Human Blues, the complex fourth novel from Elisa Albert, tells the story of an indie rocker through nine menstrual cycles, as she tries to get pregnant. By her side, keeping her warm and spiritually alive through the labyrinth of doctors and unsolicited advice, is none other than the spirit of Amy Winehouse. This plot and structure alone made it a radical read. But Albert goes deeper. In the singular voice of Aviva Rosner, one worthy of Mickey Sabbath, Albert takes on the foundations of our society: the mythologies of motherhood, the industrial fertility complex, medical hubris, and the barren spiritual landscape. In a voice and style all her own: at once kind, wise, scathing but always funny, Albert has created a story that will challenge all you hold dear. In this wide-ranging interview, we discuss everything from IVF, the Dobbs ruling, Taharat HaMishpacha, and trying out for Rent, among other juicy topics.
If part of the argument of Human Blues is that creativity is literal, then what was the gestation period like for this beauty? Was it an easy pregnancy? Complications?
It was a long, arduous pregnancy. The early stages were all fun and games, but as gestation wore on I began to despair, like a lot of pregnant people do, that I might be pregnant forever. (No complications. But also no interest in pathologizing as a matter of course, so not much looking for complications, either. Que sera, sera.) The gestation metaphor is only useful up to a point, though: what about birth? In the early stages of birth, oftentimes people are like wheeee this is fun, yay, i’m in labor, it’s happening, i’m having a baby! (Look at me, I’m writing a novel!!) Then things get focused and real. Then it dawns on the birthing person that oh shit, this is really, really demanding, hard work. This is when small talk and politeness go out the window. You can see a birthing person begin to face the music when they stop caring what they look like, stop caring what sounds they’re making, stop worrying about whether their ass is showing. In the transition stage of labor there’s often a moment of you know what? Let’s call this whole thing off. I don’t want to do this after all. I can’t do this. Stop this train. Nope, no thanks. It all aligns nicely with the process of bringing a novel to fruition, in my experience.
David Foster Wallace famously talks about writing (in a non-PC way) as a sort of deformed infant following you around… Where did this book start? From whence the seed?
I wanted to write about someone dealing with – and being disappointed by – a negative pregnancy test. It began there. I knew early that the menstrual cycle was going to have to be the organizing principle, because when a person is wanting to conceive, the menstrual cycle is of utmost importance. And I knew quite a lot about the menstrual cycle, myself, having been an eager and fascinated student of my own. I also knew, from casual observation/conversation with a lot of my peers, that a seriously bizarre number of otherwise very well educated, literate, politically progressive menstruating adults have a huge vacuum of knowledge about their own menstrual cycles. How in God’s name can we expect to achieve reproductive freedom or control if we are comfortable in such ignorance!? It’s a disconnect. Also… I love reading super lowbrow magazines, and I kept seeing such dumb, glossed-over descriptions of (extremely rich/famous) folks using reproductive technology, always couched in this weird blankness/silence. Compared to what I knew of the immense vulnerability/suffering inherent in real-world repro-tech… it just nagged at me. BAM: Aviva. Total weirdo creature following me around. Someone who is wholeheartedly yearning for pregnancy, but frustrated, thwarted, denied. Someone with access and privilege who is not comfortable automatically looking toward medical technology for a “fix” or workaround. She begged for further exploration. What is her problem? In every sense. I didn’t know whether or not she herself was going to “submit” to repro-tech. She led me through the pros and cons and on-the-other-hands.
Is it worth asking about Trump, the election and the process of writing this book? The book avoids naming Trump. Is that purposeful?
I’m not big into politics in general. I find politics gruesome and fake and boring, to be honest. It’s worth noting that the actual antonym to the word “politic” is “genuine”. When people talk politics, I tend to want to leave the room. There’s probably food that needs preparing or dishes that need washing or children that need reading-to or dogs that need walking or plants that need watering or elders that need witnessing or buttons that need sewing back on or a stoop sale that needs organizing. I vote, I read the news, I don’t walk around with a bucket over my head. But the idea of politics as entertainment or identity or as a stand in for basic real-world (read:domestic/community) work… disgusts me. Also? Nobody looks at yesterday’s news for enlightenment or meaning. But lots and lots and lots of us look at yesterday’s literature and art and music for meaning/enlightenment.
When did the Amy Winehouse strand get woven into the fun? Was it always there?
I wrote a massive Back to Black proposal for Bloomsbury’s 33 ⅓ series, and when they rejected it, I was pissed (it really is an obnoxiously heavy lift of a proposal process). But it was too late: I was already down the Winehouse rabbit hole. I was going through some heartache at the time (LOL what else is new), and Winehouse really nailed my feelings of doom, of defiance, of romantic longing and disappointment and annoyance. Can one be both a martyr and a master of self-destruction? An angel and a demon? An idol and a cautionary tale? These seemed like big questions in direct conversation with Aviva.
Does the Dobbs ruling change how we read this book? Does the story change if IVF is no longer an individual’s choice?
Dobbs can only come as a shock to those of us who had been coasting along on the delusion that Roe was great and we were all doing just fine with it. I’ve been getting questions like this a lot. Repro-tech is currently not on the chopping block. “Selective reduction” might be, but it’s not useful to conflate all of this, in my opinion. Everyone is freaking out and wondering what, in fact, Dobbs will mean for Assisted Reproductive Technologies. For discarding embryos deemed “imperfect” or “abnormal”. I don’t have answers or a crystal ball, but what I can say is that we are collectively way, way, way behind the horse when it comes to understanding/regulating/questioning these procedures in the first place. If Dobbs makes us sit up and take notice of that, good. What has come (painfully) to the fore with the Dobbs is the fact that reproductive justice is never, has never been, and will never be a passive proposition. Justice by its very nature is an ongoing struggle. The folks who are willfully ignorant about menstrual cycles, pregnancy, birth, mammalian bodily functions, and fully compliant with lies they’re told about their own bodies… well, I often notice that these are the very same people who tend to be the most dramatically upset and shocked by Dobbs. Oh my god they’re trying to control our bodies!!! YEAH, YA THINK? Time to step up, maybe? You can’t be both ignorant and empowered at the same time. Sorry, it sucks. Welcome.
I ran into an acquaintance right after Dobbs, and she came rushing over with her hands over her face, shrieking: I’m not even going to ask how you are, because IT’S JUST SO HORRIBLE! And I just stood there like, What!? Lady, please do go ahead and ask me how I am; humane interpersonal relations are an extra good idea in troubled times. And yeah, it sucks, so maybe instead of the hand-wringing you want to join in on some local action? Like chipping in for mason jars and sterile cannulas so we can do an MVA training session, and every doula in our community can be equipped to do a perfectly safe “menstrual extraction” in ten minutes with no anesthesia up to 12 weeks gestation? What’s that? Oh, you have no idea what an MVA is? Too busy hand-wringing, huh? Well, cut it the fuck out, and get busy.
What does writing about a different type of artist offer you? Can you sing? Can you play the guitar?
Sabbath’s Theater was a model for this book. The maximalism, the fearlessness, the darkness and grief and rage and humor. The just barely redemptive arc. And I just love that Mickey Sabbath is (or was) a puppeteer. It’s art, it’s theater, it’s the same concerns we all share across creative disciplines. It’s being both free of and cast out of the workaday world, to some extent. It’s seeing things slant. It’s being slightly less fearful of creation and destruction than is perhaps “normal”. I didn’t want to write about a writer. Too easy. Aviva’s not my Zuckerman. I don’t think I want a Zuckerman.
I can sing, albeit with very limited range. Nina Simon’s “My Baby Just Cares For Me” is my karaoke showstopper. I tried out for the national company of RENT when I was like 20. I sing every chance I get. I love it, bad. Can’t play the guitar, though. Some other life, I hope; seems like such a beautiful tool, and the ideal instrument, really.
Body literacy: was there research here, and what do you recommend?
Years and years of research, from personal experience talking to doctors and naturopaths and acupuncturists and nutritionists and herbalists and midwives and elders and friends upon friends upon friends. Gathering, reading, noticing, listening, observing. Body literacy is an infinite and individual process, with humility at its core. The moment someone claims certainty, ultimate truth or knowledge, run. Pyramid schemes beware. Essential oils, whatever. Understanding the history of women’s bodies under patriarchy before and since industrialization is a good first step to make any thinking person look askance at quick-fix prescriptions/treatments/protocol, especially for the “female” body. Adrienne Rich’s monumental Of Woman Born will easily reorganize every dumb cultural inheritance about childbearing. Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English’s Midwives, Witches, and Nurses and For Her Own Good are fundamental. Deirdre Cooper Owens’ Medical Bondage is a barn-burner about the history of race and obstetrics. Julie Holland’s Moody Bitches gets real good and dirty about the psychic-emotional pathologization ubiquitous to menstruating people in this culture. Jennifer Block’s Everything Below the Waist is an indispensable journalistic feat. Barbara Katz Rothman’s A Bun in the Oven is ingenious about two historically female preoccupations, food prep and fertility, and how industrializing both food and fertility is… perhaps not in the best interest of the human animals at stake.
The reproductive body is enormously powerful, enormously frightening, “uncontrollable”, and enormously valuable. I often think of it in Marxist terms: whoever controls the means of production has all the power. Menstruating people are the means of production. Lie back, ladies, hush now, trust us, think of the children!!
It’s interesting to think about menstrual literacy being a positive thing, because some of the information about menstruation I knew vaguely from learning Tractace Niddah, so I think of cycle literacy being used as a weapon, a way to circumscribe and control women.
I love talking about Taharat ha Mishpacha and Niddah, but it’s important to note that I do so on my own terms, within the unique confines of my own private boundaries, entirely on my own comfort level. It’s something I chose to learn about, and I pick and choose the ways I engage with it, what I like and find useful, and what I decline. I’m not beholden to anyone else’s interpretation of it or demands around how it is fulfilled. So to me, it’s hugely insightful and empowering. A useful lens. Had I grown up in an oppressive environment wherein I was not given the option to pick-and-choose from among the teachings and dictates of Taharat Ha Mishpacha, I expect I would feel very differently about it. But lucky me: I have the privilege and luxury and power of being the ultimate and only authority on how and when and why it relates to my own life and cycle. So for me, it’s rad and empowering and beautifully complex. Again: ignorance is the enemy of freedom and choice. I come to it within the context of a broad and deep education and total personal freedom. Lucky, lucky me. Call me an idealist: I want this for everybody. Informed choice. Informed. Choice. Cannot have one without the other. And it’s the shit.
I see critics pointing out how ingenious the structure of the book is, but it’s important to note that it’s not just the shell of the story, but the plot of the story itself, which seems in a way far more radical… I wonder if you could talk about the choice of structure, the way it informs the arguments of the book.
Time and weather, baby: the refrain of the body and the book and our lives here on this troubled rock. There are so many ways to experience time: via seasons, via observance of Shabbat, via the coming and going of money, via cycles of work and play, sunrises and sunsets, via the Gregorian calendar. This is just one more way. Another dimension. I have found it helpful to know it, to notice it. I only wish I had been more educated and aware from the onset. It’s a great teacher, if you want to learn its lessons.
Narrative structure is the biggest decision a storyteller has to make. I think it’s bigger than perspective/voice. Bigger than plot because it is plot. How you frame a story is the story. As a writer, my top priority is avoidance of cliche. Embrace or avoidance of cliche is what separates entertainment from art (which isn’t to say that entertainment can’t be artful and art can’t be entertaining). How has no one ever written a menstrual cycle novel until now!? Fear? Ignorance? Yikes. Everyone on earth originates from a menstruating body, like it or not. There are those who claim that true freedom will only come from total technocratic separation of reproduction from menstruating bodies, but when I consider that I just see more opportunities for exploitation and oppression. Can we really believe that, having failed thus far to honor and empower and protect the integrity of menstruating bodies, under technocratic rule we will somehow achieve some kind of utopia? Has no one read any sci-fi? How willfully blind can you get?
I loved Christine Smallwood’s Life of the Mind, incidentally, which takes place over a few days during the main character’s miscarriage. And Pamela Erens’ Eleven Hours, which takes place entirely during labor and delivery. Oriana Fallaci wrote a stunning novel called Letter to a Child Never Born, which is also about a miscarriage. (Yes, I know Fallaci expressed some bigoted garbage political opinions late in life, but that novel remains awesome.)
From “Voice” to “Song”, the chapters of the book teach you how to read it. Toward the end, Aviva opines about style being borne out of desperation. Can you expand on that idea?
I think all art is borne of desperation. A need to find or create meaning. To redeem our miserable little lives. To make something good or interesting out of rage and disappointment and heartbreak and hurt and confusion. To try and make order of chaos, sense out of meaninglessness and misery. Maybe just the keeping of records makes things hurt less. I have a deep need to try and make sense of what the hell is going on, here. As Jeanette Winterson says in her beautiful essay collection “Art Objects”: if the arts somehow ceased to exist they would be immediately invented anew.
Nine cycles: feels like Something is birthed, but what? Aviva’s newest album? Elisa Albert’s new novel? A new Aviva? The fruition of barrenness? The nine cycles also feel like mystical sefirot, a sort of spiral upward toward transcendence of ego/want…
All of those things are birthed: Bingo. We’re all spiraling toward transcendence of ego/want, whether we know it or not. Whether we want it or not. Whether we fight it or not. Aviva gets to do so in a somewhat neater, more contained way than we do, because she’s the star of her very own novel. Cool trick, huh?
Is spiritual change possible?
I really, really hope so. I’m not a nihilist.
As one of Aviva’s interviewers in the novel notes, mistrust of doctors and medical science comes up in a lot of your work… I wonder if you can elaborate on this theme, on how it plays out in your thinking, in your life. From whence the obsession? (It also reminds me of Larry David, in a way, and how he has such contentious relationships with doctors…)
I am very typical in many ways: my parents and grandparents were upwardly-mobile Jews who believed in doctors like some people believe in capital-G God. To them, access to the “best” doctors and the most interventive approach meant that they had “arrived”. That they were “safe”. The more expensive or busy or elite the doctor, the better. Do as the Good Doktor says and all will be well. There’s a whole lot to be said for the evolution of medical science, and for access to appropriate care when necessary. But it’s that “appropriate” and “necessary” that complicate the issue.
My mother was treated unconscionably in birth by the “best” doctors, in alignment with the ignorant, hideous (if not frankly criminally inhumane) fashion of the time. My brothers and I were nursed on microwaved formula not because she “chose” that route (yay, choice), but because, like all her friends, she was brainwashed and berated into it: breastfeeding was “disgusting” and “low class”, quoth the physician. Every single sniffle or cough in our household was treated with heavy-duty antibiotics. Miracle drugs, right? Vey iz mir. Faced with an “irregular” menstrual cycle (entirely common in teen girls, by the way), I was put on the Pill. Like Aviva, I wasn’t aware of the severe and often lasting metabolic consequences of those pills. (And, to my great dismay at the time, I wasn’t even close to sexually active, anyway). My eldest brother was diagnosed with a brain tumor at 24, and given roughly five years to live. He was a physicist, a literal rocket scientist, and he opted for the most aggressive treatment available. After the first surgery and rounds of radiation, he had an okay, productive, full few years of life. For which we were all grateful. But then, inevitably, the shit came back. And for the last two years of his life, I watched him voluntarily tortured – that’s the only way I can describe it. Experimented upon. Opened up. Skull sawed open again, again. For what? For what. For someone’s sick idea of fun? For science? Fuck that. He died alone in an institutional bed. He should have been in his own bed. He should have been surrounded by loved ones. Our parents shouldn’t have been seduced into imagining that maybe he was going to be okay, because Doctor So-And-So who went to WhateverFuckingMedSchool thought they could try another exciting new torture.
Death is not pathology. Death is fucking death. At some point fighting it is pathology.
I remember once, when I was around fifteen, after he had been diagnosed, doing some of my own reading about the tumor, the location, etc. And I said to my parents, who weren’t often in the same room, “David’s going to die from this.” And they lost their shit at me. Reunited, if only briefly, in their castigation of the nasty little Cassandra bitchrag daughter they both perhaps wished would die instead. How dare I suggest such a thing. How dare I how dare I how dare I. As though speaking the truth meant I was the inventor of said truth.
After he was dead, when I was in college, I went to the Health Center to “talk to someone”, because the Dead Brother Thing was excruciatingly lonely. My parents were too wrapped up in their own grief and narcissism to offer any emotional support, and the other surviving sibling was utterly and permanently shut down. There was a long waiting list to “talk to someone”, but I was instantly offered Zoloft. Which I thought was cool, because I knew Michael Stipe from REM took it. So: great. By which I mean: fuck no.
Oh! Let’s not forget about the very popular Beverly Hills pediatrician (dead now, fortunately) who routinely molested me. It took me until my thirties to “discover” that the shit he did to me was not normal routine “check-up” protocol for little girls. And where was my mother? Probably sitting in the room, blissfully ignorant, herself.
Long story short: my life has been profoundly marked by doctor-trauma.
Doctors are not gods, unless you buy into the sado-masochistic patriarch model of “God”, which, hey: a lot of people seem to do! There’s something attractive about relinquishing agency; “trusting” the doctor, assuming the passive position so that you can be acted upon, helpless frightened little mortal you are. It’s kind of lovely when not much is required of you aside from cooperation. Lab-coated authority figure, take me away!
There’s a lot medical technology is great for. If I break a bone, if my appendix bursts, if I develop a staph infection, if my placenta is growing over my cervix, if I need a pacemaker, if I sustain a gunshot wound… please let me avail myself of the “best” doctors in the “best” institutions from the “best” schools, thank you. Otherwise? Do not fucking touch me.
I will gratefully partake of medical care that serves me, if and when true necessity arises, but I will not serve it.
Do we have responsibilities toward artistic creations, are they sacred or precious? Are they given to us?
I think of my writing as a gift. Yes, I have studied and practiced my ass off. Yes, I am a committed and faithful practitioner of this art, this craft. I struggle with it, I get petulant and frustrated when I come up against the limits of my abilities. But I do think of it as a gift, and I do believe you have to serve your gift. Whatever your gift is.
You describe creation as a natural process, one that cannot be forced. I don’t feel this way about what I create. It’s usually a terrific struggle that comes from nowhere but what I can wrestle down. I guess I’m a true avowed secularist, materialist. I don’t see anything holy in humans or in what we create at all.
I envy the fuck out of you! Sort of.
Aviva seems to be unabashed in her Jewishness. She feels the need to assert that Jews still exist, she thinks in terms of anti-semitism. I wonder what a Jewish book means to you, and how Jewishness is a part of this book. Aviva has a jeremiad aspect going on, a sort of crying out for all the Jews and spiritual seekers of the world that they’ve lost their way.
Everyone’s lost their way. All of us. Isn’t that just the perpetual truth?
I love the old joke that what makes a novel Jewish is it being questioned in the context of whether, and how, it is Jewish.
As someone who doesn’t really have strong feelings about social media, and if I do they’re mostly positive, I wonder if you could flesh out more the internal conflict Aviva feels. Why not just give it up?
There’s this radical book of essays by Doris Lessing called Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, which, though it was written in the 1980’s, speaks perfectly to the problems of the mass behavior modification experiment known as social media.
In short: we know what we are like. We know what happens to our minds and our behavior in group settings. We know we don’t make great decisions in groups. We have so much history and psychology and anthropology and sociology behind us! We have so much information and data about how unwise we are! Why, why does all this information and data not help us safeguard ourselves and our societies? We are terribly herd-mentality creatures. We’re really not that bright, ultimately, because even though we can shoot penis-shaped rockets into outer space, and sequence the genome, and even though we invented the fucking wheel, we can not, will not, resist new opportunities to be tribal, to be cruel, to lie and cheat and steal, to misuse resources, to hoard, to soothe ourselves with self-serving politics and cozy groupthink and numbing agents galore. Technology changes. Fashion changes. Specifics change. Power changes hands. But human nature is forever. Anyway, instagram is fun and colorful and window-shopping really makes the time pass, don’t it?
Aviva isn’t a proper liberal; she flirts with conservatism. Her embrace of Freudianism, spirituality, sense of what’s “natural”, annoyance with identity politics, everything running back to parents, childhood trauma, replacement parents and siblings throughout. Her critique of repro-tech as hubristic. And isn’t mourning the unborn another path toward thinking that abortion is murder of the unborn?
Again, I think politics are boring and false and meaningless. Best I can tell, I personally am a Socialist. I vote pretty much straight down the Working Families line. Do I have faith that politics can “save” us? I most certainly do not. It’s a stinking shitpile in every direction. Yes, I’ll take Kamala over Pence any day of the week and twice on Sunday. But I can’t fucking believe how much time so many seemingly intelligent people spend fellating the news cycle. I’m a problematic queer ass bitch who has been glued hard to our culture for four decades, and who makes a (questionable) living holding people’s legs up while they push babies out, making up messy funny dark weird “provocative” stories about big messy complicated misanthropic people, and telling other people what to read if they think they really want to try and be writers. Do i give half a flying fuck about classifications like “conservative” and “liberal”? I do not.
This idea that if you’re a “liberal” you think and do this set of things, and if you’re a “conservative” you think and do this other set of things… ummmmmm, count me out.
I have, I must admit, not read much (okay, any) Freud. I did have a supremely gifted therapist for many years who had a portrait of Freud in his office, so maybe there was some osmosis going on?
There’s a recurring misconception (LOLZ, gotta pause on that word) that Aviva is anti-repro-tech. Yes, she jokes about white twins in expensive strollers pushed by brown nannies in Manhattan. Yes, she writes a song in which she wonders at the different tastes of apples grown in pesticide-heavy hydroponic factories versus apples grown from heirloom seed in organic soil. Yes, she pushes more than a few buttons (what on earth else do we want from our artists!?). Yes, she struggles to accept repro-tech for herself. But the novel is nothing more than a record of that struggle. She wants to want to do it. She kind of hates herself for not wanting to do it. It’s a really painful dynamic, to my eye. I felt her pain the whole way. I couldn’t make her do it. I couldn’t make her want to do it. But I could pay really close attention to her and follow her where she wanted to lead me.
For her, there is no “unborn” child. There is only the “unconceived” child. Massive difference, there. And like she muses at some point in the novel: how interesting that desire is everything – if you want a child, a blastocyst/embryo/fetus is a precious gift, a commodity, a thing of enormous value. And if you do not want a child, a blastocyst/embryo/fetus is something to be rid of. The only difference is desire. I love that. It’s wild. We are a wild species. Bee-tee-dubs, I don’t think logic has much place in womb-life. (One of the reasons womb-life is so terrifying to “the authorities”, historically speaking.) I think people mourn the unconceived, the unborn, the aborted, the miscarried, the stillborn, the born… name it. I don’t think grief aligns with politics. Yet another way in which politics can go fuck itself.
From a purely pragmatic perspective, what remains for me as the author of this “provocative” character with un-pin-down-able politics is this: there is scant literature about the immense problems with repro-tech’s unregulated money and ethics and dearth of longitudinal studies. People’s lives are at stake. If repro-tech worked out for you and you love it and you believe in it and you’re all for it, mazel tov: please get to the front of the line to question it and hold it accountable and ruthlessly advocate for better ethics, money, and science. If you tried it and your kid was born prematurely and/or was smaller than their peers throughout childhood and/or had cancer and/or metabolic disorders, please come forward and interrogate the shit out of it. If you tried it and it fucked you sideways and you’re broke and ill and still childless, I’m sorry, but get busy, speak up, burn that shit to the ground. In other words, it can’t be about how anyone else feels about repro-tech, or chooses to engage with repro-tech. There. Is. No. Such. Thing. As. Other. People’s. Children. It’s about taking responsibility for how we collectively use technology, versus how we allow ourselves to be used by technology. We have a bad track record when it comes to using technology responsibly. Starting with Prometheus. On through Frankenstein. If people can’t or won’t reckon with that, shame.
Aviva is particularly memorable because you want to hug her and hate her at the same time and in that way she’s a great stand-in for how we relate to ourselves. But that makes her provocative.
Aviva’s a mirror. She’s an inkblot. She belongs to the reader. And you’re exactly right: she’s a stand-in for the unruly Self.
The word provocative (or the brain-dead version: “unlikeable”) is a red flag because it suggests that even a fictional woman should not, must not, cannot have a full range of emotion, intellect, experience. She should always remain within the confines of the acceptable, the likable, the agreeable. What “provocative” seems to further imply is that we don’t necessarily want to deal with deep, difficult questions in literature, at least not where females are concerned. I’m always like, honey: there await you at this very moment roughly seven thousand distinct pastel paperbacks in which a bored housewife in Brooklyn or Dubai or London time travels to her first love so she can figure out how to be grateful for her boring privileged little life, and get back to shopping. Run along and enjoy!! Everything is not for everyone!
(Whenever I hear someone hauling out that tired “likability” trope I’m like OMG LOL have you met yourself!?)
There’s also something saintly about her insistence to live truly and purely by ideals that make other people question their commitments and convictions. Aviva’s got a Mickey Sabbath attitude of whatever, I’m just trying to live in this fucked up body, but she’s also a preacher. It doesn’t seem enough for her to do right by herself, or be allowed to choose, she wants others to see their error.
It’s lonely to have an unpopular opinion, to be out of step with the mainstream. To want what most other people cannot understand and to be unable to understand what most other people want. I believe this to be one of the fundamental definitions of queer. (Genitals and what people like to do with them interest me less than worldview.) It’s a very hard, lonely place to live. You want to find others like you, and the only way to do that is to throw up a bat signal, but if you get caught throwing up that signal, you are probably going to be in trouble with the normies.
I think the “error” Aviva sees is not in others wanting different things, but in others’ refusal to engage the hard questions at all. It’s the monkey no see monkey no hear monkey no speak approach to life that Aviva can’t tolerate. Better not to know? Do as you’re told? Everyone else is doing it? What the fuck is that?? Lord, what a waste of consciousness. Look alive, people. Fuck the surface of things.
Spiritual transformation seems to come about with experience of meeting Mum Winehouse. The mass-continuous shiva for something non-existent/dead. And there also seems to be the sense that finally Aviva can give and receive love from the Supreme Mother, Mum, the mother of all….Can you expand on what transforms Aviva in this encounter?
A softness, a humorous detachment, a total lack of judgment. Aviva’s mother, Barb, is hilariously judgmental and harsh. Aviva comes by her extreme critical self-loathing honestly! But Mum, the Ur-Mother, a mother who lost her own precious, impossible daughter… There’s this gentleness, a real loving awareness. Here’s a different sort of bereftness. A model of how to be bereft and still soft. What can you do about life’s horrible intractibilities? You can do precisely nothing. What can you do? Mum repeats this over and over again: What can you do? Nothing. Nothing. Embrace others with whom you share grief. The daughter who refused to live, the daughter who refuses to exist. Nonexistence as, maybe, just another choice. You can’t tell a girl like that what to do. You can’t tell anybody what to do. And why would you want to!? What does that make you, telling someone else what to do? Her life belonged to her. She didn’t want it. That was her prerogative. Her choice. Bodies belong to the souls inside them, and to no one else. The way Aviva has that horrible hormonal migraine and is just trying to suffer through it, to grin and bear it, to live under the weight of that crushing pain, to just “accept” it, and Hubby’s like, “That’s bollocks, here’s some Advil.” An invitation to take herself just a little less seriously. An invitation to see into other modes of being, of dealing, of living with disappointment, heartache, sorrow, pain. The reality that you have to try and find a way to be happy and “have a laugh” in life in spite of all the horror and grief and intractability. It’s okay. A different model for Aviva. An openness, an intimacy offered freely, with no sharp edges. Generosity of spirit. Kindness. She wanted to have that mother. She wanted to be that mother. No dice. What can you do? Nothing. Have some tea and a cuddle. Have a laugh. Go home. Go to bed.
Ralph Ellison wrote: “The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.” Seems relevant.
Amen. To those who feel, life is a tragedy. To those who think, a comedy. A good novel’s got to have both Intellectual and emotional honesty. A lot of novels have one or the other, but the ones that leave you changed, they always have both. Transcendence is subjective and rare. Philosophy is a game, God is a concept, politics is a shit stew… Nothing that matters is worth arguing over or feigning certainty about. Your intractable sufferings, whatever they are, if they can become a musical catechism, that’s the blues. Powerful, time-honored way of enacting your own transcendence, even if only for the duration of a song.
Photo: Tanja Hollander