My discovery of the startling book Conception was one of those events that seemed random but actually proved to be a “God thing.” I found it while visiting the library with my sons. I did not even intend to pick up a book for myself, but as I halfheartedly browsed the stacks, there it was. As someone who works to preserve the lives of children, women, and families, I was naturally intrigued by the title. But God knew that more than simple intrigue awaited me inside the covers of this book.
Conception, which comes out in a new paperback edition next month, tells the story of a Black 15-year-old girl living in Chicago who discovers she is pregnant. Her surprise at this turn of events is itself surprising since she knows she is having sex, and she knows she is not using contraception. But her disbelief realistically reflects the experiences of young girls and women who are not taking steps to avoid pregnancy—they’re not abstinent, and they’re not using contraception—but are shocked when they become pregnant. Shivana Montgomery’s pregnancy is complicated because the 40-something married man whose child she is carrying is a neighbor whose children she babysits; and because her mother, who might otherwise be a source of support and counsel, is abusive and unable to effectively bond with Shivana due to regret over her own mistakes. Conception takes the reader through Shivana’s internal turmoil as she tries to decide what to do about her baby.
She wavers between having the baby and aborting it. As she weighs her options, sometimes she sounds very much like a typical 15-year-old would if faced with this situation—selfish, irrational, and scared. And at other times she sounds mature beyond her years. The reader gets a 360-degree view of Shivana through author Kalisha Buckhanon’s powerful statements and imagery that speak to how young Black adults, and those becoming adults too soon, feel about pregnancy, relationships, sex, and themselves. A striking example is Shivana’s account of her visit to a Planned Parenthood-type clinic to get birth control pills before she finds out she’s pregnant. The clinic “counselor,” Rebecca, comes out to stave off a ruckus that’s erupted among the girls because they don’t want to get the Norplant implant for birth control.
“Hold on, everyone,” Rebecca said, with her arms spread out over us and her long, slender white hands sprawled wide to display the ice-blue rock on her wedding finger. “You can always go home and think about this. But keep in mind, there are risks with all contraceptives, even the pill.”
The mention of the counselor’s color, as well as the ring on her finger, speak volumes about Shivana’s impression that maybe this woman doesn’t deserve to judge her, and isn’t qualified to really help her, because she’s white and about to be married. What could she possibly know about Shivana’s world of unattached sex, unreliable men, and abuse? While painful to admit, it is nonetheless true that our young Black people show similar mindsets. For instance, I heard an acquaintance talk about how she tried to discuss the benefits of marriage with her youth Sunday school class. One of the young men spoke up and said, “Marriage is for white people.” Art has truly reflected life here.
In addition to the effective use of dialogue and mental imagery, Buckhanon also employs a unique storytelling device. Part of the narrative comes through the voice of Shivana’s unborn baby who has been conceived by other women, and come close to being born several times, but hasn’t yet lived outside the womb. This child is sad that the other births did not happen, but is hopeful that Shivana will be the one who gives him a chance at life.
Most appealing is the fact that the author resists the temptation to be heavy-handed. It’s clear from the language that this baby thinks and feels, but rather than using this device to manipulate, Buckhanon offers an education about the humanity of unborn children, and leaves the reader to draw her own conclusions and decide for herself what should happen for this child. The juxtaposition of Shivana’s ultimate decision and the effects of that decision provide a poignant ending to this well-written and revealing book.