Brett Kavanaugh and the Witch in the Woods: The Millions Interviews Leni Zumas


 Leni Zumas’s 2018 novel, Red Clocks, which has drawn wide comparisons to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, paints a chilling portrait of a near future in which not only is abortion illegal in the United States, a “Personhood Amendment” to the Constitution prohibits the use of IVF fertility treatments. The book, a national bestseller, won the 2019 Oregon Book Award and was named a “Best Book of 2018” by The Atlantic. It was a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a Washington Post Notable, an Amazon Best Book of the Month, and an Indie Next pick.

A longtime fan of Zumas’s work, I caught up with her at the Brooklyn Book Festival last year during the fraught confirmation proceedings of now U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. We discussed Red Clocks, as well as what Kavanaugh’s confirmation could mean for reproductive rights in the U.S.—a struggle even now unfolding in the American South, as states move to pass measures that would effectively ban abortion.

The Millions: Red Clocks is often compared to The Handmaid’s Tale, and rightly so—it’s a near-future sci fi novel, and the major factor that has rearranged the world is government regulation of reproduction, specifically as it applies to the female body. But The Handmaid’s Tale is also about religious fundamentalism, whereas Red Clocks seems as if it’s really more just challenging us to think through legislation—actual legislation that has been developed by actual American politicians—showing us both the intended and perhaps unintended consequences of that kind of legislation and how it could affect so many woman in so many ways.

We’ve got Ro, a single woman trying to get pregnant; Mattie, a high school student who’s unintentionally pregnant; and Gin, who’s being persecuted for offering alternative healthcare services to women. I think this book is such a service in the way that it helps us model those consequences.

Leni Zumas: A lot of the legislation that’s affecting the characters in Red Clocks is influenced by evangelical Christianity…You know, Mike Pence is politician who in every way allows his convictions to tell him, “Oh, I get to legislate what happens to your body, and yours too.” And when I was doing research for this book, his name actually popped up a lot, especially with regard to creating a law in Indiana requiring women who had miscarriages or abortions to have a funeral for or cremate their fetal tissue. So, religion is kind of a shadow presence in the book.

However, you know, an interesting thing about the United States is that Americans have this conception that we have a separation of church and state…when actually, if you look at, say, the Supreme Court, most people on the Supreme Court are Catholic. In the Trump administration, there are some extremely radical Christian men who are in there creating laws—and yet, that’s not really part of the national rhetoric. Whereas we might look at a place like Ireland and say that legislators there are all completely controlled by the Catholic Church, when Ireland is the place that just voted via referendum to make abortion accessible. So, the religion question is interesting to me, though it wasn’t explicit in the book.

What I see as one of the superpowers of fiction is that it can really put the reader inside the experience of a law’s consequences and aftermath, intentional and unintentional, as you say. So rather than, say, having an abstract conversation about reproductive rights…it’s more about, say, what it feels like to be a 15-year-old girl who has plans to become a marine biologist and go to math camp who’s told, “There’s a beginning of a pregnancy in your body and you cannot stop it.”

TM: Yes. And further, in this widespread comparison to The Handmaid’s Tale—it’s not like you haven’t written speculative work (some of the stories in your collection, Farewell Navigator, definitely have a fantastic element). But this book is not that speculative.

LZ: Is it even dystopian? I don’t know. It’s so close to our own society that it could be true next month. After Kavanaugh is confirmed, and certain states begin enacting prohibitively restrictive abortion laws, we really could have a Personhood Amendment on our hands. I really hope to hell that does not happen, and there are a lot of progressive people in this country working really hard to make sure that it doesn’t. But I never thought Trump would be elected. I had finished Red Clocks by then, but I was still revising it, and so that sort of sense of disbelief or horror or fearful dread kind of colored my revision.

TM: I’ll admit, even though I’m a fan of The Handmaid’s Tale, I didn’t allow myself to watch the Hulu series based on the novel until I was preparing for this interview.

LZ: I still haven’t seen it.

TM: I think I was maybe trying to protect myself from further horror, just trying to keep it together. But watching it felt like sticking a fork in an electrical outlet. Like, Dear God, what have you been doing? We are under siege here. We are at war. The consequences of ceding control over the reproductive capacity of the female body to men are horrifying. And The Handmaid’s Tale illustrates that horror by going to extremes.

LZ: Right.

TM: But Red Clocks is in many ways just as horrifying, and there’s nothing really extreme about it. It is just one step—one stumble—away from where we are now.

LZ: And that was definitely intentional. I wanted to hew as closely as possible to an ordinary—if we can even say anything is ordinary about this political moment—to an almost a run-of-the-mill version of what would happen, for a few reasons. In general, as a writer I’m interested in tiny strangenesses and discomforts and sort of unnerving experiences in the world that aren’t spectacular and aren’t, sort of, radically unpredictable. They’re almost more the things that escape our notice. So, I think having characters who are sort of going along in their lives—they might be somewhat politically aware, but not that active, then things start to happen to them. And that’s the kind of a horrifying wakeup that I think I’ve been experiencing in the last couple of years, and I know a lot of other people have too.

TM: In my review of Red Clocks for LitReactor, I referenced El Salvador’s abortion ban, which takes place in a context where cities like San Salvador are widely ruled by street gangs—a context where girls cannot refuse sex with gang members without risking their lives. And when you combine that with, not only is there no access to abortion, if you even have a miscarriage—

LZ: You can be locked up.

TM: Right, after being accused of attempting abortion. And this extremely hostile environment for women has of course created a refugee crisis. So, many women are running for their lives. But then—

LZ: The Attorney General says that domestic abuse is not a valid reason to seek asylum.

TM: Right. And then we have Trump’s war on refugees—and again, this is a different situation—

LZ: But they’re connected.

TM: In Red Clocks, you have this “Pink Wall,” where women running from the U.S. to Canada to try to get an abortion will be deported. Right now, we have this refugee wall, where if you’re running to the U.S. from this kind of violence south of the border, you will be returned to that violence. In this way, it seems as if some of the key themes of Red Clocks are unfolding before our eyes in the Americas.

LZ: Yes. And I’m glad you brought up the connection with immigration, because one of the most insidious things about the current administration—and also, you know, past administrations’ policies, I don’t want to put everything at the feet of Trump—is the notion that if a woman is being beaten and raped by her husband, beaten and raped by others, that’s not enough of a reason to grant her asylum. It really reveals a basic disregard for an experience that is coded female. Listening to the Attorney General say, “Well, you know, we can’t let everyone in, and just because some woman’s having some trouble at home…” I connect that in my mind to some other old white man in a small town being like, “Oh, you have another black eye? Well, you probably shouldn’t talk back to your husband…”

And you know, to your earlier point about much of these things already happening in the world—in parts of the United States, it is already virtually impossible for some women to get abortions. They don’t have the money to travel three days, they can’t take off work, they can’t afford childcare for the children they already have, there’s a 72-hour wait at a clinic, and there’s only one clinic in their state and they can’t get there. The sort of abortion ban I wrote about in Red Clocks is already true for them, and of course it disproportionately affects low-income women and women of color.

And so reproductive rights are connected to social inequality, connected to economics, connected to immigration—there’s really no way to separate these things.

TM: You’ve noted in other interviews that when the system stops working for the people who used to have power in it, there’s a tendency to turn to historically marginalized people and their wisdom. This is embodied in Red Clocks in Gin, a character who’s queer in more ways than one—when the women in her community need help with birth control, gynecological services, with abortion, Gin’s the one they turn to, the “witch in the woods.” And you walk a fine line with the speculative element here—you know, maybe she actually has magical powers? Maybe she’s just a little cray? But beyond all that, she absolutely is an herbalist.

LZ: Yes.

TM: As such, you’re clearly echoing European history, in the sense of a witch being, basically, the local midwife, the healer. And I remember my shock, in undergrad, in learning about the sheer scale of this era toward the end of the Middle Ages known as the Burning Times, when anywhere from 50,000 to 1,000,000 women were put to the stake, in a move that is widely agreed to have been a power grab by the male clergy of the Christian church, in order to undermine women’s authority in matters of life and death. But, of course, this was also an act of terrorism. So, I suppose I was wondering, what does that heritage mean to you?

LZ: I love this question, because it’s something I think about a lot. Like, what are those traces and residues and sediments from history that we’re still, sort of, metabolizing? And one of them, I think, is the figure of the witch—which I would say now, or in the past decade or so, has become kind of trendy, in a way that’s both kind of cool and kind of annoying—there’s still that sense of another system of knowledge or power or wisdom that has been subjugated and suppressed, much like any kind of—well, this gets back to the colonial vision, in which a white European power going into other parts of the world, taking power, and subjugating people had to suppress these other systems of knowledge, whether it was medical or spiritual or, you know, ways that people organized themselves. It’s sort of necessary in order for colonizers to keep their hold that those systems are quashed.

It goes to how even today the notion of midwifery or herbalism or alternative medicine is pooh poohed. Like, I’ve heard people refer to acupuncturists as witchdoctors or voodoo doctors…reaching for that kind of language that we already have to delineate who’s really in power and authority and who’s not. Like an old wives’ tale or an old wives’ remedy—as in, those things aren’t true, they don’t work.

And there’s even sort of a way, I see—like…you’re walking down Alberta Street in Portland and you see sort of a naturopath school or a place selling herbs and they’re sort of twee and hipster, but where I go to in my head is that kind of longer history of, who was using these things?

TM: Today, those sorts of wisdom systems are sort of like, that’s nice if you can afford that. That’s extra. They’re sort of the hot yoga of medicine.

LZ: Exactly. And that’s why, with the character of Gin, I didn’t want her just to be someone who thrives in everyday society but also happens, on the side, to have this knowledge. I really wanted her to be outside the system and sort of off the grid and happily so—she’s not this outsider who’s trying to claw her way back into society. She’s sort of said no to that, but in order to survive—and also, I think because she is dedicated to the craft, to her expertise—she still wants to interact with women who need her help. But a lot of the reason they need her help is that they no longer have health insurance, or because certain basic health care procedures are outlawed now.

TM: In Red Clocks, I was struck by the way that the characters of Ro and Susan seem to illustrate sort of a double bind that women face under patriarchy. Ro, in many ways, is a renegade: she’s a feminist high school teacher, she encourages her students to think for themselves—she’s an intellectual, an academic, trying to write a biography of this largely forgotten female polar explorer. And she’s also a single woman doing her damnedest to become a single mom. So, in many ways she’s pushing back on what’s expected of women, and she’s subjected to a great deal of hardship and judgment for it.

And then there’s Susan, who’s pretty much checked off all the boxes, in terms of those expectations: she married a man, she had children with him, she stayed home to take care of those children—and in many ways, put her own ambitions on hold to do so. But she also faces many hardships and judgments. She’s sort of losing her mind in kiddieland, she feels super isolated, and she feels judged both by women who have children and women who don’t. Moreover, she feels trapped in her marriage—because she feels financially beholden to her husband, but also because she’s bought into this lie that children from “broken homes” are going to go on to meet terrible ends, and that if she essentially saves her own life by leaving this marriage, she will have destroyed theirs.

The idea here appears to be that while some women might appear to have power, or enjoy a more protected status, under patriarchy, no woman really wins in this system.

LZ: Yes. And I really think that with the character of Susan, I hope that one sees in the most glaring way that storyline she bought. She’s like, “Okay, I will be happy if I have these things.” Susan was in law school, but she decided that the prospect of becoming a lawyer could not compare to the prospect of becoming a mother. So, she married and became a mother, but she’s still not happy—which, again, is not a surprising story. In fact, it’s a very common story. So, the question for me is about how we relate to those stories and those sort of cultural imperatives.

And I think that Ro, the biographer, has also gotten those same kind of messages, in terms of the idea that children from single parents don’t do as well in school. Which is such a way to cover up more systemic inequities and facts around poverty and race and education—

TM: And the pay gap between men and women (“kids need both parents”).

LZ: Yes. And if people aren’t going to have the conversation about class and race, they’re going to blame individuals. Like, you wrecked your child because you didn’t stay with your husband, or your marriage crumbled, or you chose to be a single mom.

I think for me it was a great gift when my parents got divorced, because they were so clearly better off on their own, with their own lives. And yes, it was hard, but what was really hard was living with both of them in the same house and knowing they didn’t love each other. And how freeing for a person to be like, “Wow, that can happen, and then everyone can move on.” Rather than struggling to meet society’s messages about it, which is more like, “Why don’t you just work a little harder on your marriage?”

TM: The final main character in Red Clocks is Mattie, who’s kind of the classic case in terms of who we think of being on the front lines in the struggle for reproductive rights. She’s young, she’s naive, she’s fertile, she made a mistake, and now the rest of her life is on the line. And this is probably the easiest consequence for people to model, in terms of an abortion ban. Because even if Mattie gives up the kid for adoption, her life has been changed irrevocably.

LZ: Also, pregnancy is one of the most dangerous times in a woman’s life. So many serious health complications can occur as a result of giving birth—including death. People clearly aren’t thinking about that when they say of a woman, “Oh, she can just give it up for adoption.”

TM: Which is a conversation we almost never have. But you know, it occurs to me that—you know, we think of the consequence, and the stakes, of an abortion, being just this one young woman’s life. But my mother had an abortion before she had me, when she was maybe around 20, and she had me when she was 37. And for my whole life, I have always had this sense that she gave me my life by doing that.

LZ: She did.

TM: She gave me the right father, and she gave me the luxury of a mature, wise, laid-back mom who had traveled the world, who had had a career, who had had her wild years—

LZ: Who wasn’t resenting you.

TM: And there’s no way for me to separate the immense gift of my life from that brave act of hers. So, it’s not just the young woman’s life at stake, it is the life of her kids down the road, if she has them.

LZ: That question of interbeing and interdependence was in my head when I was writing Mattie’s character, because there’s a point at which she’s imagining—she’s herself adopted, which is one of the reasons her parents are anti-abortion. And I really wanted to make those characters sympathetic and not just these evil anti-abortion people—but she imagines the biological mother who gave her up, and what if she went on to become a scientist who made some great discovery.

And there’s the question of that too: When a woman chooses not to become a mother, what are her other contributions to the world? And not that everyone—like, I think everyone has a right to do that, whatever their contribution—but within a woman’s life, if she decides, “No, I’m not going to have a kid, I’m going to work for social justice,” this affects a lot of people.

TM: Red Clocks is an important book in the conversation around women’s rights right now. Are there any others you’d recommend?

LZ: Women Talking by Mirian Toews. She’s a Canadian author who grew up Mennonite and her book is based on a real-life Mennonite colony in Bolivia where, between 2005 and 2009, the women in the colony were getting drugged and raped every night by this group of men in the colony. And this is this extremely particular and isolated religious community—it would be easy to think, “Oh, that’s so different from our society, what can we take from it?” But one of the sort of genius moves of the book is that you have all these Mennonite women in the colony talking about what’s happening and what they should do about it, and as I’m reading it, I’m thinking, like, this is all of us talking—

TM: Finally!

LZ: Yes! We’re talking about how to change the patriarchy, and how to look at our own complicity in perpetuating it.