Deesha Philyaw


(May 6, 2021) Deesha Philyaw’s debut short story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award in fiction and won The Story Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies focuses on Black women, sex, and the Black church. Deesha is also the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, written in collaboration with her ex-husband. Her work has been listed as Notable in the Best American Essays series, and her writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Brevity, Ebony, and Bitch magazines, as well as many others.


sound bites

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Sadie Hoagland


(April 29, 2021) Sadie Hoagland is the author of Strange Children and American Grief in Four Stages, which earned a starred review from Kirkus Reviews. She is an associate professor of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and the former editor of Quarterly West. Her work has been featured in Electric Literature, Mid-American Review, Five Points, Writer’s Digest, Women Writers, and Women’s Books, and elsewhere, and her work has earned four Pushcart Prize nominations. sadiehoagland.com

FROM THE EPISODE: READING LIST & REFERENCES

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sound bites

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Riché Barnes: Transcript


Writer Mother Monster: Riché Barnes

April 15, 2021

Riché J. Daniel Barnes is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Gender Studies at Mount Holyoke College. A socio-cultural anthropologist, Riché focuses on a broad range of issues concerning Black families and is the author of Raising the Race: Black Career Women Redefine Marriage, Motherhood, and Community (2016), in which she coined the term “black strategic mothering” while investigating what she refers to as the “neo-politics of respectability.” Riché is the co-founder and director of the Association of Black Anthropologists Mentoring Program, the President of the Association of Black Anthropologists, and winner of the 2019 AAA/Oxford University Press Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching of Anthropology. She is a scholar-activist committed to social justice action including the Movement for Black Lives and #SayHerName. Riché has a 20-year-old daughter and twin 18-year-old sons, and she describes writer-motherhood in three words as “Supporter. Creative. Industrious.”

Lara Ehrlich

Hello, and welcome to Writer Mother Monster. I’m your host, Lara Ehrlich, and our guest tonight is Riché Barnes. Before I introduced Riché, thank you all for tuning in. You can watch this interview as a video, listen to it as a podcast, and read the transcript on writermothermonster.com. If you enjoyed the episode, please consider becoming a Writer Mother Monster patron or patroness on Patreon. For just $3 a month, I’ll send you a pin. And new to announce today is our first Writer Mother Monster workshop, called Prioritizing Your Craft for Writer-Moms. It is conveniently scheduled the day before Mother’s Day on Saturday, May 8. Please also chat with us during the interview. Your comments and questions will appear in our broadcast studio, and we’ll weave them into the conversation.

And now I am excited to introduce Riché Barnes. She is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Gender Studies at Mount Holyoke College. A socio-cultural anthropologist, Riché focuses on a broad range of issues concerning Black families and is the author of Raising the Race: Black Career Women Redefine Marriage, Motherhood, and Community (2016), in which she coined the term “black strategic mothering” while investigating what she refers to as the “neo-politics of respectability.” Riché is the co-founder and director of the Association of Black Anthropologists Mentoring Program, the President of the Association of Black Anthropologists, and winner of the 2019 AAA/Oxford University Press Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching of Anthropology. She is a scholar-activist committed to social justice action including the Movement for Black Lives and #SayHerName. Riché has a 20-year-old daughter and twin 18-year-old sons, and she describes writer-motherhood in three words as “Supporter. Creative. Industrious.”

Riché Barnes

Hello.

Lara Ehrlich

Hello. Thank you so much for joining me.

Riché Barnes

Thank you for having me.

Lara Ehrlich

Tell me about the three words that you chose for writer motherhood: supporter, creative, industrious.

Riché Barnes 

A supporter, I feel like that’s what’s happening all the time. I think it was fresh on my mind, because in the COVID moment, and with all that’s going on in the world right now, I feel like a lot of my time is spent offering support to my kids, just being a listening ear or trying to anticipate what kinds of struggles they might be having. I can’t fix them, because they’re pretty much adults at this point, but there are little things I can do. They’re all home. My daughter is a junior in college, so she’s been home since the pandemic. And my sons, who are twins, are still in high school, which has been in-person pretty much consistently since maybe November. Before that, they were online a lot. I felt like in a lot of ways, I was just paying attention to how they were being affected by the pandemic and by other things that are going on in the world and just trying to be supportive. We’re past the point where I’m making lunches and breakfasts, and sometimes even dinner, because they’re able to fix things for themselves. But if I’m paying attention, I realize, he’s going through a lot right now, let me make breakfast, because he’s not going to eat if I don’t make breakfast. So, you know, things like that. That’s what made me think of supporter.

Creative, you’re just on the fly, like, what do I need to do right now with this situation? I think for me, I’m creative anyway, so it really falls in line with that. Again, I was thinking of things I have to do and how I respond to them. I almost put “entrepreneurial,” because I’m also thinking about very practical things. Both of my boys are over six feet tall, so, when they were smaller, it was them growing out of clothing very quickly and me being very industrious to keep up with the budget and do things to keep us within our financial means. I’m also thinking about that right now, because they’re getting ready for college. They’ve gotten some really good packages, but we’re also thinking about how much we are going to have to put in the pot—and it’s two of them, and my daughter hasn’t graduated yet, so there’ll be three of them. All of that is on my mind right now.

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah, that’s a lot. With those logistical things that you have to be thinking about, how does that impact the creativity side? When you’re thinking about lunches and finances and buying new clothes so your child’s ankles aren’t showing, how do you maintain your creativity?

Riché Barnes

It’s hard. I used to write poetry and short stories. I used to do a lot more creative writing. I used to say grad school pushed it out of me, but I think it’s because you have to think differently when you’re doing social, scientific, scholarly work, but I think as an ethnographer, I still get to use some of my creative juices. But I think the creativity in terms of my writing really suffered in a lot of ways once I had kids, because there just wasn’t time and there wasn’t space. I think so much of creativity happens because you’re able to be alone or be in spaces that are going to inspire you. That’s not happening when you have three kids under three. My kids are all very close in age. There’s just not a lot of time. Lately, I’ve been trying to get back to the creative juices, so I’ve been doing simple things like coloring. I actually have a coloring book.

Lara Ehrlich

So do I! It’s OK.

Riché Barnes

I had mine in my bookbag, which is sitting right next to me, but I took it out because I needed to make room for some papers I needed to grade. So that’s what happens to my creativity. I think that’s a great metaphor. And I love to dance. As part of my workout regimen, instead of doing lots of things that I don’t like to do, I’ve been doing more dancing. I think all of that inspires my creativity. I’ve been going for a lot longer walks to be out in nature. But all of that is because my kids are older. It’s all because I don’t have to spend so much time, you know, with the day-to-day, minute-to-minute stuff with them. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to get back into the creative part of my writing, maybe once they’re gone. I still journal. I’ve always journaled.

Lara Ehrlich

You mentioned that the creative side of the things that you love to do—the poetry and the short stories—have been on hold, but you’ve been very, very productive, right? I mean, you have an amazing book that you’ve written, among many, many other writings, and dean of university and now, tell me again about your role at Mount Holyoke.

Riché Barnes

I should probably give a little bit of context to for how this happened. I realized that I like being an administrator, but I missed the research that inspired my writing. I wasn’t getting as much time to do that as an administrator. I was teaching at Yale, and it was very difficult to carve out time to do the real kind of research and writing that I wanted to be doing. I think I might get back to administration later in my career, but right now, I still want to be doing research and writing. I got the opportunity to be in conversation with Mount Holyoke College about a position that they had open about 18 months ago in gender studies, and they were looking for a scholar who was focused on Black feminism, and that’s me.

Lara Ehrlich

Let’s focus on Raising the Race: Black Career Women Redefine Marriage, Motherhood, and Community for a second. When did you write the book? Were you writing the book when your kids were younger? Talk me through the process of the research and writing that went into this book with small children.

Riché Barnes

Yeah, that’s a great question. I had all three of my kids while I was in grad school, and my book is based off of the research that I did for my dissertation. They were little people. My daughter must have been 3 or 4, during my concentrated time of interviewing, what we call participant observation, where you just kind of hang out with people and see what they do. I would go with the moms that I was working with for my research to pick up their kids at doctor’s appointments and soccer games. My kids were still too little to be involved in those kinds of activities, so I actually learned a lot from the women that I interviewed about balancing out motherhood and work and all the other things that they were doing.

But in terms of negotiating—doing that research and raising my family—I leaned on husband a lot. He was a trooper, as far as I’m concerned. There’s one story that we still laugh about. I was a part of this research group that met in the afternoons once a week. It wasn’t the part of the research where I was actually collecting research, but it was a group of scholars that I was in conversation with, as I was collecting the interviews with the women that I was working with.

It was once a week in the evening, when my husband was a public-school math teacher. He would get out of school and be done with his workday at around 4:30 or 5. We had a Volvo and a pickup truck, and he would drive the pickup truck to work, and I would have the Volvo with the kids. On the days when I had that meeting, I’d put the kids in the Volvo and drive to his school, and he would meet me in the parking lot and take the kids. He would take them back into school with him, or he would just go home, and I would take the truck and go to my meeting. So, he would have them for the rest of the evening—getting them their dinner, getting them ready for their bath—but even with that, there would be days when I needed to go meet with someone because that was the time they had to talk with me, and he would watch the kids, or my parents would watch the kids. It was a lot of balancing with them.

I never brought them with me though, like all of the women who I was researching. I didn’t want to break that line of researcher. I never wanted them to feel like I was their friend or something. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t cross any lines or do anything that would interrupt the scholarly process of collecting data from people. But yeah, it was a blur, a lot of it. People used to ask me how I did it all, and I would just say, “I don’t have a choice.” I mean, I guess I did have a choice—I didn’t have to pursue my PhD and raise kids at the same time—but it didn’t feel like a choice to me. It felt like I needed to be true to the kinds of work that I wanted to do and also true to the kind of mom I wanted to be.

Lara Ehrlich

What kind of mom did you want to be?

Riché Barnes

Supportive, creative, industrious. No, but all jokes aside, we all want to be good moms, right? I think the way that I was characterizing it then, and I think I still do, has a lot to do with time, being there for them. Not that I need to be there 24-7, because we definitely did use childcare providers, and they went to school and after-school programs when they were of age, and they were in rec this and dance that—all that stuff. But yeah, I think it had a lot to do with time listening and being present, showing love.

Lara Ehrlich

Talk to me about being present with so many other things going on. How did you do that?

Riché Barnes

I think it’s actually doing things with them. We made a point of having breakfast together every day. We decided it would be breakfast, because as they were getting older and involved in more activities, it was harder to have the same dinner time, but we could have the same breakfast time—like, everybody gets up, everybody comes in, comes to the table, and eats breakfast together. That was always a good time to be present and available, listening, and kind of setting them up for the day ahead. They had this moment in which we were all grounded together as a family that they could then take into their day—at least, that’s the way I imagined it was happening. I don’t know how they felt about it, like maybe it was a complete annoyance that they had to get up earlier than they would have if they were just having a bowl of cereal.

Those are moments that I can remember of being present, just really spending time together. We always go on a family vacation, and we do a lot of things together on the weekends, but everybody’s on a device. Even to this day, and they’re 18 and 20, we have family movie night, we do talent shows—like, we all prepare talent and share it with the whole family, which is a lot of fun. So, I guess present day is having fun together, being together intentionally.

Lara Ehrlich

I love that. Finding things that are fun for you and your family to do together. I think there’s so much pressure on being present, dictated by kids and what they find fun, which is fine, too, but it’s probably a little easier to be present if you’re finding something that everyone really enjoys doing together. I find that if it’s something I would enjoy anyway, then it’s a lot easier to be present than doing something that is a little less in my wheelhouse, like playing blocks, for example, when I’m like, “Oh, God, do we have to do that again?”

Riché Barnes

Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right.

Lara Ehrlich

Tell me more about the book, Raising the Race: Black Career Women Redefine Marriage, Motherhood, and Community. Tell me a little bit about the women that you followed and researched and what you learned from them.

Riché Barnes

The book is an ethnography, which, if folks aren’t aware of what that means, it’s basically when usually anthropologists, but other social sciences, too, go out and spend time with people to understand their everyday lived experiences. You do that with a set of guiding questions about what you’re interested in finding out about. The women I followed around, which is literally what I was doing, were professional women, career women, educated women who had at least a college education, but many of them had advanced degrees. They were doctors, lawyers, executives, engineers, marketing executives, finance executives, a journalist—those kinds of positions that would give one a degree of financial security and stability. They were women who were making decisions around whether or not they wanted to continue in a full-time career where they were very focused on being ambitious in the workplace, or they were continuing in a career but maybe not on full steam, or they were choosing to be at home or part time for a while.

 What was interesting about this question for me was, this wasn’t something, historically, that African-American women had the opportunity to think about as an option. For these women, it had a lot to do with the fact that they were professionals, but also their partners were professionals, so it allowed them a degree of freedom that, historically, Black women haven’t had. Then the negotiation becomes “if my husband can’t afford for me to be at home, do I stay at home?”

A lot of the decision-making has to do with this history that I’ve been talking about. If the history of your experience as a race and gendered person is that you have always worked, and even when you have had success at work, you still worked, because that was doing something important for not only your own family but also your community, because that opportunity hadn’t been available to your community previously, what responsibility do you have to a larger community of people who may be, quote unquote, “counting on you.”

For example, there was one woman I followed whose family of origin was poor—the families of many of the women I worked with were poor or working class—and this is what made it even more difficult, because they were in this woman’s particular experience. Her parents had had her as teenagers, and she was raised by her grandmother and grandfather in a very small town in the rural South. The whole community had seen her as a very bright child that was going to go far and do great things. And so, she did. She did well in high school, went to college, went on to medical school, went into her career as a physician, got married to an attorney, and was living everybody back home’s dream, right? Like, wow, look at you. You’re doing such great things. We’re so proud of you. And then she starts having her kids.

 I think the combination of trying to hold down this very demanding role at work and being supportive to her husband who was, at the time, starting his own business, and raising small children was becoming a bit too much. So, she decided, because she could, she’d stay home. And not stay home in the sense of, and she actually said this, “sitting around eating bonbons.” She was helping her husband get the business off the ground. It wasn’t that she had devoted all her time to being a mom, not that there would be anything wrong with that, but she had decided that for her family, it actually was more helpful to everyone, in terms of her health and stress load and all that stuff for kids, because she would be more present. And her husband, because she could keep the books, wouldn’t necessarily have to hire more people, and things like that. They could build that thing together and make another successful type of thing. But her family and community at home, had no recognition of what that was right. They were like, what are you doing? Why are you at home?

It was that kind of negotiation that I found many of the women in the study trying to figure out, how to make sense of having these new financial freedoms, wanting stability and presence in their households, seeing how this on ramp of “go, go, go, go, go” wasn’t really giving them many returns and deciding it’s okay to step back for this moment. And I say “for this moment,” because for many of the women going back, or going back part-time was something that was happening at different points in their decision making or different points in their children’s lives, different points in their marriages—there were a lot of things that were at play when they were making these decisions.

I probably saved my children so much grief by learning from these women. I could probably write a manual about all the stuff taught to me that I was able to implement, because I was watching them go through it just a few years ahead of me. But what I really learned, and this is the part that I hope comes through in the book, is how challenging it is for families in general to figure out how to do all this stuff on their own. That’s what it came down to. These women would have loved to continue their careers, but there was no way to have it. We’ve all been trying to have it all, right? That’s what they’ve been telling us, like, oh, women, you can have it all, just go for it, right? I mean, we have so many people writing books telling us to do all sorts of things, about women having it all, being able to combine all these things and do it effortlessly and with no stress, all the sleep, and looking gorgeous. Well, it’s only true for a very, very, very, very, very small portion of the population, and everybody else who says that they’re making it work, I believe is a lying.

Lara Ehrlich

I agree with you. Thank you for saying that. Yes.

Riché Barnes

At the end of the book, in the conclusion, we say there are just so many things that our society needs to do. If it really cares about children, if it really cares about people about families, which we keep saying we do, there are so many supports that needs to be put in place, and what we’re seeing instead are supports being removed or made more challenging to get access to. That’s what I learned.

Lara Ehrlich

I want to go back for a second to something that you said you learned from these women, or that you noticed as you were following them, about how they felt they had to justify their choices to family and communities back home and all these voices that have been telling them they can do this, we expect you to do this, and then they decide that they’re going to do something different. Can you talk a little bit about the ramifications of that choice, and if you’ve had to make choices that don’t align with the expectations for you and how you deal with that?

Riché Barnes

Yeah, that’s such a good question. There was some ambivalence, there was some dissonance, there was even some partial speak, where a woman is telling me, “Yeah, I made the decision to come home, because I thought it was going to be good for my kids, and my husband was doing this thing and that thing, and I just thought, wouldn’t it be great if I could just focus and be at home for a while.”

I follow them a bit longer and learn that, no, this woman got laid off from her job a month after she had her third, and with three small children needing childcare, at that moment, it didn’t make sense to look for another job, so she stayed home for a couple of years. Then it was the explanation, the thing that made sense to go along with that decision, which then became “this child needs these activities and this kind of school, and my being home allowed me to be able to get this child what this child needs.”

At one point, her husband was diagnosed with a chronic illness. It wasn’t the kind that was going to take him out of work, but it made it more necessary for him to be more cognizant of what he was eating and things like that, so she was like, “And now that I’m home, I can make sure that we’re eating home-cooked meals every day, and it’s not like when I was at work, and I was running through the drive-thru.”

So, she had this way of explaining and went along with the thing that actually wasn’t her decision. It was prompted by the fact that she got laid off. There were a couple of women who had those kinds of work-related things happen, that then led them to “it doesn’t make sense for me to look for a job right now.”

That was the doublespeak. Ambivalence showed up when, talking to one woman, she was like, “When I was in college, I thought I was going to be a CEO. I thought I was gonna end up at the top of my profession and my industry.” She made this really funny comment, something like, “And I’m CEO of making the laundry work.” It was kind of like, I didn’t get anywhere near what I had expected for myself.

I found women dealing with that, making jokes about it, but also recognizing that they weren’t doing exactly what they thought they would be doing or even what they decided to do. Some of them became clear about their husbands’ expectations, what it means when you’re not bringing in as much money, how he sees your role. When you’re both working full-time and managing the kids and all the household stuff together, there’s a degree of “we’re managing it all together.” He’s going to have days when he is doing baths and laundry.

But when you’ve stepped out of that partnership configuration, then his expectations change. “I’m working all day, you’re home all day or home part time, you should now be doing the laundry, all the baths, all the meals.” Right? There was dissonance, like, this is not how it was when we got married.

Then on the side of community expectations and family expectations, there was a lot of hurt. They were very hurt. Because they wanted support from their families, especially their moms and grandmoms. When they weren’t getting it, I would see in their body language, there was hurt there.

Lara Ehrlich

What were the expectations set by your own family and your own mother? What kind of model did she provide for you of motherhood?

Riché Barnes

My mom and my mom’s mom are very, very hard worker women and had very, very high expectations of me. They would not have been happy with me being at home. They would not have found that a good use of my talents.

Lara Ehrlich

Did you ever consider staying home, or did you for any period of time throughout your career?

Riché Barnes

I actually did consider it. I had a couple of different iterations of changing my relationship with work. When the kids were really small, I thought it would be easier if I just did all the stuff. At one point, we couldn’t find childcare. I was in grad school and wasn’t bringing in much money. Then I was teaching adjuncts sometimes, and that was supposed to be helping us in some way, but really, it was just going to pay for the childcare that they were getting when I was teaching. There were a few times when I was talking to my husband, like, wouldn’t it be cool if I just stayed home? And he was like, “Yeah, if you stay home, all this is gonna be you.”

It was the thing I noticed from the other dads. I was like, I don’t know about that. That’s not what I want to be doing. I enjoyed my work. I wanted to do the work that I was working towards, I wanted to be a researcher, I wanted to be a professor, I wanted to be a writer and teacher, so for me, it would have meant really changing my goals for my life, and I hadn’t achieved them yet. It wasn’t like the women I was talking to, who were in their careers and then made a decision to step back from them or change their relationship with them. It was like, I hadn’t even gotten to it yet.

There was another point when I was like, maybe I don’t need a PhD. Maybe I can be a high school teacher. I thought about that for a while. And I had tried my hand at substitute teaching, right after college, and I was pretty clear that that was not my age group. My age group is full-on adult. I need people who are going to take full-on responsibility for their own learning. Yeah, I’m gonna teach you, but I need you to be responsible for that. That was another moment when I thought about it.

I think earlier, if I remember correctly, you’d asked me if there had been a time when I did have to make some sort of compromise with my career expectations and my relationship with work and family. It was when I was at Yale. When I took the job at Yale, my husband was teaching at a boarding school, so we lived on the campus of the boarding school, and the kids were approaching the age where they could attend the boarding school. I was thinking it was a good time for us to move.

I got my job at Yale, and I thought, okay, everybody’s gonna move. And no one moved. I was the only one who moved. I was commuting about an hour and a half. I didn’t have to do it every day, because I was dean of the college, and I had some place to live there, but I needed to be there pretty much full-time because I was dean.

So, there was a real sense of juggling when I had that position, and I think that’s also what made it attractive for me to leave administration. I didn’t have the same level of flexibility I’d had when I was full-time faculty. Being full-time faculty really helped me navigate being a working mom, because I had so much control over my schedule, when I wasn’t actually in the classroom teaching. That made it easier to show up for a performance at elementary school, or pick up after school if we were going to do something special that day. I had flexibility over my time. I was able to maneuver things better than a lot of parents are able to do the traditional 8 to 6—let’s be real, it’s not 9 to 5 anymore. Being an administrator may be even more challenging for me, because I’m someone who does like to be present, as we were talking about earlier, especially since we’ve been in this COVID moment. The kids come in from class, because I’m teaching fully online, and I might be in the kitchen getting a cup of tea or something, and they come in and just kind of hang out with me, and that’s cool.

Lara Ehrlich

You mentioned intentionally carving out spaces to be together and having fun through various things like talent shows or movies. How did you, as a family, establish that tradition and set up those expectations?

Riché Barnes

When they were little, we would just say, on this night, we’re having family night, and it might be game night, or it might be movie night. The first thing we established was the day, and it’s not every week. That would be too much. It’s once or twice a month. Now that we’re doing the talent shows, I think it’s once every two or three months. It’s regular in the sense that, especially for the talent shows, you always know that it’s coming, so you’re always trying to get your talent together. Really funny, because then when it’s time for the talent show, it’s like, “Are you ready?”

Lara Ehrlich

Are these news talents? Like, do you have to come up with a new talent every time? Or are these established talents, like somebody’s always been a great singer, and they sing a song every time? How does that work?

Riché Barnes

Pretty much established talents. Every now and then, somebody does something new out of their wheelhouse—and, trust me, we’re not the Jackson Five. We’re not super talented individuals. We just have things that we enjoy doing. I think my husband and I also wanted to make sure that the kids enjoyed music and are in dance and stuff like that. We’ve always made sure that those things were a part of their lives. They’ve taken different instrument lessons. One of my sons has been in the a cappella group in his school and likes to sing. One uses instruments as his downtime. We started him on a viola when he was little, and he played that for a number of years, and then he wanted to join the band and played the trombone for a number of years, then taught himself guitar and the electric bass. Most of the time, when we have a talent show, he’s playing one of those instruments. The one that likes to sing is usually singing something. One time, I did a dance. I found a dance on YouTube or something and taught myself, because I love to dance. But I don’t have time to learn a dance every time we have a talent show, so lately, I’ve been reading my writing.

Lara Ehrlich

Whatever works!

Riché Barnes

I’m like, this is my talent, clearly. I am a writer, so I’m going to share with you some of what I’ve been writing. Not that it’s anything they’re interested in. But that is my talent.

Lara Ehrlich

Now, are you reading them scholarly writing?

Riché Barnes

Scholarly.

Lara Ehrlich

I love that.

Riché Barnes

I had this journal article that I had just submitted, and I was like, “I’ll read the first part of this.”

Lara Ehrlich

That’s amazing. I might have to institute that at my house.

Riché Barnes

In terms of establishing it, when they were little, it was really easy, because we were just like, “Hey, we’re gonna watch …” whatever new Disney movie was out. My husband loves going to the movies, so that would be a family outing. We just converted that into something that we do at home. We’ve tried different things. At the beginning of the pandemic, we tried on Sundays, because we couldn’t go to church, come up with your own inspirational thing that you want to share with everyone. That went for, like, a month, and then everybody was like, okay, we’re over this. One thing that we did try that was really helpful was taking turns picking the movie.

Lara Ehrlich

I have to say it’s nice, now that my daughter’s almost 5, she can watch movies that are actually really enjoyable for grownups, too. When they’re 1 or 2, you have to watch Sesame Street, which is lovely, but it’s not the same sort of level of investment for grownups. Being able to watch movies together and engage and talk about the plot and the characters is really nice.

Riché Barnes

The running joke in our family is that my husband hasn’t seen that many of the movies because he fell asleep.

Lara Ehrlich

Well, they’re always new for him, then. We only have a few minutes left, and I feel like this is a big topic for just a few minutes, but I want to ask you about it anyway. Tell me about “Black strategic mothering.”

Riché Barnes

“Black strategic mothering” is basically a term that I came up with that actually just identifies something that’s already been happening, and that is that Black women, over time, especially in the United States, have had to come up with ways to basically strategize for the survival—and I mean real-time survival—of their children, their families, and their communities.

When I talk about it as a strategy, I’m saying that Black women are recognizing that their different strategies are necessary at different times, and they can change according to the historical period and their life course. You can be a woman who use one strategy when your child was small and another strategy entirely when your child is an adult. Of course, you change as a mother as your child goes through different stages, but we’re talking about survival.

For Black women in particular, because of our relationship with this country historically, it has meant that we could be in real fear for our lives and for the lives of our children and the lives of our partners at different times.

I can just give you an example from my life. I remember when it occurred to me as a mother that my sons were no longer being viewed as cute and adorable little boys. They had crossed some invisible line, where they’re not seen as cute little boys anymore, and they’re seen as potentially scary men, even though they’re still cute little boys. How do you parent differently when you have that realization? When they start driving, there’s another point in which you’re strategizing differently. Up to that point, you haven’t really needed to talk about that realization you had when they turned somewhere around 12 or 13. Now that they’re 16, 17, 18, and they’re driving, and you’re not there, then there’s a new conversation—it’s not new for you, because you’ve been thinking on it since they were 13, but now it’s new for them. And how do you have that conversation with them? How do you parent them to see them walk out the door and not fear that something could go wrong while they’re out there?

Lara Ehrlich

I think it’s very important to distinguish between the fear of a mother when their child walks out the door and the fear, as you’re saying, this is Black strategic mothering. This is specific to the mother of children who are Black. Can you say a little bit more about the survival aspect? Can you talk a little bit more about the survival aspect of that strategy and how it changes?

Riché Barnes

For the example I just gave, the survival is real time: how do you make sure that your kid gets back home? What do you need to teach them so that they survive the encounter with whoever? We know from the news, I’m not making up things that couldn’t actually happen. The survival could be you survived a person seeing you having a good time with your friends and deciding that your music is too loud. How do you make sure your child is able to come back from that encounter? Or it’s being stopped by the police. How do you make sure your child is able to survive that encounter? Or it’s a run in with another young person. How do you make sure your child survives that encounter?

And the truth of it is, you can’t make sure, so the strategies are what we have learned over time from this toolkit, which is basically passed down through the collective memory of Black mothers, that we share with our children who think the world has changed and they don’t need to be concerned about it anymore. You’re nowhere that you can’t keep it from happening. And so even that is a strategy. How do you do it, knowing there’s nothing you can do?

Lara Ehrlich

Take it for a second back to writing and why it’s important to write about this and to put it out there. I think it’s so important, what you said, that there’s a community, a wellspring of knowledge, behind these strategies. How are you continuing to further them through writing them down?

Riché Barnes

I try. It’s hard. I’m actually supposed to have written two different pieces for two different public facing news outlets about all that’s been happening over the last year, specific to COVID and to what happened to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and recognizing that George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are just two names among many that have not been named and have not had justice in any form. I haven’t been able to finish them. But I keep trying, because it needs to happen.

I appreciate you for asking me, for having me in an interview format to have these conversations. But I am a writer, and I try to write them, and it’s hard. I was thinking earlier, one of them, I just need to say, “I’m not going to be able to get this done.” Because I keep trying to get it done, and I keep not being able to. I don’t know if I’m still too close to everything, because we’re still in the thick of things, and new things are unfolding every day.

One thing I didn’t mention was both my parents had COVID last summer, and they’re fine, now they’re better, they’re not long haulers, they’re doing great, but they are also getting older, and we’re still in this very difficult moment. I have children who are going off to college, and we’re still in this very difficult moment. I think I’m still personally struggling to write out all that I want to be able to say, partly because I’m creative, but I’m also a scholar, so part of me is like, I need more information. I can’t put this out yet. I need to interview more people. I need to do more reading. That part of me is like, you got to have this right before you put it out. But there’s the creative in me, and the one that is committed to telling the stories of Black women, especially Black women who haven’t been heard, and using my platform to say, here’s what you need to know about what these experiences in real time, from the people that you don’t usually listen to. That’s another year. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m gonna make a decision. I’m either gonna get it done or say I can’t do it.

Lara Ehrlich

And either one is OK, right?

Riché Barnes

Yeah, I’m learning to give myself more grace.

Lara Ehrlich

I think that’s a good lesson for everyone, especially for mothers and mother writers. That’s a good piece of advice to end on, although I wish we could keep talking. Thank you so much for joining us, Riché. It’s been such a pleasure.

Riché Barnes

Thank you, and thank you to the audience that was here.

Lara Ehrlich

Thank you all for joining us.

Stephanie Burt


(April 24, 2021) Stephanie Burt is a poet, literary critic, professor, and transgender activist who the New York Times called “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” She has published four collections of poems: Advice from the LightsBelmontParallel Play, and Popular Music, and her works of criticism include Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Stephanie earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale and is a Professor of English at Harvard University. She lives in the suburbs of Boston with her spouse and their two children.

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Kim McLarin


(April 22, 2021) Kim McLarin is the author of the critically acclaimed novels Taming It DownMeeting of the Waters, and Jump at the Sun and of the memoir Divorce Dog: Motherhood, Men, & Midlife. McLarin is also co-author of the memoir Growing Up X with Ilyasah Shabazz. Her most recent book is Womanish: A Grown Black Woman Speaks on Life and Love. Kim’s nonfiction writing has appeared in The New York Times, Glamour, The Washington Post, Slate, The Root and other publications. She is a former staff writer for The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Greensboro News & Record, and The Associated Press. She is an associate professor in the Department of Writing, Literature and Publishing at Emerson College.

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Riché Barnes


Riché J. Daniel Barnes is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Gender Studies at Mount Holyoke College. A socio-cultural anthropologist, Riché focuses on a broad range of issues concerning Black families and is the author of Raising the Race: Black Career Women Redefine Marriage, Motherhood, and Community (2016), in which she coined the term black strategic mothering while investigating what she refers to as the neo-politics of respectability. Riché is the co-founder and director of the Association of Black Anthropologists Mentoring Program, the President of the Association of Black Anthropologists, and winner of the 2019 AAA/Oxford University Press Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching of Anthropology. She is a scholar-activist committed to social justice action including the Movement for Black Lives and #SayHerName. Riché has a 20-year-old daughter and twin 18-year-old sons, and she describes writer-motherhood in three words as: “Supporter. Creative. Industrious.”

FROM THE EPISODE: READING LIST & REFERENCES

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Writing Motherhood & Miscarriage: Transcript


Special Episode: Writing Motherhood & Miscarriage

March 31, 2021

This special episode is devoted to an issue so many women struggle with, and so few people discuss. Shannon Gibney and Kao Kalia Yang, co-editors of What God Is Honored Here: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss by and for Native Women and Women of Color, talk about why it’s important to give voice to this common pain.

Lara Ehrlich

Welcome to Writer Mother Monster. I’m your host, Lara Ehrlich, and this is a special episode about an issue so many women experience but so few discuss. Writer mothers Shannon Gibney and Kao Kalia Yang are here to talk about writing motherhood and miscarriage. Please share your thoughts and questions with us in the comment section, and we’ll weave them into our conversation. Shannon Gibney and Kao Kalia Yang are the co-editors of What God Is Honored Here: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss by and for Native Women and Women of Color.

Shannon Gibney is an award-winning author of books of all kinds, from novels to anthologies to essays to picture books. The through line in all of her work is stories that may have previously gone untold because the speakers have not had an outlet or because the stories carry darkness and fear that we prefer to look away from. Kirkus described her most recent book, Dream Country, as a necessary reckoning of tensions within the African diaspora, an introduction to its brokenness, and a place to start healing. Shannon is a professor of English at Minneapolis College where, for over 12 years, she’s worked with refugees, ex-offenders, international and in-country immigrants, indigenous and communities of color, and students from all walks of life to tell their stories and achieve their academic and professional goals. Her children are 11 and 6, and her third child would be 7. She describes writer motherhood as “exhilarating, exhausting, hilarious.”

Kao Kalia Yang is an award-winning Hmong-American writer. She is the author of the memoirs The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, The Song Poet, and Somewhere in the Unknown World. Yang is also the author of the children’s books A Map Into the World, The Shared Room, and The Most Beautiful Thing. She co-edited the ground-breaking collection What God is Honored Here?: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss By and For Indigenous Women and Women of Color. Yang’s literary nonfiction work has been recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Chautauqua Prize, the PEN USA Literary Awards, the Dayton’s Literary Peace Prize, and garnered three Minnesota Book Awards. Her children’s books have been listed as an American Library Association Notable Book, a Zolotow Honor, a Kirkus Best Book of the Year, winner of a Minnesota Book Award in Children’s Literature and the Heartland Booksellers Award. She is a recipient of the McKnight Fellowship in Prose, the International Institute of Minnesota’s Olga Zoltai Award for her community leadership and service to New Americans, and the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts’ 2019 Sally Award for Social Impact.

Please join me in welcoming Shannon and Kalia.

Kao Kalia Yang

Hello, lady.

Shannon Gibney  

Great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Lara Ehrlich

Thank you so much. Before we get into conversation, I’d love to invite Kalia to read a little bit from the book that you co-edited. A little later, we’ll hear from Shannon. Kalia, take it away.

Kao Kalia Yang 

Thank you. I’ll be reading from “In the Month of August.”

The early morning nurses and the doctors visited.

They said, “Not yet?”

We shook our heads. They put more medication inside of me.

It was noon. I could tell because there were no shadows in the room. Just the shine of the sun from the window, the wash of light from the fluorescent bulbs overhead.

I wanted to go to the bathroom. My husband helped me up from the bed. He held my hand, and we walked to the bathroom, much as we had on numerous other occasions, inside the safety of walls, within the hold of nature. He might have even swung our hands—as was his habit. Inside the bathroom, our walk was done. We stood side by side. I looked at his shoulder. He closed the door. For a moment, he held me in his arms, and the world was very far away.

He said into my hair, “You have to let go.”

My arms fell from around him.

I felt something drop in my belly, the weight I had been harboring deep inside of me, the child we had made but could not keep.

The baby came…a little boy, mouth opened like a little bird, a little boy who looked like a version of me, eyes closed, skin translucent, a little boy who weighed nothing in my arms—despite the weight, the weight of hope, the weight of humanity, the gravity of my little love story—his body was more light than anything else it could have ever been.

That autumn, we took long walks. I thought I should sit down and write. I couldn’t. The emptiness was vast inside of me. I felt hollow as the wind shifted and the weather turned. The flowers I loved started to die, one by one. The cold grew inside of me until I wished I could melt away. The contradictions in what I felt what I wanted were not lost on me. My feet meandered from the grass to the sidewalk, to the very edge of the highways, to a high bridge over water, to the edge of that very river that sliced through America, the great Mississippi River, flowing far and fast, from the future to the past.

The doctors told me that if he had been a week older, Baby Jules would have been classified as a stillbirth. They called him a miscarriage. I thought of the medical definition of the word: a spontaneous loss of a fetus before the twentieth week of pregnancy. I kept thinking there was nothing spontaneous about what I had experienced. Spontaneous in the world of writing signifies a surprise, an intervention, a positive impulse. My world of writing had nothing to do with the world I was living in anymore.

In the days after, we went through our lives, a piece at a time, looking for the parts that could hold him, a ghost baby, a dream baby, a baby that was but never will be.

I looked at autumn, my favorite season, as I had never seen it before, barren, full of bold promises waiting to die. Words made no more sense.

My annual garden, dollar-store pots full of cheerful blooms, my geraniums, marigolds, begonias, impatiens, could continue living, but I didn’t want them to. I stopped watering them. I watched them die. The blooms withered first, then the leaves started drying out in the sun and the strong winds. I thought about watering them in those final days, but my heart was so heavy I could not find the strength. What did a few more days of bloom matter when in the end, we would all die anyway?

The autumn passed between moments of life feeling almost normal, me talking to the people I love who loved me, trying to find perspective, and then other moments when I wished I had never met my husband and fallen in love with him, gotten married, gotten pregnant, when I wished I had never delivered a dead baby into the world—a baby the world would never know as mine. Then, I would cry and cry and cry until there were no more tears, until the throbbing in my head grew stronger than the beat of my own heart.  

Lara Ehrlich

Thank you, Kalia, for your bravery and for reading your personal experience here today. I really appreciate it, and I’m sure listeners do as well. According to March of Dimes, about 10 to 20% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage. It is believed that approximately 50% of all pregnancies—those might be pregnancies before a woman knows she is pregnant—end in miscarriage, and yet it’s something so few talk about, so thank you both for this anthology of women’s stories. It is such a vital resource for women who are going through this, often in silence. Tell us a little bit about your own experience, Kalia. Did you feel as though you had to suffer this loss in silence? And that’s a question for Shannon, too.

Kao Kalia Yang

No, I’m a very open person. When I was expecting my first child, it was very public. I told my friends on social media. I wasn’t hiding the experiences that I that I was feeling in my body. My mother had suffered seven miscarriages, so I knew that it was it was possible. And yeah, miscarriage is not something a writer yearns to understand from that place, and yet, it was a story that came upon me. When I went through my experience, I was so taken aback. I had no idea it was possible to love a baby in the process, and that the world couldn’t quite feel my grief with me, or there were no other places where I could express that. I went to social media. And that was how Shannon first came upon this loss. I’ve always been an open person, and there was nothing to indicate to me that I should be silent about this as well.

Shannon Gibney  

Kao Kalia Yang suffered her loss about a year before mine. I saw that post. We are both writers based in the Twin Cities. There’s a growing number of us BIPOC writers, but there’s not that many of us, so we all know each other, and we follow each other’s work. We were acquaintances, and I saw that post, and it affected me. But, of course, things affect you one way when they’re not you, and they affect you a different way when you experience them yourself.

About a year later, I was pregnant with my second child. I was 41 and a half weeks pregnant, so the baby was 10 days late. I went into labor and went to the midwifery clinic, and they tried to find the heartbeat and couldn’t find it. It was at that point that I was rushed to the hospital. I’ll read a little bit from that section later on, from my piece in the book that details what happened. But yeah, I mean, the shock of it, right? I think Kao Kalia Yang really hit the nail on the head when she said these things happen, but you just don’t think it’s gonna happen to you. There are a lot of different reasons for that, but there’s a big cultural silence around this.

Kao Kalia Yang and I, in talking about the process of getting this book together, always say that we were doing what writers do, which is looking at literature to reflect our experience as a way to start to heal, as a way to start to put some of that trauma in perspective. I don’t want to say get rid of it, because it’s still there, but each of us, in our own ways and in our own times, went looking for things—any books or movies, articles—especially around indigenous or women of color, but we were not finding things that really spoke to us. Kalia, do you want to talk about that a little bit?

Kao Kalia Yang

It was maybe about a month after Shannon’s loss. We were pregnant at the same time. Shannon was a little bit before me, but I was in the hospital. I’d put on water weight—that week was particularly hot in Minnesota—and I’d gone in to see the doctor, and they were a little bit concerned about the water weight. They wanted to know if I wanted to induce, that it was time. I did not want to induce. I turned on my social media as I was trying to make this decision, this hard decision in the doctor’s office, and I saw a post from Shannon, and it was, “If you’re pregnant, and it is time for your baby to come out, consider inducing because the risk of stillbirth goes up the longer you wait.”

Shannon’s post made the decision for me—for the delivery of Shengyeng, my second born, but the first child that came to me alive. Our stories then were linked in ways that we couldn’t have predicted. We were chatting, about a month after her loss, and she said, “One day when you’re ready, when I’m ready, would you ever want to put together something, because I’ve been looking…”—and I, too, had been looking. I’d spent a whole year looking. And so immediately, I said yes. When we’re both ready, let’s do this. And that’s exactly what we did. And that is, of course, the seed of What God Is Honored Here.

For both of us, there was no question that we had to deliver something to the world, something to the women who had experienced similar losses, something, I think, for each other and ourselves.

Lara Ehrlich

When did you feel ready to bring those stories together? How did you know you were ready? What was the decision around that process?

Kao Kalia Yang

I had, after my daughter, given birth to identical twin sons, and I knew that that was it for me. I had coded in the experience of delivering the boys, and the risks were too high. And then one day, Shannon wrote me, and we met up at my favorite coffee shop in the city from the days before this pandemic. That really was where the conversation began. Shannon had, by this time, given birth to her youngest, Mawe. She also knew that it was the end of those years. We could finally meet these stories and place them somewhere in the spectrum of our lives, in ways that we couldn’t have earlier. Before the boys, I would have never been ready to meet Baby Jules in the way that I am able to today. I think we were then ready to carry not only our own stories but the gravity of others. I think that process that happens inside when the heart flowers up, and you know that you can hold a lot more tears than you were able to before.

Lara Ehrlich

How did you invite others to join you in this book?

Shannon Gibney  

We have extensive contacts ourselves. The writing world is small in general. And then for women of color and indigenous woman, it’s even smaller. But also, we knew that there were people who maybe didn’t consider themselves writers who had stories to tell and just needed a push and some support and some access to create something powerful. We wanted a representative collection. We wanted to make sure that we had Black woman stories, Latina woman stories, Native women’s stories, Asian-American woman stories, and stories for Muslim women—not just women who identify as Christian.

We knew we wanted that, but we also knew we wanted the collection to be very strong writing. I understand that everybody processes things differently, but for me, it just increased my pain because it made me feel more isolated to encounter the stock language around stillbirth and miscarriage, like, “Oh my angel,” you know … “now she’s in heaven, and I know my heart will never be the same.”

Kalia and I are both open people—I’m a little blunter than she is, for sure, although when you get to know her, she’s very blunt in the best way possible. But anyway, when I read literature and stories, I want to be confronted with the truth, especially around pregnancy and birth and infant loss, but a lot of other things, too, like women’s bodies. I’m 46 now, and I don’t know how many more years I’ll have until I go through menopause, but that’s another thing nobody really talks about. Like, what is that actually like in your body?

There are all these things that are shrouded in mystery around women’s bodies, and a lot of it is painful, difficult stuff, so I really wanted stories that were like, no—this is what happened. This is how it felt when I was rushed into the bathroom in the hospital because I thought I had to go to the bathroom, but actually it was my baby coming out. You know, I had to balance one foot on the lever of the toilet, and three doctors rushed in to catch her, and there was blood and gunk everywhere. It’s like, I wanted that. I wanted that real visceral depiction of that, and I wasn’t finding it anywhere—and not in a sensational sense but just like this is what really happens when you go through miscarriage.

We have a piece in here about sudden infant death syndrome, which is also horrifying and very sad. Rona Fernandez, the writer, just depicts that so vividly, and it breaks your heart, but it is incredibly welcome. So, that’s what we wanted. We put out a call, and, I mean, it really wasn’t that laborious, in terms of trying to figure out what pieces we need to make this a multifaceted collection.

I will say I’m glad I had a partner like Kalia. A lot of people have said to us, “Oh my gosh—how could you go through all those stories of women losing babies?” I’m not gonna say it was easy, I’m certainly not going to say it was fun, but I will say I felt called to do this work. That’s the kind of writers that both Kalia and I are, and I think it would have been too much for one person. I really do. I’m very grateful that I had somebody like Kalia to walk the journey with me, and it brought us closer together—definitely much closer together. We’re really close now.

Lara Ehrlich

Could you talk about the process of editing the stories while respecting the voices of the women who contributed—the logistics of word choice and narrative structure, all the craft parts of the stories that feel like they could possibly be antithetical to the raw emotion of the women writing the story. But first, Kalia, did you have something to add to what Shannon was saying?

Kao Kalia Yang

I do. I think one of the most important things about this journey for me—and I think for Shannon—is knowing that we were not alone. In putting together this book, we felt our togetherness rise. That was one of the gifts of this experience. For all of the hurting, there was in that so much hope and so much beauty, especially at those early launch events.

In terms of the editing, I think one of the hardest things to ask was for our writers to linger. There were moments, and we knew those moments are so real, when a writer wants to run fast across a landscape of trauma or grief. One of the hardest things we had to ask contributors was to just slow down. And some of them said, “I need more time,” or “every time I try, all I find is tears, all I find is space.”

What Shannon and I had to do was ride that very fine line between being sensitive to the needs of our writers but also guiding this project along. Because we were a group moving in concert; we’re going to the same place, and we could only make it there if we didn’t lose anybody along the way. I think that’s really where the generosity of Shannon’s heart, and the patience of my own, were able to come together.

So, beyond just the word choice, Lara, beyond the level of the language itself, we wanted to give them creative freedom in terms of crafting the thing, so Shannon and I didn’t mess too much with structure. There were parts where we wanted them to linger, parts that needed to be cut a little bit here and there.

This was not a book Shannon or I would have voluntarily said we wanted to write or edit. And yet it was the project that had fallen upon us, as writers. I think when we said we would do it, there was a kind of responsibility that we were taking on, that neither Shannon nor myself wanted to take lightly. That was the hardest part, definitely—I don’t know if Shannon would agree, but I suspect so: asking people to linger.

You know, when you say the face of miscarriage: the baby dropped into your hands, what happened? Soniah Kamal, one of our contributors, wrote that while the baby dropped through her hands, the baby’s body slipped her fingers, but the head was still there, the head the size of a quarter. And what to do with the face of your baby? That question was the question that Soniah wanted to run by. And that was what I asked her as an editor. And her courage astounded me, at the thing she wrote. Shannon and I, you know, our hearts pause for a bit of time. What was it for you?

Shannon Gibney  

Yeah, I mean, the amount of bravery and brilliance; all our contributors in the collection pushed us through the really hard parts. And that doesn’t mean there weren’t moments, especially when the book came out, where people had differing responses to certain descriptions of things. People maybe got activated by some kind of discussion, and we had to work through some things, so I don’t want to be romantic about organizing with BIPOC folks because I do a lot of work in that area. I think that just makes things harder in the long run. People are people, regardless of our racial and cultural backgrounds, and regardless of what we’ve been through and made it through and what we carry with us and what we’ve let go of.

We sort of talked about the process of making the book and certainly afterwards, too, because now we have a whole group that we keep up with and share information and good news, stuff like this. People want to jump on and watch and comment and whatnot. We often say that the process of putting the book together is sort of like a template for processing trauma, in a lot of ways.

Kao Kalia Yang

And I’ll just add, Lara, there was the violence of what we had experienced, and then there was the violence from, in so many ways, white majority culture. From the very onset, when we published the call, we got personal messages from white people saying, “Why are you isolating us? Why are you excluding us?” And then, when we got the submissions, white men submitted, and we, as women of color editors, made decisions. We said, I’m sorry, your piece is not a good fit for this collection. We got pushback, and that continued on right to the evening of our launch event. There was a person whose social media icon was a rifle, and they posted in the launch page.

There were all of these forces that we were contending with, beyond just the experiences that we’ve undergone or the experiences of collecting these voices into this collection. We were also meeting certain forces in the majority culture along the way, where Shannon and I understood that there always a measure of risk that we were taking.

I think at every point, the writer decides who you want to be, whether you’re going to give in to these bigger forces that are trying to push down voices and presences like yours, or while you take up that space, and you do so with dignity. And every turn, Shannon and I didn’t respond personally, but we chose to do the work that was before us as courageously as possible. In that way, you’re the process, and you’re the courage that it took to undertake such a project and to carry through with it.

Lara Ehrlich

That’s unsurprising but devastating to hear at the same time. Can we talk a little bit about the need for a collection like this to be by women, specifically? A man’s story about miscarriage, of course, is heartbreaking as well, and there’s a pain and a loss there—but this is a collection for women. Could you talk a little bit about the need for women’s stories of loss and giving voice to what happens in a woman’s body? Shannon, you talked a little bit about the language surrounding that. We could talk a little bit about guilt and shame and the way women’s bodies are portrayed in literature generally. Shannon, during our planning meeting, you talked about how women’s bodies are often objectified as sexy or desirable. Is there a place for women’s bodies in other iterations?

Shannon Gibney  

I have a lot of favorite movies for a lot of different reasons. In Bridesmaids—Kalia and I bonded over this random scene—they’re all trying on bridesmaids’ outfits, and then they discovered that they’ve eaten this really bad meat at this Brazilian restaurant, and this disgusting, hilarious, revolting scene ensues, where everybody just starts vomiting and diarrhea. And Kristen Wiig, in an interview talking about it, was just like, you know, women are just not really allowed body humor, like full body humor. She’s like, I just wanted to do a full-on bash, unapologetic, woman’s body humor scene. I think that’s one of the reasons why I just love that scene.

That ties into our conversation here because I do feel like there’s these very particular ways that women are embodied in popular culture, and in American dominant discourse. We’re allowed to be objectified sexually, certainly, and in this cult of motherhood, as long as all your buttons are in a row, you know, you can be a mess, but you can’t be a grotesque mess. We don’t want to hear about the fluids. We don’t want to see the fluids. We know that miscarriage and infant loss and dead babies happen, but we don’t really want to know about how that happened in the body and what that feels like and what are the ramifications of that, in terms of recovery and all this stuff. We really don’t want to hear about that as a culture.

I think Kalia would be a good person to talk about the domain of white men in the genre of memoir. It’s just been so dominant for so long, and that definitely is something we want to shatter.

Kao Kalia Yang 

Shannon’s absolutely right. And I think it’s important for us to say, as women, and to speak to the truth of a bigger world: maternal health is incredibly understudied. When cars get into accidents, airbags are tested on men dummies, not women. Across the board, when you start talking about marginalized women and their health care, there’s the start of studies, but even on the level of women, we’re less than 30% of all of the research that is done about how safe it is to be in our cars or how medications affect our bodies. We’re under-thought and under-considered—in literature, yes, but also in the medical industry.

For Shannon and I to put together this collection, we were speaking to all of that, as well as the history in this country and other countries, about women and children and the separation. I’m thinking immediately about what’s happening at our southern borders. I’m thinking about the Hmong refugees and what happened in Laos. The Central Intelligence Agency of the United States of America came, and said, “We want your children to fight the war”—8, 9, 10, 11 years old. Americans did not make army boots for children. And every time a bomb fell, because Laos is the most heavily bombed nation in the world, only the world didn’t know it, it was the children whose boots fell off their feet first. That’s how people knew that they killed children.

In the African American context, we have this history of slavery. And then, of course, now the school to prison pipeline. There are so many reasons why women are separated from their children in this country that we as a country have never reckoned with.

This book brings all of that grief into focus. Beyond experiences of miscarriage and infant loss, we’re talking about all of the forces that have created all these divisions, all the sad, broken mothers, mothers who have to be stronger than they are to hold some idea of family and legacy. I knew at the onset that we were tackling all of these things. By focusing on the very specifics, we speak to the universal. And so that is exactly what we’re doing here.

I have younger sisters who are in graduate school, and they read this book, because I co-edited it, and one of them had been a women and gender studies major, and she said, “I wish we had a book like this. College women need books like this.” This is also what happened to our bodies. And the fact is, as a women and gender studies student myself, there were no such books in my experience, so there are all of these secrets that we are forced into hiding from each other, from other women, all along the way. Part of the work of this project is to begin to make some noise. We need representation in research. We need representation in literature. But more importantly, we need you to understand that our lives are important to the whole of this operation. The human experiment.

Lara Ehrlich

Thank you. You’ve just got me streaming tears here. Sorry. Shannon, go ahead.

Shannon Gibney

My mom, who’s a former therapist, always says we’re a grief-averse culture, and most western cultures are. We don’t want to deal with grief. I don’t want to appropriate Hmong culture, but it has ceremonies and outlets in place to help people productively channel their grief in a way that we don’t culturally have in mainstream American culture, and that has all these ramifications. You can’t let go of something if you haven’t had it moved through you.

Lara Ehrlich

Shannon, something else you mentioned in our planning session was that women as caretakers protect others from our own pain. Can you talk a little bit about that, about what our conditioning as caretakers sets us up for when experiencing loss like this?

Shannon Gibney  

It looks like Kalia wanted to say something.

Kao Kalia Yang

I was just thinking about how, yes, we have rituals in place, but in this pandemic, all of those rituals for grief have been effectively obliterated. We cannot grieve together. That is the essence of communal grief, and we cannot grieve together, so I think about that and about the layering of that for women who have undergone miscarriage and infant loss in this pandemic. These are the undercurrents of our existences. They’re not on pause because we’re going through something else right now. I cannot begin to conceive of what it must have been like for so many women who’ve experienced loss at this time, when our focus is on the magnitude of this big thing and all of the tests related to COVID that we are suffering from. Also layered and complicated is that onion of womanhood that nobody really wants to peel back the surface of. I think this speaks directly to the responsibilities and goals of so many women as caretakers.

Shannon Gibney  

Totally. Thank you for that current contextualization. I was just reading a story in the Washington Post, talking about grieving from the perspective of psychologists and therapists, and I’ve definitely seen it with my friends who have lost loved ones during the pandemic. It just makes it so much harder when you cannot say goodbye and gather with people.

So, the book launched in October 2019, so we had probably a good six months of events at bookstores. We have a really vibrant book industry and bookish culture here in the Twin Cities that’s very supportive. The audiences were always smaller than we thought they might be—again because this is such a difficult topic, I think, for folks to embrace—but there was one woman I remember, an older white woman who came up to me after I read my piece, and said, “You just said it. You just said, ‘The baby’s dead.’” She looked like she was in her 60s, maybe. She was like, “I never felt like I could say that, just say what happened. I had to sort of dance around it delicately—she didn’t make it, we lost her, or she’s in heaven now. I never could just lay out the bare truth of my baby died. She’s dead. Because I knew that other people couldn’t handle it, and I had to take care of them and their emotional needs.”

And it just struck me. I mean, I felt like in this process, so many older women have come up to us and shared these stories. Earlier times, when our culture was even more closed about these losses than we are now, and just the added layers of grief that that created for them, that they are still working through, because a woman is never going to forget a baby that she’s had ever, no matter what the outcome is. A friend told me her mom was on her deathbed and wasn’t ready to go. Everybody has different belief systems, but she saw her child that she had lost, her baby that she had lost, and then she was ready.

I’ll read just a little bit from my piece. It’s called “Sianneh: The Trip Was Good.”

I don’t want to be here.

I lie down on the bed.

The doctor sits on the chair beside me. She squirts some transmission fluid on my raised stomach, and an image of a baby lying on her back, feet up, comes onto the screen. The baby is not moving. The baby has no heartbeat.

Two more doctors come into the room and stand next to [my midwife] Amy, who is seated in the corner.

“Okay,” says the doctor with the ultrasound probe. “So yes. The baby has no heartbeat.” She puts the ultrasound probe down and stands up.

I look from her back to the screen, and the baby still isn’t moving. “Okay,” I say. I want to ask her how to get the heartbeat started again, but some part of my brain is telling me not to say that.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m so sorry.”

I look to Amy, then each of the three doctors beside her. Discomfort drains their faces, though I can see they are trying hard to mask it. I wonder how it feels to have to tell a woman something like that and then still be expected to remain professional. It must not be easy. I asked if I can go to the bathroom.

Once inside the bathroom, I grip the sink until my knuckles are white, and stare into the spotless mirror. The woman looking back at me has dark -brown eyes that hold nothing. What was once a sharp chin is now round and plump. Her hair freezes all over from the humidity. I turn on the faucet as high as it will go, and flush the toilet. Then I scream. The woman in the mirror screams and lets go the sink as she does it. She wonders if she is just a copy of herself today, and if her real self is back at home, washing dishes. She does not want to go back into the patient room, because she knows they will tell her what she has to do next, and she does not want to know what she has to do next. She does not want to leave the bathroom, because she will have to say to her husband, Our baby is dead. She does not want to call her mother, because her mother will cry, and nothing will make her stop. She does not like to see or hear her mother cry. She will have to rewrite the story of the pregnancy, and the baby coming, the happy house, her young son so eager to be a brother. Now the story will center on a chapter in which the eagerly awaited baby dies in utero, never to be cuddled and warmed in her arms, never to scream and demand a diaper change, never to suckle her breast. The woman does not want that story. She is not ready for it, for what it will mean—not just now, today, tonight, but forever, for the rest of her life. The weight of that story could crush all other stories of her life and the lives of those she loves. She does not want that. She is too tired, and she wants to sleep. She wants to awaken.

I place my hand on my belly and tell my baby I love her. Then I open the door. I shuffle slolwy back to the room, telling myself this is real with every step.

“What do I have to do?” I ask them.

Lara Ehrlich

Thank you, Shannon. It seems like an obvious question to ask, and I know that you both have been asked this question. You’ve told me that people ask you, why can’t you just get over it? It shouldn’t even be a question somebody should ask. I think anyone who hears your stories would immediately understand why you can’t just get over it—but could you talk about that question and the how it’s been asked of you, and why women are expected just to get over something that is so powerful?

Kao Kalia Yang

For me, the question really begins with us, not in the history books of America. When people read about American history, they read about the Vietnam War, what happened in the war to the Americans. They don’t read about the 32,000 men and boys commissioned to fight and to die on America’s behalf in Laos. They don’t write about the countless women and children who were slaughtered in that war. We are secret because the Central Intelligence Agency expected that none of us would surface from the hot humid jungle, where we felt like jungle fruit, rotting among the leaves. And yet, here I am.

People ask me all the time, who are you? And where are you from? And I try to explain, but nothing makes sense until I talk about that war. Nothing makes sense about how I am and who I am until I speak to the undocumented. The same is true of my miscarriage, who I am as a mother, who I am as a wife, who I am as a daughter, who I am as a friend, who I am as a human being.

My husband and I go back to this very, very tiny moment. Three months after the miscarriage, I go to my mom and dad’s house. My mom had seven miscarriages after I was born, but I’m sitting on their toilet, and I’m not crying, but I feel liquid on my thighs, and I looked down and I noticed that it’s the milk coming from my chest, from my breast, that without a baby, my body is creating a substance that falls in the wake of my tears. And I start crying because I don’t know what to do and I don’t quite know how to navigate the moment. I hear this gentle knock on the outside of the door, and my mom says, “I’m here.” And that was enough. You know, that was enough. I knew what was waiting for me when that door opened.

In many ways, I imagined that one day when I’m very old, when my children are grown up, and if I don’t remember any more, that this book here means that when I opened that door, there will be someone there who understands, there will be someone there that gets at the heart of who I am. Why is this book necessary? Because I know that that door opens for everyone, and when it is my turn, even if I don’t remember any more, I wanted to remind me of myself—what it has cost, what it has given, what it has granted, in this experience.

Shannon Gibney  

There are so much many parts to that question. Because it’s not about getting over; it’s really about acceptance. What is real? This really happened? No. I grew this person inside of me, and they died before they came out, and that is something that is written in my body forever. It’s written on my soul, and that’s not something I have a choice about. I have a choice about whether I share how that affects me, which is really what that question is pointing to. I don’t want you to share this with me because it makes me feel pain, and I don’t want that, which is a normal human response. It’s misguided. There’s no way you can avoid pain as a human being. Plenty of people who try usually end up with other problems, like addiction but no meaningful relationships in their lives. It just doesn’t work.

And the thing about it is, the reason why I feel pain, such searing pain that cleaves you, just cleaves you, is because of the immensity of the love that I had and still have for my daughter. You can’t have one thing without the other. You just can’t. That’s the problem with this whole grief-averse culture. Oh, I just want to be happy. Well, then you’re gonna have to be sad sometimes. That’s just the way it goes.

People always comment on my two living children, how they always mention their sister all the time. I’ve got a sister—oh, but I’ve got another one. She’s just dead. To him, it’s just a fact, right? He loved her and she’s not here now. And they make up all kinds of stuff, like if she were here, we’d have to get a bigger car. It wouldn’t be enough. We’d have to get another bedroom. There wouldn’t be enough room for her. “She’d probably laugh at that joke because Molly laughed at it”—you know, whatever, all this stuff.

My mom was talking to my son recently. They were making this book project together. And they had a whole two-page spread about her, and my mom was like, “Some people don’t like to talk about people they love who have died.” And she said my boy’s face just fell, and he was like, “Why?” And she’s like, “Because they don’t want to feel sad.” And he’s like, “But she’s my sister.”

It’s just a question that doesn’t have a response because it answers itself. Like, why did you walk here? Because I walked here. Why do you love me? Because I love you. In the Buddhist tradition, we call it a Kōan. Like, there is no answer.

Lara Ehrlich

That touches on something I’ve always wondered about: the traditional three-month period where you aren’t supposed to tell people you’re pregnant, in case you lose the child. I remember telling just my closest family that I was pregnant; I wanted the people I loved and who loved me to know I was pregnant so that if I lost the baby, they could gather around me and support me and help me through it. Although I didn’t tell my boss or my friends or anyone else beyond my family, if I were to get pregnant again, I think I would tell everyone widely, as soon as I knew, for just that reason.

That goes back to the ruling last week in New Zealand, where women now have a grieving period when they’ve suffered a miscarriage. Why that isn’t the norm in the United States probably goes back to ingrained biases about health care and women’s health. What I’m getting at is: What do you both think about that three-month waiting period? And do you agree with me that it protects others from the possibility of your pain, and then ostensibly puts you in a position where if you suffer loss, you’re suffering in silence?

Kao Kalia Yang

I think one of the most beautiful things about that is that it acknowledges there is a loss to begin with. That is still a question. How many months? How many weeks before a loss becomes valid? Women will say, “Oh, but mine is nothing like yours.” Or it was too early. There was this whole discomfort around the language. What is valid? What are we allowed to feel in the space and time of three months, acknowledging that we’ve suffered something and that our hearts our body need time to gather itself? I think that is the gift of an acknowledgement. It is kind of the opposite of what goes on in this country, in so many countries, where we’re expected to continue with life, as if that part of our living bodies had never happened.

Shannon Gibney   

And also, a lot can happen any time. I mean, my case, I’m one in a million, right? There are women who have all kinds of predispositions toward dangerous birth outcomes and all kinds of things. I wasn’t one of them. I was in perfect health, nothing was wrong, and I lost my baby 10 days after she was due. She was a full-term baby. I hate to tell people, but it’s a myth. It’s this mythology, right? It’s sort of like, “Oh, is it safe after three months?” It’s like, no. Then it gets to, well, who are we really protecting here?

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah, it’s not something you hear about in childbirth classes or when you go to the hospital tour. In my case, they didn’t even talk about the possibility of a C-section. It was all, like, “Oh, but none of you probably will need to worry about that.” Of course, most of us probably need to think about what would happen if we needed a C-section. I’d rather know. And, of course, miscarriages are never mentioned in any of those classes. Then you’re left trying to seek out your own support and resources after the fact, when you’re least equipped to do so. Kalia, you mentioned early on that you wanted to talk about how this experience has changed you as a writer.

Kao Kalia Yang

I’ve always loved languages. But when I suffered the loss, the baby who died inside of me, when it was time for me to write again, I had the hardest time trusting words. It was as if the language itself had betrayed me. All of the beautiful words that I stored inside my heart for a time when I would need it, none of them were able to do the job.

It took having Shengyeng, and I want to say this because it is true. If I had never had Shengyeng, if the baby I lost was as close as it came for me, that experience would be fundamentally different in my life. But because there was Shengyeng, I remember when she was first born, I was holding her feet in my hands, and I could feel the throbbing of her heart, and I remember being, perhaps 6 years old, and holding a little bird for the very first time and feeling the beat of the bird’s heart. Something inside of me was able to fly again, because of her. But the flight was now so much more treacherous than I had ever imagined. I knew the fragility of life in a way that I couldn’t have conceived of. And now I think whenever I write, I write from this place, that cherishes life so much more than before. Before, life was this gift that I’d been granted and I could explore in any way that I wanted to—run across its terrain, jump and fly, whatever I wanted to do, dig if I wanted. But now there’s this kind of gentleness with which I approach all living things, because of the loss of the living thing inside of me, because of my own fragile life in the days after. There were so many moments when, if I closed my eyes, I believed I could slow my heart. And I believed I could die right along with my baby. Just close my eyes and slow everything down. I never knew that could happen before. And now because I know that, that informs everything I do on the page, the sensitivity of my touch, the gentleness of my regard for everything that lives; how hard it is to live. I wanted to speak to that, how we are forever changed by our experiences, and how these experiences enable and embody so much of who we are across the realms of our lives.

Lara Ehrlich

Thank you, Kalia. Shannon, same question to you.

Shannon Gibney

I’m a very high-functioning person, and I couldn’t do anything for like, two months, maybe more. My best friend flew out from New York, and she organized my friends here into different tasks. People brought us food, people took out the trash, people washed dishes, people picked up my son and dropped him off at daycare. I literally could not do anything, and my body was healing, but my mind was not there. It took time for me to come back to language, to the written word. I, too, couldn’t write for a while, which is really hard because writing and reading are a really a big part of how I make sense of the world and my experience in it. So that was hard. I wasn’t scared about it because I knew it would come back when it was time.

I think the experience has made me a different kind of parent, too, because when you’ve had a loss like that, you know how fragile and lucky you are for all the life that you have. With my next pregnancy, it’s like hyper-vigilance, to an unhealthy level, when she was in utero and after she came out. Both my children. I will check on them even still now, when they’re sleeping. I just want to make sure they’re breathing and there’s no problem, because it can just be snatched away from you, at the smallest moment and when you’re not looking or maybe even when you are. It’s not up to you, at a certain level, and is therefore terrifying and also humbling.

I feel deeply that if you’re writing and you’re not telling the truth, I don’t know why you would write. We can’t choose the truth that we’ve been tasked to document. That’s what has been given to us, and sometimes it might feel too heavy, and sometimes it might be too heavy, but that also is how it is. I feel like it’s changed me in so many different ways. Certainly, before becoming a mother, I wasn’t writing about motherhood. And certainly, before stillbirth and pregnancy loss, I wasn’t writing about that or even really thinking about that. And those are definitely huge. They become huge parts of my writing.

Lara Ehrlich

Thank you both so much. Kalia, do you have anything final to add?

Kao Kalia Yang

Just want to say thank you for having us. And Shannon, I want to say this to you. I don’t think I’ve ever formally said these words aloud. Your grace and your generosity as a human being, as a mother, as a friend, and a sister has been a gift to me, not only in the making of this book but in making the world softer and gentler. We know what’s going on across this country. You know, particularly with AAPI hate presently. But even in this moment, your friendship and your generosity has somehow made everything easier. It’s easier for me to go outside among strangers, because I know there are some strangers like you in the world. I wanted to say that to you, that yes, our journey began with What God Is Honored Here, but our journey travels far beyond that. Thank you both.

Shannon Gibney  

Thank you, Kalia. Kalia is as gorgeous a speaker as she is a writer. I think that that’s the other gift of this project. I have a soul friend, and that’s also somebody that has your back, too. And there’s, unfortunately, far too few examples of that for African-American women and Asian-American women. Kalia and I both talk about our friendship publicly, because we want a model that for other people, what the possibilities can look like.

Privately, in our own friendship, it’s like we just try to support each other, professionally and personally. Sometimes, it can be very hard being a woman of color writer. Being a writer is hard anyway, and then if you come from a historically marginalized community, it’s just another level of difficulty, so we really try to leverage our resources and our knowledge and our connections, so I just also want to thank you, Kalia, for being this real light in my life and through this process.

And, Lara, thank you for having us on for this really important conversation. We appreciate you making the time.

Lara Ehrlich

Thank you both for joining me, for your honesty, for your advocacy for your book, and just for yourselves.

Jennifer Chen Transcript


Writer Mother Monster: Jennifer Chen

March 25, 2021

Jennifer Chen is a freelance journalist who has written for the New York Times, O: The Oprah Magazine, Real Simple, and Bust on subjects ranging from emotional labor and pro wrestling to miscarriage and the Stop Asian Hate Movement. She has an MFA and BFA in dramatic writing from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and is an alumnae of Hedgebrook, a women’s writing residency. Jennifer lives in Los Angeles with her TV-writer husband, twin 5-year-old daughters, and a snorty pug named Chewbacca. She describes writer-motherhood in 3 words as: “longest shortest time.”

Lara Ehrlich

Hello, and welcome to Writer Mother Monster. I’m your host, Lara Ehrlich, and our guest tonight is Jennifer Chen. Before I introduce Jennifer, thank you all for tuning in. You can watch this interview as a video, listen to it as a podcast, and read the transcript on writermothermonster.com. And if you enjoyed the episode, please consider becoming a patron or patroness on Patreon, starting at just $3. I’ll send you a Writer Mother Monster pin.

With no further ado, I’m excited to introduce Jennifer. Jennifer Chen is a journalist who has written for the New York Times; O, the Oprah Magazine; Real Simple; and Bust on subjects ranging from emotional labor and pro-wrestling to miscarriage and the Stop Asian Hate movement. She has an MFA and BFA in dramatic writing from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and is an alumnus of Hedgebrook, a women’s writing residency. Jennifer lives in LA with her TV writer husband, twin 5-year-old daughters, and a pug named Chewbacca. She describes writer motherhood in three words as “longest, shortest time.” And as always, please chat with us in the comments section, and we’ll weave your comments and questions into the conversation. Please join me in welcoming Jennifer.

Jennifer Chen 

Hi.

Lara Ehrlich

Thank you so much for joining me. Let’s just jump right into the early years of mothering twins!

Jennifer Chen

Well, it was really just figuring out how to be a mom to two babies but also how to continue writing. My agent told me that she was leaving a month before I found out I was pregnant with them. So, I was like, oh, I have to find a new agent, but I’m also gonna have babies. It just totally threw me off. That was the curveball. Originally, I was like, okay, well, I’ll write a new book. And it took a really long time to write that new book. I probably finished it two and a half years later.

I asked my writing teacher, “What do I do? How do I still write when I have these babies at home?” And he said, “Could you write for 15 minutes a day? Do you have 15 minutes?” And I realized when I was pumping, that was 15 minutes. I would wake up in the middle night to pump for the next day’s feeding, at four in the morning, and I’d be in my laptop, attached to my breast pump. I don’t think anything ever made it into the final book. It was terrible writing. But I was just exercising a muscle in the dark. I was like, I just need to have one, little space where my brain isn’t occupied by these two beings. And so that was what I did.

Lara Ehrlich

I remember being afraid that I would never write again. I had that feeling of “If I can’t figure out the time to write, am I no longer a writer? Will I ever be a writer?” It sounds like when you were able to make that time and finish something, even if it wasn’t the piece that you hoped it would be, that it could sustain you and keep you moving and feeling like you were a writer.

Jennifer Chen

Yes. I had a lot of fears when I was pregnant that I wouldn’t write after they were born. And then every mother writer that I asked was like, “You kind of just do it. You just figure it out in the midst of all that stuff.” I think that was really helpful to hear. I just got more creative with my time and got really more efficient. The writing self-doubt—I was like, I don’t have time for that. I just have time to write. That really helped, because I used to labor over my writing, but then it was like, I only had this small amount of time. Just write. Even if it’s garbage, just write.

Lara Ehrlich

I’m sure it wasn’t garbage. Nothing’s wasted, right? I listed all the amazing places you’ve been published, and I want to talk about the journalism side, but first, how’s the fiction side going? What happened with the book that you wrote while you were pumping?

Jennifer Chen

I queried that, and I signed with an agent in December 2019. She gave me an edit letter, we worked on the revisions, and then we were psyched to get out on submission. I think we went on submission in June or July, in the middle of the pandemic. My book is a YA contemporary, but it’s pretty dark. There’s a school shooting in it. We can always kind of knew that it might not be for everybody. I think it was especially hard realizing that nobody wants to read anything dark right now. But there was nothing I could do about that. We just had to keep going. So that book’s out on a second round of submissions right now.

This week, I’m just about to turn in a draft of a YA rom-com that I’m really excited about that I wrote last fall. I just wanted to work on something fun. It’s been really a heavy year, and I had written a lot of heavy stuff, so I was like, let me just do something for fun—for me. And then it just turned out really well. I got feedback, and I’m working on it to send to my agent, because I really want it to be a really good draft for my agent to critique. That’s where things are with fiction.

Lara Ehrlich

That’s exciting. A lot of things happening. I think it ties into something you said you particularly wanted to talk about tonight, which is finding joy in difficult times. It sounds like one way you’re doing that is by writing something fun. Can you talk a little bit about that decision to work on a rom-com and that departure from really dark fiction?

Jennifer Chen

When I was on submission, I wanted to work on something new and different, because I had been working on that book for a really long time. And also, that would get my mind off the submission process. I listed a few ideas and ran them by my agent, and she was like, “You sound the most excited about the rom-com.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I think it would be fun, and it’s an idea I’ve had for a while.” When I decided to start working on it, it was fun. I set it in Los Angeles, and it included a lot of things that I really love personally, so it felt really easy to write. I know that sounds weird to say, but it just felt like a relief.

During the day, I was researching and reading statistics and seeing the awfulness of what was happening to the Asian-American community, so when I wasn’t doing that, I was in this other world, and it felt really light and fun. I just let my brain go somewhere else for a little bit. Now that I’m rewriting and revising it, I look at it, and I’m like, “You saved me.” It really saved my mental health. I think it was the one place I could go and have fun with these characters. No one else was reading it, so it was just me. It was very humorous and light, just two kids falling in love. That felt like a really nice place to escape to, versus the reality of where we were at physically.

Lara Ehrlich

I’ve been reading a lot of romance for that reason: you just want something fun to escape to. I’m trying to write a romance, but it keeps veering into dark territory. Maybe I’m just not cut out for fun. I don’t know. I would be nice to have more fun with writing. Let’s veer into that darkness for a second, with the Stop Asian Hate movement and what has been happening. Even before last week’s shooting, you had been writing about the Stop Asian Hate Movement. Can you talk a little bit about that writing and also what it’s been like for the last week or so?

Jennifer Chen

Sure. If I could circle all the way back to March 2020, my girls were at the time in preschool, and their preschool shut down March 13, so they came home. My editor at what was then called oprahmagazine.com—now oprahdaily.com—had emailed me and asked, “Do you want to write about why “Kung-Flu” and the “Chinese Virus” is racist?” And I said, “Yes. When is it due?” And she said, “Can you give it to me tomorrow?”

If my kids weren’t home, I could easily pull that off, but this was maybe one week into quarantine, and my husband and I had to split up childcare, so my girls were with me when I was writing it. What I decided to do was write in the backyard while they played—just making sure they’re safe, while I’m going to get this draft on. I told them to pretend like I wasn’t there unless there was an emergency, and they just stared at me for a good 10 minutes, and then they were bored of just looking at me and started playing, and I wrote that piece.

I started at noon, I think, and finished at 5 p.m., and I believe it went live the next day. That was a really new experience for me. That’s not what I had done pre-pandemic, but it taught me a lot about writing something that quickly, because I also had to contact sources, I had to look up statistics, and do it all pretty quickly.

I feel like what it taught me was that all those 15-minute sessions I did when my girls were six weeks old gave me the muscle to write as fast as possible and not be thinking “I don’t know if this is good.” I just did it. I mention that because I think when people say 15 minutes a day, some people think it’s not going to make a difference. I thought that, too, but it’s made a huge difference in my life. Now an hour, to me, is very luxurious.

When that piece came out, a lot of friends and family shared it, and friends of friends, and I got a lot of not nice comments back, like, “This isn’t real racism.” And it really struck me. For the first time, I realized people don’t get how serious this is. I wrote about it again, for the same editor in July, as attacks continued, and the numbers just kept going up. That was sort of a blip on the radar.

The third piece I just turned in in February, and what was striking was that in the middle of it, I got really emotional, because I had to look at photos and look up headlines about Asian elders being hurt. That just felt really awful to look at—seniors being slashed up and bruised and beaten. I just started crying. Then I tweeted something about being sick of writing about this. This is my third story. Like, I’m mad. And that tweet went viral. I honestly didn’t think anybody would notice, because nobody had noticed the other pieces.

From that, people started reaching out to me to talk about it. I honestly didn’t think people were reading and caring. I know that sounds harsh, but I had been writing about this for a year. Then last week’s shooting, to me was really just heartbreaking. Now I’m working on a new piece. I interviewed a Georgia senator who’s Asian American, and she and I talked about what we could do to help.

What I go back to with these pieces that I’ve written is really using my platform to help raise awareness but also give people real tools to use, like these are some simple things that you can do to help. That has motivated me. It’s been really hard to write about, honestly. I can’t talk to everyone that wants to talk about it, because it’s too much. It’s really too much. It’s a passionate topic, but I also recognize I have to step away from it. That’s why I wrote the rom-com. I needed something with a really mild conflict.

Lara Ehrlich

Thank you for talking about it here. It’s important to touch on these topics, but I also want to respect that you’ve been asked to speak on this a lot, and that you don’t need to be the spokesperson for the Asian community. We’re here to talk about writing and motherhood. As you’ve been writing these pieces, specifically the first one with your daughters in the space with you, how has the writing of those pieces made you reflect on motherhood?

Jennifer Chen

That piece in particular, I had been writing in my head before my editor even asked me to write about it. I had been angry, and I think what has motivated a lot of what I’ve written about is my kids, because I want a better world for them, and why not use this opportunity? I needed to be able to feel like I was contributing to changing my daughters’ lives at some point.

It also reminded me the first days of motherhood. It felt like you were running a marathon that you’d never signed up for, you never trained for, I didn’t have the right shoes. But I got there, and it turned out really well. Being a mother doesn’t give me skills to be a better writer, but it’s taught me how to write quickly. It’s taught me to write in my head. A lot of the stuff that I’ve written has been ideas I get while I’m doing dishes or walking the dog. I let my brain go. Then I’ll get an introduction or a sentence and I’m like, oh, that’s what it is.

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah, dig into that a little bit more about the sentence or the moment when you realize this has legs.

Jennifer Chen

As a writer, I really like taking classes. I took a class called The Fast Draft Method with Lindsay Eagar, a mom of three who has written 25 books in one year. Some of those are ghost written books, but I was like, how the hell did she do that? So, I took her class. It gave me so many great tools. One of the tools that I implemented in my writing was that you can be writing all the time. It doesn’t have to be on a computer, typing everything. She was like, “When can you write yourself an email? Can you audio message yourself if you can’t get to paper?” All this stuff. She gave these little tips and tricks. Ultimately, she said to get faster at it, you just have to exercise that muscle.

That really helped me draft this book, where I ended up writing 2,000 words a day, in addition to my journalism work. I would block out something like 1 to 3 p.m., I’m gonna write 2,000 words. She had writing exercises where you would time yourself with a timer. She’d be like, “Okay, write 500 words in 10 minutes.” I feel like that kind of challenge pushed me to say I can do this. I don’t have to sit here and labor over every single word.

The best tip that came from her class was if you hit something that you want to research—like where is this exactly in Los Angeles—put in a placeholder. I put brackets, like, “find the exact address.” She said do it later. Because once you go out on the internet, and you’re looking at the map, you’re on another track. That really helped me realize I can do all that stuff later on during a separate writing session. That freed me up. I wrote that first draft in October, and I finished before the holidays and Christmas.

Lara Ehrlich

I think that’s so smart. Putting things in brackets. I do that, too. Even if it’s a scene, like, “something interesting must happen here.” It’s, of course, painful to go back and be like, oh, I still have to write something interesting. But whatever you need to do to move forward, I think, is valid. I think there’s this misconception that we have to sit at a desk with pen and paper or laptop, and that’s writing. But writing in your head or jotting something down to yourself in your phone or dictating to yourself is all writing. Anything that gets words out is writing.

Jennifer Chen

Yes, definitely. One of my friends has a great podcast with writers called 88 Cups of Tea, and she interviewed Tamora Pierce, a YA fantasy writer, and she said this. She shared this story about when she would cross the street, when she was waiting for the light to change, she would write in her little notebook. And I was like, oh my God, that’s genius. Just to take those little stolen moments. I should just carry a little notebook, or if I can’t get to something, I record myself saying it in a voice memo. All of that stuff has really added up to me realizing I have a lot more time than I thought I did.

I felt very much like I couldn’t have written that whole story with my 4-year-olds staring at me. I remember when I said yes to it, and then she’s like, “Can you turn it in tomorrow?” My brain was like, I don’t know. But I’m gonna try to figure this out. I feel like that’s what motherhood is.

I’m an only child. To have twins … I was like, I don’t know how to do this. I just remember being like, well, I would make mistakes. I mean, I fed one kid and forgot to feed the other. It was, like, 3 a.m., you know. Those things taught me that you’re gonna make mistakes, and then you have to do it over again tomorrow and figure out what you did wrong and not do it again. It taught me to be flexible. I think I was a lot more rigid about writing. My routine was I have to be at my desk with my laptop and the perfect music playlist. Now I’m like, I can do it while I’m walking. I think that’s a really great skill to have as, as a writer and a mother.

Lara Ehrlich

Let’s go back to twins for a second. And expectations. At what point did you learn that you were pregnant with twins?

Jennifer Chen

It’s an interesting story, because previously, I had two miscarriages. I very quickly knew that I was pregnant, because I tracked my cycle. I knew. My OB-GYN did an ultrasound at six weeks, because we had trouble before and were trying to figure out if this one was viable or not. When she told me there were two, two fetuses in there, I looked at her and I’m like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I didn’t do any fertility drugs. I don’t have twins in my family. It just was a shock. The biggest shock in the world, really. But it was great to know it at six weeks, because that gave us a lot of time to get everything ready—even though nothing can prepare you, really, for becoming a mom to two babies. I took “how to raise twins” parenting classes and all that stuff, just because I thought I’d ask other twin parents how you do this.

Lara Ehrlich

What were some of the things you imagine were particularly challenging with twins that might have been different with a solo child?

Jennifer Chen

My husband was home for six weeks, and then he went back to work. My biggest fear was being alone with them. Because before that, they were in the hospital, I had my mother-in-law, I had other people. And then when he went back to work, I was like, how am I going to feed two babies at the same time? I was still learning how to breastfeed them. At that point, you’re feeding every three hours and changing diapers and all of that stuff.

I asked other twin moms, and I would go on Facebook groups, I had a twin mom friend who I would text all the time—that was really helpful because they’d already been there, like “I propped up one baby on this Boppy while I did the other.” I never would’ve thought of that. I made a lot of mistakes, like, oh crap, I didn’t get this bottle warmed up in time, and now my babies are screaming. But there were other women who had done it and they were helping me figure it out and gave me so many great tips. Like, how do I bathe them if I’m by myself? Strap one into a little baby seat and swap them out. Asking other moms really, really helped me. Like, why reinvent the wheel when other people have done it before me?

Lara Ehrlich

Yeah, totally. Community and support and Facebook groups, if we can find a really good one that’s non-judgmental—I think that’s so important. Do you mind if we talk a little bit about miscarriage? You’ve written a lot about that subject. Tell me why it’s important to you to write about miscarriage, about something that so many women feel shameful about and don’t talk about?

Jennifer Chen

You know, my first miscarriage, I didn’t really know that much information. I didn’t know anybody else who had gone through it, and a lot of my friends already had kids or were pregnant. When I pitched the essay to an editor at BuzzFeed, and she said, “Oh, yeah, I’m interested in reading it.” I was like, “Oh. I have to write it.” So, then I wrote it. And she and I worked on editing it.

This was January 2015. She was about to post it, and I freaked out. Maybe nobody else other than my best friends and my husband knew that this had happened, so I started freaking out, knowing now everyone’s gonna know. I was very purposeful in selling it to BuzzFeed, because they had a huge reach. It’s also men and women reading it. I really wanted to target outside of the women magazine market, because I thought more people need to talk about this than just women. But I remember contemplating pulling it. And then my husband actually said, “I think you’re going to help a lot of people. I think there are more women than you know who have gone through this and really need to hear that it’s not shameful.”

At the time, my editor was like, “If you get any comments underneath, can you respond?” It got to 700 comments. I emailed her and was like, “I can’t respond to all of the comments. I could spend all day doing this.” She and I didn’t realize that it would kick off this big thing. It really taught me that the thing that I felt really scared about was actually the one of the things that people still write to me about, and that was 2015. People still share it, because it still happens, obviously. That was the first time I wrote something that I felt really scared to share. Writing about it really helped me really release that shame.

The beautiful thing that came out of it was a lot of people emailed me. People shared their stories with me because they felt comfortable. I’m an actual stranger to them, but they wrote their stories. It was men, women, people in different countries, Scotland, India. It amazed me how many people responded and shared their stories. It made it really clear to me that everyone has a story around this and just need to talk about it.

Some women were like, “You’re the only person I’ve told.” And I’m like, oh, gosh, can you talk to your mom or a best friend? I really encouraged them, because when I talked to my friends more openly, I realized a lot of people went through miscarriages, we just weren’t talking about it. No one ever publicizes that. It’s not like people put it up on a Facebook status. I only see pregnancy photos and newborn photos. I realized, if we could just show our vulnerability, and what’s the reality and the truth, then it’s not as scary as it felt.

Lara Ehrlich

Can you talk a little bit more about that fear of publishing? And thank you for giving voice to those experiences and supporting other women in that way and advocating. You said that word shame and that you hadn’t told people, and I think, as you’ve said, that’s such a common feeling for women who have experienced a miscarriage. Why do you think you felt that sense of shame and fear surrounding it?

Jennifer Chen

I remember thinking somebody is gonna think it’s my fault, that I made it happen, that I didn’t do the right things. I really didn’t know that much about miscarriage. In high school, they teach you all sex ed and pregnancy, but I didn’t know anything about the female body in terms of when a pregnancy doesn’t go to term or the different types of miscarriage, or if someone loses a baby at 20 weeks versus six weeks. I didn’t know any of that. I felt really ignorant about my own body. It wasn’t widely talked about.

When I started opening up more, I realized there is no shame in it. But I think there’s shame when you don’t hear anybody talking about it, or when you think you’re alone and you think that you’re the only person who’s gone through this. As a writer, if something scares me, it usually means that there’s something good there. I just keep writing through it, even if it feels scary or hard.

I knew that first piece about why “Kung-Flu” and the “Chinese Virus” is racist, people were going to push back and be angry about me calling it racist. But I also felt that I’m gonna say it because I think that’s what it sounds like to me, and what it feels like. I think sometimes, my greatest pieces have come out of these places of vulnerability and shame and fear, because I think we all have that feeling sometimes on different subjects.

Lara Ehrlich 

Yeah, definitely. It’s so scary to write from that place of vulnerability. But those are the pieces that touch people the most and connect with people. Can you talk a little bit more about putting yourself out there in such a public and vulnerable way and receiving feedback from people you don’t know in those comments sections? Whether they’re writing to tell you something heartbreaking, raw, angry or violent. How do you protect yourself against that?

Jennifer Chen

That’s a really good question. Because 2015 and 2021 are very different. In 2015, I got some trolls on that miscarriage essay, some women who said it’s not a big deal and why is she crying about this, who cares. But as a public writer, as somebody who’s on social media, I do get weird comments and racist comments, and I block those people. And then, in particular, the BuzzFeed piece, and this most recent Stop Asian Hate movement piece, a lot of people reached out.

I can’t respond to every single person, so I told myself I’ll respond to the people that I can. You know what feels feasible. I think people don’t realize how many people will reach out after something’s been published. It’s been really sweet, but I can’t answer everyone. I think everybody wants to talk about it. I got very clear with myself on what I can do and what I can’t do. I still have to write, I still have to be a mom, I still have to have my own boundary of what feels good for me.

With social media, they always say don’t read the comments, but it’s part of my job to respond to people. I try to remember what my greater good is in writing the piece, especially that piece where people really push back with “this isn’t racism” or “you don’t like this because Trump said it”—all that stuff. I would respond to them and say, “If you actually read the piece, this is what I’ve laid out.” It just actually helped me write the other pieces, because that viral tweet was a response to those first comments. I think it touched a nerve and a lot of people, and a lot of people responded to me from that.

I think there is something, even if it sounds weird, in the negative comments. I can get something out of it—like this is clearly what people are talking about or what they’re fixated on, or maybe this is the next piece that I write.

Lara Ehrlich

We have a question here from Kennedy Miller: “What tips do you have for people trying to maintain that space between the public reality of being a writer on social media with the private life of your own family?”

Jennifer Chen

I’m glad for that question, because up until this point, my Instagram did include my family. After the Oprah piece, when a lot of people started following me who I didn’t know, I realized quite quickly I have to archive my posts and take my kids out of these photos. They’re super cute. And I have a million of them. But I don’t know a lot of my followers now, and I don’t feel like it’s safe. I don’t ever put them up on Twitter. I reserve that for Facebook, where the public can’t interact with me.

But I do write about my children. They’ve been in newsletters of mine; they’ve been in stories of mine. I recognize now that because of being on a platform where people want to interact with me, I don’t really want them to have access to my children, particularly because when I’m talking about racism, it’s unnerving for some people, and I don’t want them to ever use my children negatively.

On Twitter, back when We Need Diverse Books was first starting out, I tweeted about it, saying it’s great, and these trolls were attacking me and saying that promoting diversity is white genocide. They took photos of mine that I had up on Twitter and would just say really mean comments about how ugly I was, all this stuff. I decided I’m not gonna post anything personal on Twitter ever again.

And obviously, my writing is personal, but I’m not posting my photos. I don’t share my daughters’ names on Twitter. That gave me the lesson of “there’s only so much I want to give to people.” I left my Instagram with my kids on it until just maybe last week. It felt a little scarier with people I didn’t know following me and also because I’m talking about something that pushes buttons. I thought maybe I’ll just create a personal account where my friends can see photos of the girls.

Lara Ehrlich

It’s unfortunate that that has to be the case. I feel that, too, and I don’t have many followers on social media! I’m not sure I’ve ever named my daughter or shared a picture of her where her face is visible and just for those same reasons and respecting her autonomy and her privacy. And yeah, it can be a scary place, a very powerful place, but a very scary place to be on social media.

Tell me a little bit more about writing about your girls and about whether you’ve had to draw boundaries yet. I’m hearing from other writer moms who have said that when the kids were younger, it was easier to write about them, and as they got older and more willful, it becomes harder because their stories diverge from our own. Are you there yet with 5-year-olds?

Jennifer Chen

It’s interesting, because I have written a personal essay that I’m working on editing, and it’s about something very personal that happened to my kids. I really debated whether I was going to publish it or not. I didn’t intend to. I’ve been working with an editor on it, and it has been really wonderful. I went to a parenting journalist conference, and there was a panel about personal essays. They had said they usually ask their kids if it’s okay to write about them, but their kids were, like, 9, 14, 11. When I talked to my daughters and said, “I’d like to write about this—are you okay with it?” They said okay, but I also recognize they’re 5. They don’t know what Facebook and Twitter are.

So, I’ve been really hesitant, like, let me think about this. I think it’s an important story to share, but I felt like maybe I’m not honoring their wishes. But my husband said, “I think you’ll shed light on something that happens to young women and girls.” It’s been a debate I’ve been having with myself. I don’t have an answer to it. I do think, as my girls get older, I will ask them. I feel like they are obviously going to eventually read some of this stuff and be part of the world.

At that panel, they pointed out that you don’t know how your kid is going to react. You just don’t know if they’re like, cool, this is great, or they don’t want it to be out there. So that was helpful for me to remember. But they’re 5 and their permission doesn’t feel quite like they understand what they’re giving permission to write.

Lara Ehrlich 

My daughter’s almost 5, and I think about that, too, particularly right now during the pandemic, where I feel compelled to write about some experiences of motherhood, when you have a child who’s home and not socializing with other children and the questions and fears I have around that. But, just like yours, my daughter’s too young, and she thinks it’s cool that I’m writing things, but she has no idea what exactly that means. It’ll be interesting as they get older to have that conversation, the evolving conversation. And they might not care at all.

It sounds like your husband’s very supportive and encourages you, and maybe sometimes gives you that little extra push. Could you talk a little bit about that? He’s a writer as well. I remember one essay that you wrote, another very personal piece about what it’s like to be in a marriage with two writers and some tension that existed there. But it also sounds very supportive.

Jennifer Chen

My husband’s a TV writer, and he writes right now predominantly in animation, so we do very different things. Since living in Los Angeles, I do journalism and books, which is not what a lot of people are here to do. If you say that you’re a magazine editor, they’re like, what’s that? So initially, it was hard. What he’s done is very well-known. He worked at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, he wrote an episode of The Simpsons, he’s just more recognizable. Early in my career, I didn’t have Oprah Magazine and all that stuff yet, so it was hard. I felt like no one cares what I do.

What switched for me was me realizing that I really like what I do. I love what I do. I don’t want to do what he does. I just settled into knowing these are the things I’m passionate and excited about, we can do totally different things, and it’s okay. That’s when things changed and my career started taking off more because I focused on the things I want to do and the places I want to be published.

I think now it’s really evolved into a relationship where we can help each other through some of the story stuff. He always wanted to be with a writer. He was like, “I always wanted to get married to a writer, because we’d have all these conversations.” I didn’t. I was like, I don’t want to deal with it. I don’t want to have to deal with somebody’s neuroses. But now it’s really great because I have somebody who understands when I’m like, “Oh, my God, I have to write this down.” He’s like, “Okay, go.” Or if he’s got to do something for work, it’s been really beneficial and supportive. And in particular, I think he can see the things that I can’t, and I can see the things that he can’t in his work. I think he’s always pushing me to do stuff that scares me.

Even when interviews started rolling in, I was like, I don’t want to be on them. I’m a writer, I want to be behind the computer. And he’s like, “Well, I think it helps for people to see you and to know that this is happening to a real person.” So, you know, I’m grateful. And initially, I think, my professional jealousy was over what people thought of my writing. People would say, like, “Oh, who do you write for? What do you write for?” And I always felt sort of like, oh, I’m not as good as him. But in reality, it’s just different. We do different things. It’s okay. So yeah, I am grateful to be with a writer. It’s been such a blessing in my writing life, to have someone who understands the intricacies of the creative, but also business, life of being a professional writer.

Lara Ehrlich

I love that you said that you realized what brought you joy in your career and what you wanted to be working on, and that allowed you to stop comparing what you did to what he did. I think that’s a lesson that a lot of people never learn, or it takes a long time. I think I’m still reminding myself of that every day when I meet somebody who is a writer who’s doing something really impressive. So, thank you for articulating that. Have you noticed that your daughters are picking up on the fact that you’re both writers?

Jennifer Chen

Yeah. It’s cute because before the pandemic, they were able to visit my husband’s office. Since he works in animation, there’s a lot of art up because the artists are doing storyboards, and he has a lot of toys, and they just think it’s really fun. I think they just think that’s what we do. I’m like, actually, our work is fun. I have a home office that I’m in right now and they come in, and they want to write at the desk, so we’ll write together sometimes. I think they get to see all the stuff that we do. And we talk about our careers and stuff. I think it’s important to share that with them because I love how they see the world so fresh.

I’m laughing because there was one weekend where Brendan took the girls to the playground, and I said I want two hours to just work on this book, and they’re like, “Come to the playground.” I’m like, I just need two hours to write, and when you’re done, we’ll have lunch and all that stuff. And Claire, at the time, I think was 3. She came back and she said, “Mom, where’s your book?” And I said, “I need more than two hours!” And she was like, “What?” She just was so confused. It made me laugh, because of course you don’t know that it takes a long time to write a book.

I see how creative they are in their art, and they’re reading and noticing things. It’s helped me become more joyful in my own writing. I don’t know if you have this with your kids, but we have to read the same book over and over and over and over again. I think a lot of people think children’s picture books are really easy to write, and now that I’ve had to read some of them over and over again, I’m like, no, if it’s really good, I don’t mind hearing it five times in a week. If it’s really not good, then it’s like torture.

It’s taught me that when they’re laughing, what they think is funny and what they notice on the page—and not that I aspire to be a picture book writer—but it lets me see stories in a different way. Like, that visual joke came across to you? That sort of stuff. It’s really changed my creativity, because they have such a fresh way of looking at things.

Lara Ehrlich

How do you carry that into your own work?

Jennifer Chen

Writing the book that I wrote when I was pregnant and didn’t have kids yet, I didn’t know what it was like to be a mother. I think when I was revising it and working on the mother character, who was very two-dimensional, I was able to write that in a where I now understood what it’s like. If my kid is in danger, what that might feel like. I think it gave me a depth to my writing that I wouldn’t be able to write as a non-mother. But it was more that I had an awareness that I don’t think I had before of what it’s like to be a parent.

There’s a school shooting in my book, so I was researching a lot of school shootings and reading about the parents and how they reacted. I was like, oh, I totally understand now why this would feel super terrifying to not be able to reach your kid on the phone—all of that. It just infused more reality into my piece. And I think the book came out stronger because I had that empathetic feeling of what that might feel like for parents.

Lara Ehrlich

Tell me just a little bit more about the sense of joy and play and creativity that you’re learning from your girls and watching them approach life with a fresh perspective. Can you talk about how their joy weaves into your joy and writing or how your joyfulness might impact your mothering and of your girls?

Jennifer Chen

Yes, I’d love to share just one cute story. The day that I found out about the Atlanta shooting, I had, that afternoon, spoken to college students in Texas, and they were asking me really important questions about racism, and it was a really great but tough conversation. And then I got that news, and I just felt so down and hopeless.

I like to read before I go to sleep, I think it helps my brain go somewhere else. When I went to bed, and I pulled out my book, Claire had tucked a little note underneath. And it was like, “I really like Hello Kitty” and she put Hello Kitty stickers on it. And I was like, oh my god. She had no idea, but I was having such a bad day, and I felt like this little note she left made me smile and made me remember there’s good in the world. The next day, I said, “Did you leave me that?” She’s like, “Yeah, I left it as a surprise.” And I was like, “Well, thank you, because it really made my day.”

And that, to me, is a reminder of how much they bring back to me—especially when I feel like today felt really hard. And then I come home, and we’re just being silly. It feels really nice to not always feel so serious and dark and deal with such sad things. Their silliness and their joy just make me laugh and feel hopeful.

Lara Ehrlich 

Thank you. Let’s end on a note of hope and joy. Thank you for sharing that. That’s a great story. And thank you so much for joining me tonight and for talking about some really difficult subjects in such an eloquent and insightful way. It’s been such a pleasure.

Special Episode: Writing Motherhood & Miscarriage

When I read literature and stories, I want to be confronted with the truth, especially around pregnancy and birth and infant loss and women’s bodies.

shannon gibney

(March 31, 2021) This special episode is devoted to an issue so many women experience, and so few people discuss. Shannon Gibney and Kao Kalia Yang, co-editors of What God Is Honored Here: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss by and for Native Women and Women of Color, talk about why it’s necessary to give voice to this common pain.

FROM THE EPISODE: READING LIST & REFERENCES

What God Is Honored Here: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss by and for Native Women and Women of Color

Shannon Gibney 

Kao Kalia Yang

RESOURCES FOR GRIEF & BEREAVEMENT

From What God Is Honored Here

March of Dimes

International Stillbirth Alliance 


Shannon Gibney

Shannon Gibney is an award-winning author of books of all kinds—from novels to anthologies to essays to picture books. She writes for adults, children, and everyone in-between. The through-line in all her work is stories that may have previously gone untold. Sometimes these perspectives have remained hidden because the speakers have not had an outlet for their stories; other times, the stories carry darkness and fear that we prefer to look away from. What God Is Honored Here: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss by and for Native Women and Women of Color (University of Minnesota Press, October, 2019), exemplifies this approach, as does Gibney’s most recent novel, Dream Country (Dutton, 2018), which Kirkus describes as “a necessary reckoning of tensions within the African diaspora—an introduction to its brokenness and a place to start healing.”

Kao Kalia Yang

Kao Kalia Yang is an award-winning Hmong-American writer. She is the author of the memoirs The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, The Song Poet, and Somewhere in the Unknown World. Yang is also the author of the children’s books, A Map Into the World, The Shared Room, and The Most Beautiful Thing. She co-edited the ground-breaking collection What God is Honored Here?: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss By and For Indigenous Women and Women of Color. Yang’s literary nonfiction work has been recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Chautauqua Prize, the PEN USA literary awards, the Dayton’s Literary Peace Prize, and garnered three Minnesota Book awards. Her children’s books have been listed as an American Library Association Notable Book, a Zolotow Honor, a Kirkus Best Book of the Year, winner of a Minnesota Book Award in Children’s Literature and the Heartland Bookseller’s Award. Kao Kalia Yang is a recipient of the McKnight Fellowship in Prose, the International Institute of Minnesota’s Olga Zoltai Award for her community leadership and service to New Americans, and the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts’ 2019 Sally Award for Social Impact.


sound bites

Writers look to literature to reflect our experience as a way to start to heal, as a way to start to put trauma in perspective. @GibneyShannon

In putting together this book, we could finally meet these stories and place them somewhere in the spectrum of our lives, in ways that we couldn’t have earlier. Before having my boys, I would have never been ready to meet Baby Jules in the way that I am able to today. I think we were then ready to carry not only our own stories but the gravity of others.

Kao Kalia Yang

It made me feel more isolated to encounter the stock language around stillbirth and miscarriage, like, “Oh my angel,” you know … “now she’s in heaven, and I know my heart will never be the same.”

Shannon Gibney

When I read literature and stories, I want to be confronted with the truth, especially around pregnancy and birth and infant loss and women’s bodies. @GibneyShannon

“There are all these things shrouded in mystery around women’s bodies, and a lot of it is painful, difficult stuff. @GibneyShannon

One of the most important things about this journey for me is knowing that we were not alone. In putting together this book, we felt our togetherness rise. That was one of the gifts of this experience. For all of the hurting, there was in that so much hope and so much beauty.

Kao Kalia Yang

One of the hardest things to ask was for our writers to linger. There are moments when a writer wants to run fast across a landscape of trauma or grief. One of the hardest things we had to ask contributors was to just slow down. And some of them said, “I need more time,” or “every time I try, all I find is tears, all I find is space.”

Kao Kalia Yang

There was the violence of what we had experienced, and then there was the violence from, in so many ways, white majority culture. From the very onset, when we published the call for contributors, we got personal messages from white people saying, “Why are you isolating us? Why are you excluding us?” And then, when we got the submissions, white men submitted. The evening of our launch event, a person whose social media icon was a rifle posted in the launch page. We were meeting certain forces in the majority culture along the way, where Shannon and I understood there is always a measure of risk that we were taking. At every turn, Shannon and I chose to do the work before us as courageously as possible.

Kao Kalia Yang

The writer decides who you want to be, whether you’re going to give in to bigger forces trying to push down voices and presences like yours, or while you take up that space and you do so with dignity. @kaokaliayang

“There are particular ways women are embodied in American dominant discourse. We’re allowed to be objectified sexually, and in this cult of motherhood, as long as all your buttons are in a row. You can be a mess, but you can’t be a grotesque mess. We know that miscarriage and infant loss and dead babies happen, but we don’t really want to know about how that happened in the body and what that feels like and what are the ramifications of that, in terms of recovery and all this stuff. We really don’t want to hear about that as a culture.

Shannon Gibney

There are particular ways women are embodied in American dominant discourse. In this cult of motherhood as long as all your buttons are in a row, you can be a mess, but you can’t be a grotesque mess. @GibneyShannon

There are many reasons women are separated from their children that our country has never reckoned with; the forces that create broken mothers who have to be stronger than they are to hold some idea of family and legacy. @kaokaliayang

Women need representation in research. We need representation in literature. We need you to understand that our lives are important to the whole of this operation, the human experiment. @kaokaliayang

In this pandemic, all of our rituals for grief have been effectively obliterated. We cannot grieve together. I think about the layering of that for women who have undergone miscarriage and infant loss in this pandemic. These are the undercurrents of our existences. They’re not on pause because we’re going through something else right now. I cannot begin to conceive of what it must have been like for so many women who’ve experienced loss at this time, when our focus is on the magnitude of this big thing we are suffering from. Also layered and complicated is that onion of womanhood that nobody really wants to peel back the surface of.

Kao Kalia Yang

After a reading, an older white woman came up to me and said, “You just said it. You just said, ‘The baby’s dead.’” She was like, “I never felt like I could say that, just say what happened. I had to sort of dance around it delicately—she didn’t make it, we lost her, or she’s in heaven now. I never could just lay out the bare truth of my baby died. She’s dead. Because I knew that other people couldn’t handle it, and I had to take care of them and their emotional needs.”

Shannon Gibney

A woman is never going to forget a baby she’s had ever, no matter what the outcome is. @GibneyShannon

I grew a person inside me, and they died before they came out, and that is written in my body forever. It’s written on my soul. @GibneyShannon

The reason I feel such searing pain that cleaves me is because of the immensity of the love I had and still have for my daughter. You can’t have one thing without the other. @GibneyShannon

When my daughter was born, something inside of me was able to fly again. But the flight was now so much more treacherous than I had ever imagined. I knew the fragility of life in a way that I couldn’t have conceived of. And now I write from this place that cherishes life so much more than before. There’s a gentleness with which I approach all living things, because of the loss of the living thing inside of me, because of my own fragile life in the days after. That informs everything I do on the page, the sensitivity of my touch, the gentleness of my regard for everything that lives; how hard it is to live. I wanted to speak to that, how we are forever changed by our experiences, and how these experiences enable and embody so much of who we are across the realms of our lives.

Kao Kalia Yang

If you’re writing and not telling the truth, I don’t know why you would write. We can’t choose the truth that we’ve been tasked to document. @GibneyShannon

There’s a gentleness with which I approach all living things because of the loss of the living thing inside me. That informs everything I do on the page; the gentleness of my regard for how hard it is to live. @kaokaliayang

Jennifer Chen

“I don’t have time for self-doubt. I just have time to write.”


(March 25, 2021) Jennifer Chen is a freelance journalist who has written for the New York Times, O: The Oprah Magazine, Real Simple, and Bust on subjects ranging from emotional labor and pro wrestling to miscarriage and the Stop Asian Hate Movement. She has an MFA and BFA in dramatic writing from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and is an alumnae of Hedgebrook, a women’s writing residency. Jennifer lives in Los Angeles with her TV-writer husband, twin 5-year-old daughters, and a snorty pug named Chewbacca. She describes writer-motherhood in 3 words as: “longest shortest time.”

FROM THE EPISODE: READING LIST & REFERENCES

Where to Find Jennifer Chen
Jennifer Chen’s website
“What Pro Wrestling Taught Me and My Immigrant Grandmother,” New York Times
“Why I Don’t Want My Miscarriage to Stay Secret,” Buzzfeed

Stop Asian Hate Movement
About the movement
Atlanta shooting
Jennifer’s writing on the Stop Asian Hate Movement:
“How You Can Join the Stop Asian Hate Movement”, Jennifer’s website
“Yes, Calling Coronavirus ‘the Chinese Virus’ or Kung-Flu is Racist,” Oprah Daily
“Racist Attacks Against Asian Americans Are Still on The Rise During COVID-19,” Oprah Daily
“How You Can Join the Stop Asian Hate Movement,” Oprah Daily

Organizations
Tisch School of the Arts
Hedgebrook
We Need Diverse Books

Authors, TV Shows, Podcasts
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
The Simpsons
Lindsay Eagar‘s The First Draft Method
88 Cups of Tea podcast
Tamora Pierce


sound bites

“I wrote for 15 minutes while I pumped. I was exercising a muscle in the dark. All those 15-minute sessions gave me the muscle to write quickly without thinking, ‘I don’t know if this is good.’” — @jchenwriter

“I don’t have time for self-doubt. I just have time to write.” — @jchenwriter

“In March 2020, my girls’ preschool shut down and my editor at oprahdaily.com asked, ‘Do you want to write about why ‘Kung-Flu’ and the ‘Chinese Virus’ is racist?’ And I said, ‘Yes. When is it due?’ And she said, ‘Can you give it to me tomorrow?’ What it taught me was that all those 15-minute sessions I did when my girls were six weeks old gave me the muscle to write as fast as possible.

I use my platform to help raise awareness, but also give people real tools to use; some simple things that you can do to help.

“The first days of motherhood, it feels like you’re running a marathon that you’d never signed up for, you never trained for, you don’t have the right shoes. But you get there.” — @jchenwriter

“Being a mother doesn’t give me skills to be a better writer, but it’s taught me how to write quickly. It’s taught me to write in my head.”

“You can be writing all the time. It doesn’t have to be on a computer. If I can’t get to something, I record myself saying it in a voice memo. All of that stuff has really added up to me realizing I have a lot more time than I thought I did.”

“I’m an only child. To have twins…I was like, I don’t know how to do this. I fed one kid and forgot to feed the other. Those things taught me that you’re gonna make mistakes, and you figure out what you did wrong and not do it again. It taught me to be flexible. I think I was a lot more rigid about writing. My routine was I have to be at my desk with my laptop and the perfect music playlist. Now I’m like, I can do it while I’m walking. I think that’s a really great skill to have as, as a writer and a mother.”

“Asking other moms for advice really, really helped me. Why reinvent the wheel when other people have done it before me?”

On writing about miscarriage: “That was the first time I wrote something that I felt really scared to share, and it’s one of the things people still write to me about.” — @jchenwriter

“I didn’t know much about miscarriage. In high school, they teach you about sex and pregnancy, but not the female body, when a pregnancy doesn’t go to term. I felt ignorant about my own body.” — @jchenwriter

“As a writer, if something scares me, it usually means that there’s something good there. I keep writing through it. My greatest pieces have come out of these places of vulnerability and shame and fear.” — @jchenwriter

“We have to read the same book over and over and over and over again. I think a lot of people think children’s picture books are really easy to write, and now that I’ve had to read some of them over and over again, I’m like, no, if it’s really good, I don’t mind hearing it five times in a week. If it’s really not good, then it’s like torture.”