Native Women and Women of Color on Pregnancy Loss and Grief
The pain of losing a pregnancy compounds exponentially when you are unseen.
Posted February 25, 2020
In researching the topic of miscarriage for a book I’m co-authoring, I came across the anthology What God Is Honored Here?: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss by and for Native Women and Women of Color.
These essays are deep and the writing is relatable, even if you’ve never been pregnant (like me). Some readers here will know the heartbreak of pregnancy loss while others experience loss differently. While this is a book about pregnancy loss, it is also about identity, belonging, and valuing one's own individual process, recognizing that as meaningful and valuable.
The editors, Shannon Gibney and Kao Kalia Yang, found time to thoughtfully and deeply answer some questions for me about miscarriage, pregnancy loss, race, ethnicity, belonging, voice, self, children, process, and the book.
I’ve read a lot of creative nonfiction but this anthology is riveting. The essays are moving. They are also poignant, edgy, down to earth. I rarely if ever comment on writing, but the essays here—I had to.
Meet who I'm interviewing:
Shannon Gibney is a writer, educator, activist, and the author of Dream Country, a novel about more than five generations of an African descended family, crisscrossing the Atlantic both voluntarily and involuntarily (Dutton, 2018) and See No Color (Carolrhoda Lab, 2015). Both books won Minnesota Book Awards.
Kao Kalia Yang is a Hmong-American writer. She is the author of the award-winning memoirs The Latehomecomer and The Song Poet. In 2019, Yang debuted her first picture book, A Map Into the World, a Zolotow Honor Book, an ALA Notable Book of the Year, and a Minnesota Book Award finalist. This year, Yang will publish two more picture books, The Shared Room and The Most Beautiful Thing, and a collective refugee memoir called Somewhere in the Unknown World.
Meredith: Miscarriage is not only an important topic but a tender one. The complexities of race and ethnicity, and religion or spiritual beliefs are important not only to “consider” but to interweave into thought and discussion. This holistic approach is a tenet of social work but it’s seemingly less of a tenet of everyday life in America. How can we help readers here who do not consider diversity as part of the whole rather than an aside (by means or by choice)? It’s really a question that transcends pregnancy loss (or writing!), I know. But can you share with readers here your thoughts?
Shannon Gibney: Fifteen to 20 percent of all women in the U.S. will experience a miscarriage at some point. Far less women will have to deal with stillbirth or SIDS, but they do still happen. So, this is something that we really should be talking about, as a culture. Because chances are, it will affect all of us at some point—if not personally then through a family member, friend, colleague, or loved one. Identity and its various facets, including race, class, and gender, will play a huge role in how we experience and process traumatic events such as this. We know that Black and Native women, in particular, are on the front lines of the maternal health crisis in this country. We are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, as it were. Infant mortality rates for Black babies are more than double what they are for white ones and almost double for Native babies.
The crisis is so deep, in fact, that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) lists "being of the Black race" as a major risk factor for miscarriage and stillbirth. This data should be rather shocking, considering we are still the richest country in the world. But, of course, it isn't, considering our ongoing legacy of racial discrimination, which shows up as implicit bias and disproportionate treatment throughout the medical establishment. So, we have to talk about this. As Native and women of color, we feel strongly that we have to frame any discussion of infant and pregnancy loss around all aspects of our identities—including ones that may lead to further trauma within historically white and male systems like medicine.
Kao Kalia Yang: I tell my children all the time, "You have the most to learn from the perspectives that are the hardest to find."
Until we understand this as a society and make it an everyday observation in our professional and personal lives, we are living with absurd limitations. For me, considerations of diversity are imminently and urgently necessary if we want to see not only representations of the world's human beings, but approaches and ways of thinking, feeling, being in the world. The importance of this collection and its approach is that we're inviting our contributors and readers into the fullness of these women's inhabited identities as Native women and women of color, as bodies that have experienced something so common, so challenging, so heartbreaking that few know how to talk about it, to bear witness, to be able to reckon honestly and courageously with the facts of life as it has been and continues to be for so many of us in this country. I tell my children, "To grow, you are going to have to hurt." We live in a society that is afraid of pain, so essential to the experience of life itself.
Meredith: These stories hit home. [And I have never been pregnant—they are that powerful.] They are deep and powerful. This is one way to get people thinking outside of their cocoon. What was it like to read and edit these stories? Did you find that in editing the collection your own perspectives changed?
Shannon Gibney: It was not an easy collection to edit, by any means, but it was also very healing. I think for me, what I started to see, even in the particulars and important differences in each story, was this through-line of baby loss. What it looks like, feels like, sounds like, tastes like to be growing, carrying, nurturing another human being, and then to suddenly lose them. You think you are alone in this experience, but in reading the stories, you realize you are only alone because no one is sharing their stories, including you. That's the power of the collection.
Kao Kalia Yang: Shannon is absolutely right. Editing this collection gave me an incredible gift, an understanding that the hurting transcends generations and cultures of women and that it is our recognition of this fact, our willingness to cry for each other, that delivers to each of us what every single human being needs in order to survive trauma and tragedy and loss: grace. In many ways, the wound had been inflicted before. In my writing, I was able to clean out that wound. In editing, I was able to bandage it up. The editing forced me to take a different view of my own experience and other women's. I couldn't have done it before I was ready, when I had finished having children, when my children could begin to understand my womb was a shared world. But I was ready and the editing meant that I was no longer just looking into the depth of what had happened to me, I could see its breadth across these incredible lives and I was in awe of the depth contained within each. I became braver in the process.
Meredith: I am working with a co-author on a book right now about pregnancy loss. In reflecting on the topic after talking and interviewing people, it occurs to me that pregnancy loss all by itself often makes a person feel like the “other” and thus very alone. It also occurred to me that when race or ethnicity are introduced into the equation—as in racism against people of color, indigenous people, any minority and especially where there is a power differential, money differential, insurance differential—the pain is compounded in an exponential fashion. Not only has the baby died, but something of the self is also being dismissed by the collective. For the reader who does not see this, can you help me shine a light on this blind spot?
Shannon Gibney: I will let Kalia answer this.
Kao Kalia Yang: Shannon and I have been very thoughtful in the title that we've chosen for this collection; it is very specific. We want Native Women and Women of Color to know that there is something here for them now on this topic of miscarriage and pregnancy loss. As writers, we are well aware that when people pick up our books—whether voluntarily or as part of some curriculum—that there is an author's page and likely our photos. Most readers know that when they enter our work, they are entering into the hearts and minds of women of color, of some education, who are well aware that the cannons of western literature and thought have not included us. Unlike our white counterparts, our professional identities already come with so many assumptions and presumptions on the nature of the work we produce. Which is to say this: Shannon Gibney and I both know that we will never be able to convince readers who are not interested in the thoughts, ideas, and feelings of Native Women and Women of Color that we matter; it is more than a blind spot; it is a historical and constant erasure, a violence against us, and we are both more focused on our ability to create art for those who need it than to try and garner warmth from a fire that always burned cold.
Meredith: As someone who adopted older children from another country when they were a teen and tween, my husband and I were met with judgment and confusion. People we knew said insensitive and hurtful things that showed me how dug in they were regarding how parenthood is “supposed” to look. They were biased against adoption, older children, foreign adoption, etc; or they wanted to completely romanticize it and the fact that we were doing it—which also seemed like a way to disown it and, with two decades to reflect, I see this as something they’ve disowned about themselves. I think we all disown parts of ourselves and the work is about collecting those aspects and bringing them to light. I think this collection articulates the ongoing struggle of collecting aspects of the self via the loss. Can you speak to how this trauma changed the unfolding of life going forward for each of you?
Shannon Gibney: You are never the same after a loss like this. Your family is never the same. The loss becomes an indelible part of your story. It is the negative space that defines your movement both within yourself and out in the world. And like so much loss in the Western world, it is rendered invisible and therefore made all the more poignant and weighty. My daughter was here, but she was never here. She died in utero, at 41 and a half weeks. My son was three and a half at the time and was as thrilled as my then-husband and I about her arrival. After that devastating loss, I was terrified to get pregnant again and went through a harrowing pregnancy with my daughter, Marwein. Marwein means "the stranger, the visitor," in her father's language of Loma (northwestern Liberia), in memory of her sister, Sianneh, who came as a stranger and left as a stranger. There are so many ways this loss continues to unfold around and among us—from the banal to the spiritual and everything in between.
Kao Kalia Yang: After the loss of Baby Jules, I knew my mother's pain in a way that I could never have known and understood before. In the collection, I write not only my own story of loss but my mother's. There are the stories you've lived your whole life wanting to write, and then the ones you wish you would never have to. I never wanted to be part of a book like this one, and yet here I am. In the story of my life, there was a boy who came to me first, he who was not born to me alive but whose life has changed mine forever. The beat of a heart in a baby's feet in the palms of my hand, the look of my boy, Thayeng, in his sleep, chin like mine, chin like Baby Jules', or the song that Shengyeng, my girl, sings on the sunny days when we pass the tall tree where we buried Baby Jules' memory box, "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine...," or the laughter of my Yuepheng, a windy song from his chest, the opening of lips to say words Baby Jules will never say to me, "Niam, kuv hlub koj. Kuv hlub koj." I am so very proud of this book that Shannon and I have edited, of the courageous women in this collection; they make this world a far less scary place, our collective loss makes the world beyond this place—one filled with our yearnings and our fondest hopes and dreams—a far gentler possibility for me.
Meredith: What else would you like readers to know?
Shannon Gibney: That this book is not just for women who have gone through infant and/or pregnancy loss. These are stories for everyone. Because they are about an essential facet of the human experience: birth. As our contributor Sun Yung Shin says, there is still only one way for mammals to come into being. And that is growing inside and being birthed by a female. Which is why it's so strange that we really don't talk about it or meaningfully acknowledge it.
Kao Kalia Yang: This is an incredibly written collection. The writing is exquisite. This is not something that many people expect from this collection. If you love powerful, courageous writing, if you love experimentation in form, elements of craft, this book will teach you so much about execution.