Reading After Birth by Elisa Albert felt like getting a big, wet, aggressively sloppy kiss. Rarely have I had to read out loud so many passages to anyone who would listen because, damn, I had to share the brilliance. I just want to rub her novel all over me. Albert writes with a blistering honesty that may make some people uncomfortable, and I truly hope After Birth makes some people squirm, but of course, it was right up my female passage, or alley, so to speak. Interviewing her was equally gleeful, where we discuss, among other things, having little babies, second wave feminism, what I think of as bitch culture and she more intelligently calls “female aggression,” generosity among women, the failure of mothers’ groups, and so much more.
Paula Bomer: I take issue with the idea that women’s fiction dealing with the “domestic,” in the case of After Birth, with birth and caregiving to the very young, isn’t political or even globally political. Because women’s bodies are an actual battlefield, with large political consequences.
Elisa Albert: It’s a hell of a persistent bias. How to best resist it? Nothing’s ever been or will ever be equal, let’s start there. There is no justice. The struggles of women are always “only” that. I think of Yoko’s famous line: Woman is the n-word of the world. Tough break. Now, how to work from within those boundaries? What’s the most artful and interesting way to poke holes in those walls? It’s often said that literature should avoid politics, which is ludicrous, because you can’t avoid politics no matter how hard you shut your eyes, cover your ears, sing a pretty song. Our whole lives are defined and limited and decorated and directed by politics — who has power and who is denied power. Who has access to clean food and water. Who gets to walk around unafraid. Whose body is sacred and whose is disposable. And hey: if biological femaleness as embodied in mammalian childbearing/rearing is such a huge threat that it has to be silenced and/or controlled and/or mocked, it must also by definition be extremely powerful. That’s a fascinating place to inhabit.
That Yoko quote is one of the epigraphs in my first book. And I couldn’t agree more that fear and power are very much connected in regard to the female body. One of the main themes of After Birth is kindness and the lack of it between women. First, there is your list of friends and the way those friendships work themselves out. Of course, there’s Ari’s mother and that fraught relationship, and the complications of losing a mother to whom Ari has complicated feelings for.
Female aggression has such a strange, underreported life cycle, probably because we tend to want to disown it in the first place. Female aggression is wily, like a game of whack-a-mole. It’s a subterranean ordeal. It’s an ingrown hair. Ari is at the beginning of understanding her part in it, and only now because she’s been brought to her knees by such a violent birth. That girls are cruel to each other is not news. That girls are cruelest to themselves, as Anne Carson wrote (quoted by Chloe Caldwell in her great novella Women), is at the heart of the matter, and where the whole mess originates. Girls are cruelty ninjas, stealthy and graceful, not breaking a sweat. We identify so completely with our own suffering, then wish to visit our suffering upon others in turn. It’s a perverse response to the terrors of vulnerability, isn’t it? Makes one wish we could just have a nice simple fistfight and be done.
“Girls are cruelty ninjas.” I love that. Not to mention how it’s a “perverse response to the terrors of vulnerability.” And regarding fistfights, where I went to junior high, the girls met in the yard (sounds like prison!) and beat the shit out of each other, while others stood around. Then I attended a posh boarding school where this did not happen. I lost it twice and slapped a couple of bitches. So there is a class thing to it.
Let’s look at Ari’s central friendship in this book, with the once-rockstar, Mina. Can you expand on generosity? I was reminded, in Ari’s relation to Mina, of something my father said, “When you’re young you want stuff, but later it’s more satisfying to give.”
Mina has nothing to prove. Mina is all right with herself. Mina doesn’t need to be a threat to Ari because Mina is not threatened by Ari. So it’s this revelation for Ari — oh, look, there can be a calm and open sustained exchange of intimacies here, wow. It does have a lot to do with the fact that Mina is older. If we’re lucky, and we do right by ourselves, and we’re somewhat emotionally honest, we hopefully emerge into middle age with some degree of self-possession, so we’re not just forever cliquish adolescent twats. It’s very hard to be generous if you’re operating out of a sense of lack or scarcity. Generosity requires a deep sense of abundance and wholeness. Where does that come from? Where does one learn it, if not from one’s own mother or sisters or friends or peers? Ari’s impoverished. Emotionally malnourished. She needs intimate connection and friendship and camaraderie and love and laughter and company, but that’s hardest to come by precisely when she’s the neediest. Mina’s having a rough go, meanwhile, and needs immediate help feeding her baby. It costs Ari nothing to nurse Mina’s baby. It costs Mina nothing to hang out with and validate and be close to Ari. They both get their immense needs met and they both simultaneously get to be generous, which is the most uplifting thing in the world, a corrective good fortune spiral.
Ari’s studying women’s studies, but she’s constantly disappointed in the second wave feminists and their rejection of the body. While I agree, I do see some bothness. For instance, I’m pro-choice and think the invention of birth control is sort of great. But I don’t want to be ASHAMED of women’s bodies functions — bleeding, wet vaginaness, birth, breastfeeding, etc. . . . all these fluids!
Ari’s speaking from a specific historical perch: in her lifetime, there has only been (relatively) safe/legal abortion and contraceptive medication. She didn’t have to personally fight those battles. So it’s her privilege and duty to find fault with the paradigm at hand, even when it maybe contradicts some of the struggles that came before. That’s what we want every engaged new generation to do, right? To say — with basic awareness of and respect for what led us here — okay, I don’t want to go back in time, and thank you, foremothers, for your heroic struggles, but hold up, I think you got a few things confused, let’s backtrack for a sec. Things are still not stellar with regard to women’s bodies. We find ourselves in altogether new binds. Ari was put on the pill as a not-sexually-active teenager for no good reason, with severe physiological consequences, the depths of which no one can as yet fully trace or explain. Ari went through a typical American labor and delivery ward, and even though she was a healthy woman with a normal pregnancy, she wound up having her child surgically removed (the epidemiological consequences of which no one can as yet fully explain or predict). What is up with that? What is up with a feminism that doesn’t have any beef with that?
So yes, the Pill might be better than the alternatives for some women, but that doesn’t mean it’s straight up awesome in general. And yes, we demand safe, legal abortion, but no one’s thrilled about abortion. And yes, in rare, abnormal cases, surgical birth is crucial, but certainly something is awry when it is used on more than a third of mothers. Feminism is not stagnant; it has to breathe and react and grow and change and adapt and learn and evolve. Did we cast off something we shouldn’t have? Did we dismiss something too quickly? Did we embrace something that’s hurting us? Where are our loyalties? What is happening to us here and now? Feminism is not an end; it’s a means to critique and question.
Well, that’s just about the perfect response. Being grateful to our forebears, but knowing that feminism doesn’t “end.” I was forced to frame my high school history paper on the feminism of the 60s and 70s with the conclusion that radical feminism actually hurt the movement. I still have mixed feelings, but I did have Valerie Solnaris’s SCUM manifesto in my appendix. And as much as I want to embrace a certain naturalness to birth and child-rearing, I’m not so sure about the diaper free movement, for instance. Because I don’t think there’s anything natural about holding a baby over a toilet.
After Birth takes place in a college town, essentially, and the social life revolves around career academics. You utilize satire to great effect, but you’re not entirely hating on it, which seems to me a fair assessment of academia in general — a lot of goofiness, and some interesting stuff going on.
Academics can be so hardworking and undervalued and righteous and noble, and at the same time so freaking petty and obsessive and insular and ridiculous. What a phenomenal narrative petri dish. Within the last year I’ve heard tell of two distinct English departments who brought in family therapists to conduct faculty meetings. Ari’s new to this town, and she’s in desperate need of community, and here’s this seemingly ready-made one, and she’s totally eager to join it, she kind of throws herself at it, and almost immediately it’s like NOPE. And I’m always, always interested in failures of communities to behave as such.
I’m going to throw out some specific scenes and sentences and ask you to elaborate. The binary mothers groups. I mean, how SPOT ON. I had one with my older and one with my second son. Ari’s alienation and irritation are amazing. Once, I blurted out at the group, because I just couldn’t handle the world babies had thrust me into, “I fucking hate babies. I fucking hate babies!” I made a lot of friends that day. And I love my sons, I just didn’t like where having them had landed me.
I wish Ari had been there that day! I know some people who’ve had positive experiences with mothers groups, but for Ari they’re incredible missed opportunities. Women sitting around kind of eyeing each other, making small talk, a lot of tight smiles, a grim exchange of information about tricks of the trade. Or the immediate Best Friends Forever thing, which is suspect. Ari’s not much of a joiner in general, though, so some of the blame lies with her. She longs for connection with other new moms in which the babies are “beside the point.” She wants consciousness-raising! That refusal to cede the self, you know? The babies themselves are less collectively interesting than what the babies represent, how the babies affect us, what the babies mean. Caretaking of babies can be repetitive and mind numbing. Where does that leave the caretakers? And here’s where we always have to pause and shout BUT I LOVE MY BABY SO FREAKING MUCH, as though any of the above negates that in any way whatsoever. You lose all perspective with a new baby. It’s really a very finite and discrete period of time, as anyone with grown children will tell you, but when you’re in it it’s an all-consuming vortex and it feels never ending, and there is temporarily no room for one’s own thinking or writing or music-making or travelling or movie-watching or party-going or love-making or reading or bathing or sleeping or fill-in-the-blank-ing. Which can inspire real panic, and quite a bad attitude indeed.
Ari’s grandparents are Holocaust survivors. I found those some of the most difficult passages to read, but also Ari is so wry about it. Is that just a dealing mechanism you wanted to display?
Yes, Ari’s particularly blunt about it because she knows it so well. The closer you are to that kind of extreme travesty, the harder it becomes to romanticize. At some point the violin shtick gets offensively dumb, I think. Here’s what happened. It’s not tragedy porn. Not gonna let you have your cathartic little cry and close the case. Look at it. It’s not beautifully lit. No softening the edges. Sorry, not sorry, as they say. You can’t grapple with horror and walk away pristine, you know? I think her bluntness is a way of showing respect.
“Do you slowly lose everyone? Do you just get lonelier and lonelier until you die?” thinks Ari at one point, the baby having removed her from her previous life, so to speak. I happen to think this might be true. But, it might be a personality thing. Although visiting my once very social mother in her nursing home more or less confirms this sentiment.
Maybe there’s something noble about loneliness. Maybe it can be a spiritual test. Maybe it’s what we have to grow accustomed to so as to become fully human, fully present. Marriage can be lonely. Friendship can be lonely. Motherhood can be lonely. There’s ultimately no relationship that can save us from loneliness. But what if loneliness isn’t a bad thing? What if we’re only afraid of it because we’ve been kind of brainwashed to avoid it at all costs? I think throughout the novel Ari is learning to acquiesce herself to loneliness, not be cowed by it, let it simply be. And maybe that’s progress.
“The Tropical Years.” I love that expression. I felt immediately like I was aging at double speed after my first son was born. Then again, I had a lot of other stresses, financial, personal — and the three shitty apartments I rented in the first year of his life, one that had no toilet — at least the third was a good one. Stress ages us. But calling it the “Tropical Years,” softens it in a way I like. Although Ari is far from romanticizing the whole thing.
“Tropical Years” is how the Dutch describe raising small children, a reference to Dutch colonization of Indonesia. If you served one military year in the tropics, it counted for two, because it was so hot and disease-ridden and you were so much more likely to die. (The Dutch edition of After Birth is called “A Tropics Year”.) In general I find the parallel of the military to birth and early motherhood endlessly apt. It’s a rite of passage. You’ll find out what you’re made of. Your fear is irrelevant. It’s so much bigger than you, your petty insignificant little ego, your stupid pride, your ambition, your personal failings. It changes you. Eclipses you. Breaks you down and builds you back up.
I met another writer, whose work I greatly admire, and I told her so, and then I told her I too was a writer, blablabla, and she interrupted me and said, “I’m familiar with your work,” making it clear what she thinks of my work. And, you know when you write a certain way, you’re going to push some buttons, but it still bothers me. Do you have any concerns about the reception of After Birth or your previous books?
When I’m writing I don’t care about anything but the world of the book or story or essay at hand. It’s so painfully obvious when a writer is worried about reception while she’s writing. So no. But . . . I’m invariably taken by surprise when the thing is done and packaged and out in the world. Being confronted with people’s feelings, reactions, and projections is always a bit of a shock. At which point I usually feel like the most naïve unconscious freak alive, and it’s weird, to say the least. (So . . . yes.) But that’s pretty insignificant compared to the epic joy of having a voice, and of not being afraid to use it truthfully, however subjective that is.
Paula Bomer is the author of Inside Madeleine, Nine Months, and Baby and Other Stories, of which Jonathan Franzen said, “is some of the rawest and most urgent writing I can remember encountering.” You can find an interview with Paula on Full Stop here, as well as her conversation with Christopher Hacker, author of The Morels, here.
Elisa Albert has upcoming readings in New York, Albany, Los Angeles, Portland, and many other locales across America. You can find time, dates, and locations here.