What would America look like if abortion were made illegal again?
Leni Zumas third novel, Red Clocks, has been described as a successor to The Handmaid’s Tale
Author Leni Zuma.
Given that her third novel has landed bang on the zeitgeist, it’s almost astonishing to think that Leni Zumas began writing it seven years ago.
The novel, Red Clocks, pivots on a simple conceit – what would America look like if abortion were made illegal again? – and has been described as a successor to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, or Naomi Alderman’s The Power.
The comparisons sit well with Zumas, a relative newcomer: “It feels flattering and kind of scary,” she admits.
And in the years since Portland-based Zumas began plotting the story of four women affected by this new legislation, much has changed politically.
“When I started this, we were comfortably ensconced in the Obama administration, and changing around the laws felt like a fictional device that I felt would put pressure on the characters.”
It reminds me of those comedies in the ‘80s when someone was installed in a really weird scenario
But that was then and this is now. In Red Clocks, the legislation is almost passed under cover of darkness, and Zumas points out that the details from this new world order came in part from actual proposals meted by US government officials.
In the book, the US Congress ratifies the Personhood Amendment, which gives the constitutional right to life, liberty and property to a fertilised egg at the moment of conception. With abortion now illegal in the US, medical staff who provide them can be charged with second-degree murder, while those who seek abortions can be charged with conspiracy to commit murder.
Additionally, IVF is now banned, as embryos can’t consent to their transfer from laboratory to uterus. A technician who accidentally drops an embryo during an in vitro transfer is now guilty of manslaughter. And with this new world order comes a new law: Public Law 116-72, otherwise known as Every Child Needs Two (parents).
Feminist dystopian fiction
It’s the latest in a hefty wave of feminist dystopian fiction, but what makes Red Clocks interesting is its sheer plausibility.
“I think of my book as almost more like speculative fiction as the world feels so close in this world,” says Zumas. “If votes on congress went a different way, I feel any of this could be true next month.”
When Donald Trump was elected president last November, Zumas was mid-way through her edits. She added a “pink wall”, which cuts Canada off as a safe haven for women, and makes mention of a president who her character Ro “didn’t vote for”.
“I think we’re all struggling to figure out whom we talk to about any of this,” she says, referring to the current political climate. “On a daily basis there are tweets from our so-called president that read like a really bad novel. It reminds me of those comedies in the ‘80s when someone was installed in a really weird scenario.
“In my own naive way I’ve long thought, ‘as long as we have Roe v Wade, abortion access will be intact’, but for a lot of women in the US, state and local laws are making it impossible to get an abortion.”
If in some small way it makes someone thinking, ‘What does it mean to have sovereignty over one’s own body?’ then I’m happy
Irish readers don’t need to overly tax themselves to envisage a society in which abortion is illegal, and Zumas is particularly intrigued to hear about an Irish take on the ongoing Repeal the Eighth campaign. She admits to being “thoroughly ignorant” on the Repeal movement, but proves in the course of our conversation to be more enlightened than most.
“In the US there’s a sort of narcissistic national discourse, that we’re more enlightened than any other country,” observes Zumas. “It’s easy for people here to go, ‘oh, it’s not like Ireland, it’s so Catholic there’, and yet I see a lot of similarities between the two when it comes to the reproductive rights debate,” she observes.
Others have posited that Red Clocks is one of the first #MeToo novels, and certainly the feminist movement has served only to make the book even more prescient. For Zumas, the movement has roots beyond its 2016 inception.
“For decades people have been speaking up and shot down and now, we’re just not getting shot down as quickly,” she notes. “But I keep thinking of the activists on whose shoulders we stand – people who spoke out in the ‘20s and the ‘60s who are only making a difference now.
“I’m really happy if my book contributes to the conversation in any way,” she adds. “If in some small way it makes someone thinking, ‘What does it mean to have sovereignty over one’s own body?’ then I’m happy.”
In Red Clocks, the change in laws affect four women in a small fishing village in Oregon. There’s the biographer (Ro), a single teacher trying in vain to have a child; the daughter (Mattie), an adopted 15-year-old who is academically promising yet finds herself pregnant; the mender, the distributor of “termination herbs” who is put on trial in a latter day witch hunt; and the wife (Susan), a mother of two trapped in a domestic purgatory of her own making.
Their stories soon overlap – the wife and the biographer are friends, slightly resentful of the other’s existence. The daughter, who has just seen her friend jailed after an attempted termination, soon seeks out the services of the mender (aka Gin).
For the biographer, Zumas drew on her own first-hand experiences of IVF and motherhood.
Whenever I have a novel project, I have to have something else going on
“I went through two different quests to become a parent,” explains Zumas. “The first time was before I met my current partner Luke, in the mid-aughts, around 2006-7. I was living in New York, I was in a band, teaching and writing and I wasn’t in a relationship. I did want to have a kid and thought, maybe I could do that and plunged right in. My friends and family were like, ‘Why are you doing this? You have time to find a man’.”
The biographer’s experience of buying sperm on the internet and perusing donor profiles rings so authentic because of Zumas’s own experiences.
“They don’t show you pictures of the adult men; they show you baby pictures,” she says.
Zumas went through several intrauterine inseminations, but unbeknown to her, she also had polycystic ovarian syndrome, which adversely affects fertility. The experience, too, made it into the novel.
“When my partner and I started trying to have a kid, that’s when my infertility became more clear, so we opted to do IVF. When I started writing Red Clocks I was thinking a lot about how to do it all on my own.”
Zumas was careful to articulate different experiences of female identity and motherhood, going so far as to make the wife something of a reluctant parent.
“I have a kid now, who is five, and I certainly had this desire to become a mum but where does that come from exactly?” she says. “I didn’t want to let that go as some uncontested wish in my life, but there’s so much romanticising and glamorising of motherhood that’s not helpful to anyone.”
Red Clocks is now out in the world and picking up positive reviews – the Washington Post calls it a “provocative exploration of female longing, frustration and determination”, while the New York Times describes it as “highly absorbing” – and in the meantime, Zumas is cracking on with her next novel. For now, the next novel centres on the complexity of female friendship and the “fraught intimacy” between women.
“It’s in the pretty early stages, and I’m working on some short fiction and essays too,” she reveals. “Whenever I have a novel project, I have to have something else going on, mainly as a release from being in that intense novel world.”
Red Clocks is out now via Borough Press.