I retired from front-line birth activism in 2009. My final protest was the big one, on the lawn at Parliament House, with hundreds of other women, men, children and babies who had travelled from across the country. The historic movement of women and babies caused havoc for airlines (and gave my first, and only to date, by-line in a major newspaper).
I walked away with a commitment to pursue the aspirations of birth reform through fiction. It was many years later that Tom Dullemond, half-jokingly, coined the term "birthpunk" to explain what I was writing. Birthpunk is a perfect encapsulation of my desire to agitate for change by inserting birth into a genre which historically (with a few notable exceptions) has steered clear of anything related to pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding.
In the space that followed the triumphant completion of the second draft (I had been chipping away at it for almost five years) I began to consider the cover and it's no surprise that Moore's Vanity Fair cover (which inspired an entire generation of nude and semi-nude pregnancy photographs) returned as an influencing. From the outset, I was clear that there would be a pregnant woman on the front cover--how better to articulate birthpunk?
I'm no stranger to controversial covers (and perhaps that's why I was originally drawn to the story of Moore's Vanity Fair cover). My first cover for Down to Birth in 2005 invoked a shit storm of epic proportions and almost had me removed as the magazine's editor. I think part of me was truly naive to the impact of putting an image of a breech birth on the cover of a magazine (grassroots or otherwise) and the other part was completely invested in saying: this is what a breech birth is.
Several years later, it was a photo of my partner's head rested against my prodigious 38-week belly on the front cover. I was criticised for de-individuating myself, in choosing an image that didn't show my face. But that was the point; the issue explored men's relationship and experience of of pregnancy and birth.
These experiences taught me that like Moore's Vanity Fair cover, evocative and subversive images have the power to incite fierce conversations which shake loose paradigms in desperate need of rethinking and redefining.
The incendiary breech cover is still remembered and appreciated by the people who had a positive world shift because of it. Those who were appalled, outraged and vehemently objected to (for whatever reason and there were many) have long since forgotten it and their indignation and disapproval are ashes blown into the antiquity of time.
So as I prepared the cover and embarked on final edits, I knew I was courting all kinds of criticism, but thanks to the trail Moore blazed in the 90's and the manner in which pregnancy photography has since been mainstreamed, I didn't think it would come with the cover. I was actually afraid of criticism regarding the content, from people upset with what I did or didn't write about, or how I did or didn't present the birth scenes. I anticipated storms, not censorship.
Censorship found me with the soft launch of the cover concept (not too ironically) in August, with Facebook embargoing the post because it breached their community standards. I was appalled that it would consider a artfully rendered nude, pregnant figure pornographic. And because I had not idea how the whole digital wrist-slap worked, I attempted to post it elsewhere and end up in FB jail, only for it to be reviewed and an apology supplied. I wasn't so lucky with further breaches, where the same image was consider unacceptable. I learned the difference between the image being okay and not okay was simply where it was uploaded from--from my laptop got it flagged; from my phone, nothing happened. Someone pointed out that the outtie belly button gave the belly the shape of a breast and this was probably what the algorithms were picking up--that doesn't account for an actual human reviewing a post deciding it was pornography thought, on subsequent "breaches".
In some ways, the illness that preventing me from really hustling Her First Reality, Darkness out into the world in December, relieved me of all the fears I had about people taking umbrage with what I created. The thing with disapproval though, it doesn't have a shelf life.
I came up against a different kind of prejudice and warped thinking when I did ad school in the middle of this year; ran into it face-first. When there seemed to be nothing I could do to make my ads move, I shared my over mine in the group as one of the suggestions is to consider the fit of your cover.
My cover was immediately shot down because it didn't look like any of the other covers in my genre (well no, but who else is writing birthpunk? And no, it doesn't sit nicely in science fiction, thriller or even dystopia--that was actually the point of writing it.)
When I looked at novels dealing with similar subject matter, but in different genres (Midwives, Chris Bohjalian; The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, Meg Elison) it became readily apparent that novels specifically about childbirth didn't have anything related to reproduction on the cover; both these covers are simple natural landscapes. An early cover of Ami McKay's The Birth House has a pregnant woman on the cover, but has been superseded by different covers for later editions. Even the covers of The Handmaid's Tale shies away from the pregnant form, preferring the infamous blinders instead. I could find one 1998 edition from Anchor with an ambiguously illustrated cover of a handmaid--every time I look at it I'm torn as to whether this is actually a pregnant woman though? ( I did however find some beautiful artwork from The Handmaid's Tale on this list of novels portraying childbirth which is NOT ambiguous!!
The pregnant form once conveyed a certain message in public spaces. It now communicates a certain message on a book cover as I discovered from the ad group. If you put a pregnant woman on the cover of a novel, you throw a spanner into the works, because the pregnant form is an eponymous archetype of self-help or non-fiction books for women who are expecting. And yes, I was actually asked by one person what my novel was about. Another said she assumed it was a pregnancy self-help book.
It turns out to be difficult to subvert or reset the mainstream mindset, even when you do concept art with the orange and black colour palette of Blade Runner. Perhaps our cultural schemas of the pregnant body position it such an intractable way, it is too much of a leap from the norm to consider a different meaning of the pregnant form on a book cover, so no one in publishing does it. Or does it briefly only to discover it is a disaster.
But if you conform then nothing changes? If publishers only ever put a pregnant form on a non-fiction book, then it remains the only place a pregnant form can go--further ostracising pregnancy and birth to fiction's margins.
I am proud of the cover of Her First Reality, Darkness's and its attempt to articulate a fictional story of a speculative nature with birth at the centre of it. It's not quite right yet (my skills are not there to merge the pregnant body with the body of The City), but it is right enough to hold its own, with just hopefully enough of that surprise, shock and instant connectivity art director George Lois spoke of. Like Moore's cover, it would be brilliant if one day Her First Reality, Darkness has its own little iconic spot in history. Even if that is just within the tracts of my own memory and the small dedicated band of readers who continue to champion it.