Every Friday I will be recommending a work of fiction or non-fiction written by a woman who has influenced and shaped my intersectional feminist perspective, with special emphasis on women of colour, women in translation, LGBTQIA women and women of different religions.
In recognition of the momentous abortion referendum in Ireland today over the Eighth Amendment I tried racking my brains for books of fiction I had read where abortion was treated in a sensitive and humanising way. The conclusion I came to was that I had, in fact, not read that many and I should try to rectify that soon (any suggestions would be more than welcome). One book I have read recently, though, that touched on abortion was Zadie Smith’s 2012 novel, NW. Following the lives of two women as they navigate adulthood in the north-west suburbs of London, Smith experiments with form whilst accurately depicting the urban environment in which Leah and Natalie (formerly known as Keisha) live.
Though there is much more to expand on in this novel, I just want to zone in on Leah. Daughter of an Irish immigrant mother and English father and brought up on an estate in Willesden, Leah now lives a stones-throw away from her childhood home in a comfortable bottom flat with a garden. From her place – which she shares with her husband, Michel, a French Algerian, and their dog – Leah can see the estate she used to live in from her kitchen window, yet to go back there isn’t just a simple walk across the road, it’s an irreconcilable journey through time.
In the opening scene of the novel, Leah gullibly falls for a scam as a visibly distressed woman comes knocking on her door desperate for some taxi money to see her mum in the hospital. This is the first woman she tells about her pregnancy, having just found out that morning. As we gather more information, we learn that she has had previous abortions before and that her husband sees it as his destiny to have a family. However, Leah’s own thoughts on the matter are in stark contrast to his. She has no desire to be a mother: doesn’t see it as her destiny nor her duty as a woman.
Although not a focal point of NW as a whole, Smith subtly touches on those women most taboo in society – those who don’t want to become mothers. Treated safely and efficiently, Leah is able to live the life of her own choosing and this is something many of us in the UK, who have had the right to abortion since 1967, may take for granted. However, as the courageous and tireless campaigners for ‘Repeal the 8th’ and ‘Vote Yes’ have highlighted, this has not been the case for thousands upon thousands of Irish women who have risked their own health and wellbeing by either going through with unwanted pregnancies, travelling to the UK for an abortion or finding illegal and dangerous methods of terminating a pregnancy. Whatever a woman’s circumstances or decisions, they should have the basic human right of control and autonomy over their own bodies. Hopefully one of the most restrictive abortion regimes in the world will finally be propelled into the twenty-first century.
Zadie Smith is a contemporary British writer of novels, essays and short-stories. She published her first ever novel, White Teeth, when she was just 25 years old to critical acclaim. Since then she has won numerous awards for her novels, such as the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Guardian First Book Award and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. Her latest collection of essays, Feel Free, was published earlier this year.