Originally published October 1, 2019.
Amanda Uhle spoke with Shelly Oria on the WCBN podcast Living Writers about the collection Oria edited, Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings From the Me Too Movement. We’re excited to share the transcript of their conversation, condensed and edited for clarity.
AMANDA UHLE: Shelly, I’m well familiar with the book, but I’d love for our listeners to hear an introduction to Indelible from your perspective.
SHELLY ORIA: Indelible in the Hippocampus is an anthology of essays, short stories, and poems, and I always like to take a moment with that information, because for various reasons when people hear anthology, especially about a timely topic, they just sort of assume it’s a book of essays. The tagline that we’re using is “Writings From the Me Too Movement,” so it’s essays and stories and poems that reflect various Me Too experiences that women have had and have been inspired to share or write about or make art about.
I’m very excited for the book to be out in the world because it takes this conversation that we’ve been having for two years—and by we, I mean the very collective we of the world and the U.S., but also the team at McSweeney’s and also myself and the 22 other writers who have contributed to the anthology—and expands that conversation, and takes these pieces to hopefully many, many readers. It’s so exciting, and also so hard to imagine what it’s going to feel like when we can have these conversations with readers who are encountering these texts for the first time after we’ve been thinking about them, talking about them, revising them, editing them and proofreading them for so long.
AU: You’re speaking about this moment in publishing where much of the work of the publisher and the author and the editor and the contributors is done, and now we wait. Now we anticipate what’s next, right?
SO: Yes, but it feels like such an ongoing, never-stopping process. Until eventually it stops… But at this point, it hasn’t. We have been working hard to get the word out, and there’s a bunch of very exciting things that are going to happen in the next couple months. Many excerpts from the anthology will be published in various outlets and a bunch of interviews with me and other contributors that will come out.
So to your question, yes and no. It feels like it’s always happening, and there are different aspects to the work at each point. I do think it’s a big transition in a book’s life when suddenly a bunch of people are going to be part of that conversation. So I’m certainly thrilled but, no, it doesn’t feel like we ever really stop.
AU: Even more than many other books, Indelible, in my mind, is built for readers. It’s about readers experiencing it and hearing from these 22 other contributors, and reflecting on their own experiences as well.
SO: Definitely. I think that’s why I’m so excited about the tour, because we’ll be having these conversations with readers in a bunch of cities in the U.S. and whether we’re reading sections from the book or whether we’re having a panel discussion, that’s an opportunity to have these conversations referencing various Me Too experiences.
AU: I like how you phrase the reasoning behind the book—giving a physical form to these stories. It’s easy for something like a hashtag to minimize and make common these personal Me Too stories. Each of these stories in the book, and every Me Too story in the world, is its own important, deeply personal story, right? Do you want to talk about that physical form the book takes? And in doing so, perhaps you could expand upon the ideas of diversity. We have a diverse list of contributors, but also a very diverse range of experiences conveyed, and genres.
SO: I think to achieve the level of diversity that we wanted to achieve, we would’ve needed about a dozen books. And yet I also feel really good about what we did in this context because the space was finite. We wanted to represent as many backgrounds as we could. Then we also wanted to make sure that there’s a diversity of experiences, both in terms of women’s experiences but also in terms of thinking of the movement itself, and really trying to capture as many aspects of women’s experiences and this moment that we’re in culturally.
I also wanted to think about ageism, and it felt important to hear from women who’ve been around longer, who’d fought these circumstances before I was born. So that was one other form of inclusivity that felt essential here.
AU: In order to achieve those different forms of diversity, you must’ve approached many people and reached beyond your normal network. Talk about that and how you identified contributors and chose work.
SO: I curated and hosted a reading series in the East Village for about five years. So for five years straight, once a month, five writers were booked. That series, too, featured writers of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry each month. I got to know a lot of writers that way. Subsequently, I co-directed the writers’ forum at the Pratt Institute for about seven years, and that meant every year curating a big lineup of guest writers at Pratt. So between those two things, I think my network got to be quite extensive, just in terms of knowing many writers whose work I’m also pretty intimate with because of these settings where we met. So really, I wanted to invite about 150 writers, and then I was like, “Damn. I think I can probably only invite 30 at most.” So if anything that was the challenge because there are just so many people out there doing good work. Especially when it comes to topics like ours, it’s so hard to choose. In some ways it’s like, “Who am I to choose?” But you’re given a job and you have to do it.
AU: What’s significant about it being a physical book—not published online?
SO: It occurred to me in thinking about it that as incredible and powerful as the internet is, it’s also always, even at its best, a call for action. It’s preparatory in nature. It prepares us for action. Even when it comes to political action, when we’re calling on people to boycott something, or when we’re calling on them to canvas or call their representatives… Or if you think about Egypt in 2010, when we learned how the internet can be utilized for political purposes, and in ways that I think changed our understanding of what can be done in that space. People managed to organize and take to the streets thanks to the internet.
Meaning, even at its best, the internet still isn’t action itself. I think that’s part of why I see it as a type of “calling” for us to do the work of book publishing to help take this movement into the physical world. This book will be a thing that people can hold in their hands. These events will happen in the physical world. This is all part of action that feels to me very different in nature and in energy and in its molecules when compared to hashtags or conversations taking place in comment threads.
AU: I loved what you were saying before about how you couldn’t decide which writers to invite, because there are so many amazing writers on this topic and otherwise. But I want to go a step further and ask you about precisely how the people you invited reacted to this invitation. This is material that is incredibly demanding emotionally and in some cases it causes one to be exposed legally or put in some jeopardy. I wonder how smooth that process was and how prospective contributors reacted to the idea of being part of this.
SO: One thing that addressed it was the multiplicity of genres that we have in this anthology. In some ways, my life would’ve been easier if it was just fiction or just nonfiction. Yet in the context of what you’re asking, I think this choice also made my life a little easier. Especially at that time in the end of 2017, but even now, it would be very sensitive, and arguably even problematic, to reach out to a writer and just say, “Hey, do you have a ‘Me Too essay,’ to give me?” because that is presuming something about that writer’s experience. Of course, some writers have written publicly about it, so that makes it a little bit less problematic, but many writers hadn’t.
Because of the genre inclusivity we have in the book, I felt much more at ease, because I wasn’t making that presumption. I was saying, “Do you have an essay? Are you working on an essay? Would you like to work on an essay or short story or a poem?” I think that allowed us to expand both the conversation and the network of people that we were reaching.
What was interesting, too, in this context is that no one, not one person that I emailed, was like, “Oh, that hadn’t occurred to me.” Everyone had something in mind. So in a couple cases, people said, “Yeah, I’ve already published a piece that I would love to include in the anthology.” In a bunch of cases, people said, “There’s something that I’m working on” or, “There’s something that I’ve been wanting to work on, and this will give me a deadline finally.” I really feel that all the pieces in Indelible were already in the hearts of these writers when we invited them to participate. These words wanted, needed to be written.
AU: And an invitation is a way of saying that we’re listening, and the world is listening, which I think is part of the power of the Me Too movement.
SO: Yes. As a writer, I often don’t think of it that way. I complete work and then I try to put it out there in the world. The way that the whole project started is that I finished a story that happened to be a quote-unquote “Me Too story” right before the Harvey scandal broke. So for me, it was sort of this coincidence.
Generally speaking, I think many writers try not to wait on a publication or an invitation, but just make work as artists and then put the work out there. But to your point: this topic, for so many people, is so painful and sensitive that I think it can feel too scary or vulnerable to write certain pieces not knowing if they have a home.
AU: How do you edit work that’s so personal? You were in the position of maybe saying to a contributor “Yes” or “no”, or “This works for me; this doesn’t work for me.” Those are very complicated conversations, right?
SO: Yes. I think in the early days of the project I definitely struggled with that. But then what helped me get over it is everyone’s response. The writers were such professionals about it, and more so, I think, many wanted to have these conversations, and were very open to them. My feeling in some of the cases was that there was some value or potentially even healing value in the process.
AU: I’m imagining we already have some input and feedback from some readers. Have you heard from anyone who’s not affiliated with the book who’s read it?
SO: I’ve been getting some really incredible responses from readers. I’ve already been getting emails from people who’ve received galleys. What I’ve really enjoyed hearing from readers is that it’s not depressing to read—which has always been my experience of this manuscript, but what would you even know after a certain point when you’re so close to a manuscript? You stop having the kind of distance from it that allows you to trust your own judgment.
Some moments, some pieces are certainly intense, but at the same time, there’s lightness and there’s a lot of humor. There are a lot of moments that are funny. There’s quite a few pieces in the book that are really thought-provoking, whether that’s a way of thinking about the future, and where do we go from here, how do we transition to that next stage. I think there’s a lot in this book that is deeply engaging and I’m excited to watch those reactions continue.
AU: When we look at the times that the Me Too movement has been in the news—the whole Harvey Weinstein situation and the Kavanaugh hearings—those were wrenching to watch, to witness, to have conversations about. I think that this book does something else important, which is an anecdote to having to bear witness to these kinds of events in news reporting. The book takes these women’s experiences away from the digital, away from the news reporting style, and puts them in physical form and in human voices.
SO: Yes. It’s not that sort of the journalistic news report-y vibe or tone, but it’s also not the tone of the first testimonials that we received, which were incredibly important. This book does have the tone and breadth of reflection already embedded in it, and that’s part of its ability to expand the conversation.