We are thrilled to interview the fabulous sci-fi author Meg Elison, whose award-winning book, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, was the Litsy Feminist Book Club selection for December. Her dystopian world brings the reader into a world without law, order, and for the most part– women.
“I wrote my first book thinking there was time to create fiction that could serve as a warning. I write my third wondering if it will survive some future purge to stand as proof of a world that once was.”-Meg Elison
What books, movies, or other texts do you see your series in communication with?
This list is long, and it includes things that influenced my work and the chain that continues forward in time. I was heavily influenced by two books: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and P.D. James’ Children of Men. I read every book I could find in the post-apocalyptic genre in a language I can read and in nearly every single one, it is the story of a man. The exceptions to this rule were precious to me. There were books that I loved (The Stand and The Road) where male authors had written female characters, but they barely scratched the surface of how different the end of the world would be for a woman. The former does a little of the legwork; discussing IUDs and inherited antibodies, but stops short of really understanding a woman’s position, despite a pregnant protagonist. The latter simply does away with the only woman in the story as soon as the magical boy is born so that father and son may carry on.
I came to understand through this course of reading that the apocalypse is always asymmetrical. It isn’t the same for men as for women, for oppressed people as for the people who hold the majority of the world’s resources. But most of the story wasn’t being told. I sunk myself into works like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower to figure out how to address that asymmetry.
After my book came out, the conversation continues with works like Mad Max: Fury Road, N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, and Jennifer Marie Brissett’s Elysium. I see my work in communication with every story about women and queer people when the road runs out and every man (ha) is for himself.
This book was published a few years ago, and dystopia seems to be even more relevant than ever. How do you see your writing in the current political and cultural climate?
It’s been harder to write the third book in this series than it was to write the first. I had the germ of the idea for “Midwife” in 2012, when Mitt Romney was running for president. It’s so tame by today’s standards that it’s funny now to look back on, but that was the beginning of what we were calling the War on Women. Romney is a classic patriarchal enforcer, and he had gaffes galore when it came to his perception of his “binders” full of women. However, Romney wasn’t my primary concern: 2012 was also a battleground year for abortion rights as many states made it impossible for women to exercise their reproductive rights or obtain safe, affordable, dependable birth control.
I was enraged then; I wrote “Midwife” in a white-hot rage that refused to leave me, even when my tale was told. The rage that I feel now is another species of rage entirely; something unlike anything I’ve ever felt. I wrote “Midwife” when I was a white-hot knife, but now I’ve gone supernova. There’s a dangerous racist misogynist demagogue in the White House. I have to confront that, every single day. I have to watch a century of progress bought with women’s blood slide backward until I fear we will be left with nothing; not choice, not the vote, NOTHING. I have to fret about what bathroom people are allowed to use and if our marriages will remain legal and whether I will have to hide Muslim friends in the crawlspaces of my house. I have to live under the threat of nuclear war on top of all that.
The apocalypse I dealt with as a metaphor in 2012 has crossed the border, through nightmare country and into my everyday waking concerns. I wrote my first book thinking there was time to create fiction that could serve as a warning. I write my third wondering if it will survive some future purge to stand as proof of a world that once was.
How did your writing process change from the diary entries to the narrative formats? Which was easier to write or what helped inform your use of the diary?
I originally planned to write the entire book as a diary. I have a special fascination with epistolary works; I love how they both limit the readers’ perspective while also giving them deep and nearly unfettered access to a character’s inner life. Halfway into the work, I knew that there were sections that could be better told through a somewhat wider lens. I wanted to follow some other characters a little closer, and a diary is no good for that (hell is other people’s writing.) Neither form was really easier; I think of styles of writing like tools in a toolbox. I try to use the right tool for each job.
The midwife encounters many circumstances in which she has to disrupt sexual or physical abuse. What do you think of the idea of trigger warnings for a book?
I absolutely believe “Midwife” and The Book of Etta both deserve a trigger or content warning. That’s not a common practice in publishing yet, so I’ve tried to communicate clearly via social media and direct outreach whenever possible that my work contains frank and graphic descriptions of sexual assault. When I speak to students who are assigned to read my work, I tell them flat-out. I’ve had readers reach out to me to tell me that they powered through their own trauma while reading my books, or that they set them aside while pregnant because they were unable to go on. I respect my readers enough to know that many of them read reviews to look for information that will help them be gentle with themselves, and I’m grateful for that. If you enjoyed my book enough to recommend it to another person, I definitely think it bears mentioning. A book is not threatened by an informed reader.
The midwife packs for her apocalyptic journey different than most: depo-provera and needles, the patch, the ring, tampons, along with a map, flashlights, and batteries. You write “Women have to pack more in the apocalypse.” How did you start to think about the world of women after civilization ends?
I thought about myself! Like most Californians, I have a disaster bag in case of earthquake or wildfire, and I remember rotating out supplies in mine and my husband’s and realizing how different they are. I need twice as much underwear as he does. I have to pack tampons, birth control, and a handful of other things he would never have to consider. From there, I thought about how many more single mothers there are than single fathers, and how they’d have to evacuate and pack for their children in order to get them to safety. People joke that women over-pack or carry big purses, but there are legitimate reasons for both of those habits.
I’m seeing more and more political discourse on the subject of contraception as a central issue for women, and I think it’s about time that we say that. A woman cannot plan a career unless she can decide whether to get pregnant, when, and by whom. She cannot control her life in any substantive way without the ability to control her reproduction. The lives that women lived before safe and effective birth control were not their own; they existed as baby-bearing chattel in many cases and lived to the ripe old age of dead in childbirth. Most of us were born in the latter half of the twentieth century; almost every woman we know is one some form of birth control. Losing civilization means losing hot showers and chocolate and gasoline and the internet, and all of that is terrifying. Losing birth control means relinquishing any semblance of equality with men. That is a fear that shakes me to my core.
We have to ask, are you a prepper at all? How has either recent events or writing this book made you think about disasters?
Some of the most stunning parts of the diary are the midwife’s “talks” to amp up her male self: “Bitch, I am a man. Females. Talk too much. Quit crying…” She wraps herself in a traditional, “tough” male persona, but the overall discussions of gender are so sophisticated and nuanced in the text. How do you see gender identity fitting into the reproductive and societal themes of the novel?
What gives you hope these days?
What are the three best books you’ve read this year?
It’s been a great year for books and it’s tough to whittle this down! First, Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women. It is an astonishing collection of stories that wounded and delighted me. It’s not marketed as science fiction/fantasy because she’s a literary author, but much of it belongs firmly in genre. It’s unflinchingly visceral and there are few searing images in it that I’ll never forget. She’s an incredible talent.
Next: Catherynne M. Valente’s The Refrigerator Monologues. If you are a fan of comics and at all concerned with the plight of what Gail Simone called “women in refrigerators,” this book is for you. It had me howling from the first page. Valente doesn’t own characters like Jean Grey or Harley Quinn, but you’ll know when she’s ringing their bell. I laughed reading this and sobbed minutes later. Cat Valente is one of the finest living writers in the English language and I thank the gods every day I am nothing like her as an artist. The comparison would kill me.
“Even when the books are bleak, I am hopeful because we are still allowed to write them, still allowed to get them for free from the library.”-Meg Elison