Shelly Oria is the editor of I Know What’s Best for You: Stories on Reproductive Freedom, a multi-genre collection from twenty-eight writers and artists working across genre and disciplines to explore one of the most pressing issues of our time.
AMANDA UHLE: When people first hear about this book, there’s sometimes an immediate impulse to generalize it as a book about abortion. Do you see this as a book about abortion?
SHELLY ORIA: Can you imagine if I said, Yes, I do, and you’d then have to say, Um, are you sure? Because this book is about many aspects of reproductive freedom? And I would say, It is? And you would say, Remember how it’s about the way different issues—from racism to the climate crisis and more—intersect with reproductive freedom? And I’d say, Oh. I thought it was just about abortion. And it would be this awkward moment because I curated and edited this book, and I really should know what it’s about. Phew. I’m so glad that didn’t happen!
AU: Another common generalization might be that an anthology like this would be primarily personal essays—nonfiction that speaks to individuals’ experiences with the issue. It’s most decidedly and distinctively not that. Can you talk about why?
SO: You know, it was one of the first things I knew about this book, way before it was a book: that I wanted it to be even more multigenre than Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings from the Me Too Movement (which featured fiction, nonfiction, and poetry). I’d talked in interviews about how exciting this aspect of Indelible was to me, and how important, and as you know, I was just on the heels of that book tour when we started this project that became I Know What’s Best for You, so I thought, Well, if I’m talking so much about the multigenre thing, let’s make it mean even more with this new book. So we did: not only stories and essays and poems this time, but also three short plays, a comic (!), and even photography.
Part of this is really just my own artistic and personal preference. I’m multigenre to my core—as a writer, to some degree, and as a reader, for sure, but mostly I mean something deeper than that: my queerness feels connected to this choice, my bi-national, bi-lingual identity feels invested in this choice… I’m very “both and” in the way I approach life. So naturally, when it came to curating this type of space, I thought about it in those terms.
I went all deep here and sort of skipped the more obvious answer: this is about creative inclusivity for me. Both because if we make a book of essays, the scope of voices we can invite is greatly diminished by this choice of genre, and that’s twice as true with this sensitive topic, which makes even some essayists shy away. But also: we tend, as a society, when we respond to issues in the news, to respond with nonfiction or creative nonfiction. And I think this go-to choice of ours is…. uninspired. It keeps our cultural conversations smaller and more narrow than they could otherwise be. I wanted to take a far more expansive approach. What might a writer explore in this context if they’re free to write fiction or poetry or a play, if they’re free to imagine and call upon their most creative part, allow that part to run wild? This book, for me, is an answer to this question.
AU: In the process of working on this book with you for many years now, I’ve perceived an evolution in the issue of reproductive freedom both in the US and around the world. How have those changes affected your editorial process?
SO: It’s scary to think about the fact that we started this project back in 2019 because things were already so dire—that year alone, so many states were passing new laws restricting abortion in different ways—and to then consider the degree of escalation we’ve witnessed since then… I mean, that was before SB8, that was before the Mississippi case…
I remember that lunch I had with Carol—and I’ll say here for the readers that that’s Carol Davis, one of the women behind The Brigid Alliance, a nonprofit that arranges and pays the way for pregnant people around the country forced to travel for abortion care (and our partner in this book)—and hearing for the first time about CPCs (crisis pregnancy centers), also known as fake clinics. Learning these places existed, which gave womxn false medical information, used fear tactics, misled womxn about how much time they had to make a decision about their pregnancy… It changed my brain. And I ended up writing about it in my own story in the book, as you know.
I’d say, overall, the more dire things got, the more invested in the project I became. We went from our original vision of twenty-three contributors or so, same as Indelible, to closer to thirty. I became obsessed with the possibility of exploring reproductive freedom outside the US, and we added the book’s digital, international supplement I Know What’s Best for You All Over the World, which features sixteen writers and artists from around the globe responding to aspects of reproductive freedom in their locale. And some wonderful, beautiful boundaries I had earlier on that helped ensure I’d have sufficient time for my own writing outside of this project kind of went to shit. Can I say “shit” in this interview?
AU: Yeah, you can say “shit.” I think 2022 feels like a time in history when expletives are the most apt form of expression sometimes. As I also know from our work together on this, approaching prospective contributors has resulted in a vast range of responses, from extreme reluctance to unchecked enthusiasm. How do you account for this range, and how does it show up in the book?
SO: That’s such a great question, and one that admittedly I haven’t given that much thought to… I’ve been in hyper “do” mode with this project, so I was observing this range you allude to, but not focusing on it much—if someone wasn’t enthused about the topic, someone else would be: onward. But in reflecting on it now, I can say the number of cis men writers whose politics I know to be aligned with the book, who identify as feminists and allies, etc., who said they didn’t feel comfortable writing on this topic or didn’t have much to say about it creatively… that number was high, and it surprised me. And I think it points to the framing of this topic—politically, culturally—as a “women’s issue,” which results in many good men feeling… a smaller sense of responsibility than I’d personally like to see them feel.
I mean, most liberal, feminist men would be the first to say, Hey, if men were the ones getting pregnant, abortion would be sacred in this country, better protected than guns. And yet… how are American men using their power and privilege to fight for abortion rights? Not nearly enough, in my opinion.
Another specific challenge I can name was finding trans contributors—I invited so many trans writers and artists I love, and whose work I love, and most of them said, Hmm, yeah, maybe, and in the end didn’t send us anything. And here, my takeaway is different: I think trans folx are excluded not only from the mainstream conversation of reproductive freedom, but from the collective consciousness on this topic to such a degree… that it requires superhuman powers for them to break through, to claim, I’m here too in this space and I belong in this conversation and here’s a story/play/poem that I wrote about it… It requires bionic effort from folx forced to exert this level of effort so often already, on so many fronts, that they just have to pick their battles much more wisely, much more carefully than most of us. It’s a matter of survival.
It should be said, though—and you know this as well as I do—the “unchecked enthusiasm,” as you put it, was… a force to be reckoned with. People who care about this issue really care about this issue… Whether they wrote for the book, blurbed it, or supported it in myriad other ways… I’ve felt so held throughout this process, by so many.
AU: A more traditional approach to change-making in the world through books and writing might involve writing legislation or petitions or manifestos. This book is wholly different; it’s art and literature. What power do those things have to shape the world where we live?
SO: I’ve been thinking so much about this lately—and you and I have talked about it some: how essential art is, how essential books are in this moment in particular, and as a response to crisis and injustice. I think most forms of activism require a good degree of clarity and a crystallized definition of goals to be effective. And the casualty of that clarity, quite often and unavoidably, is nuance—even complexity. Art, on the other hand, literature… they’re all about exploring nuance and complexity. So, for instance, if we want to make the point that different forms of aggression toward womxn and their bodies aren’t as distinct as our discourse seems to suggest—that it’s not shocking that the society in which sexual assault is so rampant is the same one now policing and controlling womxn’s bodies in this other way, by trying to force them to stay pregnant when they don’t wish to… If we try to connect the dots between these different issues, well, that’s arguably an effort that art is much better equipped to take on. This isn’t to say that we don’t need petitions and legislation… That’s clear, right? We need to be signing petitions and writing legislation and fighting in courtrooms and marching the streets. We just also need to make art about all of it in the process, and we need to be receiving the art of others, and we need to remember that it’s crucial. It’s the heart of it all, in the most literal sense: we can’t survive without it.
Shelly Oria is the author of New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 (FSG, 2014), a Lambda Literary Award Finalist. In 2017, a digital novella Oria was commissioned by McSweeney’s and WeTransfer to coauthor, received two Lovie Awards from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, and was downloaded by over 100k people. Oria is the editor of Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings from the Me Too Movement (McSweeney’s, 2019), and I Know What’s Best for You: Stories on Reproductive Freedom (McSweeney’s, 2022). Her fiction has appeared in the Paris Review and on Selected Shorts at Symphony Space and has been translated to several languages.