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.