Finally, A Book About Miscarriage and Infant Loss for Women of Color
The anthology "What God is Honored Here?" seeks to highlight stories of grief that have mostly been silenced
Studies by the Center for Disease Control show that 15–20% of pregnant people in the United States will suffer a miscarriage, and 1 percent of U.S. pregnancies end in stillbirth. These are astonishingly high numbers for an industrialized country. Still more distressing is that the infant mortality rates for Black babies are more than twice that of White babies. I learned all this from the introduction to the anthology What God is Honored Here?: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss by and for Native Women and Women of Color, written by editors Shannon Gibney and Kao Kalia Yang. Before then, I had heard the numbers were grim but I didn’t know the degree. It makes the publication of this anthology even more urgent. Gibney and Yang are award-winning authors working in a variety of genres for a diverse range of age groups at the intersection of race, gender, class, family, power, and identity. Gibney is the author of the novels Dream Country and See No Color, and the textbook: Working Toward Racial Equity in First Year Composition. Yang has written a children’s book, A Map into the World, and the memoirs, The Song Poet and The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir.
The result of their collaboration is a ground-breaking array of perspectives that take us deep into the prejudices and limitations of science and the medical establishment; the toll, the grace, the in-between where Indigenous women and women of color wait for miracles, and where we plunge in our grief at losing an infant or lose the possibility of an infant.
I have to admit I was nervous about opening this book, afraid of what it would bring up for me. At a time when we need our armor for so much that is fucked up in our world, this book would make me vulnerable. As the editors say eloquently in their introduction about their contributors: “Although their mode of expression was words, what they were really doing, what we were really doing, was expelling, processing, and addressing trauma.”
And I found they were right. The artfulness of each piece buoyed me along. This anthology helped me to the other side of grief. I had a chance to talk with Gibney and Yang about their vision and their experience working with writers handling difficult emotional material.
Jimin Han: How did the two of you come to work on this project together?
Shannon Gibney: Kalia and I had been friends for a long time, and had always admired each other’s work. I knew she had suffered a loss, and that she had talked about it a little bit publicly. After I lost my daughter and was living through the aftermath of little to no discussion of infant loss, stillbirth, and miscarriage in our culture and communities, I reached out to her about the possibility of putting an anthology together of Indigenous and women of color’s voices about the experience. Kalia got back to me right away and said, “Absolutely. This is vital work. There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.”
Although we were friends before, the relationship was more collegial. Now, over the process of putting out the call for submissions, going through pieces and accepting and rejecting them, finding a press, editing and guiding writers through revision, examining proofs, organizing readings and events, and getting the word out about the book, we have become very close. I would say we are now dear, dear friends. Every Black, Native, Asian American, and Latinx woman writer should have at least one fellow BIWOC friend and colleague who they can bounce ideas off of, collaborate on projects with, get professional and personal advice from, or just call to vent.
Kao Kalia Yang: We chanced upon love, marriage, and children in the same span of years. When I had my miscarriage, I posted about it on Facebook to let my friends and family know that the baby I had been hoping for was no more. When Shannon experienced her stillbirth with Sianneh, I was at the hospital. The news of Sianneh’s birth via Facebook helped me make the decision to induce. In this way, we became more than just women out to push the boundaries of American literature, we became—in my mind and my heart—sisters in our grief. Some months later, Shannon wrote and asked if I’d be interested in working with her on a collection on miscarriage and infant loss by and for native women and women of color. I, too, had been looking and finding nothing reflective of my experience. I agreed but it was not until years later—after the stories of our childbearing years were through—that we both were ready to tackle the project.
JH: You’re both accomplished writers with your own individual books. (Congrats, Kalia, on being a finalist for the Chautauqua Prize.) How different was the experience of collaborating on this anthology from working on your solo books?
SG: Neither of us had ever assembled an anthology, and certainly, neither of us had ever attempted to put together something as triggering as this. Throughout the entire process, we were both very, very clear, and had to keep reminding ourselves that yes, although this is a piece of literature, it is also a process and even a template for working through trauma. Although we definitely had a baseline for writing quality, and many of the contributors more than met it, we were also cognizant that in asking for first-person narratives of miscarriage and infant loss, we were asking folks who had already lived through incredible physical, emotional, and spiritual pain (and in many cases, had “put it behind them,”) to dig back into their wounds. Especially in the revision process, we became aware of just how much we were asking from them. So then, the question became, “How do we create the conditions and support for these women to get at the depth of their own truths while not creating any more unnecessary pain?” This became a delicate balance in terms of editing and revising. Luckily, our editor and the press were incredibly supportive throughout the entire process.
KKY: The experience of working on this book, even with such a wonderful partner, is harrowing. We both got ourselves on this rollercoaster and held fast, believing the track would hold, picking up more and more people along the way, knowing the train was getting heavier, knowing we were acquiring more strength. On a solo project, at this phase of a book, you’re looking ahead. On this project, we’re looking toward each other and the women on the train. It is a different set of responsibilities we’re tangling with this time.
JH: Where did you post calls for pieces and what was the response? And how did you decide what would go into the final collection?
KKY: We published an essay via Women’s Press on our individual and shared experience of loss and put forth the call. We wrote to different networks that we knew, reached out to Native women writers and women writers of color we respected, asking them to share it with their networks. We used social media (and received in return some horrible messages about how we were isolating white women in the process, being divisive by focusing on and culling forth particular voices only). We cast a net as wide as we knew how through the many relationships we’ve made on our individual journeys in our varied roles as writers, teachers, and activists. We received all kinds of pieces, poetry and prose, from men and women, white and non-white. We reviewed them all. We thoughtfully discussed what this collection means to us and the work we believed it would do in the world. No men. No white women. We sifted through and looked for the pieces that spoke to our hearts, pushed our boundaries of understanding, asked the hard questions of themselves and the world. We wanted to be as representative as we could be.
JH: Any thoughts about why it’s taken so long for an anthology in this area to be published?
KKY: The realm of creative nonfiction has always been dominated by white men and their stories, their truths, their perceptions of importance. I have many thoughts about why a collection like this has waited for us: you needed women, not just women but women of color. And you needed not just one, but at least two women who share a deep, living understanding of not only their own experiences of loss but other women’s. And then you needed these two women to be educated enough, formally and informally, to understand the context of such losses, and then to each have built a strong enough resume of work to show each other and the bigger community that they were trustworthy and able to carry such stories as contained in the pages of What God is Honored Here? to the bright light of day with sensitivity, care, and a measure or rebelliousness. Shannon and I are both anomalies, by ourselves and as a team. We had to come together, then we had to find a publisher who was interested and capable and willing to ride this fine line with us, and an editor who understood where this collection could stand and what it could do.
JH: Being where you are in your careers and having the strength of many networks seems to have really worked for you in this anthology. Can you tell us more about your discussions? Specifically, what was most challenging?
KKY: For me, there were three parts. First: not responding to the inflammatory responses of white men and women who felt that we were denying them access through this collection. Two: learning how to cry for another woman’s experiences and then crying your way through the editing of their pieces. Three: writing my mother’s story of miscarriages was particularly hard, inhabiting them, addressing their outcomes.
JH: Your inclusion of a variety of genres, from poetry to essays to fiction gave me some space as I was reading pieces that triggered memories for me. How did this decision come about and why did you choose to include a variety of genres?
KKY: We knew that the collection was going to be hard. We knew we needed to cross genre lines to give our readers reflection, contemplation, meditation room. For us, as writers, we’ve found those spaces, that generosity of breath–as you so beautifully put it–across genre lines. As importantly, these different genres exists because different writers find their truths in different forms. We didn’t want to limit ourselves, our writers, or our readers.
JH: How has the experience been for you as advance copies of the bound book arrived?
SG: It has really been incredibly moving to actually hold the book in our hands. I mean, it always is, with any book you write, to see these years of labor, all these resources, all this belief and commitment finally come to fruition. But with this book, and all the sorrow it’s carrying, and conversely, all the potential it holds to deeply heal, it’s even weightier. The book feels like something significant we can offer to the world out of that deep well of sadness.
KKY: My children were as excited to receive the advanced copies as I was. We all walked around the house carrying copies close to our hearts. It wasn’t until I took a step back, watched my daughter and my sons holding the books that I felt—for the very first time—that the book was not only for me and Shannon and the women whose voices are inside, or the lives that were lost along the way, but also for those who did make it. This book was a celebration of life in its most precious form. The bigness of the book grew when I saw it living in the hands of my children.
JH: Have you heard from your contributors about their reactions as they received their contributor copies and see that the project is now real and will be received soon by a larger community?
SG: Reviews have started coming in—from established publications as well as everyday people. And they move you. When you hear that your story has made someone feel less alone in their grief, when a nursing instructor says that the book should be required reading for everyone in the OBGYN field. These are the things contributors have been hearing about the anthology and their pieces, and yes, they have told me and I can see that they find it incredibly powerful. At Minneapolis College, the institution where I teach, What God Is Honored Here? is already being taught in the Gender, Women, and the Environment class, and the Resisting Gender Violence class—and it hasn’t even come out yet! Contributors were thrilled to hear this.
KKY: One contributor told me that the book surprised her. She hadn’t expected to feel so deeply and connected to the other women in the book and their stories. Just today our editor told me when I asked him if he was happy with the way the book turned out, he said, “With other books, I can say yes, it is beautiful or it is so good, but this one: it is so big, Kalia, it carries so much.”