The book review: Margaret Atwood, Louise Erdrich

Dystopian novels, even if their plot seems fantastic, simulate a deeply human experience: the feeling of being at the mercy of circumstances, of losing personal control. When the Supreme Court struck Roe v. calf on Friday, I was itching to dive into speculative fiction to reflect my grief and anger in a setting that’s both terrifying and familiar.

Margaret Atwood illustrated the dystopia with her 1985 book. The story of the maid, in which a theocratic dictatorship prevents women from reading, writing, or controlling their own reproduction. But more recent novels have reflected similar fears. In 2018, our collaborator Sophie Gilbert noted the rise of “feminist dystopia,” set in worlds where reproductive rights are being destroyed. At Bina Shah before she sleepsFor example, women who survive a deadly strain of HPV are forced to have children with multiple husbands; with Louise Erdrich Future home of the living Godpregnant women are taken into state custody.

The detachment of an imaginary world allows us to confront very real fears. Recently, however, the gap between dystopian plots and actual life seems to be narrowing. As Atwood wrote The story of the maidShe feared it was too far-fetched – but when Judge Samuel Alito’s draft opinion arrived Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization appeared, she had a feeling her work would come true. And according to Mary Ziegler, the author of After deer, Dobbs could signal that the Supreme Court’s guard rails are overridden – that no casualties are unimaginable. “Nobody should get used to their rights,” she wrote. “Rights can disappear.”

But novels and poetry don’t just remind us of what we can lose. They also remind us of all of us to have losing – why the stakes seem so high. In “Thinking Roe v. calf‘Letters to the Black Body’, poet Tiana Clark looks at America’s long history of violent control over black women and their bodies. But she also celebrates her own. “Dear Black Body That I Adore,” she writes. “Dear black body / which I now hear shimmering with acute tenderness.”

Literature helps us salvage some tenderness, if only by reminding us that we are not alone in our fear. Poet Dana Levin captured this truth when she compiled a cento – a poem composed of lines by other poets in chorus. It begins: “I hold my grief like two limp tulips.” But it becomes a call for care and for common action.”What hurts? / What hurts? / How can I help from here?

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what we read

Lizzie Gil

The Remarkable Rise of Feminist Dystopia
“In recent years… the dystopias of fiction have changed. They are mostly written by and deal with women. They envision worlds devastated by climate change, worlds where human progress is unraveling. Most importantly, they consider reproduction and what happens when societies try to enshrine it in law.”


An illustration of a maid silhouette against a gray background

Adam Maida / The Atlantic

I invented Gilead. The Supreme Court makes it true.

“Although I ended up finishing this novel and naming it The story of the maid, I stopped writing it several times because I felt it was too far-fetched. Silly me. Theocratic dictatorships are not just a thing of the distant past: there are a number of them on the planet today. What is stopping the United States from becoming one of them?”

📚 The story of the maidby Margaret Atwood

A collage of images of tortured faces against a background image of the Supreme Court building

The Atlantic; Getty

If the Supreme Court can reverse roeit can undo everything

“If this decision signals something bigger than its direct consequences, it is that nobody should get used to their rights. It’s impossible to predict with certainty which, if any, will go when. but Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization is a stark reminder that this can happen. Rights can disappear.”

📚 After Roe: The Lost History of the Abortion Debateby Maria Ziegler

A photo of someone's face in profile, in black and white, looking into the distance

Colby Deal / Magnum

“In view of Roe v. calfLetters to the Black Body”

“Dear Highest Prize, dear bear the Brunt & Double / Blow, dear HeLa cells still doubling, dear / disproportionately affected … dear black body /
I hear that now, shimmering with acute tenderness.”

📚 I can’t talk about the trees without the bloodby Tiana Clark
📚 balanceby Tiana Clark

A collage of slips of paper with lines from the poem printed on them.  In the middle is one who reads

Katie Martin / The Atlantic

“Without Choice”

“Soon the whole little / town of my being will be destroyed – / With no choice, no politics, / No ethical life.”


About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Faith Hill. The book she reads next is illumination of the shadowby Rachel Eliza Griffiths.

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