What was the biggest challenge or surprise you encountered when writing this book?
I set out wanting to take readers on a wonder-filled journey to the center of the female body — a Magic School Bus ride that would enthrall and empower people about their own biology. But I quickly learned that our knowledge about the female body was filled with holes, myths, and misconceptions. So instead, I had to write, in a way, a book about why we don’t know what we don’t know. That turned out to be a much more difficult challenge, but also much more rewarding.
I have seen only rave reviews (no doubt well-deserved!); I wonder if you have faced any pushback or criticism from any groups or regions, given the rise of banned books, the cultural divide in this country…and how you can respond to a parent or group uncomfortable with this subject?
There is always criticism! Initially, I got a few critical reviews out of the UK pushing back my decision to dedicate the last chapter of the book to the history of gender affirmation surgery. To me, this chapter is central to what the book is about: it reveals better than any other how medicine’s assumptions about gender and enforced ideals about the female body harm anyone who falls outside that standard, including intersex people, nonbinary people, and trans men and women. It shows how medicine has often historically been a force for gatekeeping womanhood, in ways that have harmed all of us.
A few comments also accused me of bringing feminist bias to the topic, particularly in the sections where I point out the deep similarities between all bodies and challenge the idea that male and female are opposite sides of a spectrum. I found that a bit ironic, because the book points out how so much scientific knowledge that has been considered objective and neutral has, in fact, been tinged with masculine and racial bias. I’m a science journalist, and my conclusions come from emerging science showing that similar processes of regeneration happen in male and female bodies; that our reproductive systems stem from the exact same structures in the womb; and that we all rely on the same hormones to power our brains and bodies.
Medicine has a particularly entrenched culture; in some ways, the process of going through medical school means absorbing the values of that culture and learning to look at patients and their bodies in one way. Because of that, you can be a woman and still ultimately become a doctor or researcher with the same, let’s just say masculinist, view. So I think it’s going to take researchers who are willing to challenge the actual paradigm of medicine, its paternalistic history, its historic devaluing of female pain, and the way it often decenters patients as experts on their own bodies. And that needs to be a concerted movement of patient advocates, doctors, and the public, not just a few individuals.
In places you invite your reader into the narrative, to imagine their body, their legs, and their vaginas. Can you talk about choosing to invoke your readers as people with vaginas?
In the past, when I read books and articles about this topic, I often had the sense that I was not the intended audience. Even if I was reading a women’s magazine, the “sex tips” and sexuality articles were always about some assumed, heterosexual male partner and his pleasure. My goal was to write the book I wished I had when I was younger and beginning to explore my body and my sexuality. And that meant writing for those who actually have this anatomy, and deal with the lived experience of having society often treat their bodies as shameful, broken, or as “medical mysteries.” It also meant invoking a sense of wonder and curiosity about the female body, which I felt was lacking. My intention was never to alienate readers who don’t have this anatomy, but to provide an alternative — I would say necessary — view of the female body as something resilient, dynamic, and powerful.
Were you surprised by how much the book seemed to strike a chord with readers?
I began writing this book at a time when reproductive rights were under siege and “fetal heartbeat” laws were sweeping the nation; I finished it shortly before the Dobbs decision. I think given this context, it was pretty clear why a book about the ways medicine has misunderstood and underestimated the female body was important. I looked to history to show how medicine viewed the female body as primarily a reproductive vessel, ignoring the ways in which these organs are also critical to our sexuality, immune system, and overall health. As it turns out, these are some of the same truths that are being overlooked today. So the book turned out to be unexpectedly timely, or untimely, depending on how you look at it.
Any future books in the works?
I’m honestly not quite ready to embark on the next book! But I am continuing to look at hidden biases within medicine, a theme that emerged from this book. I recently started a column for the New York Times‘ science section called “Body Language,” which looks at the origins and consequences of some of the more striking medical language doctors use, from “incompetent cervix” to diseases named after Nazi doctors. I’m really interested in the doctor-patient relationship and how it’s changing, and language is one way into that important question.
What do you like to read for pleasure?
I love fiction, and feel I learn so much about narrative structure and the art of evoking character by reading it. Most recently I read Holding Pattern, a punchy little novel about a second generation Chinese immigrant who pursues a PhD in the haptics of touch, but ends up becoming a professional cuddler. I also love sci fi and speculative fiction; I just blew through Mother Night, a World War II book about an American spy who “plays” a Nazi propagandist and finds the lines between his two identities blurring, by Hoosier Kurt Vonnegut.
Cynthia Mosca is author of Letters from a Wondrous Empire: An Epistolary Memoir, chronicling her time teaching school in Ethiopia with the Peace Corps from 1967-69, based on letters she wrote to her family back home. This (then) single woman in her 20s from Wisconsin fell in love with Ethiopia, and remains so today!
Save the date: We're hosting a talk with Cynthia on Tue, Sep 26th.
(Mitch) What compelled you to write this book?
(Cynthia) COVID. You know, I had started cleaning things out and ran across all these letters I had written from Ethiopia that my mother and my aunt had saved. I thought, "Maybe I should read these, it’ll be a trip down memory lane." And it was. Except there were parts I had no recollection of. So I got in touch with other people from Ethiopia I'd lost touch with over the years. I was in a writing group. And it just became this project.
Which writing group were you in?
I was in a writing group at the Unitarian Church with John Woodcock. I told them I would read these letters and respond to them. They encouraged me. So I started doing it, and it became more and more involved.
How did you find a publisher?
There's a group called the Peace Corps writers imprint. I submitted the book to them, and they accepted it!
How did you connect to Morgenstern's?
Not long after Morgenstern's opened, The Herald Times did a really big article about me and the book. I was out of town, but my partner Dennis dropped off a copy of the article and the book at the bookstore. I don't think you were doing events in-store at first. It took a while, but here we are!
Let's rewind a bit: What did you do after the Peace Corps?
I moved to Chicago, got married, and raised my kids there. I continued teaching. I taught various subjects including art and English as a second language, also became the director of a bilingual program in a K-8 school district.
What brought you to Bloomington?
When My partner Dennis and I retired, he decided he couldn't handle the traffic in Chicago anymore. So we looked around. We had a friend who lived in Bloomington who thought we'd really like it. So we drove into Bloomington. We drove past Baker's Junction, and then the Tibetan Cultural Center. and I was like, "Oh, my God, I love this place, I'll fit right in."
And you are still very involved with Ethiopia?
Yes! I'm President of the Ethiopia & Eritrea Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. I'll be donating royalties from the book to Save the Children, The International Rescue Committee, and Doctors Without Borders through Peace Corps volunteers in Ethiopia and Eritrea.
We're also starting a new relief project through Save the Children for nine schools and two health clinics that were really affected by the civil conflict. I also support another organization called Selamta, which provides family homes for Ethiopian orphans.
That's amazing. I wouldn't be able to keep up with you (laughs). And I look forward to speaking with you more on September 26th!
OK, The actual 1
1. Walk in the back door, bag still on shoulder, keys and coffee still in hand, and am immediately sidetracked seeing all the super cool books we received the previous day. Hmmm. I don’t remember ordering that one. That means Harry must have bought it. I always blame Harry for the weird titles I see but in reality, half the time it is me. Book buying is my favorite thing in the world. Well, almost.
2. With bag STILL on shoulder, keys and coffee STILL in hand, I say hello to the receiving team, Jack and Ryann….we get lost in mindless conversation about things like "why isn’t there a book that____" or ‘wouldn’t it be funny if____ ." It always ends up awkward and no great way to back out of the conversation. Probably one of my favorite parts of the day. We are all awkward.
3. Get to my office, fire up the laptop and cautiously glance at my email inbox. I left the previous day with 5 emails, today there are 93…..tears.
4. I procrastinate reading said 93 emails, wait the allotted 45 minutes (exaggeration) for my office lights to come on and walk the sales floor. I pass by all the tables full magic (books) and am reminded of all the books on my TBR list. Mentally I take note of which one I will purchase today, tomorrow, and the next day. I spend more than I make….
5. While greeting all my fellow book nerds who showed up for the morning shift I glance toward the cafe, trying not to feel the pull it has on me…..No, I do not need a Matcha. No, I do not need a matcha…No, I do not…I’ll take a 20 oz Matcha, ’Jenna Style.’ (I am not pretentious, the baristas have named the drink.) You will have to come in and order it yourself to know what ‘Jenna Style’ is. Delicious. Our baristas are better than yours.
6. Face the rest of the day saying things like "Helmut, apologize" ... "‘No, we can NOT put that on social media" ... "Harry, your shirt is wrinkled" ... "Matthew, I can hear your laugh all the way in the back room!, and lastly, "Scatter" (Morgenstern's defines scatter as "stop congregating")
Wait, did I eat lunch today?
Todd is here for coffee… look busy.(Todd is an owner)
Before I know it, I have cleaned up the accident in the bathroom, found the children’s book that was hiding in Science, gently asked the customer that fell asleep in the chair if they are ok, and my favorite, rebooting the computers ……because the internet went down…. Again.
I love every aspect of my job, even the gross, irritating, and annoying moments. You see, at the store, we all are in this together; we want the same things. We work together to make the store better than the previous day. Running a bookstore is a labor of love. No one gets into the book business to make money or have banker’s hours, but I have the coolest job in the world and I wouldn't trade what I am doing for anything…..well, I guess there are SOME things I’d trade my job for. That will have to wait for another time.
Find your books here, buy your books here, keep your bookstore here
Monrovia High School purchases 520 copies of Michael Koryta's "Those Who Wish Me Dead" from Morgenstern's
Monrovia is a town in Morgan County, IN, about 30 miles north of Bloomington, with a population of just over a thousand. So we were surprised — but delighted — when Julie Dimmack reached out to us to order 520 copies of a book by Bloomington-based author Michael Koryta. Which were personally delivered by founder Rick Morgenstern. Mitch Teplitsky spoke with Julie to learn how this came about:
What's your position at the school?
I am an English teacher and the department chair of Monrovia High School. This is my 20th year.
Tell me about buying 520 copies of a single book!
We are launching our annual community book club, One Town, One Book. We received grant money through The Community Foundation of Morgan County's new Thrive Grant. They matched the money we received from the Morgan County Coalition for Literacy, Morgan County Public Library, Monrovia HS and Tri Kappa of Morgan County. Every household linked to our school receives a copy: students, teachers, aids, administrators, bus drivers, cafeteria ladies, custodians, security officers.
How did you choose Michael Koryta's book?
Two important parts of our grant are choosing a high interest novel by an Indiana author and purchasing through a local independent bookseller. We thought that the boy in Those Who Wish Me Dead and his survival skills would be interesting to our students and community.
How did you connect with Morgenstern's?
There are not too many independent booksellers in the area. When we knew Koryta was our author, we chose the bookseller in his town. We knew about you because most of our teacher/librarian crew have spent time in Bloomington.
What was your experience working with us? (you can be honest:)
We had a great experience with efficient service and thorough communication with you guys.
Gloria Howell is the Director of the Neal-Marshall Black Cultural Center.
From Mississippi to Indiana
I grew up in a very small town called New Albany, Mississippi. I came to IU in 2013 to work on my PhD in Higher Ed. I finished that, and I'm still here.
Education is Freedom. Especially the Arts.
I'm really passionate about education. For me, education is freedom. I think education can free us. And not just traditional forms of education. My dissertation and research are on the arts. I think the arts are one of the few things everybody can get. Maybe not from a talent perspective, but something everybody can learn from and grow from. I think everybody should have access to the arts, no matter what their resources.
Telling Black Stories
The Neal-Marshall Black Cultural Center is one of the oldest black culture centers in the country. In 2019-20, we celebrated our 50th year anniversary. We focused a lot of attention that year on honoring our ancestors, the people who made things possible at IU for black students, faculty and staff.
When I became the director in 2020, I wanted us to continue to have a thematic focus for our programming. And so I thought, let's have a theme of black stories, to tell the stories of those who came before us. This year's Black History Month theme is "The Show Goes On. From gospel to blues to rap, dance to poetry to literature, to photography and visual arts - we can find stories of the journey to freedom, civil rights, and equity.
Her claim to fame
"The Glow" is my claim to fame, at Crumble. It's a white chocolate and macadamia nut latte. I used to go there all the time when I was a student, and ordered that drink. They finally named it after me.