"Could a body belong to anyone, including oneself?"
Meng Jin's Self-Portrait with Ghost and bodily autonomy
[Dear readers: Please note that this issue contains discussions of reproductive justice and surveillance.]
In Meng Jin’s Self-Portrait with Ghost (Mariner Books, 2022), women are the focus. As the author does in Little Gods, she pays no attention to westernized bounds of reality, rather bending, building, and bearing science to emphasize the impact of everything from technology to art to the pandemic to colonization to white supremacy to politics on bodily autonomy. For a story collection written during the Trump administration and the COVID-19 pandemic, the approach is not just timely, but impactful, laying the structural issues of our society starkly bare.
“There were three women I remember—three girls. Though they appeared like women to me, like they were—complete,” the narrator of “Three Women” starts (Meng Jin, 55). Despite the characters being girls, the protagonist of the story cannot see them as anything other than women. And why? Is it because they are forced to grow up too early? To undertake burdens forced onto them, despite having no say in the matter, whether they pertain to bodily autonomy, careers, etc.? “Three Women” feels aptly named, suggesting the ways in which society places excessive burdens on young girls—particularly girls of color—to assume responsibilities and identities of those much older.
But beyond that, the story poses the question of what makes an individual “complete.” “When people said, ‘Her body did not belong to her,’ I filled my eyes with sorrow because my mind determined I should. I didn’t really know what they meant. Could a body belong to anyone, including oneself?” (62). One night at a party, the narrator watches a couple make their way to a room. “His room, I knew, because not a week later I made my way there too, certain that this was where I would find my body, find her and take possession over her, so that one day a person might look at me and say, ‘She belonged to herself, and no one else’” (65).
This premise of women and girls being considered incomplete haunts the entire collection. But in many ways, the completion increases as the story progresses. The final story in the collection, “The Odd Women,” pairs perfectly with “Three Women,” its use of science fiction heightening this discussion. One of the women can teleport, never really in one place fully; the second is split into many selves that embody single emotions or personas; and the third does not possess a true self—only appearing however another person wants them to appear. Yet each of the women are tired of being anyone but their true selves: “For as long as she’d existed Ursula had wondered who she was exactly…now she was realizing. She was the one who would do anything to survive” (201). And Vadana: “She filed off the train with the rest of the passengers onto a waiting bus, and rode it to wherever it was going” (198). And then Octavia: “Perhaps—perhaps, like her visitor, the world was only revealing a secret of her nature, her hidden alien sky, indifferent to the dramas of the self, and you were to meet her with love, not fear” (207).
In a collection of stories that emphasize ownership of self (or the lack of), especially in a post Roe v Wade America, Meng Jin’s Self-Portrait with Ghost becomes all the more pertinent. In the twenty-first century, an era of tech and surveillance, what does it mean to be oneself? How do we determine who we are when everyone has opinions of who we should be? When society structurally and systemically oppresses and upholds barriers to prevent people from being so? The story collection does not answer these questions, nor fully attempts to; yet it provides a deeply recognizable tale, one that readers will identify not as a work of science fiction, despite its use of such elements, rather as one of truth.
The state of tech surveillance and securing privacy
In past newsletters, we’ve detailed the importance of continuing to fight for reproductive justice. If you haven’t yet, be sure to register to vote and then vote in the upcoming midterms to help protect the right to reproductive justice. To learn which candidates on your ballot will fight for these rights, visit VoteProChoice.us, and take a look at the Feminist’s action toolkit. Today, we want to focus on surveillance and bodily autonomy.
If you or someone you know is seeking an abortion clinic, check out this post detailing Google’s history of promoting fake clinics and how to find secure ones instead.
You can also visit the National Network of Abortion Funds to find a clinic near you.
With many new laws being put in place across the country (and potentially more to come), take time to understand how your data might be used.
This post details a recent case in which Meta shared private messages with police, criminalizing a mother and daughter discussing abortion medication.
Learn more about how tracking apps—and any app—can be used in a post Roe vs. Wade world.
When people said, ‘Her body did not belong to her,’ I filled my eyes with sorrow because my mind determined I should. I didn’t really know what they meant. Could a body belong to anyone, including oneself?
—Self-Portrait with Ghost, p62
Others’ thoughts on Self-Portrait
Take a look at these additional reflections on author Meng Jin’s writing:
“Jin curates an image of humanity that is anxious and lost, but bonded in its quest for redemption.” —Brittany of @ScienceOwlReads
For Little Gods: “A soulbaring exploration of how we construct and reconstruct the self in the face of institutional violence, exploitative governments, and destructive nations.” (Words by Alejandro of @Alejandro.Reads.)
If you liked Self-Portrait, read…
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Until then, we hope you find a book that brings you peace.
Olivia and Fiona