Literature for a Post-Roe World

Fiction and poetry can help us grapple with our fears for the future—and remind us what we stand to lose in the present: Your weekly guide to the best in books

An illustration of a woman's silhouette against a red background, with text pasted across her eyes
The Atlantic; Getty

Dystopian novels, even when their plots seem fantastical, simulate a deeply human experience: the feeling of being at the mercy of your circumstances, your personal control slipping away. When the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade on Friday, I itched to dive into some speculative fiction, to find my grief and anger reflected in a setting both horrifying and familiar.

Margaret Atwood exemplified dystopia with her 1985 book, The Handmaid’s Tale, in which a theocratic dictatorship bars women from reading, writing, or controlling their own reproduction. But more recent novels have reflected similar fears. In 2018, our staff writer Sophie Gilbert noted the rise of “feminist dystopia” set in worlds where reproductive rights are demolished. In Bina Shah’s Before She Sleeps, for instance, women who have survived a deadly strain of HPV are forced to have children with multiple husbands; in Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God, pregnant women are taken into government custody.

Through the distance of an imagined world, we can grapple with very real anxieties. Recently, though, the gap between dystopian plots and actual life feels like it’s shrinking. When Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, she worried that it was too far-fetched—but when Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization surfaced, she felt like her work was coming true. And according to Mary Ziegler, the author of After Roe, Dobbs could signal that the Supreme Court’s guardrails are off—that no losses are unimaginable. “No one should get used to their rights,” she wrote. “Rights can vanish.”

But works of fiction and poetry don’t just remind us what we can lose. They also remind us of all we have to lose—why the stakes feel so high. In “Considering Roe v. Wade, Letters to the Black Body,” the poet Tiana Clark considers America’s long history of violent control over Black women and their bodies. But she also celebrates her own. “Dear Black Body That I Adore,” she writes. “Dear Black Body / That I Now Listen to Shimmering with Acute Tenderness.”

Literature helps us salvage some tenderness, if only by reminding us that we’re not alone in our fear. The poet Dana Levin captured this truth when she compiled a cento—a poem consisting of lines from other poets, in chorus. It begins: “I hold my grief like two limp tulips.” But it becomes a call for care and collective action.“What hurts? / What hurts? / How can I help from here?

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading

a collage of women, an ultrasound image, a lightning bolt coming from a pointed finger, and paint splatters

Lizzie Gill

The remarkable rise of the feminist dystopia
“Over the last couple of years … fiction’s dystopias have changed. They’re largely written by, and concerned with, women. They imagine worlds ravaged by climate change, worlds in which humanity’s progress unravels. Most significantly, they consider reproduction, and what happens when societies try to legislate it.”

An illustration of a handmaid's silhouette against a gray background

Adam Maida / The Atlantic

I invented Gilead. The Supreme Court is making it real.

“Although I eventually completed this novel and called it The Handmaid’s Tale, I stopped writing it several times, because I considered it too far-fetched. Silly me. Theocratic dictatorships do not lie only in the distant past: There are a number of them on the planet today. What is to prevent the United States from becoming one of them?”

A collage of images of anguished faces against a background image of the Supreme Court building

The Atlantic; Getty

If the Supreme Court can reverse Roe, it can reverse anything

“If this decision signals anything bigger than its direct consequences, it is this: No one should get used to their rights. Predicting with certainty which ones, if any, will go, or when, is impossible. But Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization is a stark reminder that this can happen. Rights can vanish.”

A photograph of someone's face in profile, in black and white, looking off into the distance

Colby Deal / Magnum

“Considering Roe v. Wade, Letters to the Black Body”

“Dear Highest Price, Dear Bear the Brunt & Double / Blow, Dear HeLa Cells Still Doubling, Dear / Disproportionately Impacted … Dear Black Body /
That I Now Listen to Shimmering with Acute Tenderness.”

A collage of slips of paper with lines from the poem printed on them. At the center is one that reads "This is my body. This is my body."

Katie Martin / The Atlantic

“Without Choice”

“Soon enough, the whole small / city of my being will demolish— / Without choice, no politics, / no ethics lives.”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Faith Hill. The book she’s reading next is Lighting the Shadow, by Rachel Eliza Griffiths.

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