|The True Tale of Reproductive Politics
||[Sep. 20th, 2011|03:51 pm]
(Please note: I make this post not for people to air their opinions about abortion, but to talk about how it is when one's fiction runs headlong into something large and fraught outside its intended theme.)
I think I was 14 when I found out that my parents and their best friends, the people I refer to as my "aunt" and "uncle," disagree on abortion politics. (Note: I am not telling you who holds which position because it's none of your business unless they choose to make it so, and because this story is not primarily about them.) Like many teens who are newly engaged with the political discourse, I knew everything, and it was all extremely simple. I remember a long conversation with my mom about how this could be, how they could remain friends with people who differed with them on what I was assured was one of the most vital questions. And my mother had been telling me why they each believed as they did, what in their life experience and philosophy led each to their position. And finally, with more patience than one can really expect of someone who has been dealing with a person who knows absolutely everything about absolutely everything, she said, "Marissa. Our friendship is not based on agreeing with each other on every single thing."
In the nearly two decades since then, I have made friends with all sorts of people who have all sorts of opinions. And in no case has our friendship been based on agreeing with each other on every single thing. Not one.
So I was pretty clear from just after the time when I knew what abortion was that if you named a non-screamy-bomb-throwing position somewhere on the spectrum of reproductive politics in the US, someone I love very much holds it. And I think this is more common than the media would like us to believe. We're told about a deep divide on this issue, and I think that's true, but I think it divides views more than it has to divide people. Of course there are exceptions, some of them extremely painful for the people involved. But disagreement on one political issue or another doesn't have to ruin a human relationship.
Fast forward to a few years ago. I was plotting a book (The True Tale of Carter Hall) around the Tam Lin story. For those of you who don't know the original ballad, a young woman (Janet)--pretty explicitly stated to be a virgin--goes off into the woods and meets up with a knight (Tam Lin) who impregnates her. Her dad notices she's pregnant, and when she goes to talk to the guy in the woods, he tells her that he's about to be sacrificed by the Queen of Air and Darkness. The pregnant woman saves her lover, and they live happily ever after with their freaky magic-touched baby and her extremely confused dad--okay, that last part is my inference.
But you see where this gets to be more of a thing that needs handling when you set it in 2010. (That's not a typo. I don't say so explicitly, but rather than being set in The Vague Nowish, The True Tale of Carter Hall is set in 2010. I don't like The Vague Nowish. It tends to get away from authors.) Pretending that birth control doesn't exist was not on my list of acceptable options; having a Janet and a Tam who just didn't think through using contraception at all...was also not on my list. They aren't teenagers, they're educated people in their early twenties. So they have a condom failure. Fine. Could happen to anyone.
Then, in my version, Janet attempts to find emergency contraception. Various coincidences intervene but also things that are starting to look less coincidental, such that she exits the time window in which emergency contraception is reliable. This is the contraceptive version of the cell phone tower going out of service: it's a plot obstacle you have to overcome to make the thing work in a modern setting.
Here is where things get tricky.
My goal here was to write a fun and interesting book about magic and hockey. My goal was not to write a massive tome about abortion politics and interpersonal relationships in modern-day America (or even modern-day Minnesota). But a lot of the ways I could handle this would have in themselves constituted Making A Statement. My main goal was to be true to the characters and the setting. In Minnesota in 2010, abortion is available to women. Some of you think it's not available enough, some of you think it's too available. But the fact is that it is legally and to some extent practically possible for Janet to get an abortion in Minnesota in 2010, and that variance in attitudes about it is in itself a fact of living in Minnesota in 2010.
And I did not want her to have one unavailable to her in my fictional version of Minnesota in 2010, because that's a serious and non-trivial change even if you do it by implication rather than stating it. I didn't want her to have and keep Jess because I was pretending that this was the only thing anyone in her circumstance could do. Because people in her circumstance do a great many other things. She's just not one of them. I wanted her to have Jess because when she had a minute to think it through, she wanted Jess. I don't think wanted babies have to be planned babies in every single case, though I am in favor of planning one's babies to the extent possible. I knew she was going to have Jess. I wanted to make it clear to readers of all political stripes that she wants to.
Also Janet is not a very political person. I think if you asked her, she would be made uncomfortable by the whole question of reproductive politics and would want to go do something else until you were done talking about it.
So I thought about the rest of the characters. And it turned out that there was one woman who seemed to me like she would look at this person who was pregnant by a boyfriend she'd had for less than a month and would take her aside and offer to take her for an abortion, and there was another woman who seemed to me like the very idea that anyone had suggested it would be horrific and awful to her. Both of these things fit very naturally with the characters, and both of them were things that could be addressed without--I hope--taking up a great deal of emotional time or energy that I really need for other issues in this book, because we are not short on other issues in this book.
So there are no speeches on behalf of the major characters about whether That Is Every Woman's Right or That Would Be Wrong. There's simply Janet saying, in response to the person offering to take her to get an abortion, that she doesn't want that. And the character who finds the very idea horrific realizes that it is not an idea that is relevant to the situation at hand and feels no need to make lengthy speeches or convince anybody not to do something they're already not doing. And these two women are very comparable levels of education, and they're both women, so someone would have to try really hard to read into it that I was making a statement about what Those People Are Like.
And then I went on with my book.
I don't know how to do this better, folks. If you think you do, I'd like to hear about it, or even if you've done something similar with a different issue. I've been thinking about it because I think Cherie Priest had a minefield to get through with the American Civil War and race relations, and in Ganymede I felt like she was doing a lot more of, "Yep, look at us here in this minefield, funny thing that, here's the interesting story over here." So watching the differences in how she handled racism and race relations in her alternate history in different volumes of the same series made me want to talk a bit about what I was doing over here in my own unintended minefield.
Here's what I do know: as a storyteller, I'm not done telling stories to people based on their political position regarding abortion. I'm not done talking to anybody here. I'm particularly not done talking to anybody about magic and hockey. I'm not ready to write any of you off. I am ready to write off readers who can't encounter characters who disagree with them, characters who vary, characters who are imperfect. I have no illusions that I will please everyone. I suspect that whether someone finds one character or another sympathetic will depend in part on their take on this subject; that's fine. I like nearly all my characters in this book, but I understand them. But I think it's good when we can all keep talking and see where we are, and recognize that the other people in a particularly fraught political circumstance are also Minnesotans, or Americans, or fellow human beings, depending.
Here's the other thing I know: books that try to skip over stuff like this tend to annoy me, because they are almost never skipping as wholly as they hope. The way you streamline a world in fiction says something; the stuff you gloss or skip says something. And it needs to be something you're comfortable saying rather than something you've said by accident. This will never be perfect. But I'm a great deal less satisfied with books that stick their fingers in their ears and sing than with books that approximate something imperfectly.
Oh, and one more thing I know: it is very, very important to me as a writer to be true to the characters. That is what we're doing here. If I'm telling you a story that contains assumptions you disagree with, maybe you'll like it and maybe you won't. But if I'm telling you a story where the characters are suddenly acting like badly-carved marionettes, then we have a problem with the main fundamental thing I'm doing. And that's the part that's my job.