Heather Lefebvre Interviews Elisa Albert
PUT SIMPLY, ELISA ALBERT is a total badass. Time and again, she grapples with challenging questions such as “Is a life one has sleepwalked through worth mourning?” while making jokes about the munchies, A League of Their Own, and self-help. In her protagonists I have found some of the most fully-realized and complex women I’ve ever read in fiction; whatever their troubles, their voices are honest and unflinching and unafraid to dive into the muck. The words energetic, raw, and darkly funny come to mind when trying to describe her work, as does (as NPR and others have called her) “the female Philip Roth.” In her newest novel, After Birth—described as “essential” and “groundbreaking” by outlets as varied as The New York Times and Flavorwire—Albert tears open a window into the brain- and heart-bending, obsessive, possessed, purifying, exhausting, alienating, fierce, and fiercely loving thing that we call early motherhood. I heartily recommend it.
A major theme of your new novel, After Birth, is how the protagonist Ari relates to other women, and her belief that an honest, positive connection between women is rare, if not near-unattainable; that women, deep down, are too “insecure [and] competitive” to be friends. What interests me is that Ari doesn’t seem to hold men in the same contempt, though they (especially in academia, the world in which Ari and her husband exist) can be just as petty and bitter. Even as someone who decries the limiting cultural roles women are assigned, Ari buys into the idea that women “just rip each other to shreds.” What drives this disdain? Her personal history with female friends or more?
Ari wants a different/better/idealized intimacy and emotional connection and shared responsibility with women, so when the women can’t live up to this, she’s unfairly heartbroken. She’s blind to men at this point, more or less. Men are not consequential to this narrative.
Ari doesn’t know she’s a character in a novel, which is good because she can’t hedge or edit or gloss over her ugly, unfair, unbalanced thoughts. We get plenty of hedging and editing and glossing in “real” life. In a novel we want to suspend that, to peek underneath, familiarize ourselves with what’s knotty and prejudiced and irrational and flawed and unfair. That’s how we learn and practice moral complexity, empathy—all that good stuff.
Women ripping each other to shreds is not a cultural assignment, I don’t think. If anything, the cultural assignment dictates false high-pitched LOVE YOUs and BFFs and bridesmaids and so on. The cultural assignment actually demands that the ripping-to-shreds be done in secret, undercover, with a smile. We privately talk so much shit about each other. It’s not politically correct to acknowledge it, because “Oh, no, we’re making generalizations based on gender.” But I’ve never spoken to a woman who didn’t have some similar history of darkness. A lot of women spend a lot of time lying to themselves and each other about their true loyalties and affections. Men don’t tend to have friends they hate. Women commonly have friends they hate. Not all women, not all the time, but it is a thing. To ignore it because there’s no gender-studies-approved way to articulate it goes against my narrative instinct.
As a result, I wanted the friendship with Mina to be one of the first for Ari that contains no toxicity. Mina is not an insecure cow, and Ari is less defensive than usual because she’s so broken, so maybe they can actually let the boundaries slacken a little and be vulnerable and connected and soft and open in a positive, ongoing way. They don’t threaten each other. It’s a revelation: Ari’s reached a safe shore and can rest there for a while.
When I began the novel, I actually wanted to go much more into Ari’s dissertation, which was supposed to be about the Women’s Action Coalition (WAC), a real-life organization founded and active in the early nineties. Its archives are at the New York Public Library. After a handful of years the whole thing blew apart because of hideous infighting. I applied to the NYPL for a fellowship to access the archives and was denied, alas. So I went a different direction, but the WAC was an early inspiration.
The physical body, and the visceral, sometimes gross experience of living in one, seems to be a central theme in your work. In After Birth, Ari is so furious at the mainstream medical industry for giving her a Cesarean—in her view, pathologizing her body and effectively divorcing her from the experience of birth—that she refers to her son’s birthday as “surgery day.” As someone who wouldn’t have been born without serious medical intervention, I found that viewpoint surprising and fascinating. As an alternative, Ari and Mina envision a world in which women could birth and raise their babies naturally and communally; Ari refers to this as a form of “fourth wave” feminism. Why do you think the body (and its realities, or violations) figures so prominently in your work? And how does your idea of feminism tie into that?
I was raised with a lot of weird body stuff in Los Angeles. For starters, half the girls in my high school obviously had severe and totally socially acceptable eating disorders. Our family doctor had us on antibiotics for every cold. My maternal grandmother died of colon cancer two weeks after I was born, after essentially refusing treatment. My mother’s OB told her explicitly not to breastfeed because it was “very low class.” Puberty hit me hard, my skin was bad, my boobs were lopsided, body hair completely overwhelmed and horrified me, my periods were wonky, I was put on the pill at fourteen alongside an extremely toxic acne medication. My mother took me to electrolysis religiously starting when I was thirteen. I have burn scars all over my upper thighs from monthly professional waxing starting around the same time. Having “ethnic” curly hair was deeply problematic. I spent an hour every morning trying to straighten it. I was hugely fat and gross by LA standards. Girls were getting nose jobs for their birthdays. I tried and failed the Scarsdale Diet off and on for years. My oldest brother was diagnosed with a brain tumor when he was 25 and died a few years later after absolutely brutal treatment. My middle brother was and continues to be extremely sickly. The list goes on and on.
I would have had to work very, very hard to not be troubled and shaped by these legacies. It makes me think of these lines from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: “Ignoring and ignorance are not the same thing. One takes effort.” Our bodies truly are a battleground: how we’re born, how we die, and everything in between. Are we at peace with our bodies? Do we trust and respect our bodies? Or are our bodies wellsprings of fear and loathing? Do we take good care of our bodies? Do we abuse them? Do we allow other people to abuse them? What happens when our bodies are used against our wishes? Our bodies have innate wisdom, I believe. We like to think we’re so smart and sophisticated, we masterful primates, we kings of the apes. What we can accomplish with our minds is pretty amazing. But when we forget to listen to our bodies—to respect our bodies—we are dumber than monkeys.
I’ve come to believe in a basic refusal to “fight” my body. Respecting and caring for the body, using it according to its design, listening to it when it’s off-balance, nourishing it, all of that is a kind of spiritual pursuit, I think. This is certainly not to say that I’d eschew antibiotics if I had a serious bacterial infection, or decline a C-section with severe preeclampsia or a placenta attached over my cervix, for example. Where there is pathology, responsible utilization of technology and science is a godsend. About one in ten women need interventions in childbirth. We’re all thoroughly grateful those interventions exist. But currently one in three babies in the US is being delivered surgically. That’s a disparity that has to set off every feminist alarm bell. Pathology is being created, here. Fear, silence, and complicity are being encouraged. Women and children are being harmed.
One aspect of your writing I really appreciate is the commitment you have to facing uncomfortable or otherwise unpleasant truths: to, “if anyone is looking away, wincing, or thinking this is in poor taste” (to quote The Book of Dahlia) “go into it.” It’s evident in your aforementioned depiction of the body, but also in your choice to write angry, unapologetic, superficially unlikable young women as your protagonists. There’s often pressure on women writers to make their female characters likable—by which I mean cute, nice, charming, self-deprecating—or to present themselves that way. Could you talk about this a bit? Have you always felt that kind of commitment to warts-and-all truth in your writing and did you have influences in this regard?
It’s funny: stuff people say about my work sounds a little like Charlie Brown adults at this point, but “angry” invariably stands out. We will know we’ve made some real progress when a woman saying something impolitic isn’t labeled angry.
If a male character was subjected to major surgery for no good reason and was disgruntled about living in a society where that’s entirely common, we’d probably laud his complaint. If he were surrounded by zombies who refused to acknowledge the central struggle in their lives, if he mocked them, we’d root for him. Yes, we’d say! You make that grab at your humanity! Your humanity is real, mister, don’t be denied it.
But for women, even made up ones, there is a very narrow path. Plenty of us say fuck it and wander off into the thorny woods, and “Oooooh, we’re angry.” Call a woman angry or crazy and my switchboard lights right up. It’s reductive and simplistic. None of us is any one thing. Sweet, docile, outraged, psycho, mute, passive: all of the above. Anyway, it’s all about the writing, isn’t it? Often “likable” is synonymous with shallow and uninteresting writing. Not always, but often. And often “unlikable” is synonymous with “Well, shit, this one don’t write like a girl!”
Pleasant is not what I want from art. I want layers. I want provocation. I want confrontation. I want daring. Men sometimes write trite, boring, pretentious novels and women sometimes write trite, boring, pretentious novels and I’m against trite, boring, pretentious novels in general.
The discussion of female likability has reached the point at which we do not need a punchline to laugh. It is an elaborate joke. It’s absurdist theater. I hope no one is at this moment composing another earnest, well-intentioned think piece on it because the horse is deader than dead and does not deserve any more kicking. Let’s give the poor fucking carcass a proper burial and get back to work.
A pleasant afternoon eating a pleasant meal in pleasant company in the pleasant shade of a tree, now that sounds divine. A pleasant book or painting or dance or song sounds like a waste of time. Make me think. Make me feel. Make me laugh. Make me cry. Make me stop what I’m doing. Demand my full attention and show me something important and real and honest and warm-blooded and maybe a little scary, but worth it. Surprise me. Make the world new.
Cute and nice and charming and self-deprecating are all traits I value in life, in myself, in the people around me. Cultivate that in person, by all means, please. But I think writing demands a more primal, raw approach. It’s important that we not get the two confused. One need not be a sociopath to be a good writer, but one should at least be brave enough to acknowledge and make peace with one’s sociopathic capacities. I like what Sontag said in her notebook: “To write you have to allow yourself to be the person you don’t want to be (of all the people you are).”
In After Birth, Ari brings her son to a nanny four days a week to work on her Ph.D. dissertation, but while he’s gone, she both aches to hold him again and relishes (if guiltily) her newfound free time so much that she can’t get any work done. Later on, she calls mothering her “dissertation.” What do you think about the “having it all” debate, and where does so-called “women’s work” come into play? Have you found that others’ expectations changed after you became a writer and a mother? And how do you balance those roles?
I like Ani DiFranco’s thought on that: “You can have it all, but not all at the same time.” Again, the body in the childbearing year is trying to tell us this very clearly. There is a time for sitting down and putting your feet up and floating in a lake and taking slow walks and waiting patiently, and there is a time for working your ass off to bring a baby into the world and then there is a time for recovering, taking all the help you can get, holding that child very close, and there is a time for going to bed at 8 p.m. with your small child so that you can be decent when the sun comes up and your day begins, and you know, color me Pete Seeger, ‘cause Turn, Turn, Turn. Isn’t it funny how we try to subvert or ignore or deny or conquer the rhythms of the natural world, of our own bodies, and then bemoan our enormous, mysterious, endless unhappiness? Might we someday admit that the phenomena are linked?
I find women’s work to be creatively and spiritually fulfilling, but it really has to be done with clear eyes and a full heart, I think. We’ve all seen the furious women making perfect homes, but for the fact that everyone inside the home is suicidal. What’s at the heart of true woman’s work is, I think, creating a safe and happy space. That’s the ideal of “home”. It’s hard and rich and deep and intense and mind-blowing work. I find it goes best when there’s a real communal web underlying it. When we have friends and we sometimes take care of our friends’ kids and they sometimes take care of ours, and everyone can sort of pool the intensity and the love and we are not expected to compartmentalize our entire lives. The nuclear family is a lie.
Much of the force of your writing comes from narrative voice, whether it’s in first person (as Ari, hurt and struggling and striving, narrates After Birth) or a fluid, omniscient third (as in The Book of Dahlia, which plays with time, space, and even the facts of reality at points). The narrators in your novels make themselves known, and it’s very hard to imagine those stories being told any other way. How did you find the right points of view for the stories you wanted to tell?
A vague outline of a story comes first (“this fucked up daddy’s girl is dying” or “woman with no friends has an abusive birth in shitty post-industrial town”) and then it’s almost like improv, you know: GO. And I spend time trying out the voice, modulating it, finding my way into it. And slowly it makes itself known to me, and I can inhabit it. It’s a practice. It’s very open-ended and vulnerable and singular and unique to the given day. I am willing and able to make myself available to these scenarios, to these people. I identify with them, empathize with them, want them heard. They’re fun-house reflections of certain dark corners of myself—fears I have. It’s like setting the table for tea and inviting over your worst self, seeing what happens when you treat that worst self with kindness and care and respect and patience. Make that worst self feel relaxed and at home, don’t fight her, and see how she unfurls. Study her. Get to know her. Hold her gaze. Maybe all she needed was a little attention. Maybe you’ve tamed her. In any event, she’s probably showed you something interesting—a kind of shadow self.
You have referred to After Birth as a kind of “female war novel.” Could you talk more about that?
Childbirth is an exclusively female experience. It is very, very demanding physically and emotionally. It is a transformation. It’s irrevocable. There is no turning back. It brings you up close with death. Only other women who’ve been through it understand exactly what it’s like. It requires tremendous bravery, will, and focus. Fear is the enemy. One is never quite the same. One loses some part of oneself but joins a greater whole. The men are waiting back at home, hoping for safe return. Some of us will be deeply altered for the worse and not be able to sleep at night for a long time thereafter. And so forth.
Do you read other novels while working on a book? I’m always curious if other writers find that useful or hindering. And are you reading anything right now?
Oh yes, very useful, indeed. I try to find my own idiosyncratic way to books, let them find me, let them be a joy and not a job. I don’t force myself to read anything. I’ll give things a try and see. Finishing a book is high praise. The writing and the perspective and the voice have to feel authentic. I just finished She Matters by Susanna Sonnenberg, and I loved it. I was on layover at the Vegas airport and wanted to pass the book on in hopes it would find its way to someone who’d appreciate it, but I didn’t want to just leave it lying around the terminal. A nice lady sold me a bagel and I spontaneously went “Do you or does anyone you know like to read?” She thought about it for a second and said “No way, I hate reading.” “Fair enough,” I said, and left it on a bench.
Elisa Albert is the author of After Birth (2015), The Book of Dahlia (2008), How This Night is Different (2006), and the editor of the anthology Freud’s Blind Spot (2010). Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Tin House, Post Road, Gulf Coast, Commentary, Salon, Tablet, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Believer, The Rumpus, Time, on NPR, and in many anthologies. Albert grew up in Los Angeles and received her MFA from Columbia University. A recipient of Moment Magazine’s Emerging Writer Award and a finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, she has received residencies and fellowships from The Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Djerassi, Vermont Studio Center, and The Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies in Holland. She is an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia’s School of the Arts and was recently Visiting Writer at The College of Saint Rose. She lives in upstate New York with her family.