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[ Choice Words: What Annie Finch Learned from Editing Four Centuries of Writing on Abortion ]Kickstarter: You got the idea for this collection 20 years ago when you were looking for something like it that didn’t exist. What type of solace or comfort do you think literature can provide that other mediums can’t?
Annie Finch: I think literature can be grounding. You’re getting a chance to ponder in the company of someone who has really developed themselves as a human being and as a writer. It’s a more holistic experience than when you read opinions and news.
There are all these parts to us — there’s the mind, the body, the heart, the will, and the spirit, which are actually the five sections of the book. Literature addresses all of those facets of oneself. It can remind us of our humanity, and helps us to understand that what we’re feeling is part of something bigger — these big sea changes that happen on the emotional, spiritual, cultural, historical, political levels all at once.
What were you looking for in the essays, poems, and stories that you’re putting in this collection?
I was looking for a sense of the larger whole. It’s always valuable to write, right? It’s therapeutic to write about your experiences, and I got some really wonderful, moving accounts of people’s own experiences that were obviously healing for them. But I was looking for more.
For the book, I looked for pieces that went beyond the individual ego or that talked about the experience in a new way that reflected it through a sense of culture, history, or spirit. That sense of, “I’m allowing myself to experience the way that what I’m going through is bigger than me.”
A few writers whose work will appear in ‘Choice Words.’ Clockwise from top left: Amy Tan, Ntozake Shange, Margaret Atwood, Leslie Marmon Silko, Sholeh Wolpe, and Lucille Clifton
What have you learned from the process of putting this collection together?
I learned that the stories don’t go away. They need to be told. One of the writers in the book said it had been 50 years since the experience and she’d never told anybody about it, not even her husband. When she heard about the anthology, she said, “I want to write this up for you.” A story like that doesn’t go away. It haunts you until you tell it.
I also learned about the way that culture affects abortion. For example, for women in the West, we often think of abortion as a liberty — something we want to be free to do. I’ve been getting pieces from writers in India, Pakistan, and China where they’re having forced abortions, especially of girls, because boys are more valued — and the freedom not to have an abortion is what is needed.
It all comes down to a woman’s sovereignty over her reproductive choices. I’ve included things in the book that are not always positive about abortion. There are some poems or stories that are very sad, where people regret having abortions. I wanted to put those in as well, along with the triumphant, peaceful stories, because I wanted to show that it’s really not about how you feel about it, or about whether it’s good or bad, or wrong or right, or what period of time you do it in, or if the fetus is viable or not. It’s really about a woman’s rights as a human being.
What do you hope readers take away from the collection?
I see the collection as having three main functions. One of them is for the individual reader. No matter where they’re coming from, I hope it will bring them closer to understanding that the people who have abortions are full human beings. There’s such diversity in the book, and so many unique stories and perspectives, that it becomes clear these are private choices and no one can make anything like this decision for anybody else. And if you’ve been through an abortion, maybe you can flip through the book and pick at random, almost like an oracle, and find something that’s really going to speak to you right then and keep you company, bring you deeper. That’s the more introspective role of the book.
I also think that Choice Words is going to be useful as a resource for literary history because it gathers together writings from such a variety of places that really were not accessible before. That’s the second function.
“It’s really not about how you feel about it, or about whether it’s good or bad, or wrong or right … It’s about a woman’s rights as a human being.”
Then, the third function: Hopefully it can be used for organizing and activism, maybe like the way The Vagina Monologues has been used to bring people together. I think it could be helpful for fundraising events, and to provide a cultural force that people can constellate around to organize for reproductive freedom and reproductive justice.
Have you received any surprising or memorable messages since launching, given current events?
Some of the most powerful experiences for me as an editor were people telling me, “I have something, but I’ve never shown it to anybody before. Can I send it to you?” That is really moving. Some of those pieces are just amazing, by very well-known professional writers [as well as] people who hadn’t published much before. And there were even people who said, “I’ve never written it down before, but because of your anthology, I’m going to write it down — you gave me permission,” which was an even more incredible experience.
There have been some very supportive messages, but the big surprise has been how enthusiastic people are to support it financially. I think if someone is thinking about doing a Kickstarter, they might feel they’re going to be asking people for a favor. One of the really interesting things about philanthropy [or crowdfunding] is that you’re actually giving something to people; giving them an opportunity to have that sense of satisfaction and that sense of agency.
The most surprising thing has been that it’s almost entirely funded already on day five. That’s kind of amazing. [The project has since hit its funding goal.] So now our stretch goal is to donate copies to clinics, women’s prisons and shelters, and public libraries in the states that are attacking abortion rights.
If you think about all the great cultural movements, literature has been part of them. It’s helped to change public opinion and it’s helped to make people understand. I just feel like people’s gut reaction that “Yes, this is something worth doing,” even if they’re not necessarily literary people, has helped me to appreciate that literature is an important way to bring about change. It’s been surprising and wonderful to have people respond that way.
Have you received any negative messages since launching the campaign? What do you say to people who are outspokenly against abortion?
I have gotten angry and judgmental messages on social media, which I take as a badge of honor that I am being heard more widely. I understand some of the objections of people who really are upset that the humanity and the spiritual aspect of abortion isn’t being recognized enough. I agree, and that’s one reason I edited this book. For me, women are magical. Women are goddesses and women are the gateway of life. Because of that, it’s our responsibility; we can make these wise choices about what we need to do.
I think every woman who has been pregnant knows the feelings of whether or not you’re able to do a responsible job of caring for this child. The book [represents] the very powerful wisdom that women have, and we shouldn’t mess with that.
#TrustWomen is my favorite hashtag to respond with. I try to be patient and respectful always; I do try to talk to people, because sometimes it can help. Usually they are saying that the fetus is alive and human and therefore should be treated as a person. I tell them that yes it is alive and human, but that doesn’t mean it is an actual person; it is still part of the mother’s body until it is born, and she has full control over it. I say #TrustWomen and I quote an influential fundamentalist from the 1960s saying he believes a human life starts at birth. Usually they give up and go away.
What’s your advice for people who don’t consider themselves directly affected by this issue? And how can they be supportive if they want to?
Listen, and understand more deeply what it’s like and how it affects all of us. One of the contributors, Sylvia Beato, said, “Even if you don’t have an abortion or you’re not directly affected by abortion, the way that our culture thinks about the rights of the marginalized directly affects all of us every day.” People who are pregnant are marginalized in the sense that they’re still considered property. They have all these strangers arguing over what they can do with their bodies — that’s just so messed up.
There’s a reason that this is the first step of imperialism and capitalism and patriarchal systems of oppression. The first step is control over women’s reproduction, because that takes away the innate power of our humanity and our dignity. Women are at the center of human culture, and I think people are beginning to understand that now. If you take away that fundamental honoring of women’s reproductive power, everybody’s humanity is threatened.
In terms of what they should do, I would say putting a copy of this book in the library or donating it to a clinic would be a good way to start. And donate to organizations like NARAL and the Yellowhammer Fund.
Is there anything else about this project — planning it, putting it together, getting it out there in the world — that you’re itching to talk about or share?
The wonderful feeling of giving permission to people who haven’t been able to talk about it before has been one of the most humbling and beautiful aspects of the whole thing.
Sometimes people can feel oppressed by the canon of literature, or feel like what they need isn’t out there. We have the capacity to change our culture before our very eyes, just by seeing something in a new way and putting it together in a new way — we have that power. It’s such a beautiful thing that we do; we are able to change [our culture] for the future, as well as for the present.