Twenty years in the making, this book spans six centuries and five continents. Contributors include Audre Lorde, Margaret Atwood, Lucille Clifton, Amy Tan, Gloria Steinem, Ursula Le Guin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Joyce Carol Oates, Gloria Naylor, Dorothy Parker, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Anne Sexton, Ntozake Shange, Sholeh Wolpe, Ai, Jean Rhys, Mahogany L. Browne, Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Frank O’Hara, Vi Khi Nao, Sharon Olds, Judith Arcana, Alice Walker, Lucille Clifton, Molly Peacock, Carol Muske-Dukes, Mo Yan, Leslie Marmon Silko, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Kathy Acker, Anne Sexton, Langston Hughes, Mary Wollstonecraft, and numerous other classic and contemporary writers including voices from Australia, Canada, China, France, India, Iran, Northern and Southern Ireland, Kenya, Pakistan, Poland, South Africa, and the U.K..
Reviewed by Catharine R. Stimpson in The Women's Review of Books
. . . In 1999, when Annie Finch was already the mother of two, she had an abortion, an experience that came with an “initial sense of shock and loss.” A poet with a PhD in literature, she turned to her subject for help. Literature, she reasoned, not only provokes understanding of both self and others. It also offers poetic justice to women who have suffered but whose voices have gone unheard.
Searching through cultures of past and present in the United States and globally, Finch unearthed an astonishing diversity of authors who had written about abortion. Some—Amy Tan, Joyce Carol Oates, Audre Lorde, Margaret Atwood—are well-known; others are a cause for discovery and wonder. Together, they deploy a range of genres: fiction, poetry, plays, essays, autobiographies, liturgies, and rituals.. . .
Inseparable from Finch’s belief in literature is her conviction in the necessity of women being able to use language, to speak and to write, whether we are professionals or not. One of the haunting themes of Choice Words is the price women pay for being unable to act as self-possessors of language, for being deprived of words, for the biting of the tongue and the suffocation of the mouth. The reasons? Shame, fear, vulnerability, poverty, isolation. In “She Did Not Tell Her Mother (A Found Poem),” teenagers in Kenya know young girls have died during an abortion. However, before her ghastly procedure, “She did not tell her mother. She started crying at night.”. .
The literature of Choice Words is vividly concrete. Here are exact lists of medicinal herbs, the color of a pregnancy test, the look of the abortionist’s table, the sounds of metallic instruments in preparation for a curette, the chilly feel of the stirrups as feet are elevated and grasped, the smell of vomit, the excruciating cramps and pain, the look of streams and clots of blood, perhaps a glimpse of embryonic mucus, the stomach-clenching guilt. A woman cannot break her silence about abortion without deploying such physically, psychologically, and ethically precise language. It marks pain and scars, but it is also a breakthrough to memory, partial or full healing of trauma, and community.
Through a Kickstarter campaign, Finch has raised money to donate copies of this book to clinics where literature might serve a woman sitting and waiting for her turn. Finch also hopes that the book will pollinate a collective and deeper understanding about women’s experiences within and across cultures. Choice Words tells us of decisions that demand some degree of moral and psychological and physical courage. None of these texts is about giddily throwing bouquets and confetti into the air, but the collection is asking for a kind of marriage: of understanding sex, of compassion, of common sense about a mother’s health and a child’s flourishing, and of respect for a woman’s capacity to say, “Perhaps there is no impeccably right way, but this is the best way now.”.