Our Incredible Shrinking Rights
- Jennifer Bort Yacovissi
- December 28, 2023
Two recent anthologies speak to women’s precarious slide.
For anyone in the U.S. in possession of a uterus, these last 18 months have felt like science fiction shot through with horror and wrapped up in someone’s twisted fantasy of what it means to be “pro-life.” So, there’s no question it was the title that made me grab Adventures in Bodily Autonomy: Exploring Reproductive Rights in Fantasy, Science Fiction, & Horror (Aqueduct Press).
Editor Raven Belasco admits it was her need to “do something” in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision that drove her to bring this anthology to print. Its release date — October 16, 2023 — she notes, was the 107th anniversary of Margaret Sanger’s opening of the first birth-control clinic in America. All royalties from sales of the book are being donated to Reproductive Freedom for All, formerly NARAL.
Along with Adventures, I was also reading another anthology, Already Gone: 40 Stories of Running Away (Alan Squire Publishing), edited by Hannah Grieco, which came out in November. I found that stories from one could easily fit into the other; there’s much escaping in Adventures and earthly horror and otherworldly goings-on aplenty in Already Gone. (Improbably, both collections feature stories in which women turn into bees.)
But what crystalized most forcefully as I read was the idea that a large part of personal autonomy is having the freedom to choose where you are and to leave when you need to. (Just ask anyone currently being threatened over crossing state lines if there’s a chance they might be pregnant.)
There are two aching examples of this in Already Gone. One is Ruth Joffre’s “A Girl Attends a Pep Rally,” the story of a father’s utter control over his teen daughter’s life. He dials the phone for her, checks that the correct person answers, and then stands over her during the conversation. Little does he know the girl on the other end is his daughter’s beloved and that they’re planning for the future:
“What she says is, ‘Hey. I’m confused about problem two. How do you solve for “e”?’ but what she means is, I love you. He’s standing right here.”
The other, far darker example is “Inheritance,” by Ellen Birkett Morris, in which the young narrator is secretly carrying the child of her mother’s rich employer, Daniel, because her father pimps her out to him. When she finally has a chance to escape with money enough for a train ticket, her mother sends Daniel after her, and he drags her back. She resolves that there’s at least one other way to get out.
Many of the stories in Adventures are less specifically about reproductive choice than the more general issue of free will and the extent to which family, culture, mores, and laws pre-empt women’s ability to exercise it — all born of a misogynistic need for control. That need very often engenders violence.
In Jaymee Goh’s “The Things Melati Learns,” the titular Melati considers that when she’s out hiking on her favorite isolated trails, she should not need to cover her hair. “She does not mention this to Sham, because he would go ballistic. Her hair is for him alone, to look at, to touch, to pull.” (By the end of the story, Sham learns a few things, too.)
The violence in Adventures is often emotional. In Annalee Newitz’s “The Future of Another Timeline,” a doctor who performs off-the-books abortions makes the 17-year-old narrator lie naked on his table and repeatedly calls her a “naughty, naughty girl” before attaching her to a vacuum device that he says will feel like “a little cramp,” but which she experiences as “a giant lamprey…chewing and digesting my guts.”
There are a few optimistic stories here, including editor Belasco’s own “Abyssinia,” about a vampire who provides safe abortions to women in circa-1950s Philadelphia. In Tara Campbell’s “Welcome to Your Lifting,” a mysterious culture of women has discovered a way to remove and preserve uteruses and extend fertility, giving people time and space to decide how, when, or whether to use it. And Elizabeth Bear’s darkly funny “Bullet Point” gets to the heart of the cliché “not even if you were the last man on earth.”
Already Gone contains its share of devastation but offers a handful of tales to make readers laugh out loud. Deesha Philyaw, who won all of our hearts with her debut story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, presents in “Mother’s Day” a delicious escape fantasy of moms everywhere:
“I don’t want to have to take care of anybody but my damn self…I love them but don’t want to be around them all the time. How do you tell your kids that for you, active motherhood was a season? That you’re ready to…move on? Sounds like a breakup. Can you break up with your kids? Can you ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ your kids?”
(Emily James’ “To the man at the pump next to me at the BP in Marble Hill on the night of my husband’s birthday after I’ve kicked my family out of an almost moving car” offers a less-upbeat maternal escape but is related in its winning mixture of clear-eyed awareness and the cynicism born of exhaustion.)
DC-area readers will recognize many of the contributors in Already Gone — as well as editor Grieco and local indie press Alan Squire — as members of our very own vibrant literary community. Beyond that, for all readers, the writing just pops.
For me, experiencing these two anthologies together was a chilling reminder that, given the continued encroachment on the legal rights of more than half the U.S. population, there is less and less room to run.
Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. Her short fiction has appeared in Gargoyle and Pen-in-Hand. Jenny reviews regularly for the Independent and serves on its board of directors as president. She has served as chair or program director of the Washington Writers Conference since 2017, and for several recent years was president of the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association. Stop by Jenny’s website for a collection of her reviews and columns, and follow her on Twitter at @jbyacovissi.