"I cannot live without books." -- Thomas Jefferson

Monday, March 2, 2015

On Fiction & Feminism with Author Elisa Albert

Elisa Albert [Photo: Elisa Albert]

1) Your book is fiction, but like your protagonist Ari you are also a mother in real life. How did your own experience of pregnancy/childbirth/motherhood shape the novel?

It plunged me into a world of which I'd previously had no concept, and opened my eyes. I needed an outlet for processing what I saw and felt and observed around me. Ari became my vehicle for thinking it through. It was like going to live in a foreign country. 

2) Ari is constantly struggling to incorporate her motherhood into her feminist politics. I think this belief has developed - even among feminists themselves - that birth and feminism are mutually exclusive, like you can't be a mother and also be a feminist. What do you think about that?

Feminism and motherhood have long been push/pull. There's a kind of stale understanding of both feminism and motherhood underlying that. As the poet/doula Carrie Murphy says: there's not enough birth in feminism and not enough feminism in birth. The two are in fact spectacularly intertwined, and can inform each other in fascinating ways. I recommend Adrienne Rich's "Of Woman Born" as an excellent place to start.

3) I'm sure you've heard the complaint that Ari is "too unlikeable" of a protagonist. I find this complaint interesting because - while it's true that there are some harsh elements of Ari's personality - I wouldn't say she goes as far as, say, a Bukowski or Henry Miller character, who are often glorified because they are so appalling. Do you think there's a double standard at play here?

A wild double standard, indeed. Regardless, debating the "likability" of fictional characters is a joke at this point. Bukowski and Miller and Nabokov and Roth write fucked up characters well, that's why we adore them. The writing is where it's at. What's actually unlikeable is turgid trite hesitant fearful prose, I'd venture. Written with wit and verve and lust and brains and tits and soul and heart, we can love absolutely anyone, and peek into the darkest reaches of human nature. That's what's awesome about literature. Anyway, usually the folks who cry "unlikeable" are those who just can't tolerate human frailty reflected back at themselves. 

4) Female friendships are a complex subject. Again, I think there's an incorrect assumption that all women naturally band together and are nurturing and loving to each other all of the time. There's also the opposite viewpoint - that women are judgmental, jealous, and spiteful when they're together. Where does Ari's and Mina's friendship land in all of this?

Ari and Mina have a rare and precious friendship that is absent competitiveness, insecurity, and passive-aggressive bullshit. It sucks that their kind of friendship is relatively rare, but it's also great, because it's so special. It's one of the first of its kind for Ari, so it's really vital and healing for her. 

5) I think there's been a recent movement by female artists to represent friendships between women in a more conscious and real way, like you do in your novel. Lena Dunham's "Girls" and Illana Glazer's and Abbi Jacobson's "Broad City" are two TV shows that come to mind. Can you suggest any other examples? 

I liked Hilary Mantel's "An Experiment in Love." Mary Gaitskill is good. "How Should a Person Be?" by Sheila Heti was good. Sex and the City? Laverne and Shirley? The Golden Girls? Representations of female friendship are often subplot, but they're very much there if you pay close attention. 

Elisa Albert will sign and discuss After Birth on Thursday, March 5 at 7pm. 

[Photo: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt]


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