Elisa Albert's 'After Birth' is the book you need to read now
The first thing I ever read by Elisa Albert was a book review HG’s editor-in-chief Jennifer Romolini told me I should absolutely read like rightthissecond. So I did, and I fell in love with Elisa’s words like how one falls in love with their first bite of cheese pizza after a long, long time without pizza. (AKA, scandalously fast.)
Published in Salon, “My girl problems” prodded at Sheila Heti’s novel, How Should a Person Be? and brought up some issues I’d been too scared to acknowledge myself, primarily ones concerning friendship and the relationships women have with other women. Heti’s book centers around these issues and their importance, and this frustrated Elisa. Because in a way, she hated Heti. But she also loved her. But she also resented her! But she would SO hang out with her in real life, probably! And all of these feelings got looped around and around each other like confused ribbons and I could so relate.
After reading “My girl problems,” I knew I had to read Elisa’s newest book, After Birth (released Feb 17 through Houghton Mifflin), After Birth is about friendship but it’s also honest and deep about motherhood and womanhood in a way that’s not typically portrayed in fiction, or really anywhere. Ari, After Birth‘s protagonist, can’t let go of the C-section she had with her infant son, it haunts her. It doesn’t help that she lives in an upstate New York town with mega post-apocalyptic vibes, a maybe too-ideal husband, no real friends, and very serious mom issues. But when a pregnant and ultra-cool visiting professor named Mina comes to town, she and Ari bond over pregnancy and what it means to be a woman and mother and daughter and friend.
After Birth is gut-wrenching. It gets you good. It makes you want to weep and then laugh, and stifle that probably-inappropriate laughter into your palms. It makes you question Westernized medicine and the way we look at being mothers, daughters, and friends. It makes you want to grab Ari’s hands and tell her that you get it. Like Ari, Elisa Albert is funny, smart, and has a LOT to say about friendship and motherhood. So I asked her a few questions about her book and all that went into it.
HelloGiggles: There have been so many articles and so much literature on female bonding and celebrating our besties and the importance of girlfriends and girl friendship is one of the most popular topics for women online (at least it is for HelloGiggles), I thought it was interesting that you challenged that notion in After Birth, basically saying, “it’s not that simple.” How do you currently feel about the role of female friendships in your own life and how did that play into how you wrote Ari?
Elisa Albert: “It’s not that simple,” is perfect. Friendship is vital and rich and important and complicated. The importance and the complexity exist in direct proportion, you know? Women can be extremely cruel to each other (not to mention to ourselves). Growing up I had to learn the hard way over and over again not only how to choose good friends, but how to be a good friend. We’ve all had those competitive passive aggressive undermining toxic friendships, haven’t we? It’s almost a default setting, somehow. The interesting part is why do we indulge that? Why are we sometimes willing to pretend someone who is not a good friend is a good friend? Why do we fall into the hideous trap of being jealous and kind of hateful? There’s a long learning curve. Our friends pick up where our families leave off, and what could be more tangled than that?
HG:. On an exterior level, After Birth is about just that: the experience one woman has after she gives birth to her son. But it’s so much more than that, so much more layered and complex—it’s also about how much control a woman has over her own body, and Ari struggles with how her authority over her body was taken away during the birthing process. Was your own experience of motherhood surprising? Does this book reflect your own experience?
EA: My experience left me obsessed with birth, and narratives around it. What I found out is that everyone has a riveting, urgent story to tell about birth and motherhood. Those of us who have given birth, especially. But all of us had a mother; we were all given birth to. When there’s a refusal to talk about it at all, that’s especially telling. It’s just amazing what you hear on this topic when you begin to ask and listen. There’s every kind of birth story. There’s the “She was never the same after she had the baby” narrative, how one’s mother was always a little “off” or emotionally compromised, and no one really knew why. My 90-year-old great aunt told me stuff that singed the skin off my ears. There’s something wildly transgressive about these stories. You have to kind of dig for them.
HG:. Mental illness is also a prevalent theme. Ari dealt with depression, and her mother and grandmother both suffered from mental illnesses as well. All three women’s illnesses seem to be brushed aside though (even though Paul, Ari’s husband, does so quasi-thoughtfully). I wonder how you feel about mental illness and women and society and why there still seems to be a stigma about talking about this stuff.
EA: There’s a fascinating and horrible ongoing history of women being told we’re crazy for having totally reasonable reactions to unreasonable expectations/experiences. Or women being told we’re crazy for speaking up about our experiences, for sexual independence, for thinking differently, for refusing to be “feminine,” and so on. Ari’s grandmother had what we’d now call PTSD, swept under the rug. She was institutionalized and subjected to brutal treatment. Who wouldn’t have PTSD under those conditions? Then Ari’s mother grew up with that mother, that traumatized and brutalized mother, and so of course she’s not emotionally right either. This is a legacy of intense, layered damage with zero rectification. The more I thought about it, the more I came to believe that we are all connected, especially women via the maternal line. We carry in our very cells, in the marrow of our bones, whatever marinated us, whatever grew us. A mother who is not whole or well or happy or emotionally healthy casts a very long, very dark shadow, and that’s a legacy we can’t just plaster over.
HG: In After Birth, Ari goes from doctoral student to mother, and she’s kind of caught between both realms. It seems to me (a woman in her 20s with no kids yet) that women have two choices: they can either be “career moms” and set kids somewhat aside to pursue careers in stilettos and pencil skirts, or stay-at-home moms with their Baby Bjorn. The option to be in-between isn’t exactly there or at least no one really talks about it. What kind of message did you want to present readers in the case of Ari, who is trying to finish her dissertation but is also very attached to her child?
EA: I think there are several keys to the in-between, the ideal thing we have yet to fully realize. Subsidized high quality childcare and maternity leave and flexible career trajectories, for starters, obviously. Beyond that, I think we need to unapologetically reclaim the idea of community, sisterhood, and help each other raise our children. Mammals raise young in groups. Everyone’s happier and more productive that way. Our attempts to reinvent the wheel have not been successful, here. Every woman for herself is an ugly paradigm.
HG: The setting seems very integral to this story. Were there particular aspects of upstate New York that you knew would fit these characters and this story? Did you imagine Ari living anywhere else?
EA: I love the blatant, mundane, commonplace dystopian feel of the upstate town I invented for Ari. Dystopia doesn’t have to be hugely embellished and projected and spun out into the future: it’s kind of all around us, especially in places that aren’t on any status map.
HG: While there are a few male characters, this is really a female book. Paul doesn’t really say a whole lot, Ari’s dad is extremely passive, and Will and Bryan seem to (mostly) serve as literary foils to highlight Ari’s sexuality, yearning, and loneliness. Was it a conscious decision to mute the male voice?
EA: Sure, yeah. I wouldn’t say mute, though; I would say sidelined. The dudes are on the bench. They’re there, we can wave to them and shout hey and they can wave and shout hey back, and it’s good to know they’re on our team, but this isn’t their game to play.
HG. Ari has very firm beliefs on how women should give birth, and I’m sure you’ve already experienced angry parents disagreeing with how C-sections and fertility treatments are discussed in the novel. How are you dealing with that kind of negativity? What do you want to say to young women like me (who will probably be mothers someday) about this?
EA: Ari has firm beliefs on how women shouldn’t give birth, namely bullied and condescended to and scared and pressured into routine intervention. As a doula, I’ve seen all kinds of births go down, and what’s most crucial is how the birthing woman is treated. We’re extraordinarily vulnerable when we give birth. When we fail to treat birth with respect and reverence, we fail women and children. That’s flatly unacceptable. One can be mistreated by a homebirth midwife just as one can be mistreated by an arrogant OB. The line about how “all that matters” is that everyone’s alive when it’s over is a really superficial way of silencing some heavy issues. This character has her strong opinions, but the book itself is really just about the need to face these issues head-on. Different ideas about birth and reproductive issues and bioethics aside, we all agree that women’s bodies (and hearts and minds and spirits) matter and new life is precious. Now how do we work together to change the culture of fear and silence around birth for you and for your friends and for our daughters and for their daughters? It’s time.
HG: This is your third book and your second novel. Was it harder this time? Easier? Any advice you have for young writers?
EA: The writing itself doesn’t really get easier, but the weight and strength behind it, a sense of rootedness, that does start to feel like more of a given. It’s kind of like yoga practice: I get stronger and more flexible and at the same time sort of softer and floatier the more I write. My advice is to read your eyeballs silly, and in so doing learn to be really discerning and articulate and unapologetic about what you like. Don’t be told what’s good. Read everything and decide for yourself what’s good.
HG: In your dream world, what do you want people to take away from After Birth?
EA: Such a good question. Friendship can save us from dark places, there is power in female biology, humor can get us through, you’re probably not crazy, there are no shortcuts to happiness, and conventional wisdom is always, always worth questioning.