Some days it isn’t very difficult to witness something substantial like the world news and to feel the frantic excitement of a good piece of fiction. Or a bad one. We live in a political state wherein a man can admit to assaulting women, disgustingly claim they like it, and then go on to win a presidency. We live in 2019 as of this writing and are still faced with many archaic trials against the institution of womanhood. From Brett Kavanaugh to #metoo, the world is slowly opening up to the issues that face modern women. And writers like Leni Zumas are at the front of a sinking ship, watching the ice destroy our helm, but bravely shouting back what they behold.
At times, reading Red Clocks was a lot like reading the HuffPost, or the CNN break downs of White House events. Zumas was able to write a novel that told the future by doing nothing more than examining our own actual past and inferring a little time, privilege, and patriarchy. It is a tired, tired road to compare and contrast this to the Trump anti-fantasy of the Northern-American living experience, so I will proudly spend my blog time focusing on some personal parallels that I also see as connecting to bigger issues in the broad subject of women’s rights. Having joined the transgender struggle there are many parallels to my new experiences with both gender oppression and my troubles navigating life as a woman. And although there isn’t a trans character within the text itself, the variance in female experiences alone shows me a place where I belong, where our trials all intersect; at the same time, this tale of womanhood is often focused on a perspective I have no physical claim to: pregnancy. I do identify as a mother, but I do not identify as someone whom pregnancy can be forced upon. That is an aspect of male privilege I biologically cannot express kinship to. But the process of feminizing motherhood, and the experience of a woman’s life that is wasted in the shadow of intensive mothering, I can relate to with my whole heart. A piece of each woman’s pain is representative of a relative pain in my own life.
Five women make up the story’s arc, and they all have very different ownerships of something universal that women are handed: bondage. The Wife is bound to her husband and children, the Daughter is bound to a pregnancy and a law called the Pink Wall that keeps women and girls away from safe and legal abortion services in Canada, the Biographer is bound to her indescribable need for a baby, and the Mender is bound to her need to keep womanhood between women. The Biographer’s forlorn subject, the polar explorer Eivør Minervudottir, is also bound to a society that expects her to do her job and research for the betterment of said society, but then tells her they will never believe she conducted the research simply because she’s a woman and to name someone else- a man of course- in order to even publish her life’s work. This is some dystopian future, in which women have somehow lost the gender war and ended up the punishable villain in the fight for their own rights. Attempts to abort are met with prison, even the death penalty. Not a far cry from the illegal but accepted actions of some men today, who have in my own family coerced, or outright forced their “wives” or “girlfriends” to keep babies they didn’t want. In some cases, forced them to terminate a baby they wanted to keep, as if their own protestation was reason enough. Every character interaction in Red Clocks does not seem to take place in some distant, dystopian future, however. Women go through all of this today in perhaps less officially sanctioned ways. But I don’t believe this was an approximate guess of the distant future. This book is more like a definition of the inescapable terror of inevitability and inaction. This is not an anti-fairy-tale, but a logical guess of the coming state of things from based on the unchanged and unchecked current state. The result of a “post-feminist” world, perhaps, where too many humans thought we are already equal, and no fight for equity remains valid.
Many of the journeys we see in the book reflect some of the ghosts of the female reproductive factory theory (Rothman), in that whether the characters believe it so or not, they are reinforcing the theory that women’s bodies are a vessel, a vehicle for the reproduction of a more affluent woman’s social prize: a baby. The Biographer Ro seems in many chapters to internally deny the Daughter’s autonomy and plays with ways to ask for, beg for, demand her child for her own. However, the witch, The Mender, practices a challenge to the medicalization of reproductive care; by helping women take back control of their reproductive choices, she fights against the patriarchal view that birthing (or termination) be held in the hands of a rational male doctor, and away from the hands of other women regardless of their qualifications.
The book is, after all, written from the rumors and inhuman, factually-argued points of modern politicians in regard to female reproductive ability through the dominant lens of religious freedom and human spirit. This is a work of fiction that attempts to predict a factual future by inferring upon the basis of current factual arguments of many, often conservative members of the North American dominant political class. Through definition of her Personhood Amendment, Zumas is perhaps attempting to address a globalization of women’s rights oppression- though she chose to focus on the viewpoints of North American women; she deploys token American conservative political notions to paint a world that has fully realized the control of women, and where all laws predicate the governance of the male world view.
I can feel me in many of the moments the characters display. Being a trans woman I can totally understand the Daughter’s puberty, her attraction to some goofy boy who doesn’t really love her, and I can absolutely relate to how giving our “everything” to the man that consumes our “right now” can affect our womanhood in the long run. Social pressure to behave sexually, to not use protection, and to deal with pain and discomfort for the sexual gratification of a young, dominant male seem to be in the early pages of every Heteronormative Female How-To’s. The power exchange of being the desired-turned-devoured is rampant in the stories of young women, in both real life and fiction. In my own life, the control of men seems to dictate how I date and engage romantically with the opposite gender. Their desires eclipse my own, and the distaste for women like me spreads to other men in the form of shame, and shame-based bullying. Political policies are passed to medicalize my mental state, emotional stability, usefulness in the workforce or military, and all in the interest of rational, straight, religious, cisgender males who believe they know better about me than I do. That they alone can navigate my path for me, because I’m too feminized and sensitive to make my own choices about the course of my own destiny. And though modern man still calls me a man, they limit me based on my place in the world of women and my shared experience with their status as an other.
The novel is also filled with debates that fuel current moral arguments. At times the journey we are invited along is filled with the darker side of crucial things. I can see many people fighting against the notion that “the Daughter” was making a good choice to have an abortion, or that it was her choice to make. I suppose the common answer in 2019 is no different than 1919: she is a child; how could she know what she wants? As if age or lack thereof creates a person without preferences or rights. Or is it that a preference-based female population threatens a man’s capitalist world? I believe a large notion within this book is that it’s a man’s world, and most of us know that forced reality whether we actively fight the notion or support it. Reading Red Clocks was an emotional experience at this current time in my womanhood. But I think maybe the most valuable thing Zumas did was achieve a piece that could be read at any place in your journey, at many different time periods of this world, and still be relevant.