The novelist explores the darker, more complicated side of motherhood.
In Elisa Albert’s novel After Birth, protagonist Ari — a Ph.D. candidate, wife, and feminist — has survived the first year of motherhood. She’s crazy about her child but feels a deep sense of disappointment after delivering him via C-section. The frenzied pace of early motherhood, plus a sense of dislocation from her new digs in Upstate New York, leave her in emotional freefall. When one of Ari’s artistic idols, who is pregnant, moves to town, Ari hopes to find the profound sisterhood she’s been searching for.
After Birth is the first novel I can think of that follows motherhood so intimately. Why has it taken so long? Did you encounter any difficulties garnering interest from publishers?
There have been many, many others, but the literary history of motherhood is so fragmented and obscure and ghettoized, it takes some detective work. And no matter how mainstream feminism gets, shameless inhabitation of biological womanhood remains taboo.
Like Ari, I also had an unwanted C-section, and I’m still coming to terms with it. Reading about her anger was validating and therapeutic. Were you hoping the novel would be comforting to women?
I’m sorry, and I’m glad, and not really. One never knows how the work will be perceived, and there’s not much use in thinking about it. My intention is always and only to give a candid, artful, authentic voice. Some readers are comforted by this particular narrative, and some are tremendously offended. Both can be quite productive responses, I think, but neither have much to do with the work of writing.
Ari’s Mom dies just as Ari is embarking upon her teen years. The flashbacks reveal Ari’s mom as mean-spirited. Ari internalizes this, through the ghost of her mother, an apparition who makes constant judgments about Ari’s life. In what ways do you think a troubled mother-daughter relationship impacts the daughter’s adult friendships?
In just about every way, no doubt. Hateful-mother tropes are so varied, but what they all have in common is that the daughter is supposed to continue whatever terrible legacy she’s been handed. If the daughter declines, she betrays her mother. If she dutifully continues whatever terrible legacy, she betrays herself. Either way, she’s in a kind of lonely hell, and of course she’s going to project that struggle onto her friendships.
Is After Birth making the case that postpartum depression (in its milder forms) could be the consequence of women not being supported by their community?
It’s complicated. Not having healthy, vibrant role models and company on this journey is disastrous, though hugely profitable for purveyors of advice and gear and whatnot. I suppose if I were to get really political about it, I’d suggest that our cultural brainwashing about birth and motherhood (softly lit, vague, materialistic, up on a pedestal, and simultaneously disgusting, scary, invisible) serves the powers-that-be quite well, while women suffer quietly.
In the opening chapters, Ari is so prickly and judgmental that I had to hug myself just to keep reading! By the end, I understood she needs this defense in order to survive: The love she feels outstrips the love she gets, particularly from women. Do you agree?
That’s well put. She’s like an abused dog. She really wants to be sweet but she’d have to be an idiot not to growl.
Ari is the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. Her grandmother makes it through because she has sex with Nazis. I get the impression Ari is rather disdainful of her grandmother — that she thinks trading rape for survival is contemptable. Do you think Ari would have preferred that her grandmother resisted and possibly died? Or is her resentment coming from the fact that she views her grandmother as the culprit for messing up her mother, who in turn messed her up?
How interesting. I don’t see Ari as disdainful at all. She’s just very fluent in the facts of what went down, and she’s not going to sugarcoat it to spare the reader. Facing it square and saying what happened is her way of showing respect. Her grandmother had to endure that; the very least Ari (and we) can do is be unblinking about it. Furthermore, I think Ari actually feels the pain of her grandmother, and then, of course, of her mother, too. She’s mad at the systems that violated the sanctity of her grandmother’s body, then her mother’s body, and then her own body. All of which is tangled up with anger at herself for failing to somehow break that chain (though, of course, how could she?). Maybe that’s where you might be reading contempt.
Ari’s friendship interest is Mina, a woman who used to play in a band called the Misogynists. Were you telegraphing something with the band’s name? Conventional thought puts feminism and misogyny on polar ends of a scale, but your novel makes a compelling case that the lines between the two are blurry.
It’s ironic: Here are these defiant post-modern feminist musicians who look down at mainstream women for their possible complicity in their own subjugation.
There’s a passage where Ari ruminates about how much she loves her son and admits to graphic fears (walking into a wall by accident and crushing his head). When I had those fears after my son’s birth, I didn’t tell anyone for fear they would think I was nuts. Why do you think our maternal instincts are taboo, and did you feel nervous bringing them out into the open with this novel?
The job of any art form is to expose taboos. Literature that doesn’t attempt that is a waste of time and space. So no. Why is so much about the female body taboo? I suppose because the many, many industries that are built around subversion of the female body are just way too embedded. And we’ve spent many centuries embroidering our own shame. So we’ve got a pretty set system going.
Years ago, I came across a depressing but shrewd quote from Gordon Livingston: “Any relationship is under the control of the person who cares least.” I think this reflects something Ari fears but doesn’t quite want to give in to.
Fabulous quote. And so true: Ari’s historically got the curse of caring. She cares so goddamn much, it’s heartbreaking.
Your writing has the vivid, dense imagery of poetry. Here’s one of my favorite passages: “We spent like a hundred dollars on an amazing 1872 four-bedroom Italianate with a killer porch and congratulated ourselves on the excellent aesthetic of it all, no “good” school district for miles, low volume of hyper-ambitious creative aspirants, stoic wide planks groaning wisely underfoot.” We’re not just with Ari as she tells her story, we’re in her mind. Is this your particular style, or did you have it in mind as goal when you were finding Ari’s voice?
I spend a great deal of effort considering and honing and shaping and reshaping my prose. I play with my sentences a lot. Plot is less important to me than voice and rhythm, and inhabiting a voice like Ari’s is something like a method-acting exercise. I got to know her better and better the more time I spent with her.
Do you think Ari will ever find the friendship-love she seeks?
I think she did, with Mina, and even though Mina can’t be her end-all, be-all, now she has a solid blueprint. Things have shifted for Ari. Not 180 degrees, because I don’t think that’s how life works. But 30 degrees, maybe. Which, to me, is profound.
Dorothy Reno is an ex-pat short story writer who’s been published in literary journals across Canada. She currently lives in Washington, DC, with her husband, their baby, and a C-section scar.