Risk and Craft Are Inseparable: Kristen Arnett, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, and Shelly Oria in Conversation

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I Know What’s Best For You, Stories on Reproductive Freedom, a multi-genre anthology that I compiled and edited for McSweeney’s, will be released on May 24, a few weeks before the Supreme Court decision is expected to overturn Roe v Wade, and a few weeks after a draft of that decision was leaked. In this fraught moment, I invited two of the book’s contributors—Rachel Eliza Griffiths and Kristen Arnett—to discuss with me their experience of thinking, writing, and feeling on the topic of reproductive freedom.
Shelly Oria: Had you written about or made work in response to reproductive freedom before, or was this your first time spotlighting this topic?
Kristen Arnett: It’s an interesting question, because thinking back on everything I’ve worked on over the past few years, I would say that reproductive freedom is definitely not something I purposefully put into my writing. It just hides out there, lurking, waiting for me to finally recognize it. I think a lot about queer women and queer bodies when I’m drafting, especially queer bodies in Florida, so I think it’s something that just has naturally migrated into some of my more recent novel work, but I wasn’t able to realize it until after the drafts were complete. Writing about queer motherhood is writing about reproductive freedom. Writing about the queer body is writing about those things. The more I think about it, the more I tunnel down into how much it touches almost everything!
Rachel Eliza Griffiths: In much of my writing and visual work, there is a thread, sometimes faint and other times deliberately visible, about exploring and orbiting reproductive freedom in relationship to Black womanhood. For me, I can’t help but immediately think of the bodies and stories of enslaved women. Their brutal oppression was a fundamental, transactional narrative of America’s genesis. The violation of our rights to be considered human at all is a continuous trauma across so many mediums, as is our healing. There is eugenics. There are unrelenting economic and ideological collisions that endanger Black women all the time. My imagination, in pictures and texts, attempts to defy, to praise, to trouble, and to witness these wars, which are global, against our right to our bodies. It is also my right to reject feeling obligated to confine my work solely to this topic.
KA: Shelly, was reproductive freedom something you’d already been thinking about meaningfully?

SO: No more than the average queer feminist Brooklyn-based writer. So, you know: yes. But also not in any serious way. I was about to go on tour with Indelible in the Hippocampus, Writings from the MeToo Movement and Amanda Uhle, McSweeney’s publisher, asked me to meet the women behind The Brigid Alliance for lunch—she was considering partnering with them to make a book that would be similar to Indelible in spirit and format but center reproductive freedom, in response to our crisis. I realized at that lunch—began to realize—how little I actually knew, how much more dire this emergency was than most people seemed to think. And that was back in 2019.
My work on both Indelible and I Know What’s Best for You have made me think a lot about the role art in general and books in particular play—or could play, and at times perhaps should play—in both writers’ and readers’ lives, in shaping the larger conversation and responding to injustice. It seems to me that art and literature can complement other forms of activism in ways that are quite powerful and unique, and yet good luck to any writer who sits down with a prompt like, A poem that saves reproductive freedom. How do you think about this tension?
REG: There must be something at stake, shared between the writer and the reader. I’d hope that the writer draws the reader into her cosmos, her flesh, her resistance, her joy without any easy propaganda. Maybe the reader feels uneasy yet secretly grateful, relieved, no longer alone in comprehending the excruciating ways that women confront and celebrate our rights and choices. There’s that sense of wonder, hope, and power we’ve encountered as both reader and writer. I write from a swelling of intuition that is indivisible from my learned intelligence and from my body. Risk and craft become inseparable.
Shelly, when you invited me to submit visual work, I was terrified. I could hear my mother’s disapproval. I was worried about what anyone might “think” of me because it isn’t necessarily how I usually center myself in my work. I’d first begun making these raw, self-images during a retreat just after my mother’s death. I was thinking of childbirth, rebirth, pushing my own understanding and acceptance of not being a mother yet realizing the bond of chosen motherhood I share with so many close women friends. There’s a painting by Frida Kahlo where she is giving birth to herself. I wanted to create a call-and-response on my own terms, in my own voice. The  initial work took me out to the edge of something startling.  My body was visible to me in a greater spectrum that emphasized to me what women are facing everywhere.

KA: I love the idea that risk and craft are inseparable; it’s something I want to always remember when I’m building something.
SO: Relatedly, I’m also interested in the responsibility of publishers and editors and artistic curators in this context, in supporting art that responds to crisis. Were you already working on the piece you contributed to I Know What’s Best For You when I reached out to you, or did the solicitation from McSweeney’s inspire the work?
KA: I have to admit, I was in a bit of a writing slump when you reached out to me about participating in the project. I was at a fellowship and my last novel tour had completed and I’d sent away the draft for the next book, and I just felt hollowed out. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to work on next or even what I wanted to read. I think I was burnt out, to be honest! But when you sent the email and described the thrust of the project, I felt that little spark dart up in my chest—that one that always makes me aware that I have an idea brewing. I sat down that day and immediately began drafting out what would become the story I gave to you, “The Babies.” It felt very inspiring, thinking about all the work that other people would contribute. Before this project, I hadn’t thought about reproductive freedom in direct relation to my fiction.
REG: When you reached out, Shelly, I had about a dozen or so of these images—and I mean, the ones I would be remotely comfortable having published. During the pandemic, I found the need to return to the series because of our conversations, but also because of how intensely aware we all became of our bodies, of coronavirus, and how it has changed everything, including our urgency about having conversations about reproductive rights. Since I realized I trusted myself to keep going with these photographs, I haven’t stopped expanding the series.
SO: Multi-genre books, like Indelible and I Know What’s Best, felt super important to me for all kinds of reasons—creative inclusivity, responding to social and political causes in ways that extend beyond nonfiction, inviting different genres to share space, and so on—but I’d love to hear your thoughts on this aspect of the project and what it may have felt like from a contributor’s perspective.
KA: So often we write in little silos, in our own heads, and contributing to this project—one where I knew that my work would sit alongside the art of other people I deeply admire—felt like such a blessing. A way to collaborate on something that felt deeply meaningful. And just knowing that so many different perspectives were going to be housed together, put in direct conversation with each other, just thrilled me. I felt very held.
REG: Kristen, I love what you said about collaboration and how meaningful these conversations are for us, however they can happen because they must happen now. Shelly’s thoughtfulness and vision is a brilliant “house” and in it I felt safe. The notion of women and what “home” means to us, particularly in I Know What’s Best For You is distinct, revelatory, necessary, and real. It felt as if I got to sit on the porch, surrounded by the power, joy, strength, and love of what we’ve learned about our lives for ourselves and where we must anticipate what is to come.
KA: That is such a beautiful way to put it, truly. I did feel very safe with my work. I think a lot of that was from absolutely knowing how much care and compassion everyone put into it.
SO: Have either of you felt emboldened as writers because of the misogyny that’s more blatant and “in our face” these last few years?
REG: It feels “in our face” in a different way, as I can’t help but think of how the lives of women before these past years were damaged and wounded. And how those women and their hopes were often silenced, turned against themselves, or, in so many cases, they couldn’t keep fighting these spaces—their bodies gave out, insisted on other forms and languages. They had children to care for, or had chosen not to be mothers, or had felt that they couldn’t become writers, artists, et cetera, because they received little to no support to be many things. I think about language so much, about stories and images, that offer nuance, complexity, and vulnerability. It happens innately in whatever I create. I don’t want to necessarily feel reactive all the time yet I can’t help it in this country. I have to stand up, aware that there are others—elders, unborn, tortured women—who need my shoulders. The knowledge that being a queer Black woman, any part of those words, means everything to me. And, of course, it might mean absolutely nothing elsewhere.
I think I remain haunted by the fact that Black women have been “disappeared” in this country for centuries—by the American imagination, the justice system, law enforcement, economic and healthcare systems. It’s the sense that “in our face” feels separated from my own “Black face”—I have to unpack that process and language in myself. I have agency so the faces “in my face” will always be for women—our call to arms and to love. What was the most tense element for you during this process, Shelly? Did your editor-self and writer-self have any truces?
SO: Oh, they’re not interested in truces; each of them wants to dominate. My writer-self is generally much stronger, and that’s sort of a given, so in a way it’s shocking that I’ve spent almost five years now putting together and editing two books (three, really, if you count the ebook I Know What’s Best For You All Over the World, the international supplement to our book, which spotlights writers and artists from 16 countries). I think the editor-self was a bit shocked too that all this was happening, that she was getting this sustained attention from me, and in a way it only made her more aggressive, like, This is my moment.
The most tense element, I’d say, has been the timing. As I worked on this project, the reproductive crisis got more and more dire, and three weeks before our publication date, the SCOTUS draft was leaked. I’ve barely slept since it happened; I can’t seem to convince my body that this little book isn’t in fact tasked with saving America from the catastrophe of overturning Roe.
REG: I know that feeling.
SO: Rachel Eliza, since your piece in the book, “Journal of My Birth,” is comprised of an essay and photographs, I wonder if you could talk a bit about the creative process of writing toward (or in support of) images, and how that may differ from writing a standalone essay or poem.
REG: Something I hadn’t expected to haunt me in the writing and the photographs was shame. I had to return to a lineage of history, of memory, threaded by race, assault, and imagination. I remembered my mother’s grief as she spoke of a white doctor who wouldn’t listen to her—young, Black, poor—when she said something was wrong with her baby. I had to try and to really remember some of the names of girlfriends whose lives would’ve been different if we hadn’t shown up for each other. The trauma of being mislabeled and laughed at in a medical setting. I had to realize that the ugly things that have happened to my mother, my friends, myself—those things aren’t who we are, and we are irreducible.
The photographs scaled those bridges so that I could leap and land at the site of my own house, my own body. I had to let go of my mother’s shame which I internalized at a young age. I was confused because she raised me to be very conscious of having my freedom and independence. Except that it had to be on her terms. I know that wasn’t her intention and that as I grew, especially as a queer Black woman who would not be giving her grandchildren, I felt that I had failed her. After her death, our conversations continued spiritually. I know she’s proud of my vulnerability, my desire to hold sacred the childhood she gave me and the motherhood she’d always wanted.
SO: Kristen, something you and I grappled with in the editing process of “The Babies” is the tension between your initial impulse to write Shauna and Julie’s story in a way that reflected a fundamentally healthy lesbian relationship, and the inherent darkness of the subject matter—especially in today’s America, and for a queer couple at that. Could you speak to that tension and your experience writing this story?
KA: It was this very real thing, to want to understand what it’s like to write characters that you want to feel are deeply intimate and deeply in love, and then to understand what a loss like that would feel like between them. Like how it would necessitate a kind of divide even in the best relationship, because it comes down to the queer body, and that’s always itself. With this couple, there is one woman who is pregnant. That queer body does the holding, and that is the body that loses the baby, and that was something I thought a lot about when it came to deciphering loss. What that would mean when it comes to different feelings of pain. It became the real tension there, that one you’re mentioning, because even when people care a lot for each other, it is difficult to share and hold the same kind of loss when it comes to our bodies and our minds. And when I took them to the clinic together, I was like, How can I make it so that even though they care deeply for each other, there is going to be a way in which they feel like they are separated from each other, or that the other one can’t exactly see what is missing? So I tried to access it that way, to think more about what wasn’t there between them, or a boundary that couldn’t be breached, and it freed up ways for me to give them both a lot of empathy.
SO: I was so careful not to include any spoilers in my question, and you’re like, So here’s what happens in this story!
KA: Hah! There’s always one million different ways to tell it, am I right?

Kristen Arnett is the author of With Teeth: A Novel (Riverhead Books, 2021) which was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in fiction and the New York Times bestselling debut novel Mostly Dead Things (Tin House, 2019) which was also a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in fiction and was shortlisted for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. She was awarded a Shearing Fellowship at Black Mountain Institute and was longlisted for the Joyce Carol Oates Prize recognizing mid-career writers of fiction. Her work has appeared at The New York Times, TIME, The Cut, Oprah Magazine, Guernica, Buzzfeed, McSweeneys, PBS Newshour, The Guardian, Salon, and elsewhere. Her next book, a collection of short stories, will be published by Riverhead Books. She has a Masters in Library and Information Science from Florida State University and currently lives in Miami.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths is a poet, novelist, and photographer. Her recent collection, Seeing the Body (W.W. Norton), was selected as the winner of the 2021 Hurston/Wright Foundation Legacy Award, the 2021 winner of the Paterson Poetry Prize, and a finalist for the 2021 NAACP Image Award. Griffiths’ literary and visual work has appeared widely, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, New York Review of Books, Los Angeles Review of Books, McSweeney’s, Best American Poetry (2020, 2021), and The New York Times. She is the recipient of fellowships, including Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Cave Canem, and Yaddo. Her debut novel, Promise, is forthcoming from Random House in 2023. She lives in New York City. 

The State of #MeToo

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Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings from the Me Too Movement, a multi-genre anthology of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that I compiled and edited for McSweeney’s, was released in September and is now headed toward its third printing. Recently, after returning home to Brooklyn from book-event travels on behalf of Indelible, I invited two of the book’s contributors—Mecca Jamilah Sullivan and Diana Spechler—to discuss the current state of the #MeToo movement and their experience writing on this topic.

Shelly Oria: Had you written #MeToo before or was this your first time writing about this topic?

Diana Spechler: The #MeToo movement has given me a new lens through which to see so much of my past, including my past writing. Sometimes the lens makes me wince. For example, years ago I wrote fairly straight journalism about pick-up artists, giving very little thought to how gross “pick-up art” is. Please don’t Google that! Or, if you Google it, please say aloud to yourself, “Well, Diana has certainly matured since 2009!” I now realize how much my experience as a woman in a patriarchal society has impacted my writing, my life, my preoccupations, my fears, my sense of accomplishment, so perhaps it’s fair to say that everything I’ve ever written has been a #MeToo piece; I just often didn’t realize it.

Mecca Jamilah Sullivan: Exactly. I’ve never written about sexual violence expressly in the context of #MeToo, but the movement has absolutely awakened me to themes of sexual harm, power, and vulnerability, both in my work and in the writing I love. I have always known sexuality and power to be important concerns of my work, and of feminist and black feminist literatures, but #MeToo has really brought these themes into a kind of focus in ways that are challenging but crucial. Or crucial because they are challenging. This movement has shown me how true it is that we can’t think about, for example, coming-of-age fiction, or what people call “domestic fiction”—or really any story that wants to deal honestly with the experiences of women and people of marginalized genders—without thinking about vulnerability to sexual violence and sexual power. It’s there in the novels, the stories; we just haven’t all been talking about it.

DS: Shelly, I know that your writing has explored power, gender, identity, and sexuality for a very long time. How did #MeToo (at least as it reemerged a couple years ago, more than a decade after Tarana Burke started it) impact your work?

SO: I had this moment when I was asked in an interview for Indelible if I was also working on my own #MeToo story collection, and I started and restarted my answer a bunch of times—luckily this was over email—because I kept thinking of another story of mine and another that is actually about sexual violence in some way…I started with an answer that could be summed up as “not really,” and ended with some like “I’ve been writing a lot of MeToo fiction.” So I very much relate to what you’re both saying here. I think it’s mostly my thinking about my work that has shifted in the past two years, as the cultural context for everything being written and made has reshaped itself.

This change affects what’s being published, and it affects how readers are receiving these stories. If you’d written about this topic prior to October 2017—pre-Harvey—did the experience feel different in any way? Was the reception of the work different?

DS: So much has shifted since the rise of Trump. We couldn’t have gotten to Harvey had Trump not already begun contaminating the air. And I would say that that contamination has made everything feel different.

I’m not really answering the question, am I? I think that’s because what’s more compelling to me than changing reactions to my own work is how reactions to other writers’ work have changed. For example, in 1998, Joyce Maynard published her memoir At Home in the World, about how J.D. Salinger preyed on her when she was a college student. The response to that publication was ostracism from much of the literary community. I met Joyce a couple years ago at a writers’ conference and gushed about that book to her and then we talked about how different the reception would likely be today, how awful the reaction was back then, and how fascinating it is that a book that once made her a pariah could have 20 years later made her a hero. Since that conversation, I’ve seen a bit of a revival of that book. People are reading it differently now.

An even more fascinating example, though it’s not a literary example, is how the world has begun treating Monica Lewinsky. In the ’90s, she was Public Enemy No. 1. Now that seems totally absurd. Why the hell were we blaming her? Today she’s one of our spokeswomen.

I keep wanting to apologize for going off on tangents instead of answering the question, but that would be ironic since Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump have rested their careers on never apologizing and they are rapists, while I am just a lady with an imperfect attention span.

MJS: But also, it makes sense to resist a linear narrative of time and “attention span,” as Diana puts it so well, in this conversation. I think it’s important to acknowledge how even imagining the public conversations on Weinstein (or Trump) as a kind of catalyzing or originating moment in the #MeToo conversation ends up enacting (or at least permitting) another kind of narrative violence that not only erases the labor of black women and women of color organizers like Tarana Burke, who founded the #MeToo movement in 2006, but that also centers these men and their actions, rather than the cultures of power that have allowed these stories and billions of others exist as open secrets—or at least as secreted, as objects of a rigorously selective hearing—for decades or more, and the many women writers around the world who have been telling these stories for just as long, often only to be ignored or punished or both. That’s a harder set of questions to grapple with, and one that a singularly-focused origin story can’t really accommodate.

DS: Shelly, this makes me think of this line from “But We Will Win,” your short story in the anthology: “My point was to bring attention to the larger issue.” In the context of the narrative, the sentence is very funny, but when I read it, it jumped out at me because it also could have been a summary of the activism you did by compiling this anthology. It makes me misty-eyed to think that all of our stories and poems and essays might “bring attention to the larger issue,” might help us to one day “win.” How do you view our responsibility as writers and artists in this critical moment?

SO: Working on Indelible—compiling the book, editing the pieces—felt like an effort to “bring attention to the larger issue” for sure, yes. And that effort presented itself in my life at a time when I was desperate to do something that might “matter.” Having grown up in Israel, I find protesting hard, at times impossible; I grew up believing this type of action mattered, and while my brain still believes that, my body hasn’t in many years. So putting together this book felt like the type of protest I could show up for again and again.

But really—and this may sound…hokey—I think our responsibility as artists is only to truth and vulnerability. When we meet that responsibility in a real way, the rest takes care of itself. So while conceptualizing our writing as activism is generally a bad idea, sometimes some form of activism will happen through the work nonetheless. Honesty is radical. Especially right now.

I see Indelible as part of a wave of books that are coming out now, at the two-year mark of the movement in its current incarnation and the one-year mark of the Kavanaugh hearings, and that’s been making me think a lot about this question, and specifically about the role books like Indelible play, both in readers’ and writers’ lives, in shaping the larger conversation.

Were you already working on the piece you contributed to Indelible when I reached out to you, or did the solicitation from McSweeney’s inspire the work?

DS: When you solicited me, I had a complicated reaction. Reflecting on men who have bulldozed my boundaries generated an elixir of pain, shame, and fury. Simultaneously, I was excited to contribute to such a beautiful project and terrified that I was going to fail. (To be fair, my initial reaction to every assignment I’ve ever gotten in my life is that I’m going to fail.) And then within a week or so, the voice of the piece popped into my head. It was the voice of an interrogator—a man demanding that a woman prove her allegations against her various sexual harassers. It was a silly voice, a caricature, like the collective voice that yells about “due process” these days without having any idea what it is.

That’s how writing works for me: Someone whispers a line into my ear and that’s the seed. It’s planted. Then I have to sit down and…I don’t understand gardening, so please don’t make me continue this metaphor. But eventually there’s a big, published plant?

MJS: That’s really interesting. I had mixed feelings too, actually, though I think for different reasons. I have taken issue with the way #MeToo has often been framed as a kind of spontaneous eruption of voicing catalyzed by famous or well-off white women. So, I thought it was really important to contribute, and I was honored to be invited. At the same time, it was important to me to be able to be clear about this erasure. So when we did our Philly launch event in October, It was important to me to read from Burke’s piece, “MeToo is a Movement, Not a Moment,” instead of sharing only my own writing. I appreciated the chance to center her voice in the conversation.

But your initial email about the anthology got me thinking about my writing (and, again, the literature I love and teach) in a different way. As a fiction writer, I thought at first that I didn’t have a “MeToo story,” proper, to contribute; I’ve only written a few stories that I think of as dealing directly with sexual violence, and they had been published already. But when I thought more about it, I realized that so much of my work is tinged with the specter of sexual vulnerability and sexual harm in complex ways. The story I ended up sending narrates a similar experience. The character, a thick black girl who has fought hard to lose weight, does not see herself as having experienced sexual violence—at least not at first. She doesn’t have language to describe her experience, just as she doesn’t have language to describe her body. We catch her in that search for words and context. It’s a complicated thing to grapple with, and I was glad for the chance to do it.

DS: Have either of you felt emboldened as writers because so much of the misogyny that used to be confined to whisper networks is now out in the open? How so?

MJS: In some ways, I think I have tended to be a little…what…oblivious, or maybe irreverent, when it comes to sex and power and bodily experience in my writing, and how it will be received. For better and for worse. So I don’t know that my writing has changed, but it is interesting and, I think, heartening to imagine that there is a widening readership for candid, direct, work on these subjects. How about you?

SO: I think touring with the anthology has emboldened me: meeting and talking to many people in different parts of the country who shared their stories with me, who came to our events because—whether they feel empowered or not—they are dedicated to speaking up and reading and in many cases writing, too, about this issue. I think it’s necessary. I think that in our lifetime, it will never not be necessary, and never not radical.

I, too, have been focused on the exclusion and erasure that were part of the phenomenon of the past two years, and much of making Indelible has been a response to and a conversation with these big problems. Through the book events, and before that, through planning these events—especially the ones in cities I couldn’t go to myself, where local writers stepped up to celebrate the anthology and what it stands for—I got to feel the true power, and grassroots power, of this movement in this moment in time.

Relatedly, sort of, you’ve both heard me talk about why making Indelible a multi-genre anthology felt important to me from the start. In short: I believe that it’s our responsibility as a society in times of crisis to encourage and receive art in all the forms it takes, and I believe multi-genre is a form of inclusivity we should strive toward. I’m always curious to hear other writers’ thoughts on this issue.

DS: I love that this book is multi-genre because that in itself is a political statement. The feminist movement today, or dare I say one goal of the whole Left today, is to dismantle boundaries—to embrace gender fluidity and racial equality, to open borders. Categorizing a book as one genre or another used to be a dogmatic practice, but ultimately who does that serve (other than people shelving books at bookstores)? I’m not suggesting that it’s okay for a writer to say, “Here’s my true book about surviving a genocide,” if she did not in fact survive a genocide, but I do love writing that might be poetry or might be creative nonfiction or might be a lyric something-or-other. I love that Indelible is an anthology of woman-identifying and non-binary writers writing whatever the hell they want to write. It’s an example of structure reflecting theme.

MJS: Yes. I was so excited to learn that this would be a multi-genre anthology. I think unsettling genre is crucial for literary conversations about power. You know, I nerd out on languages, and I talk with students about this all the time—how in Spanish and French (and, I imagine, other Romance languages), “gender” and “genre” have the same pronunciation and spelling. In French, “Genre” is a polyseme that takes on both meanings. (It also means “type” or “kind”). In Spanish it’s “género.” On one hand, I think that speaks to the Western impulse to divide and categorize, as Diana points out—and how that impacts all of our discussions of gender in ways we may not acknowledge or even see. But, as writers, I think paying attention to literary genre also allows us to undo those categories, and break down the boundaries, as you’ve both said. And when we mess with genre in discussions of gender and/or race, class, ability, embodiment, sexuality, nation, and more, I think we have the chance to pierce those structures as well.

DS: Shelly and I nerd out a lot on language together, too, Mecca! We both speak (and often live in) our second languages, and making comparisons between English and other languages, not to mention between American culture and other cultures, is endlessly fascinating. Comparison is like a black light, illuminating issues of power and privilege that are otherwise hard to see.

And like you said, that impulse to categorize (and organize?) is particularly Western. It’s a method of control, one that art, ideally, acknowledges and messes with or ignores completely.

When I first moved to Mexico, I couldn’t stop noticing how much the dogs were barking. No one was shushing them. Noise regulations in Mexico aren’t enforced the way they are in the States, but beyond that: in Mexico, there’s a respect for nature that struck me as novel. Dogs are allowed to be dogs. I love that. That’s what I want from art. Let it bark all night if it needs to. Let it be what it needs to be.

MJS: I find myself thinking and talking a lot about my students in this conversation we’re having. I wonder what your experiences have been talking about #MeToo with generations other than your/our own.

SO: I love this question, Mecca. I was hyper aware of age in curating the book; it felt crucial to also invite writers who were dealing with this bullshit before I was born, whose perspective was much broader than mine could ever be.

Something that brought me to tears while I was touring with the book was seeing mothers and daughters at our events. It happened often, and it wrecked me. Or even just a young woman asking me to sign the book for her mother, or the other way around, which also happened quite a bit. I felt a very specific kind of pain around these interaction every time—the realization of how this societal illness of ours connects generations of women—alongside a careful, gentle hope that maybe we are beginning to heal.

DS: I like that you’re thinking about age as a determining factor, Mecca. The younger generation seems smart and open and I’m so relieved. I see Greta Thunberg and Malala and Emma González and I think…maybe we’ll be okay?

I guess I find myself thinking less about generational responses to feminism than about how the conversations vary from country to country. In many parts of Latin America, for instance, feminism is exploding. But the strength of the resistance to it is quite powerful, too. Femicide statistics have risen in the wake of the #NiUnaMenos hashtag—a movement to call attention to Latin America’s alarming rates of femicide—so some draw the sloppy conclusion that activism doesn’t work, that feminism is bad for women. Some further conclude that feminists are hypocrites because if feminists hated murder so much, they wouldn’t fight to legalize abortion. And on and on. I don’t mean to single out Latin America, but it’s an interesting microcosm of resistance-to-resistance. I try to trust that things have to get worse before they get better. I also try to trust that the death rattle of harmful and antiquated ideas, institutions, and practices is loud and grotesque.

SO: Indelible features a significant array of voices and backgrounds; this felt not just crucial, as it always does, but urgent, since at the time we were hearing predominantly from white, straight, beautiful actresses. How do you feel about the inclusivity of the #MeToo conversation in 2019? And would you say we’ve successfully shifted the cultural perception that appearance affects whether or not a woman gets harassed or abused?

DS: I don’t take kindly to the implication that I’m not a “beautiful actress.” Jeez.

MJS: I am definitely a beautiful actress.

DS: I peeked at your website. You are!

SO: I apologize and take full responsibility for not realizing you were both beautiful actresses. Someone else ask a question, then.

DS: I’ve seen a lot of cool art in recent years that challenges the notion that the gift of shitty male behavior is bestowed only on certain types of women. A couple off the top of my head are Shrill (both Lindy West’s book and the Hulu series based on it) and Orange Is the New Black. But no, I don’t think we have successfully shifted the cultural perception yet. In June, the president of the United States rejected a sexual assault allegation against him by arguing that she wasn’t his “type.”

MJS: I agree that that perception has not shifted. I think writing by Ntozake Shange, Toni Morrison, Gloria Anzaldúa, Janet Mock, June Jordan, Dionne Brand, Jamaica Kincaid, Lenelle Moïse, Suzan-Lori Parks, Cherrie Moraga, Carmen Maria Machado, Nina Sharma, Roxanne Shanté, Roxane Gay, Queen Latifah, Sapphire, Reina Gossett, Bushra Rehman, Aishah Shahidah Simmons, Darnell L. Moore, and many others has been doing that work.