my work in the pre-Roe abortion underground was done in a group, whenever I write about what we did (as in those opening lines from “Women’s Liberation”—a poem that includes made-up names and fictionalized stories), I think about my responsibility to both the group and the people who came to us for abortions. Though I don’t think of responsibility as an obstacle, it demands conscious, deliberate attention—always—so it slows us down. And that’s a good thing. Such considerations are necessarily part of my process, and require the “permission” you are asking about.
Josette Akresh-Gonzales: The greatest internal obstacle that I faced in writing ”I Am Used to Keeping Secrets About My Body” was giving myself permission to write about another woman’s experience alongside my own. Although I know several women who have had abortions and know that no one could trace back the anecdote in this poem to a particular person, I worried that somehow, someone would recognize themselves in it and accuse me of using their difficult experience for my own gain (for my art).
The specifics were pretty specific but could apply to any number of women I’d worked with over the years: “that guy she’d hooked up with—who she thought she might marry, / who’d profiled on Indian Cupid as square-jawed but smart and steady,” yet I worried that either this very person I had worked with or someone close to her who knew both of us would take offense.
What gave me permission, in the end, to put this piece out into the world was the restrictive laws being passed that would outlaw abortion after x number of weeks—it didn’t seem likely that these lawmakers even understood that the number of weeks began on the first day of the last period a woman had before she got pregnant. There seemed to me to be many other aspects of women’s bodily experience—women’s biology—that people don’t talk about and therefore should not be legislating. I personally had felt secretive about my periods, about my postpartum body, about yeast infections, and so on. Putting that all together in one poem ended up being a revelation both to myself and, it turned out, to readers!
Desiree Cooper: The greatest obstacle for me was trying to communicate the profound breadth of the abortion experience among (American) women. There are so many financial, relational, emotional, physical and spiritual reasons that bring women to the decision to end a pregnancy and there was no way to universalize abortion care without telling all the stories. So, I chose first person plural, “we,” to convey the feeling that women as a group were testifying.
The morning that we read the stick, some of us buckled on the bathroom floor. Having only bled once, we thought it was impossible. Having bled forever, she shook our graying heads and thought, “This is no miracle.”
Camonghne Felix: The greatest obstacle was in finding validity in the context around my abortion and the social and personal events that drove to it, versus the abortion itself. So much of how we discuss abortion, especially those of us who consider themselves abortion activists, concerns the procedure, the politics of the procedure, and the medical barriers that people who need abortions face.There are so many voices in so many diverse communities that have heretofore been silenced and pushed to the margins when it comes to this issue.
But, as someone who believes fundamentally that I have a right to abortion, that abortions are necessary and critical to reproductive health, it felt less important to write a poem that exemplified that belief, and more important to consider the context of my decision, and the sociopolitical and personal factors that brought me to the decision.
Kristen Ghodsee: This is a weird question in the context of my piece, because my short story reflects on the absolute ordinariness of abortion in Eastern Europe. The story is based on a real experience I had in Bulgaria in the 1990s. I was meeting a woman at a café and when she was late, she explained that among her morning errands and the awful traffic she’d had an abortion. She just dropped in casually in the conversation. And I have often been shocked when my students from the former republics of the Soviet Union talk about going to get their abortions with their grandmothers as if it’s the most normal thing in the world.
There is no trauma and no regret about abortion in that culture, and I think that Western audiences are rarely exposed to this perspective. I think this paragraph captures this view well:
As Svetozara explained that not all of the women in parliament supported the domestic violence legislation because they feared it would make women seem like victims, I wondered what my reproductive life would have been like if I’d been raised in a country where a women’s right to control her own body hadn’t been seriously challenged in decades. Where going to an abortion clinic didn’t mean risking your life to get inside. Maybe having multiple abortions is actually better than pumping yourself full of hormones for decades. I didn’t know, but that day I realized that for women born in most Eastern European countries, the medical removal of a fertilized egg was no more traumatic or shameful than the pharmaceutical prevention of the egg’s fertilization in the first place.
Jenna Le: As I was trying to decide which of my life experiences to draw upon in writing my poem, I was struck by how many facets of a young woman’s life are touched by anxieties about sex, pregnancy, abortion access, and abortion stigma. The issue is omnipresent and influences so many aspects of how we live, think and feel, how we learn to relate to others. It shades our existences so diffusely that seeing the full extent of the impact it has had on my life was challenging at first, an obstacle in itself.
In my poem, I wanted to delve into some of the more remote psychologic consequences of our societal stigma on abortion, to explore how our societal silence around abortion strips young people of their decision-making agency: “So, when it was my turn, I sank into my fear. / I let the boy, my fear, and chance do all the choosing.”
On my right: white tray on a white table. Foggy forceps,
scissors that grow bold and big then shrink like raisins
I soak every night for your father.
Everything is a blank, an erased memory.
Abortion is not the same everywhere. What I refer to in my poem is called sex-selective abortion, a term that itself adds to ambiguity. It refers to abortion when the fetus is the undesired female sex. Son preference is responsible for 400,000 abortions a year in India alone. Though a broad generalization, there is no doubt that most of these abortions are forced. Forced because of cultural expectations for a male heir. Forced because of economic pressures. Forced because of societal pressures. Forced because of family expectations.I want to see work that normalizes abortion; I want to see work that shows an evolved understanding of how gender and abortion rights interact.
It is through precise, vivid details that the experience becomes real as if it is happening with my own body. I am acutely aware of the paradox of emotions that hit me as I wrote these lines, imagining what millions of women in my country and outside have gone through. I know it’s not me, but I am also aware that I have an objective distance to the experience which only helps me tell it and make it universal.
When sex-selective abortions can shake gender balance to the point of no repair in the second most populous country in the world, it is imperative for the entire world to pay attention to find solutions to this abuse of an innovative technology. Today entire states in India are living with a scarcity of girls, adding to social crimes and much more.
AF: What surprises you the most about the experience of being part of this book?
JA: I was not expecting the breadth of attitudes/opinions/stories represented here. I’m impressed by that range, happy about it—yes, happy—thinking about people who will read this book and learn about the complexity of abortion, the depth of decisions that’re often simplified by the word choice (as if someone were deciding between green and yellow paint for the walls of a hallway, between chocolate and caramel filling for cupcakes).
JAG: For my first publication as part of an anthology, I am amazed and happy to be included with such huge names as Sharon Olds, Amy Tan, Gloria Steinem, and of course Annie Finch (the amazing editor of this book), and so many others. I was impressed with the breadth and depth of the book—its organization (mind, body, heart, will, spirit) was so satisfying a way to approach this topic.
I am excited to meet some of the other writers in the book’s pages as I feel I’ve gotten to know them a bit from reading their pieces, which say a certain something about them I already know I’ll like. I enjoy being in the company of these stories, essays, and poems, as I feel at home in their pages. I admire Annie Finch for engendering the idea for this book and making it happen. I know it took many years and a lot of effort; that persistence should not be overlooked.
DC: I’ve been a feminist and a supporter of reproductive rights for my entire adult life. I had an abortion in college, the shame of which has never quite evaporated. I worked for Planned Parenthood of Michigan for five years. Yet, I am continuously amazed at how the vast majority of people are supportive of reproductive choice (to some degree), many people are quiet advocates, and many, many more have had abortions. Being a part of this book has been a wonderful opportunity to re-engage with the “normality” of something that continues to be relegated to the shadows.
CF: I guess it surprises me just how many poems are distinctly and specifically about abortion.
KG: Since I am an ethnographer, I mostly write either academic books or in the field of what is called “creative nonfiction.” When Annie asked me to write a short story for the collection, it was definitely a little bit out of my comfort zone. Although I have written some ethnographic fiction in the past, this story challenged me because I wanted to convey a lot of information in a very short piece. I guess what surprises me most is being included in a volume with so many amazing poets and fiction writers, since this is not usually where my work appears.
JL: I am ever surprised by how relevant this book continues to be, how this already-centuries-long conversation between foremothers and daughters continues echoing into the present and into the future.
MS: Everything, but most of what I admire about the book is the expansive view of abortion that it takes.
AF: Please discuss another piece from the book besides your own, preferably from a writer of an earlier generation, for which you feel kinship or appreciation.
JA: Reading Mary Wollstonecraft’s piece, an excerpt from Maria: Or, The Wrongs of Women, written in the 18th century, I feel both kinship and appreciation. I admire Wollstonecraft’s willingness to write about abortion within its cultural context, emphasizing class and misogyny. Her determination to tell the truth is a model for those of us who make art with words and want to use that art for what are, essentially, political reasons.
JAG: I appreciate so many pieces in this anthology that it is hard to choose one in particular, but if pressed I would say “The End,” by Sharon Olds. It grips me from start to finish, and as is usual in her work, uses visceral imagery, concrete wording, and an admirable willingness to tell it like it is. In both my poem and hers, in fact, the link between normal women’s bodily experience and abortion is made clear, but there is a sense of judgment, perhaps internalized from the culture at large.
Her ending, appropriately so, shocks the reader to realize how necessary, how wanted this abortion was, with her bringing up of a celebration, a “feast” that, when it’s over, needs to be cleaned up. This metaphorical licking of the lips at the end of the poem should not be shocking, but it is, in our world, such an unspoken thing to actually celebrate an abortion, all the blood and guts of it, that it does shock me that she just said it, put it in a poem, celebrated it.
DC: How to choose between the pieces? I really appreciated pieces like the poem “Haint” by Teri Cross Davis which expresses the common fear that women will be punished/cursed with infertility or miscarriages in the future because they had an abortion in the past. The trauma of the shame can haunt women for a lifetime. Conversely, I remember gasping out loud when I read this passage from “Sorry I’m Late,” by Kristen Ghodsee. It’s about an American woman interviewing a Bulgarian woman about some legislation.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said to me in the perfect English of a young professional who had earned a master’s degree in the UK. “I had an abortion this morning and had to run some errand, and then my tram didn’t show up and I had to take a taxi.”
Oh, to imagine a world where an abortion merely shows up on a normal “to-do” list. It blew my mind.
CF: Grateful to all of these writers and all of these pieces for their continued reflection on abortion and on the evolution of the conversations on abortion. All of their works take us one step further in the conversation towards equity.
KG: I enjoyed Soniah Kamal’s interviews with high school students from Pakistan where pre-marital sex is punishable by a five-year prison term, and so abortion is an absolute necessity for young women. Although I very much enjoyed the fiction and poetry in the collection, I think the power of this contribution, “The Scarlet A,” lies in its veracity. There is so much shame associated with sexuality in this culture, and these compelling first person accounts give the reader a unique window into the politics of abortion in a non-Western society, which I appreciated.
JL: I keep returning to Julie Kane’s sonnet “Tunnel of Light,” how the chilly grace of its formal beauty is counterbalanced by its blazing honesty and vulnerability. Contemplating the possibility of someday reuniting with “My mother wait[ing] there in her spider web” and “My little lost infant wait[ing] in her crib,” the speaker incants, “O holy mother, help us to forgive / those who killed us and those who let us live.” In our lives, there are so many directions in which hurt can flow, but there are just as many directions in which healing and help and forgiveness and permission can flow also.
MS: Amy Tan’s excerpt from her novel The Kitchen God’s Wife affects me in a million ways every time I read it. It gradually weaves in multiple layers of characters and meanings, one by one, and makes this complex thing, a simple one, one that the reader can peel off, the layers of interpretation and be surprised every time they read.
Multiple themes reside in this short excerpt. There’s gender. The superiority of the male against the female. There’s class too. An outward impression that as a rich female you are better off than a poor servant girl. You have more agency, but a fear of the unknown creeps into the wealthy woman and flips what she thought so confidently about. She wanted her husband to pay for impregnating a servant girl at first, but she took a shortcut because she heard voices in her head about what people would say.
Ultimately the servant girl kills herself, and the narrator blames it on her husband, who preys upon their own six-month-old daughter, and the wife must give in. The wife gives in because she wants peace in the family. The wife takes it to keep things going and cuts the husband loose. The story is rich, complex, real, and vivid. I try to do similar things in my work too, to simplify a complex issue and make it a universal experience.
AF: Until this book, literature about abortion was almost invisible as a literary theme/mode (except for the poems by Brooks and Clifton and some rather sensationalist works by white male writers). Now that this book exists, what kind of writing would you like to see as the next wave of abortion literature? What advice would you give to other writers who want to write about abortion?
JA: I have no thoughts about a “kind of writing” I’d like to see, and I’ve long been committed to not giving advice (perhaps even more now, as an elder, because I get asked for advice more often). However, because I’m happy about the thoughtful analyses and engaging narratives offered in Choice Words (in so many different ways, with so many different attitudes), I can suggest that those “other writers” read this book.
JAG: The advice I would give myself—a writer who would like to write more poems about abortion—is to let go of expectations, of worrying about what others might think, and write some heartfelt protest poems about what it might mean to go back to a time where abortion is illegal. It’s a scary thought. I think we need as a society to process that scary thought and really explore it. If a fetus is a person, is my IUD murder? How far back to conception does that ethical line go?
I read a story a few years ago (speculative) that envisioned an America where women had to pay for a funeral for each menstrual period. In my mind, I can imagine a life where I got pregnant accidentally, having already had two kids, and would need to make a decision about what to do. After reading so many amazing pieces in Choice Words, I actually feel way more empowered to write down these thoughts and feelings than I did before. I hope many many other writers feel the same way.
DC: I’d like to see a day come when we are free of “acceptable” moral reasons for abortion, and only personal and medical decisions guide access. Perhaps that will only come when physicians, midwives and abortion doulas tell more of their stories as well.
CF: I want to see work that normalizes abortion; I want to see work that shows an evolved understanding of how gender and abortion rights interact; I want trans people writing about abortion; and I want to decenter femaleness as the identifier for abortion need.
KG: I think more international writing would be wonderful, especially from authors in the Global South. I also think there should be more voices from Eastern Europe and Eurasia as their experiences are very different from those in the West. Abortion was first legalized on demand in the Soviet Union in 1920, and many Soviet women had multiple abortions over the course of their lives.
In terms of my advice, I think there is too often a focus on trauma and regret in a lot of writing about abortion, and while I understand that this is the authentic experience for manypeople, I do worry that it perpetuates the stigma associated with the practice.
JL: I would just like to see more and more and more! There are so many voices in so many diverse communities that have heretofore been silenced and pushed to the margins when it comes to this issue. I would love to see more of these underrepresented voices be widely heard and granted their share of space in our common awareness and community conversation.
MS: I don’t think we can want to see a particular type of abortion writing. Our experiences shape our writing, and it is better kept that way. The element of surprise must never leave the writer. My advice to future writers would be to just keep at it. Keep expressing what you have to go through, and one day you will be surprised by what you unload on that page.
Choice Words: Writers on Abortion, is available now from Haymarket Books
Judith Arcana writes poems, stories, essays, and books—including Grace Paley’s Life Stories, a Literary/Political Biography; Announcements from the Planetarium, a recent poetry collection; and, coming soon, Hello. This Is Jane is a collection of linked fictional stories seeded by Judith’s pre-Roe underground abortion work in Chicago. juditharcana.com
Josette Akresh-Gonzales was a finalist in the 2017 Split Lip Chapbook Con- test and has been Pushcart nominated; her poems are in The Pinch, Breakwater, [PANK] Magazine, and elsewhere. She lives in the Boston area with her husband and two boys and bikes to work at a nonprofit medical publisher. @Vivakresh
Desiree Cooper is a 2015 Kresge Artist Fellow, Pulitzer Prize–nominated journalist, and the award-winning author of the flash-fiction collection Know the Mother. Her short film based upon “The Choice” won awards at the Berlin Flash Film Festival, and the Los Angeles Best Short Film Festival. She resides in coastal Virginia.
Camonghne Felix is a poet, political strategist, media junkie, and cultural worker. Her debut full-length collection of poems, Build Yourself a Boat (Haymarket Books, 2019), is longlisted for the National Book Award.
Annie Finch is a poet, writer, teacher, and performer. Her books include Spells: New and Selected Poems, Calendars, A Poet’s Craft, and a book-length poem about abortion entitled Among the Goddesses: An Epic Libretto in Seven Dreams. Her abortion healing ritual, and subscriptions to Annie’s Spellsletter, are available at anniefinch.net
Kristen R. Ghodsee is an award-winning author, ethnographer, and professor of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She has written nine books, and her articles have been translated into over a dozen languages and published in Foreign Affairs, Dissent, New Republic, Washington Post, and New York Times.
Jenna Le authored Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011) and A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora (Indolent Books, 2018), which won second place in the Elgin Awards. She was selected by Marilyn Nelson as winner of Poetry by the Sea’s inaugural sonnet competition. Her poetry appears in Los Angeles Review, Massachusetts Review, and West Branch. jennalewriting.com
Manisha Sharma, an Indian, writes across genres about social issues. Her work is a 2019 semifinalist for the American Short(er) Fiction Contest. An AWP mentee in poetry, she has been a resident at the Vermont Studio Center and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She is a lecturer of English and teacher of yoga-meditation at New River Community College in Virginia.