In the remarkable collection of short stories, Hello. This is Jane., Judith Arcana paints the struggle for reproductive justice for women from long before the historic Roe v. Wade ruling that protected a woman’s liberty to choose to have an abortion. These stories are simultaneously memory and hope, and bring together experience and fiction to, in Leni Zumas’s words, “spark action in our terrifying present.”
Judith Arcana has been writing about reproductive justice and motherhood quite fiercely since the late 1990s, and has been a popular figure in this space for decades–both as a Jane in the pre-Roe v. Wade time, and also as a writer and a longtime teacher of literature, writing and women’s studies.
Judith’s poems, stories, and essays have been published widely on paper and online in literary journals; political, cultural, and medical magazines; newspapers; academic journals; anthologies; and textbooks. She’s also a skilled performer/presenter who has worked with audiences in the US, Britain, and Canada, often visiting campus and community groups to talk about reproductive justice and perform her powerful writing. She is in some documentary films, including the 1995 Jane: An Abortion Service (dir. Kate Kirtz/Nell Lundy), 2014’s She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (dir. Mary Dore), and 2019’s OUR BODIES OUR DOCTORS (dir. Jan Haaken).
This book oscillates between the past and the present almost alternatively through each of the stories. They are directly informed by Judith Arcana’s experience as a Jane in the ‘70s. The Janes were a group of people running an underground abortion service in Chicago before the procedure was legalised in 1973. However, these stories are more than just a lesson in history–the fiction dives deep into the atmosphere of dialogues on reproductive justice over the years from when it was denied to the present when it is still looked down upon.
It carefully explores not just the Janes’ lives, but also peeks into the lives of women who wanted/underwent abortions. In thorough detail, it articulates the emotions and dilemmas of women as they fought to gain the right to their bodies and the decision of becoming mothers, which was then legally denied to them. It also steps into the future, and looks back at the memory, and tries to understand what has changed.
The form of these stories are interesting: “Men of God in the 21st Century,” “Denah & the Strawberry, Talking”, “Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture” and “Keesha and Joanie and JANE” are written in the form of dialogue; “Betsy Is Interviewed for Tattoo Queen’s Website Biography Series” is in the first person; and “Answering the Question,” “Hello. This Is Jane.,” “Knocking” and “Monumental” follow a close third-person narrator with hints of dialogue in between.
These varied forms come together to narrate a story of struggle, which is what makes this political. What Arcana does, through Hello. This is Jane., is that she takes the liberty to narrate stories of her own body, a liberty that was denied to her in the 70’s. Using a form that follows the various women in her stories closely and allows the reader to interact with them and understand them, is doing exactly the opposite of what the Janes were doing running secret abortion clinics. Through this, she is making the story of a revolution-—one that many, even today, disapprove of—accessible to those who silently struggle. Her text, therefore, becomes a voice not just to the history of a landmark movement, but also to those who still don’t have a voice and are denied reproductive justice.
Hello. This is Jane., however, does more than just the formulaic feminist text. It serves a dual purpose: one, it is a reminder and (to use a millennial term) a throwback to ideas of feminism when women’s rights were largely still restrictive; two, it also offers a lesson to the feminism of today that is increasingly becoming exclusionary and elitist. Arcana’s anthology is a stunning overview into the work done by the Janes made sure how reproductive rights were available to those who couldn’t afford it, irrespective of class and sexuality. The text shows how some of the Janes themselves were from the middle class, which helped them create an inclusive space for women from all spaces. This becomes a major learning for ‘feminists’ who are selective about their ideas of equality and definitions of what constitutes a woman, and for instance, conveniently exclude trans-women from their spaces.
This text is also an inspiration for those who feel restricted by the advent of the pandemic. Like I pointed out before, there is immense detail in some of the stories. This is particularly true of the title story “Hello. This is Jane.” that takes us through the day of a Jane’s life, and “Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture,” narrated by Denah, that describe the events that happened after the Janes were arrested on multiple felony charges. These stories display the sheer determination that the women had to run something for years until they were arrested, and stayed strong even after the arrest. For those feeling restricted by the pandemic, this book could perhaps be the motivation to do something despite the shackles on their feet. It could also perhaps be an escape into a world that one can access only through such archives. Hello. This is Jane. is, therefore, a must-read, especially those who are looking for stories that both teach and inspire.
Gokul Prabhu is a graduate of Ashoka University, India, with a Postgraduate Diploma in English and creative writing. He works as an administrator and teaching assistant for the Writing and Communication facility at 9dot9 Education, and assists in academic planning for communication, writing and critical thinking courses across several higher-ed institutes in India. Prabhu’s creative and academic work fluctuates between themes of sexuality and silence, and he hopes to be a healthy mix of writer, educator and journalist in the future. He occasionally scribbles book reviews and interviews authors for Scroll.in, an award-winning Indian digital news publication.