In 2006, activist Tarana Burke founded the #MeToo movement in an effort to empower survivors of sexual violence and raise awareness about the issue. But for years, her advocacy went unnoticed. Then, in October 2017, actress Alyssa Milano posted a tweet using the hashtag #MeToo, and the movement went mainstream almost immediately. Less than a year later, millions of Americans watched Dr. Christine Blasey Ford as she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee to having been sexually assaulted at age 15 by then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and his friend, Mark Judge.
“Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings From the Me Too Movement,” an anthology edited by Shelly Oria, takes its title from Ford’s testimony and features the voices of survivors, including women of color, transgender women and queer women, exploring the issue of sexual violence through 23 entries that include fiction, nonfiction and poetry. In anticipation of Oria’s upcoming appearance at Hugo House for the Seattle launch of “Indelible in the Hippocampus,” she spoke with us about the anthology.
The faces of #MeToo have overwhelmingly been cisgender white women. “Indelible in the Hippocampus” features a really diverse group of authors and perspectives. How did you decide who you were going to ask to contribute?
The challenge was actually narrowing it down to 23 contributors, including me. It was hard, so I think it’s a testament to a lot of things, including how many incredible writers are working — especially when you’re also trying to be inclusive in terms of genre. We were doing fiction, nonfiction and poetry, so that opened it up to so many writers.
Talking about why it’s important to be inclusive is sort of like asking “why is the sky blue?” I think that, in a way, it’s important because we’re still asking this question and having these conversations. I want to live in a world where it’s just a reality that a transgender woman can safely go to the police after an assault, and a world in which I wouldn’t have to constantly remind people that Burke started this movement in 2006. So many white women don’t know that and I’m not faulting anyone in particular — I’m faulting our collective conversation because it’s still not inclusive enough, so we have to keep working until it is. That’s what I see as my responsibility in my tiny corner of the world: to expand the conversation so that it reflects the experiences of all people.
“Indelible” features fiction, nonfiction and poetry. How did you decide on this format rather than, for example, a collection of essays about survivors’ personal experiences?
The more self-centered answer would be that I’m predominantly a fiction writer and a short-story writer. So to be completely honest and transparent, that’s part of what informed it. It’s part of why I feel frustrated that, whenever an anthology comes out that’s timely or addresses a topic that’s in the news, it tends to be a collection of essays.
I believe we can do a better job as a society and as artists responding to anything of importance when we don’t limit the scope to one genre. If we expand beyond essays, we can do a better, deeper, broader job. And it goes back to the issue of diversity, too. I think we’re excluding a lot of writers from the conversation when we put out anthologies that are all essays. I know fiction writers who don’t feel comfortable writing essays and I certainly know poets who don’t write essays or short stories. So when we limit to one genre, we’re excluding so many voices from the conversation and excluding the formats with which they can express themselves and explore the topic.
What was your directive to the writers? Did you have any specific guidelines, or did you ask them to write something inspired by #MeToo in a format and length of their choosing?
We were looking for short pieces, so the length wasn’t of their choosing. We did limit writers to about 1,500 to 2,000 words. But beyond that, there weren’t guidelines. I tried to be open and expansive in that approach as well, and I think the breadth of genres allowed me to be more inclusive because it can be problematic and presumptuous to solicit work from a writer about #MeToo if you’re only looking for nonfiction. It makes the assumption that the writer has a personal experience, which can be OK if that writer has shared it with you or published about the topic. But otherwise the solicitation can be problematic.
When you’re inviting works in any genre, you’re not making any assumptions, so it allows you to cast a wider net and allow more artistic and personal freedom within that conversation.
In a heartbreaking way, I really love the title, which is from Dr. Ford’s testimony that her most vivid memory of the sexual assault is the laughter of Kavanaugh and Judge. Why did that moment stand out to you?
There’s something so chilling and so painful about that quote and that moment. But in a sort of complex, even grotesque way, there’s something beautiful about it. To me, that quote is sort of her moment of poetry; there’s poetry in that phrasing. It’s her moment of being both a poet and a scientist; she was saying something that most people, including me, had to Google, and yet it sounded like poetry.
Juxtaposed with Kavanaugh’s “I love beer!” testimony, there’s such a stark contrast between how she spoke compared to his pathetic way of expressing himself. This man was about to be confirmed as a Supreme Court judge. I think that contrast really hit a lot of us hard. It’s a good metaphor for the whole nightmare that we were watching unfold.
And of course like you said, the meaning of it is heartbreaking. When you think of the full quote, it’s the laughter that’s stayed with her all these years. It’s the fact that in the worst moment for a victim, the abuser can laugh at their pain. It’s so heartbreaking.
Sexual assault is a crime that so many people, both perpetrators and bystanders, laugh about. What do you think this says about sexual violence and rape culture as a whole?
It’s such a unique type of violence. I think the particular moment we’re talking about is unique in terms of what it projects on the victim. It’s not only the act of violence itself, but it’s also the shaming and, in a way, taking some of their humanity from them in that moment.
I’m not an authority on the topic and these are just my personal views, but there’s such a tragic gap between the experiences of women and cis[gender] men. And I think that’s another reason the laughter hits so many of us and another reason it does feel so powerful — because it’s a metaphor for that gap.
Journalism has played a crucial role in #MeToo, but this is one of the first books about it. What role do you think literature and books like “Indelible” can play in the movement going forward?
When people ask what’s next for #MeToo, to me that question is forgetting the importance of continuing the conversation and continuing to tell our stories. That’s the first step on the ladder, and there’s no way that the next step and the one after that can happen — and by that I mean bigger change we want — if the first step isn’t stable.
We want to see the next generation of boys treat girls differently and men treat women differently, and we also need legal and institutional change. None of that can happen if we think and say, “Oh, we’ve told our stories. The end,” instead of remembering that it will never not be a radical act. And it will always, or at least for a very long time, be necessary to tell our stories and continue to have these conversations.
Only when the first step of the ladder feels steady enough, only then we can really try to climb up. The bottom part is still really shaky and we need to make sure that it gets steadier and steadier. And I think that’s at least one aspect of where literature, where the arts, come in. It can engage people who are otherwise not engaged in the conversation because maybe some of those people are readers and can be invited into a conversation that feels different than it does in journalistic form, or in the news or on social media. A story or an essay or a poem can feel different to people and can invite them into these conversations that they wouldn’t otherwise be a part of.
“Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings From the Me Too Movement,” edited by Shelly Oria, McSweeney’s Publishing, 192 pp., $16.99
Shelly Oria will participate in a reading and conversation with local writers Kamari Bright, Jalayna Carter, Sasha LaPointe and Kristen Millares Young, at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 20, at Hugo House, 1634 11th Ave, Seattle; 206-322-7030, hugohouse.org