All the might have beens

Growing up, I heard more than once about my mother’s writing teacher in her freshman year of college, the one who wrote “Stick to prose” on her first set of poems, the one who made her give up on writing for ten years. Since my mother went on to become a poet whose work was widely anthologized and translated into multiple languages, the lesson was always clear: no matter what authority a professor may seem to wield, they don’t get to tell you whether or not you can be a writer.

So when I encountered my own classroom demon in my freshman year, I didn’t let him phase me. The class rule was that he would choose which stories to read aloud for critique, and although I was one of the few students who submitted every week (and always offered constructive criticism to other students), he hated science fiction and fantasy so much that he went through the rest of the class roster twice, going on three times, before he grudgingly read one of mine or of Susan’s, the only other speculative fiction writer in the class. At the end of the year, he held a party at his house and invited all his other students, but left the two of us off the list. And since he was the main fiction professor at the school, I had no choice but to take him again the following year.

He didn’t stop me from writing. I knew better than that. But he stopped me from believing that I could trust writing teachers to see past their disgust at the genre I wrote in to actually read my work or teach something of value. He was the reason I decided to go it alone, not majoring in English, avoiding MFA programs for years, just writing and submitting my work with no feedback from more experienced mentors. Avoiding teachers who might be like him has made my path a lot slower, harder, and lonelier than it needed to be.

He died this week, in his late eighties. Calculating based on his obituaries, he completely stopped writing fiction when he got tenure, thirty years before he met me, fifty years before he died. I can’t help thinking how sad that sounds. Did he secretly hate writing? Was he blocked but felt like teaching was the only way to pay the bills? Did he feel like a fraud, or just divorced from his life? Was he taking out his insecurities on his students?

I don’t really know how to feel about his death. I hope, for his sake, that he had students who liked him, who will mourn him. But the best thing I can say about him is he taught me how not to teach.

When We Talk About Abortion

(This article first appeared at jwa.org.)

When North Carolina began debating bathroom laws last year, the issue was so new, so out of left field, that it was easy for liberals to take a step back and say, “We don’t have evidence of trans women assaulting other women in bathrooms. Most threats to women come from straight, cis-gender men. This law has nothing to do with protecting women; it’s purely a tool to harass transgender people.”

But sometimes an issue is so old, so shrouded in taboo, that we either don’t talk about it at all, or we’re so used to talking about it in certain terms that we never take that step back to ask, “Is this true? Do we know anyone who’s experienced this? What does the data say?”

This is particularly true of the battle over reproductive rights, where those who oppose abortion often couch the debate in religious terms, claiming to know what God wants without anyone checking their credentials for making that claim. They argue that any embryo or fetus, no matter how early, non-viable, or unwanted, is an innocent soul whose right to life automatically supersedes the rights of the imperfect adult woman carrying it—the mere fact that she has had sex makes her less worthy in some people’s eyes. Those who want to protect women’s right to bodily autonomy are then stuck either pointing to cases where the woman’s life is at stake, or cases where the woman or girl is an innocent victim of rape or incest. Even when they argue that abortion is sometimes necessary, they’re conceding the point that it is inherently immoral, a defiance of God’s will.

Here’s the thing, though: There is no condemnation of abortion in the New Testament, the Torah, or the Koran. In fact, Exodus 21:22-25 is pretty clear that the life of a fetus does not have the same status as the life of the mother, “When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined…But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, bruise for bruise.” (JPS Torah Commentary).

The ancient rabbis and later commentators interpreted this to mean that while a fetus has a potential for life that should be respected, it’s still only a potential; the woman’s well-being matters more. The Mishnah argues, “In the case of a woman struggling to give birth, one dissects the child in her womb and draws it out limb by limb because her life comes before the child’s life. Once the greater part of the child has emerged, we do not do so, because we don’t sacrifice one life to save another” (Mishnah Ohalot 7:6). Rashi clarifies, “As long as [the child] hasn’t emerged into the world, they are not a person, and it is permitted to kill them to save the mother. But once the head has emerged, we can’t harm [the child] because it as if they are a person, and we don’t sacrifice one life to save another” (Commentary to Sanhedrin 72b). Maimonides agrees, “…It is permitted to abort the child in her belly, either through drugs or by hand, because [the child] is like one who pursues her to kill her. But once the head emerges, we don’t do harm because we don’t sacrifice one life for another, and this is the nature of the world” (Mishneh Torah Rozeah v’Shemirat Nefesh 1:9).

While a few contemporary rabbis disagree with this reasoning, most uphold it, and the Reform Movement, the Conservative Movement, and the Reconstructionist Movement have expanded on it, ruling that if carrying a pregnancy to term will cause a woman psychological or emotional harm, she can choose to have an abortion. And all three movements have worked with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (alongside the Episcopal Church, the Unitarian Universalist Association, Catholics for Choice, and many others) to make it clear to lawmakers that while abortion opponents may use religious language, they do not represent all people of faith.

So what happens if pro-choice activists refuse to cede the moral high ground? What happens if we reject the terms of abortion opponents and say, “This is potential life, but it’s not yet life; let’s talk instead about the morality of denying women the basic human rights of health and safety?” Because the choice not to continue a pregnancy is about so many other choices. The choice to finish school. The choice to keep your dream job. The choice to deal with physical or mental illness by recognizing you need to put yourself first. The choice to focus on the kids you already have. The choice not to watch a child suffer and die of Tay-Sachs. The choice to leave an abusive or unfulfilling relationship. By taking away a woman’s ability to choose the course of her life, you take away what allows her to be a person.

It’s not a coincidence that many conservative Christian groups suddenly began obsessing about abortion at the height of the women’s movement when reproductive rights opened the door to real independence and freedom for women. As with the bathroom laws, this has never been about who they want to protect. It’s about who they want to control. And although reproductive justice is hardly a new issue, maybe we’re finally ready to debate it on different terms.

Writing tally experiment

For the first quarter of 2017, I had a lot going on personally: recovering from surgery, catching up with missed work, and helping a friend care for her preemie twins, to name a few. So when I had a minute to read, I tended to grab whatever was interesting and close at hand. And that made me wonder: after more than two years of this experiment with changing my reading habits, has anything changed? Do I read more diversely when I’m left to my own devices, or is this still something I need to put conscious effort into doing?

The results surprised me. On the one hand, I’ve read twelve books by women, two by men, and one collaboration, which means 80% of my reading has been works by women. That’s unprecedented for me. On the other hand, 87% of my reading has been by authors who are both straight and white, which is right on par with my stats before I started this experiment two years ago. No change whatsoever.

Granted, I’m in the middle of two books by black authors right now, and eagerly awaiting two books by lesbian writers. In the last couple of years of trying new things, I’ve added several non-white, non-straight authors to the list of authors whose release dates I program into my phone so I can read their work as soon as it’s out. But that’s just a small percentage of the books I encounter every year, and the selection at the bookstore and on online review sites still slants heavily straight and white. Clearly, there’s more work to be done.