S. Isabel Choi’s “Her Prayer” in Ninth Letter
It takes a supremely talented writer to build up suspense to an event that the reader knows from the get-go doesn’t happen. In this stunning piece of creative nonfiction, S. Isabel Choi details the day in October 1992 when her mother kept the author and her sister home from school because her church had convinced her the Rapture was coming at 3 p.m. We hear about her mother’s personal history: how she came to be in an arranged marriage, how she and her husband moved from Korea to New Jersey, how her husband was abusive but she felt trapped in the marriage by her lack of employable skills. Her mother’s sadness is a dark cloud that hangs over the whole piece. After the Rapture fails to come, it seems worse:
She never discussed this period of her life after that October date. The church missives disappeared from our house. On my own, later, I’d find some of the church’s assurances: Those of us who have waited patiently for His return will have all the glory in the world, and those who aren’t prepared will have all the sorrow and fear in the world. Maybe Mom had to admit she harbored only sorrow, not fear, for fear would have indicated an interest in the future.
Choi juxtaposes her own worldly interests at the time, those typical of a teenager (boys, pop music), with her mother’s preoccupation with otherworldly concerns of the soul and the afterlife. She feels guilty for indulging in these frivolous thoughts, but not guilty enough to actually get rid of her cassette tapes. It’s an interesting look at how becoming an adult shapes our understanding of our parents’ actions and behaviors when we were young. It’s clear that the author now understands her mother’s internal thoughts and emotions, which she didn’t necessarily comprehend at the time. Just get your tissues ready for the ending.
Jasmine Sanders’s “On Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Maternal Ambivalence” in Lenny Letter
In this “meditation on miscarriage and rediscovering a masterpiece,” Jasmine Sanders reflects on the historical and personal complexity of black women and reproduction. She weaves her experience of a teenage pregnancy and miscarriage with the experiences of Sethe, the main character in Toni Morrison’s novel about a slave who kills her baby to save him from a life of servitude.
For Sethe, and for the ugliest parts of myself I saw reflected in her, the spite I know it takes to still the beating heart of a baby, I return to the book time and time again.
It’s a bold statement to express your desire to never become pregnant again, and to state that if you do, you will terminate no matter what the circumstances. But because these sentiments are rarely spoken doesn’t mean they are rare. Sanders’s powerful and provocative essay is a beautifully rendered examination of the highly charged and political nature of childbearing as a black woman.
Bodily autonomy is a complicated matter for black women. What does reproductive justice look like for women whose ancestors birthed babies not legally their own and who are currently presumed corrupt and ill-suited for motherhood in a way that devalues black children? When a black woman kills her baby, is she performing a radical act of kindness, enacting her own free will, or undermining the capitalistic system that has historically assigned her body and the fruits of it a monetary value?
Mary Karr’s “The Crotchgrabber” in The New Yorker
This retelling of “a shockingly casual case of sexual assault” Mary Karr experienced while walking down the street in broad daylight is both frightening and empowering — empowering because we follow Karr as she confronts the “grabber” and subsequently chases him down and sees him ushered into a police car. It is scary to think this could even happen, and potentially happens regularly all around the world, but satisfying to know some form of justice was served. As she tackles this disturbing act and its implications, she forces us to recognize that acceptance of the “smallest” acts of sexual inappropriateness can give rise to the cultural acceptability of more sinister encounters:
Underlying all these actions exists the apparently unshakable tenet that any expression of male sexuality is somehow normal and every man’s right, whether or not a woman on the receiving end is repulsed or upset by it. …But many of my male friends brush aside the behaviors that women find truly scary, the kind we know from experience can be the prelude to a nasty or even dangerous run-in. And something in the repetition of these behaviors—and in the culture’s blindness to the insult—wires itself into your body fibres and instills a debilitating sense that you’re not quite safe walking around.
Most women will not chase down or confront their attackers. It would likely prove more dangerous for them, so to suggest this is the answer is not prudent. Whenever possible, though, I’d like to hope more men are publicly shamed for their brazen disregard for female consent. I’ve often heard that if someone gropes you on a subway or in another packed public situation, you should loudly proclaim the offense and chastise them. But with the swiftness that men have been pulling weapons on women who object to their advances, the fear of escalating violence may serve its purpose to further silence the abused.