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The True Tale of Reproductive Politics - Barnstorming on an Invisible Segway [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Marissa Lingen

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The True Tale of Reproductive Politics [Sep. 20th, 2011|03:51 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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(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.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: shweta_narayan
2011-09-20 09:04 pm (UTC)
fwiw, this is the approach I like best :)
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[User Picture]From: wshaffer
2011-09-20 09:28 pm (UTC)
I certainly think I'd be far more likely to be annoyed by a modern retelling of Tam Lin that somehow glossed over the whole abortion issue than one in which various characters had clearly thought about the issue and some of them had come to different conclusions than I might.
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[User Picture]From: wordswoman
2011-09-20 10:00 pm (UTC)
I'm trying to remember how Pamela Dean handled it in her Tam Lin, which was set in...the 1970s, I think? I seem to recall it ended up being a conscious decision by her Janet to have the child because she knew the pregnancy might give her the power to save her lover's life. And she felt it wasn't right to use the would-be child to accomplish that and then abort it, so she chose to have it. But the question of abortion definitely was raised, because I recall the lover Thomas telling her that it was her decision.
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[User Picture]From: snickelish
2011-09-20 10:25 pm (UTC)
Yep. That's exactly how it went.

And the contraceptive issue was handled by way of faerie fertility herbs trumping modern technology, if I understood things correctly. Janet was on the pill, but it didn't matter because of where, specifically, she and Thomas had their fun.
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[User Picture]From: cakmpls
2011-09-20 10:34 pm (UTC)
Makes sense to me.
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[User Picture]From: akirlu
2011-09-20 11:00 pm (UTC)
As an approach, it seems entirely sensible and right to me -- acknowledge the feelings of the characters you have without getting stuck in a big sidebar. I think its really hard to be true to your characters and their personalities and beliefs, but I also think it's awfully important, so props to you for thinking this through so carefully.
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[User Picture]From: cathshaffer
2011-09-21 12:18 am (UTC)
It sounds fine to me. I have no quibble with how you've decided to handle the issue, and it sounds realistic.

On the other hand, I have a lot of people in my life who have had babies they conceived accidentally by people they have known for a month or less, so it really does not sound TO ME like a concept that needs justification. Granted, I don't know ALL of the conversations they had with all of their friends, but I do know that it's not that unusual for a young woman to keep an unplanned pregnancy in an environment where abortion is legal and available, even if she herself is strongly pro-choice. I even know a child born of a one-night stand whose father doesn't know she exists. I have known women who have chosen to carry children conceived of violent rape. The decision is intensely personal and somewhat idiosyncratic. So I don't think I'd consider it "glossed over" or "skipped" if it wasn't handled in detail in a 2010 type of story. But it certainly is fair game if that's a theme you want to write about.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-09-21 11:44 am (UTC)
I do know that it's not that unusual for a young woman to keep an unplanned pregnancy in an environment where abortion is legal and available, even if she herself is strongly pro-choice.

Yah, it's not that I felt her decision was in itself unusual or rare or weird. It's that this is a book that will hit "ALL" of the conversations they had with all of their friends.
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[User Picture]From: dd_b
2011-09-21 01:36 pm (UTC)
There are people who can't stand to see anything except scorn heaped upon the position they don't hold here, and you will not please them this way. Since you're unlikely, in fact, to please them at all, that probably falls under "don't worry about what you can't control".

This sounds right to avoid jolting people out of the story through ignoring realities that young lovers think about a LOT, or letting the political issue displace the story.
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[User Picture]From: kalimac
2011-09-27 02:53 am (UTC)
The story, or stories, of the unexpectedly pregnant young woman cover much more ground than "Tam Lin", and surely there are many other examples of authors retelling them who have dealt with the problems of the contemporary existence of (somewhat) reliable contraception and (somewhat) available abortion. Consider the film Juno for instance. There, the protagonist goes so far as to visit an abortion clinic, and then leaves. Why she leaves is presented as part of her character development.

I'd like to ask another question that must be either faced or avoided by a writer retelling a folk tale in modern setting. Are your characters aware of the existence of the ballad of Tam Lin?
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-09-27 03:01 am (UTC)
At the beginning of the book they are not aware of the ballad of Tam Lin, but it exists in their world. The main characters are all three (Tam Lin, Carter Hall, and Janet Laird) hockey players, and none of them are fantasy readers or folkies. However, when they are trying to figure out what the heck is going on, Janet's gran knows what she needs to do about holding on and not letting go and like that, and Carter and Tam also consult various sources of folkloric knowledge.

I think the Tam Lin story is particularly good for the existence of folk tales not being a problem, because in the original, Tam tells Janet what to do. Not knowing what to do is not the ultimate problem, it's doing it, actually getting through it, believing that it applies to oneself and gritting one's teeth and doing it. I think that a retelling of, say, Snow White is more difficult that way, because if you say to someone, "You are Snow White," her response might well be, "Pull the other one," and if someone said to you, "I am Snow White," you might not take her particularly seriously. (I don't know you personally, just through friends, so you very well might.) But once you have demonstrations that your boyfriend actually was caught by the Queen of Air an Darkness, the rest follows pretty well.

The other thing I did with this is that saving Tam's life is not the only large goal the three main characters collectively have, so knowing what she needs to do to save Tam's life does not automatically tell Janet what she needs to do on Halloween--that is, whether saving Tam's life ought to be her priority. Of course readers of the short stories know it must be, and structurally one would guess. But.

Oh, and: there is also an explanation for why this repeating folkloric story is repeating for these people in this circumstance, because I find "someone has to be sacrificed if I'm going to keep my magic powers from the lords of Hell, and it might as well be you" unsatisfying as a complete contemporary explanation.
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[User Picture]From: eposia
2011-09-27 07:25 am (UTC)
This reminds me of the season 6 ending of Bones.(SPOILERS AHEAD) While I understand that she and Boothe hooking up pleases a certain subsection of fans who were probably tired of waiting (whereas I come from a different subset that liked the quasi-attraction quasi-friendship partnership dynamic) but from the way they set up Brennan's character, and from everything that has happened to her throughout the last 6 seasons, NO WAY would she hook up with him, however upset and in need of comforting, without using protection. So if season 7 doesn't start out with some reference to a condom failure or something of the sort I highly doubt I'll keep watching, simply because of how out of character for Brennan that particular action would have been. So I strongly approve of you thinking this through so carefully in your novel, and look forward to reading it.
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[User Picture]From: ashnistrike
2011-09-30 04:36 pm (UTC)
This is well said. It is a topic that I have trouble engaging with calmly, and it sounds as though you deal with it very well. (This is not unexpected.)

-Nameseeker
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