Using Literature to Unlock Stories of the Unseen

In the hands of Matty Hemming, GR’24, early 20th-century novels become roadmaps to the politics and norms of their authors’ time.

Matty Hemming, GR’24, had always been bothered by the way people talked about the ending of the novel Quicksand. Written in 1928 by Nella Larsen—author of the 1929 novel Passing, on which Netflix’s 2021 movie is based—the book follows a biracial Black woman named Helga as she searches for community, feeling dejected by each one she temporarily joins: a prestigious Black school in the South, the intellectual crowd in Harlem, her white family members’ home in Denmark.

Matty Hemming, GR24

Matty Hemming, GR’24, recently earned her doctorate from the Department of English. Her work investigates the ways that social differences such as race, class, and sexuality shape how people receive reproductive care—and how they get to tell their stories. (Image: Courtesy Matty Hemming)

Eventually, Helga sinks into marriage and motherhood, debating yet another getaway when she finds herself pregnant with her fifth child. Critics have, for decades, debated Larsen’s choice to leave Helga and her readers in this trap, Hemming says. But as Hemming pored over the book as part of her doctoral research, she found herself drawn to what Helga’s story can teach today’s readers about the nature of reproductive healthcare in the 1920s.

Larsen, Hemming points out, trained and worked as a nurse before writing Quicksand. The school that disappointed Helga, for example, was a clear dig at the Tuskegee Institute, where Larsen worked as head nurse.

“She knew things about Black women’s experiences with healthcare in the South,” Hemming says. “She wasn’t just writing this plot point as a way to end the novel.”

Hemming’s reading of Quicksand changed the course of her doctoral studies and her future career. In May, Hemming successfully earned her doctorate. Her thesis, “Refusing Motherhood: Race, Class, and the Literary History of Reproductive Healthcare,” examines how the writings of Larsen, Jean Rhys, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, and Toni Morrison serve not just as literary texts, but as historical documentation of the past.

The thesis work is part of Hemming’s broader investigation into the ways that social differences such as race, class, and sexuality shape how people receive reproductive care—and how they get to tell their stories. In both literature and politics, a young, unmarried person’s pregnancy might be depicted very differently from one of a more wealthy, married woman, Hemming says. Soon, Hemming will start a position as the Janice G. Doty Lecturer in the Medical Humanities at Rice University, where she will teach classes in the cultural history of healthcare and extend her dissertation research into a book.

I want to understand the specific discourses and practices and policies that these authors were engaging with, critiquing, exposing.

“I want to understand the specific discourses and practices and policies that these authors were engaging with, critiquing, exposing,” Hemming says. The insights found in these novels, she adds, “are just not available in other kinds of historical sources, because what they were writing about was so taboo.”

Uncovering Subtext

Hemming, who is from the United Kingdom, started her academic career as an English major at Goldsmiths, University of London, where she received her bachelor’s degree in 2014. In 2017, she earned a two-year research master’s in cultural analysis at the University of Amsterdam. Though her program focused exclusively on cultural theory, one class in particular reshaped Hemming’s view of the goals of scholarly work. Students in the class learned from both professors and members of a local disability justice organization. These were people who could bring the theory on the written page directly into the real world.

“It was a really exciting class for thinking about how theory and scholarship and culture interact with real material needs,” Hemming says.

After her master’s degree, Hemming decided to pursue a doctorate in English at Penn, enticed, in part, by the breadth of courses students take before launching into their final projects. She was particularly drawn to the work of Professor of English Heather Love, which challenged many assumptions in the field of queer studies, Hemming says. In her first year at Penn, she learned to deconstruct recent feminist literature in a course called Feminist Theory Now, taught by Melissa Sanchez, Donald T. Regan Professor of English, who would become Hemming’s thesis adviser.

In 2022, Hemming taught the undergraduate course Intro to Queer Studies, one of the core classes for the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies program. She pushed her students to think critically about the texts that tell the history of queer liberation movements—including the people the texts leave out and the ways race and class inform which texts become canonized. She wanted to “invite them to think capaciously about what ‘counts’ as part of queer history,” she says.

Hemming’s initial research focus centered on the ways pregnancy and biological reproduction are imagined within queer theory, especially in regard to people of color. She selected texts central to queer and feminist theory. But as she read more closely, she realized that fiction authors were—intentionally or otherwise—revealing truths about the history of reproductive healthcare through the lives and challenges of their characters.

“They’re really speaking to policies, practices, cultural discourses of their own particular historical moment in a way that challenges the ways in which pregnancy was being politicized.

The novelist Jean Rhys, for example—who spent her childhood in the Caribbean nation Dominica and moved to England as a teenager—wrote story lines that included the protagonist having an abortion. Those characters’ experiences often do not align with contemporary accounts of abortion politics, Hemming says, and feature characters who were low-income.

Like Quicksand, Rhys’ novels were fictions that revealed truths about the author’s reality. Some of Rhys’ characters also came from a Caribbean background and faced a kind of racism that saw them as “insufficiently English.” Rhys herself had a near-fatal abortion in London in 1913, at the age of 23.

Historical Literature in Modern Context

Hemming is keenly aware that the overturning of Roe v. Wade in 2022 makes her work seem exceedingly relevant. But, she says, activists have suspected the case would be overturned since the day it passed. In fact, in 1977, just four years after Roe’s passing, the Hyde Amendment significantly weakened it by prohibiting the use of federal funding for abortion, essentially making it illegal for anyone who uses public insurance.

Still, the Supreme Court’s decision has generated an enormous amount of conversation, activism, and scholarship around reproductive healthcare, Hemming says. “So many people are writing about it,” she says. “It feels like a moment of massive knowledge production.”

Within that context, Hemming will step into her new position, located in a state that bans nearly all abortions. She also remembers the lessons from that class in Amsterdam: Scholarship has its limits, and direct action and material support are the most critical elements to any healthcare movement.

In that spirit, she is turning her dissertation into a book. She hopes this will make the information it contains accessible to any reader, not just to academics, like the undergraduates in her queer studies course, for example, who were eager to learn more about queer history, especially the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s, and its continued effects on the queer community and society.

“It matters to equip people with a broader understanding of the history of healthcare,” she says. “I hope it gets people to think about literature as a tool for learning about history and for asking questions.”