My interest and eventual career in global health started with the mythology and censorship of female bodies. Many myths revolve around menstruation — witchy women who use their blood in rituals and spells, which — depending on if she is a bad witch or a good witch — can cause widespread famine or render men immortal. The Bible calls menstruation a “sickness”; many religions refer to woman on their periods as impure or unclean. It’s no wonder that the stigma of menstrual bleeding, deeply rooted in masculine ideologies, has historically been used to suppress women, creating socially coerced silences around a basic biological function of their own bodies, twisting what is healthy and natural into shame. Occult-tinged mythologies around menstruation have influenced the lived experiences of nearly every woman I know, including my own. It was a rite of passage into puberty growing up — girls gathered, coven-like, whispering in school hallways, discretely palming tampons to one another; the covert act of sneaking a small bag to the restroom, as if smuggling in eye of newt for a hex to bring down the patriarchy.
But, as it turns out, mixing myth and silence does create black magic. The line between fabulism and reality becomes blurred as mythologies start to infiltrate real human lives. There is often a pervasive lack of education around personal hygiene for menstruating women, no one bothering to inform girls about when they should expect their period’s eventual arrival. During my decade-long career in public health, I’ve heard stories from women who use newspaper for maxi pads, drinking straws for tampons. Girls who, when they get their periods for the first time, see blood and think they are dying. Stories of cisgendered women, cursed by the sheer fate of being biologically born female, who are forced to separate from their households during their periods — sleeping and bleeding in huts each month, vulnerable to acts of gender-based violence, risking death by exposure.
It’s easy to assume these circumstances are a relic of primitive civilizations, or perhaps endemic to resource-poor parts of the world, where it’s easy to point a finger at female oppression without facing our own culpability of how we treat women here at home. But I’m not just referring to women and girls from other places. These are also the girls of America.
The inside flap of Leni Zumas’s novel Red Clocks offers a bold inquiry for the reader: Five Women. One Question: What is a woman for? The foundational premise of the book poses a question, albeit an unanswerable one — the kind of interrogation every ambitious writer wrestles with throughout a literary work which dares to not only define, but inhabit, the times in which we live.
Red Clocks is structured as a braided narrative, shifting points of view among five women: The Wife, The Daughter, The Mender, The Biographer (who all live in a small town in Oregon), and a 19th-century Arctic pioneer, Eivør Mínervudottír, who is The Biographer’s subject. The story opens in the wake of a federal abortion ban and a law that guarantees rights to embryos, with Zumas cleverly blurring fact and fiction by borrowing from fetal personhood amendments put forth for legislation. In the world of Red, in vitro fertilization (IVF) is about to become illegal, and a new amendment called Every Child Needs Two (parents, that is) is about to become law. Thinking of hightailing it North? Afraid not — Canada has closed its borders to “seekers” (women attempting to cross over to get abortions).
Red Clocks has often been compared to Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a society on the fast track to the authoritarian dystopia of a red-cloaked Gilead. While there are certainly broad thematic similarities between the two, Red seems more aligned with the cultural resonance of other recent literary works, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli, and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. Though the three books differ in terms of genre and structure (Red Clocks identifies as a novel; Tell Me How It Ends is an essay modeled on a U.S. immigration intake form; and Citizen, which is perhaps the most liminal, is a genre-bending amalgam of essay, poetry and visual art), all three books wrestle with social justice issues (reproductive rights, immigration policy, and racism, respectively) in an America that is at odds with its modern identity. An America paradoxically steeped in the false idealism of its “look how far we’ve come” social evolution as it simultaneously wrestles with a desperation to cling to white, patriarchal power structures and the culturally sanctioned inequalities of yesteryear.
Similar to the works of Luiselli and Rankine, Zumas plays with narrative form. The stoic riffs of the polar explorer Eivør Mínervudottír are sparse, broken up by generous blocks of white space. Collectively, the use of white space in these books is arresting; the interruption of flowing text somehow taps into the psyche of trauma, of what happens to bodies living in a glorified police state — deportation, institutional racism and systemic violence, reproductive oppression — the effects of which are so varied and multidimensional, so deeply embedded, that linear forms of narrative fail to articulate the lived experiences of these bodies. We need blank space, mythology, vignettes. We need to breathe in the spaces in between so as not to overwhelm.
Zumas plays with the meaning of nationalism, the tension between freedom and control and how the two reside in this country’s consciousness. How these forces exert power over women's bodies in the modern age merits urgent investigation. We are living in a time when secularism is more commonplace than devout religious beliefs, when 70% of the country believes Roe v. Wade should not be overturned. Technological and scientific advances have made a variety of family planning and reproductive services safe and accessible (though, in many cases, cost prohibitive) to women. And yet there is an increasing rise in fundamentalism over women’s bodies that is out of step with social mores and medical progress. Even with the proliferation and availability of porn, one could argue that sex may no longer be taboo. But women’s bodies — what they do, what they’re capable of — certainly still are.
Despite progressive sentimentality over how the feminist movement of the preceding decades has bolstered women’s rights in the United States, the fact remains that staff working at reproductive health clinics that perform routine abortions require FBI-level safety training. In 2016, anti-abortion violence was the highest it’s been in twenty years, with providers reporting violence and severe threats of violence at a rate almost double from just two years prior. As a staff member or volunteer, one is inundated with security precautions that far exceed any other medical field: Alter your route to and from work. Don’t accept any mysterious packages that get delivered. If the clinic is under lockdown, use a landline to call 911, not a cell phone — it could set off a bomb. If someone outside the clinic holds a gun to your head and makes you ring the buzzer to gain entry, give a code name and we will know to put the clinic on lockdown.
In Red Clocks, The Daughter seeks to terminate her teen pregnancy by any means necessary: back alley clinic; fleeing (unsuccessfully) to Canada with a fake ID under the auspices of visiting a friend; dropping by The Mender’s cabin in the woods in hopes of illegally procuring an herbal tincture to expel the fetal tissue. As each tactic fails, The Daughter’s pregnancy progresses and she grows more desperate and fearful, finally convincing her teacher, The Biographer, to go with her to an underground clinic.
The Biographer, age 42, faces her own long-term struggles with infertility and is staring down a rapidly closing window on fertility treatments as well as the ability to legally adopt as a single mother. As such, The Biographer is forced to confront her own internal conflict over desperately wanting a child while accompanying The Daughter to terminate her pregnancy, wrestling with and reconciling her beliefs as a pro-choice woman. The personal is the political, but when it comes to the bodies of women, we are often forced to reckon with surrendering the personal for the sake of the political, to subsume individual desire in order to further the fight for the collective. In this way, the female body is again rendered as an essentialist symbol of the patriarchy: the embodiment of sacrifice.
In her search for the answer to the book’s opening question: What is a woman for?, Zumas deftly explores the concept of “naturalism” and its associations with womanhood. Fertility treatments, some argue, are “not natural”. And yet The Mender, an herbalist, is branded a witch by the surrounding community. How quickly the natural turns supernatural where women are concerned; how pervasive the pressure for women to be paragons of natural beauty and fertility. And when we inevitably fail to live up to these standards, how swiftly we are subjected to scrutiny when caught acquiring our so-called naturalism from unnatural sources. No wonder the female body is mythical—we are the physical manifestation of contradiction, of separate selves that are split, again and again, by patriarchal cleaving. The Wife. The Daughter. The Biographer. The Mender. Women, for the duration of our lives, are in a constant fight against being man-made.
Zumas illustrates how the poetics of language shape the identity of women and motherhood, even through the archetypal names given to the characters. Despite the challenges of navigating the voices of five characters, each one feels fully realized, the affect of which is surprisingly intimate for a multi-narrative weave. Zumas borrowed inspiration from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, a narrative told in soliloquies by six characters. Rather than separate individuals, Woolf described these characters as “facets of consciousness”. The characters in Red Clocks feel very much the same way, shape-shifting among individual circumstance, sexual objectification, symbols of domesticity. A chorus from The Wife: Spray table. Wipe down table. Rinse cups and bowls. Domestic chorus cum death knell for her marriage to her husband Didier, a compulsive punster who, feeling entitled by his role as sole breadwinner, aspires only to maintain the status quo of domestic illusion rather than engage in meaningful connection with his family.
Red Clocks is, above all, a cautionary tale. The story of the gradual erosion of reproductive rights and a government sanctioned assault on womanhood. A curdling of female self-possession in increments. No one notices the milk in the process of spoiling, but only after, when it has turned rank and sour. As Woolf says in The Waves, “We are cut, we are fallen. We are become part of that unfeeling universe that sleeps when we are at our quickest and burns red when we lie asleep.”
The United States has elected a man with sexual assault and misconduct allegations against him from over twenty women. Justice Kennedy is retiring from the Supreme Court, and a likely five-member conservative stronghold is imminent; overturning Roe v. Wade is a real possibility. Licensed pharmacists possess the ability to legally refuse to fill prescribed medications to women who suffer miscarriages, uncontroversial fetuses who have already died in utero. So-called “pro-life” ideologues are content to watch children being ripped from the arms of their mothers at our borders. The war against women in America is no longer subterranean, if you ever even thought it was underground to begin with. It is here, and it is coming for us. Pay heed to The Biographer’s invective: Don’t just sit there watching.
Seattle-based prose writer and global health civil servant
Follow Jessica Mooney on Twitter: @jessleimoon