After suffering a miscarriage at 19 weeks, Kao Kalia Yang wrote a post on Facebook.
It was a message addressed to her lost baby, and also “to my friends and family, to the entirety of the universe, about how I had fallen in love with a baby that was for a moment but no longer so,” said Yang, a St. Paul writer. “It was a message full of pain I could not contain and did not want to.”
Shannon Gibney, also an acclaimed Minnesota author, read that message. Later, after Gibney suffered a heartbreaking loss of her own, a stillbirth, she reached out to Yang. Gibney had been trying to find books that spoke to her experience as a woman of color. Not finding them, she asked Yang if she would be interested in creating something with her someday.
“Yes, when our childbearing years are over, let’s do this, deliver into the world something from the depths of our experiences,” was Yang’s answer.
The project, a book called “What God Is Honored Here? Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss by and for Native Women and Women of Color,” was published this fall by the University of Minnesota Press. Gibney and Yang talked about editing the collection, “creating a container to help folks process trauma,” and how it can make readers feel less alone.
Q: The selections in this anthology are moving and powerful in their resilience. They are also upsetting and harrowing. Was it difficult to immerse yourself in these works and make decisions as editors? How did you manage it?
GIBNEY: This was some of the hardest emotional and psychological work, if not the hardest, either of us had ever done. Which was why it was so necessary, and why it was essential that it not be done alone. We are immensely fortunate in that we are a very good team, we work well together, love each other, and have each other’s back in every way possible through every step of assembling the book. What we were and are doing is not only writing and editing, but, at a deeper level, it is creating a container to help folks process trauma. We knew that from the very beginning, and so we made sure to give each other plenty of space and support at various points along this journey.
Q: This book includes stories from Native women and women of color only. What does this focus bring to the project, and why is it important?
YANG: Shannon and I, in the hard days and long months after our individual experiences, had gone looking to literature to speak to our grief and loneliness, feelings of isolation and unrest — as science had very little to say on the matter of our losses. Most of the time, in the case of miscarriage and infant death, there are no medical reasons for the losses, just categories of possibilities. We found that while there were books and collections written by and for white women, there was nothing for us.
Without intention or thought, what existed was a world in which we were rendered invisible once again — despite the fact that research tells us that Native women and black women suffered disproportionately from these losses. While there were no studies about Hmong women or other smaller minority groups, we knew that there was a burgeoning body of research about how racism, systemic and otherwise, impacted the bodies and reproductive healths of Native women and women of color. Beyond the research, we knew the truth of our communities, the women who surrounded us, who came to us in our moments of desperate searching with their own stories.
Q: What is the meaning behind the book’s title?
GIBNEY: The title “What God Is Honored Here?” is a line from a Lucille Clifton poem, quoted from “The Gospel at Colonus.” Clifton was, of course, a marvelous poet, and we were lucky enough to be able to include works from both her and her daughter in the collection, but that wasn’t why we chose that line for the title. When Kalia proposed it to me, I felt a shiver in my spine, because it is a visceral emotion — that sense in the middle of the night, after an unimaginable loss like this, where you ask the empty, mute darkness, “What God Is Honored Here?” It is a question, certainly, but it is also a state of being — one which I believe all the women in the collection could identify with.
Q: As you are reading publicly and talking about this book, what kinds of conversations has it sparked?
GIBNEY: It is a scary book for many people — even for many of our contributors, to see this much deep loss collected all in one place like this. It’s a lot for people to absorb, conceptually, but once they actually crack the book open, what we keep on hearing is, “I feel so empowered after reading these stories.” Women tell us, certainly, that they feel less alone. Many people have told us that they are reading, but that they have to do it slowly, or maybe take a walk between pieces so that they can breathe and process the stories.
One woman who shared with us that she had experienced a miscarriage at 21 weeks said that although she first shied away from the book, once she opened it she couldn’t stop reading. Then once she finished, she decided that she wanted to write her own story. And since she started doing that, she said she felt so much lighter. That really touched me. I told her that is exactly what the book is for.
Events: The authors will be at Next Chapter Booksellers, 38 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul, at 7 p.m. Nov. 18, and at the East Side Freedom Library, 1105 Greenbrier St., St. Paul, at 7 p.m. Dec. 7. Yang will be at St. Anthony Park Branch Library, 2245 Como Av., St. Paul, at 5:30 p.m. Dec. 12.
Erica Pearson is a features writer at the Star Tribune.