Aimee Wall on The Great Canadian Abortion Novel

Book Cover We Jane

We, Jane is the debut novel from Aimee Wall, a writer and translator from Newfoundland who now lives in Montreal. In the novel she tells the story of a young woman who, inspired by "the Jane Collective" that helped women find abortion access in 1960s' Chicago, returns to rural Newfoundland with the intention of being part of a similar movement.

Aimee Wall spoke to us about abortion activism, the narrative challenges of writing abortion, how being a translator influences her writing, and more!

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49th Shelf: A part of We, Jane that fascinated me, and which I could relate to so personally, was Marthe’s yearning to be part of a larger story, in particular in regard to her own abortion and the story of abortion in general. “She went looking for a fleet,” you write. Can you talk more about that impulse?

Aimee Wall: Something I was struck by when I was first reading about the Jane collective in Chicago was that some of the women in the group joined after having an abortion through the service. A lot of them weren’t coming from any kind of activist background, they were ordinary women who were kind of radicalized by this experience, and empowered in a new way, and it’s like they wanted to turn that feeling outward, be part of helping other people through the same experience in this way that allowed them to maintain agency.

Marthe is also left with this urge to be part of something bigger but she’s in a completely different context—it’s not as immediately clear to her what that something bigger could be or how to go about doing anything. She thinks about trying to make art about it; she goes looking for organized action and mostly encounters a kind of general complacency. And it’s kind of a let-down. She doesn’t understand why everyone else isn’t angrier about it or agitating for things to somehow be different, even if she maybe doesn’t even have the most coherent idea yet of how it could be different.

For Marthe, the abortion itself is not a fraught decision, and it’s easy to obtain. But that ease of access just makes her reflect on how much more complicated it could have been if she were living elsewhere. It gives her this newly sharpened awareness of the precarity of what she now feels in an even deeper, more bodily way should be her unalienable right. She’s indignant at the idea that she should be grateful for it. And then there is the other side of that impulse that’s born out of a more purely emotional response. She feels somehow betrayed by her body, she’s angry that she had to be the one to do this thing, ultimately on her own, and then that it’s suggested she’s overthinking it when she isn’t ready to stop talking about it afterwards.

For Marthe, the abortion itself is not a fraught decision, and it’s easy to obtain. But that ease of access just makes her reflect on how much more complicated it could have been if she were living elsewhere.

But in the broader cultural conversation, we don’t tend to get much beyond the notions of choice and access, this kind of defensive posture, so Marthe is not even sure how to frame these other feelings. That’s also part of what would drive her to look for a larger story to be part of, after kind of struggling to narrativize the personal aspects of the experience for herself—like a larger story could house all these stray, confused feelings, give her a coherent narrative to explain herself to herself.

49th Shelf: Marthe contemplates writing “The Great Canadian Abortion Novel,” the reader discovers on Page 9. There aren’t a lot of abortion novels. I have always kind of suspected the reason for this is because abortion is so overwhelmingly ordinary, just a single thread woven into the fabric of a life. I have a suspicion that your novel, in its form and content, is a kind of affirmation of this idea—the plot itself is admirably quiet and understated. Am I onto something?

Aimee Wall: Yes, definitely. There are exceptions of course, but I’ve found that a lot of books and films that deal with abortion are either set in the past, where you have this built-in tension surrounding it because it’s illegal, or they’re set in some dystopian near-future where all reproductive rights are under siege. And while I don’t think we need to construct another world or look only to the past to find conflict or tension around accessing an abortion, I was more interested in writing about it in the way you describe, as a single thread in a life. In the end, my novel takes abortion as a subject in a larger sense with these women who are looking at it as knowledge or a skill to be protected and passed on, outside of a medical or institutional context, but I wanted the actual procedures in the book to have the feeling of being ultimately just another event in a life and not the climactic one.

I didn’t want the plot to turn on an abortion or the decision to have one. Any conflict or tension is rooted elsewhere—the dynamics between these women and their shifting relationships, Marthe’s feelings about going home. I love Agnès Varda’s film One Sings, the Other Doesn’t for precisely this reason—both the women characters at different points have illegal abortions that are not easily obtained, but neither of these experiences are the climactic incident of the film (or of their lives) and we get to see what happens in the years that follow, how it becomes a thread in the larger story of their lives and their friendship. And the film just has so much warmth and spirit, and is imbued with Varda’s particular sense of humour, and somehow it’s also kind of a musical (!), and it was really thrilling to me as a different way of telling an “abortion story” that felt really true.

I didn’t want the plot to turn on an abortion or the decision to have one. Any conflict or tension is rooted elsewhere.

49th Shelf: Tell us about Montreal and rural Newfoundland in your novel, and what they stand for. The specificity of these places is so important to your story—it would be a very different book if these settings were elsewhere.

Aimee Wall: I mean, part of it is certainly that Montreal and Newfoundland are basically my two homes, so there was a bit of writing what I know in terms of setting. But I also liked what these two different places could represent for Marthe, and the questions they raised. When she gets pregnant, she’s living in Montreal, a place where all she has to do is make a phone call and walk over to a clinic, and like, the clinic is going to be the original Morgentaler clinic. But inevitably the ease of that procedure would make her think about what if this had happened if she was living elsewhere, the difference between legality and access—real, unencumbered access. When I first imagined a group of women still working in the tradition of Jane, it wasn’t much of a stretch to place them in rural Newfoundland—there might be a clinic in St. John’s, but what if you live five or six hours away, what if you don’t have a car or can’t get childcare or don’t want anyone to know?

When I first imagined a group of women still working in the tradition of Jane, it wasn’t much of a stretch to place them in rural Newfoundland.

The cove where Trish lives is a fictional town, but I was interested in setting the women in one of the kinds of places that has become more of a tourist destination in recent years. There’s something really interesting to me about a town that suddenly is home to all these tourist amenities and a stream of visitors in the summer, but is still, at the end of the day, a rural, isolated place, with all the challenges and vulnerabilities that come along with that. It made me think about how someone like Trish, who keeps this kind of survivalist shed stocked with supplies in the event of storms or other emergencies, might consider her ability to provide abortions more like another tool for self-sufficiency, an act of service, than any kind of political statement or feminist act.

And I was also interested in part of the story being a coming home again narrative for Marthe, and the implications of these two settings in terms of her push-pull relationship with wanting to belong somewhere or be a part of something. She’d left home to move to a place that has its own distinct culture that she is always going to be a little on the outside of, and then she finds herself thinking about going home again, and trying to navigate a return. She comes home to be part of this Jane tradition, inherit this knowledge, and bumps up against her feelings about another set of traditions, coming back to this sort of newly revitalized town that is successfully marketing a particular, polished-up version of Newfoundland and its culture that she has mixed feelings about.

49th Shelf: How has your previous experience as a translator served you in writing and publishing your first novel? What kind of translation was necessary in this endeavour?

Aimee Wall: I had been writing for years before I began translating, and so I’ve really been able to see the effect it’s had on my writing, which is ultimately something to do with patience, I think. Translating really forces you to slow down and interrogate the meaning and nuance and register and tone of every word, you’re constantly second-guessing your understanding. It’s pretty humbling work. I think I was kind of impatient before and translating slowed me down, in a good way. Which definitely helped for the long haul of writing and editing a novel. It’s also given me new ways to think about the sort of translation inherent in things like code-switching, which is something that comes up for Marthe in the novel, that shift in her speech when she goes home that is at once unconscious and self-conscious, something she wields and also something she doesn’t always notice she’s doing.

I had been writing for years before I began translating, and so I’ve really been able to see the effect it’s had on my writing, which is ultimately something to do with patience

49th Shelf: What are the works you drew on as inspiration for We, Jane? And what Canadian books and authors are you excited about right now?

Aimee Wall: I did a lot of reading as research to start with. I was fascinated by the story of the Jane collective in Chicago and read this great, comprehensive history of it called The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service, written by Laura Kaplan, who was a member of Jane.

Some other books I found really useful for understanding more about the history of reproductive rights in Canada were The Abortion Caravan, by Karin Wells and Catherine Dunphy’s excellent biography of Henry Morgentaler, Morgentaler: A Difficult Hero. In terms of novels, I was really inspired by Annie Ernaux’s L’événement, in which she recounts an illegal abortion she had in the early '60s but also reflects on her urge to write about it, her feeling that if she doesn’t, she would be contributing to the obscuring of this aspect of women’s lived reality. She says at one point that you won’t find any depictions of the abortionist’s workshop in any of the great museums of the world, and so, as if attempting to start filling in that gap, she documents her experience with this kind of remarkable candour. And then, Agnès Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t was another big influence, for all the reasons mentioned above.

More broadly, there were a few books I often dipped back into for inspiration when it came to style or form: The Big Why, by Michael Winter, which is one of my favourite Newfoundland novels, it’s so big and audacious and alive. The stories of Lucia Berlin. N-W by Zadie Smith. Joni Murphy’s Double Teenage.

As for what I’m reading otherwise, this past year I really enjoyed Claudia Dey’s Heartbreaker, Women Talking, by Miriam Toews, Dominoes at the Crossroads, by Kaie Kellough, my friend Daphné B’s Maquillée, which will soon be available in an English translation. And there are a bunch of new books I’m looking forward to reading, including You Are Eating an Orange. You Are Naked, by Sheung-King and Eva Crocker’s All I Ask.

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Learn more about We, Jane:

A remarkable debut about intergenerational female relationships and resistance found in the unlikeliest of places, We, Jane explores the precarity of rural existence and the essential nature of abortion.??

Searching for meaning in her Montreal life, Marthe begins an intense friendship with an older woman, also from Newfoundland, who tells her a story about purpose, about a duty to fulfill. It's back home, and it goes by the name of Jane.??

Marthe travels back to a small community on the island with the older woman to continue the work of an underground movement in 60s Chicago: abortion services performed by women, always referred to as Jane. She commits to learning how to continue this legacy and protect such essential knowledge. But the nobility of her task and the reality of small-town life compete, and personal fractures within their group begin to grow.??

We, Jane probes the importance of care work by women for women, underscores the complexity of relationships in close circles, and beautifully captures the inevitable heartache of understanding home.

April 29, 2021
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