Complications of the Body: A Conversation with Shelly Oria
By Eleanor J. BaderJune 10, 2022
“I felt drawn to a broader approach,” she writes in the foreword to I Know What’s Best for You: Stories on Reproductive Freedom, “and invited writers and artists to respond to any aspect of reproductive freedom with which they connected: miscarriages, fertility, contraception, surrogacy, childfreeness … and, of course, abortion.”
The resultant book is Oria’s second collaboration with McSweeney’s. The first, Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings from the Me Too Movement, was released in 2019.
I Know What’s Best for You includes 29 diverse contributions: poems, short plays, fiction, creative nonfiction, and graphics. Women and men, queer and straight, married and single, of all races and many ethnicities, tackle what it means to have — or choose not to have — children. Political cant is largely absent in these highly personal renderings, but comedy and tragedy make an appearance, leaving the reader feeling both joy and sadness. It’s a potent and evocative mix.
ELEANOR J. BADER: You were raised in Israel, where access to abortion is restricted and a pregnant person must go before a panel to request permission to terminate their pregnancy. How did your upbringing impact your perspective on reproductive freedom?
SHELLY ORIA: Interestingly, there is currently a conversation going on in Israel about changing this policy. All sorts of complications arise when you have to answer to a group of people about a decision impacting your own body. Many people find the process really humiliating.
It seems that the discussion is connected to reproductive justice issues that are getting attention in many societies and cultures across the world. This is a global issue.
In many ways, growing up in Israel made me the feminist I am. In Israel, there is no separation between religion and state, which creates many difficult situations for women. But I came to the US when I was 25, so I am a creature of both worlds, and many of my formative experiences have taken place here in the US.
Most of the pieces in the anthology are highly personal, rather than political. Was this a conscious choice?
For almost three years now, I’ve been educating myself, thinking about and listening to people discuss what it means to have, and then possibly lose, reproductive freedom. This is also true for many of the book’s contributors and for a lot of people I know, especially since the Supreme Court heard arguments that may lead to Roe being overturned. And yet I don’t consider myself an expert on reproductive justice issues and wouldn’t presume to call myself an activist, unless one considers art activism. Which is to say I approached this project as a writer and as a person who’s horrified by the crisis we’re facing.
I think it’s important to add, though, that I believe other books can and should be born into this space, books that respond to our reproductive freedom crisis, and I hope some of them center activists. Their agitational work over the past few decades has been crucial, and books about their efforts are needed.
The Brigid Alliance is a nonprofit that works to increase access to abortion by funding and arranging travel for people who need it. They are a partner on this book, and I couldn’t be more grateful for their support in bringing it to life. I think McSweeney’s, being a small nonprofit publisher, often seeks out alliances with people and organizations that can amplify their work and help make their books and magazines the best they can be. For me, and I think for Amanda Uhle and everyone else involved, it’s been such a joy to bring the knowledge, connections, and other resources from the Brigid Alliance into the process of making this anthology.
The Brigid Alliance is, of course, part of a whole network of organizations that offers practical support of this nature and try to deal with the acute crisis we’re in — a crisis which will likely get worse if Roe is overturned and the right to abortion reverts back to the states. That scenario will make the work of the Alliance and other groups even more essential, since people will need to travel far more often than they do now to areas where abortion will still be legal.
I was struck by the amount of ambivalence about parenting voiced in many of the pieces.
I wanted to make ambivalence about parenting evident rather than smoothing it over and pretending it does not exist. But there’s a wide range of responses in the book. While one contributor talks about the toll pregnancy will take on her body, another becomes a surrogate because she experiences pregnancy with so much joy. Both responses, both experiences, are true. And there are many other examples and perspectives.
You make the connection between abortion and other issues that come under the rubric of reproductive justice: available and affordable childcare and access to necessary and non-racist medical treatment, including prenatal care and contraception. The book also touches on sex, sexuality, sexism, homophobia, and economic injustice. I was glad to see the intersections drawn out.
I made a conscious choice not to focus exclusively on abortion. I expect that over the next few years, we’ll have many conversations about abortion that will lead to a great deal of new art. For this collection, however, I wanted an expansive vision. I wanted to form the neural pathways that connect one issue to another; I believe that, similar to how those pathways form in a person’s brain, we constantly form them collectively in our cultural consciousness. So I wanted this book to make or suggest connections to other issues. Sexual violence, for example, is an attempt to control bodies in a particular way. This is not divorced from reproductive justice, which is also about controlling bodies. And to your point regarding the intersectionality of the book, I wanted to bring an awareness of how people of color, poor people, queer people, rural people, immigrants, and people living with disabilities have historically been excluded from conversations about reproductive freedom. The crisis we’re in today will impact these populations the most, so I felt it was essential to include their perspectives in I Know What’s Best for You, whether through poetry, fiction, or nonfiction.
How did you collect the 29 pieces in the anthology? Did you do an open call?
No. I took the same approach that I did with the previous anthology, Indelible in the Hippocampus, and invited writers and artists whose work I admired.
Putting an anthology together, while a thrilling endeavor, is also quite challenging in all kinds of ways, and one challenge is that you have to be thoughtful about resources. In our capitalist society, everything comes down to money and time. So when you consider the need to offer compensation to multiple contributors and the inevitably massive volume of communications involved in a project of this nature, coupled with the fact that many anthologies will have a harder time reaching readers than, say, your average novel or memoir, you start to feel like it’s a small miracle that we still have new anthologies coming out every year!
As for contributions, I cast quite a wide net — I invited about 130 writers and artists. Part of my commitment to the multigenre approach is that it allowed me to reach out to writers working in different fields. I stressed that I wanted to be inclusive and wanted the book to go beyond abortion. About half the people I talked to ended up sending us work, so we had about twice as many submissions as we could use.
How did you decide what to include?
It was really hard. Everyone I reached out to is a wonderful writer. Partly, of course, such decisions are always a matter of taste, but it also turned out that there were echoes, and since I did not want pieces in the book to feel redundant to the reader, I had to make selections. In addition, there were topics I knew I wanted to include, such as fake clinics, which are called Crisis Pregnancy Centers by the conservative Christians who run them. No one wrote about them, so when it came time to write my own story for the book, I made a list of all the topics we weren’t covering yet or not emphasizing as much as I’d hoped and basically tried to hit all of those notes in my story. As far as creative prompts go, this was certainly a strange one.
Did any of the submissions or responses from writers surprise you?
Many men told me that they did not feel comfortable writing about reproductive freedom. That surprised me — I think it’s so important for men to be part of this conversation and crisis response. The book does feature stories from Tommy Orange and Said Sayrafiezadeh, and both R. O. Kwon’s piece and one section of mine feature a male POV.
There was also the unexpected pleasure of seeing all these different themes come together to form this one beautiful, cohesive collection. Many contributors don’t know one another, and yet they all still managed to hold each other somehow, through their work. It felt like magic.
Your story, “We Bled All Winter,” is about the relationship between two women, one Israeli and the other Palestinian. I was impressed by how matter-of-fact this was, just a slice-of-life portrait of a couple facing a personal crisis.
This approach is in my DNA as a writer. In conversations about my first book, New York 1, Tel Aviv 0, interviewers often commented on the stories’ nonchalant attitude toward sexuality, sexual fluidity, queerness. My characters are living their lives, like I am living my life — your day-to-day, your romantic relationship, your sex life — those things aren’t a political controversy to you, even if they might be to others. Certainly, as a writer, if I explore connections society deems controversial, then I’d like to explore their particular nuances and complexities, but to me the effective way to do that is often subtle. Putting a spotlight on it would be theater.
I Know What’s Best for You will also have an international supplement.
I’m very excited about it! I Know What’s Best for You All Over the World launched on the McSweeney’s website in late April and will feature writers from Argentina, Greece, Afghanistan, Brazil, Cameroon, China, Germany, India, Israel, Macedonia, Mexico, Palestine, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and others. The supplement shares the book’s spirit: writers and artists explore, in various genres and mediums, different aspects of reproductive freedom in their locale.
The US focus of the book felt necessary in this dire moment, but it also meant that we weren’t featuring stories about what is happening globally, and I’m so happy and grateful that we found a way to broaden the scope of the project via this supplement.
American culture and discourse — even our news — can be quite self-absorbed. And yet if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we are all connected. I hope that I Know What’s Best for You All Over the World — in which all pieces will appear in English, thanks to the wonderful work of the translators involved — will stoke questions, concerns, and curiosity in US readers about the state of reproductive freedom in other parts of the world.
Eleanor J. Bader is a Brooklyn, New York–based freelance journalist. Bader’s work frequently appears in Truthout.com, The Progressive Magazine, Lilith Magazine, The Indypendent, and Rain Taxi.
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