On Elisa Albert’s website, you see a woman in a straitjacket, pencil clamped tightly in her bright red lips. That’s how Albert writes, despite pressure to conform or live a lie. Albert is all about brutal honesty. In her newest novel, After Birth (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), a young woman learns how to cope with becoming a mother. It isn’t pretty. But when reviewers peg her book as being about post- partum depression, Albert pushes back.
“It’s something that gets brought up again and again in all kinds of reviews,” Albert says. “Yet it doesn’t exist in the book itself. People tend to really want to use that as a way to understand this character. I push against that, because I think this character who is having a very sane reaction to a very insane culture.”
Albert instead describes her book as a story about a woman trying to find her way in life. “It’s not always easy, it’s not always neat, it’s not always clean. In fact, it’s very often very messy,” Albert says. “It tells a story in which everything is not hunky dory. There are no easy answers—it’s about a struggle.”
To help her through her struggle, Albert’s character, Ari, befriends another woman in a similar situation. Her strong connection with Mina helps both women maneuver the challenges of losing identity during pregnancy and motherhood. Part of the insanity Albert says women have to face when raising babies today is the expectation that they can do it alone. She says a better model is welcoming and accepting help from others, including grandparents, other relatives, and friends to share in the responsibilities of raising our children.
“The other idea in our culture that does harm is the idea that babies fill space in our lives, that our relationship with an infant is going to somehow fulfill us,” Albert says. “Infants are not capable of upholding their end of the bargain in that equation.”
Albert will read from her work, including After Birth and excerpts from a new work-in-progress, as part of the Gwen Frostic Reading Series on Thursday, November 15, at 7 p.m. in Room 157-159 of the Bernhard Center at Western Michigan University. The reading is free and open to the public.
After Birth is the winner of the 2016 Paterson Fiction Prize. It was named one of NPR’s Best Books of 2015, and was listed in O, The Oprah Magazine’s "10 Titles to Pick Up Now," among other notices. Albert is also the author of The Book of Dahlia (2008); How This Night is Different (2006); and was the editor of the anthology Freud’s Blind Spot (2010). She lives in upstate New York with her family.
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