Elisa Albert—long-ago Jewcy editor!—is the acclaimed author of the The Book of Dahlia (a novel), How This Night is Different (a short story collection), and most recently After Birth, a novel of childbirth, motherhood, daughterhood, and friendship, which was aptly described by Merritt Tierce in the venerable New York Times as “a shriek of a carnival ride inside a spinning antigravity chamber, the ultimate trippy trip” — i.e. very, VERY good.
After Birth is literally searing in its descriptions of labor, delivery, and the early months of motherhood. It’s also very compelling, funny, and deliciously dark. Michael Orbach sat down with Albert for a light conversational repast of religion, adolescent suffering, the art of writing, the Holocaust, and C-sections.
You grew up somewhat observant, correct? When I read your book I couldn’t help thinking of that blessing Orthodox Jewish men say about thanking God for not making them women.[laughs] That’s really cool. Isn’t the female version “Thank you for making me exactly as I am”? Orli Auslander makes these huge wood carvings of those blessings. The words of the blessings make the outline of the image; if you’re standing really close you can see the Hebrew letters, but if you look at it from afar you see an image. The Hebrew letters in that one form the image of a baby nursing.
What’s your religious background and how do you look at it now?
I find the further away I get from observance, the more fondness I have for it. I find it quite lovely on a lot of levels, now that I’m pretty disentangled… I grew up pretty solidly Conservative; I went to day school and then Hebrew High from seventh grade on. Then I went to Brandeis. My mom belongs to both a Conservative and Orthodox shul and she goes back and forth as she sees fit; my stepfather is into Chabad. My mom came to observance pretty late in her life. She was Jewish but a hundred percent secular. Then she had this midlife crisis—call it what you will—and became very religious, almost punitively so. It wasn’t until I was much older and in the homes of very observant people who are comfortable in their observance that I noticed [religion] had a nicer energy. My mother was never relaxed about it. She was trying to inhabit it very hard.
What was the genesis of writing After Birth?
I feel fortunate that I had an established writing life before I became a mom, so all of the confusion and fascination that goes along with motherhood had this very natural outlet. Of course I’m going to write a novel about it: that’s what I do. I didn’t do much writing until my son was about a year old. I was pretty deep into early motherhood, and when I finally got my bearings and could carve out some space to write, there was no question that that was what I was going to engage. I’m not really the kind of writer who looks too far afield… This was what my mind was full of.
How close are you to Ari, the narrator of After Birth?
I would say she’s like a distillation of a really bad day; a haunted house mirror reflection of fears I have. She’s a rumination on a dark corner, blown up ten times. I really like what Susan Sontag said in her notebook: “To write, you have to allow yourself be the person you don’t want to be, of all the people you are.” Like an id. [Ari] is someone so incredibly hopeless and in such a dire state of despondency. She has that tendency to hold on to really negative stuff and let it define her. That’s a danger in this whole being alive business.
There are lots of dangers in being alive.
Speaking of the not letting go, Ari can’t seem to forget her deceased mother throughout the book.
She’s a really nasty mother who even in death won’t let up; just that very broken maternal line and that incredible legacy of damage and darkness and secrets and unresolvable stuff that gets passed down as a matter of course if we’re not super conscious and careful. Ari’s struggle is to break that chain: can I be a mother and not hand down more of the same? Can I end that legacy? Can I not let my dark shit get on this [new] person?
It’s like that Philip Larkin poem, This be the Verse.
“They fuck you up your mum and dad,” I can recite it. And interestingly, it ends, “Get out as early as you can, and don’t have any kids yourself.”
How did your mother take the portrayal of Ari’s mother in the book?
My mother’s an exceptional reader. She taught me to love books and it’s been a huge benefit and boon to our relationship. I learned from her how to love books and to go to books to find what I needed. My mother’s not one of those people who doesn’t understand what a novel is. She’s incredibly well read and that helps a lot. She makes jokes, like, “Well that character isn’t me, I’m not Israeli,” or “This time the mother’s dead!” I think it might be harder than she lets on but she knows enough about books and fiction to stand back and I’m grateful for that. I have acquaintances whose parents are very threatening with ultimatums, like “If you ever write about us…” That’s pretty bad. I’m lucky. My parents just say, “Congratulations on being a writer.”
Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
I did. I didn’t know if I was any good—I mean I think I knew I was kinda good—but it still seemed so far fetched as I made my way toward it. I think I always wanted to be seen and heard. When I was little, I wanted to be an actress. I always had parts in the school play. I always had a need to be seen because I felt unseen in general.
Complicated family stuff. Growing up not super attractive in L.A. From puberty on, things were kinda dark.
Aren’t they always?
Some people just sail through, seems like.
They don’t become novelists; they become housewives and bankers.
Writing comes out of that feeling of invisibility. It’s incredibly valuable but you don’t realize it until later. Sometimes I feel like whispering into the ears of passing adolescents, “I know things seem really bad but if you stick with yourself and don’t try to change…”
“Or kill yourself.”[laughs] That’s a good thing to whisper into the ears of adolescents in general. Don’t kill yourself. I found what I needed in novels. I found something vital and sustaining in books, so to be a writer of books seemed like a power that is unrivaled. I wanted to be seen and heard. It’s a hard thing to explain to your teenage self: Don’t disown yourself. The only way to really survive sometimes is to lower your freak flag, but it’s precisely in not doing that that the power comes.
I’ve noticed that the book seems to go after the sacred cows—both motherhood and, with regard to Ari’s grandmother, the Holocaust. Especially how her grandmother survives by becoming a prostitute to the Nazis.
People tend to put motherhood on a pedestal but think nothing of denying women the right to decent birth. The Holocaust has to be spoken of vaguely, in hushed tones, leaving out the basest human elements. I feel like this character’s irreverence is actually showing respect for the real issues, the real suffering, not all the gift wrap and bunting. It’s so common for us to talk around the difficult things; the job of a novelist is to talk about the difficult thing. Baby showers are irrelevant. Standing in line for two hours to take a picture of Anne Frank’s attic is Tragedy Disneyland. The way it is in our culture, the baby registry is super important but we are silent about what happens to women in birth. Reverse it: there is something sacred and important here, but it’s not what we’re used to talking about. There is something incredibly harrowing and hard to look straight at, here; let’s show respect by actually trying to talk about it, even though it makes us really uncomfortable. Let’s not have our cathartic easy little cry and call it a day.
I think the graphic description of Ari’s grandmother’s having sex with the Nazis is a good example of that.
Right. Nobody wants to think about that. That’s how this woman saves her own life. A lot of people had to do things that are just too horrible to speak about. Everybody loves Anne Frank, me included, because she’s an innocent who believed in the triumph of the human spirit. That’s really easy to admire and cry about. Let’s graduate to something not so easy to admire or cry about.
When you said parts of motherhood that people don’t talk about, what were you referring to?
A lot of women go into motherhood wanting to not know much about birth. They choose to outsource birth, be a passive participant, give over their will and trust in whatever institution or whatever kind of care provider they’ve chosen.
Just a question of clarification: Ari describes her C-section as a bit like a rape. As you mentioned, some readers seem to think you’re anti-C-section. I didn’t take that you were anti-C-section insomuch as opposed to the passive nature of other people taking control during the birthing process.
I would say that. I’m anti-ignorance, I’ll go out a limb and say that. [laughs] Who’s going to argue with that? I’m anti-ignorance and the willful ignorance around birth is a shame. It causes a lot of problems. The book is not anti-C section; C-sections save lives in 10-15 percent of cases, where they’re really medically necessary. Unfortunately, it’s the most commonly performed surgery in America today and it’s performed on a third of all women giving birth. That’s obviously problematic. Ari didn’t need surgical birth. She was bullied and terrified into it and she didn’t know enough to say no. No one is saying we should go back to the time when women died in childbirth. But one in ten is very different from one in three.
What I took from the book is it sort of contrasts between birth, this really visceral experience, and the rest of our lives that are super non-visceral.
That’s a huge part of the book. A bit of a push-back against the disembodiment of modern life. We live a lot between our eyeballs and screens. Birth is one reminder that we are mammals. We are monkeys and we have bodies and our bodies matter. When we disown them, ignore them or try to distance ourselves from them, there are severe spiritual consequences.