To say that Elisa Albert‘s novel After Birth avoids expectations would be the very definition of an understatement. On the surface, the plot may seem familiar: Ari, the novel’s narrator, is the mother of a small child; she seeks out a onetime musician, Mina, who arrives in the college town where Ari lives in the hopes of friendship. That, as a summary, doesn’t do justice to the sense of disquiet that pervades the novel, nor does it capture Ari’s narrative voice, which conveys the narrative through scenes both visceral and hallucinatory. It’s a fantastic read. I checked in with Albert via email to learn more about the process of writing the book, her take on upstate life, and more.
Ari’s narrative voice throughout After Birth is one of the strongest I’ve encountered in the last few years. Was that the first element of the novel that came to you–or was it more that this was the right voice to tell this particular story?
Yes. Story and voice are inextricable for me. I can’t conceive of one without the other. Chicken, egg.
Throughout the novel, Ari and Mina discuss Mina’s musical history. How much of the history of her old band, the Misogynists, had you mapped out ahead of time?
I was listening to The Gits a lot, haunted by the story of Mia Zapata, the lead singer, who was raped and murdered in Seattle in 1993 at age, yes, 27. I love her voice. So at the inception of Mina I was marinating in Mia Zapata’s voice. And I wanted to just erase the rape and murder, just eradicate it, not engage with it at all. So I think I was imagining the music of The Gits but without any of the story surrounding The Gits. I invented a new band who might have made that sound. It was kind of unconscious, but that’s what I was doing.
In her review of the novel at Electric Literature, Jeva Lange talked about the cultural influence of Riot Grrrl. Did you know from the outset that Mina’s onetime band would come from the punk side of the spectrum?
Riot Grrrl has been co-opted to death, and as a label it rings cheap to me at this point. It was a moment, and it meant something, and now that moment is gone, and instead of engaging with where we are now, it’s just easier to use vintage shorthand. But what does it actually mean? A female artist who abhors bullshit? There have been plenty of those, long before and since Riot Grrrl. Find new words, or reach further back into the deeper past for more resonant old ones. It’s like “hippie” or something; funny, evocative of a moment in time, but no longer actually descriptive. Things grow ever more complex, and it’s our job to find new ways to be articulate. The trick for any artist is to be a step ahead, to evolve faster than can be packaged and sold.
We’re in a 90’s fascination moment, which, whatever, okay. I started junior high in 1990, and was shaped by what was going on in then-radical culture. It’s fascinating to see how it plays out, all this reverent nostalgia now. I was interested in the idea of a figure from that time who’s not interested in cashing in on any particular pre-packaged identity, who has made a life doing other things, and who just kind of shrugs where other people would be clinging to their 15 minutes. Courting fame is not so punk. Clinging to old labels is not so interesting.
After Birth has sections that are both visceral and dreamlike, and a few that blend the two. How did you find the balance between them?
Trial and error, naps, essential oils, time, meditation, and many meals prepared via slow cooker. I guess some were written under the influence of coffee and some under the influence of tea.
The town of Utrecht felt very tangible throughout the novel. Did you have a specific place in mind as an inspiration for it, or it more an archetypal upstate New York town where city dwellers find themselves migrating?
It was a hybrid of Albany, Troy, and Athens, with a pinch of Catskill and the tiniest dab of Hudson maybe five years ago.
What has been your own experience with upstate life?
Was a rough adjustment but pretty great over time. I miss living amidst all the curated food and clothing and people and art and delicious sophisticate stuff down in that creative Disneyland, but there’s a lot that’s enlivening and inspiring about living in this dear sorry old fucked up town. Money is less of a thing, and that always helps matters. I feel more activist here, less complacent, invested in my community, like some proto-Grace Paley at city council meetings. I grew up in L.A. and lived most of my adult life in NYC, both beautiful, aspirational, glittery, fun, obscene fantasias. So it’s been illuminating to be here, a place that is none of those things. I mean, not like it’s Gaza, but Rockefeller destroyed much of the old downtown in the seventies and paved over the street car tracks and built a highway along the river, and there are “bomb trains” sitting right up by the projects, and people drive too fast, and the billion-dollar Nanotech company uses SUNY as a tax shield, and a lot of beautiful old buildings are owned by slumlords, and there are no dedicated bike lanes yet. So it could be better. Turns out to be productive, living in “could be better.”
Photo: Phillip Angert