Belle Boggs on Infertility, Waiting & Nature

The author discusses nonfiction and the bond of primates.

As may have been the case for some of you, Belle Boggs came on my radar in 2010 when Graywolf Press released her collection, Mattaponi Queen, a set of stories so wise, so elegant, so indissoluble, it seemed impossibly unfair that it was a debut. Two years later, I read her essay “The Art of Waiting” in Orion and thought, “Damn, that’s a book’s worth of material right there, and I’m dying to read that book.” Clearly, I was not alone in this line of thought. So it was joyous to hear that Boggs had indeed expanded that magnificent essay into this even more magnificent book, which is written with prodigious insight and a contemporaneous earnest, open-hearted seeking — a blend which makes for my favorite kind of narrative nonfiction. This book is an achievement of the highest order, and marks Boggs as master and commander of rendering the human heart.

It was an honor to speak with her, via email, about The Art of Waiting (Graywolf, 2016).

Vincent Scarpa: One of the things that I found so remarkable about The Art of Waiting is your gift for specificity and precision. For example, you identify yourself not as a woman who wants to be a mother, but as one with “child-longing.” “This is what I wanted,” you write. “To hold a child of my own, be clung to in that way that primate infants have — legs wrapped around my middle, a hand in my hair and another on my arm.” I suppose on the surface, to some, that isn’t much of a distinction, but it felt so integral to the book, to your self-sketching from a place where you “desperately want [your] body to work the way it is supposed to.” Knowing that you were writing into a sphere into which so many have contributed their stories, did such precision and specificity feel especially important to making the book singular?

Belle Boggs: I think I was lucky to have a specific, very smart audience in mind when I wrote some of the first material for the book, which was (in addition to my family) the readership of Orion magazine. Orion’s focus on nature/culture/place and my reading of other Orion essayists convinced me that to write about my experience of infertility, I needed to do a kind of closely-observed, specific, outwardly-focused kind of writing. I started my career as a fiction writer, and when I began writing nonfiction I tried to apprentice myself to the many science and nature writers I admire, people like Annie Dillard, Janisse Ray, Rachel Carson, Jane Goodall, Sarah Hrdy, Sy Montgomery — I love their clean, beautiful prose and the way their books teach you something while also being memorable, original, a pleasure to read. I had some idea when starting to think about the book that it would be like Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, but about fertility! It didn’t quite turn out that way, but I’m glad that river walks and cicada broods and bald eagles made their way into the book, and I hope they make it feel singular, as you suggest.

I also think it’s writing in this way, with detail and specificity, that makes it possible to address desire and motherhood and ambivalence and sadness — it makes the writing enjoyable, and makes it possible to turn away from those moments of disappointment and loss and sadness, toward something else.

VS: Another important distinction gets made early on; one that echoes the book’s title and its focus on waiting. “Nonhuman animals wait without impatience, without a deadline, and I think that is the secret to their composure,” you write, whereas humans have, “the conscious possibility of a new purpose, a sense of self not tied to reproduction.” I admire this exactness for so many reasons, but perhaps chief among them is that it places the human and the nonhuman on equal footing — something that you do so beautifully throughout the text, and something one rarely sees done. I know there’s an origin story regarding Jamani, a female gorilla at the North Carolina Zoo, but I wondered if you could talk a bit about what you were aiming for in the apposition of the stories of human and nonhuman animals. That the book is bookended by writing about Jamani felt especially lovely; a supremely wise structural choice.

BB: Oh, thank you for asking about Jamani! Her story was a fascinating one to me — when I wrote the essay that was the seed of the book, I followed Jamani’s pregnancy from the zoo’s announcement, which was momentous (it was the first gorilla pregnancy at the NC Zoo in 22 years), to the additional attention from veterinarians, the additional visitors to their enclosure, and the impact on her relationship with Acacia, the other female in her enclosure. I finished the essay, and worked with my editor on it, then learned that Jamani’s infant was stillborn; I added that information in (to the Orion essay) as a postscript. Later in the book, I write about how all the female gorillas conceive — Jamani conceives a second time, her new enclosure-mate Olympia conceives, and Acacia does too — and how these births change life in the enclosure, and life for these gorillas, forever.

We can’t know the mind of a gorilla, and anthropomorphizing is a dangerous temptation, but I think my own reactions to Jamani’s pregnancies, and the reactions of her keepers, for example, are fair game. I was interested in how important Jamani’s story began to feel to me — almost like we were in this fertility roller coaster together, which is ridiculous but also true. Returning to watch Jamani with her baby, wearing my baby in a carrier, was very emotional for me.

There’s something very powerful about our connection to other primates — I don’t like to see them in zoos, it feels wrong to me even as I understand the conservation work done there. The last time I visited the NC Zoo was with my daughter, Beatrice, and we watched the gorillas for a long time, in part because I was still writing about them. After she tired of the gorillas we went to a chimpanzee exhibit. Beatrice pulled herself up to the glass and stood watching, and very quickly a young chimpanzee ran up and put her hands directly against Beatrice’s hands, on the other side of the glass partition. They just stood there, gazing at each other.

VS: I think one of the readerly joys in narrative nonfiction, at least for me, is watching the writer run whatever she is investigating personally through the machinery of other narratives; to look at it through various other prisms. So it was a delight to see you contemplate fertility in films like Raising Arizona and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and not, I don’t think, because they just so happen to be two of my very favorite films. There’s this deepening and widening that takes place in that act of investigation, I think. [I was reminded, too, of Marisa Tomei on the porch in My Cousin Vinny, stomping her heels and talking about the ticking of her biological clock.] And I think you do a great service when you point out that, “We count on literature to prepare us, to console us, but I am shocked by how little consolation there is for the infertile.” Why do you think that is? Is it the same explanation for the lack of significant medical discourse around it, a void that has become at least partially filled by the abundance of online communities for women struggling with fertility?

BB: That is a great metaphor — running your investigations through the machinery of other narratives. Of narrative at all, which is sort of machine-like in its way. I think some people are very uncomfortable with a female body that ages or doesn’t work as they think it should, and I think pregnancy and childbirth is a useful narrative — it’s transformative and full of potential for conflict and growth. When I was trying to get pregnant, I noticed all around me these narratives that put the maternal-child bond at the center of life, and painted non-maternal, infertile, or childless women as deviants. I noticed it especially in my (high school) teaching and discussion of characters from literature, from Lady Macbeth to Miss Havisham to Albee’s Martha, and in my reading and writing, where even contemporary books I enjoyed or tried escaping into seemed to exalt pregnancy while using fertility treatment as a means of showing selfishness or privilege or a brittle nature that contrasts with someone else’s ease. I remember, for example, reading the noir page-turner Gone Girl and thinking, really? Intrauterine insemination (with all the details wrong) is going to be the means of this horrible character’s punishment of her (also horrible) husband? But then, I recognized it in my own writing — I’d used IVF (with the details wrong) to say something stereotypical about a minor character in one of my stories, too. And I regret it.

I think some people are very uncomfortable with a female body that ages or doesn’t work as they think it should…

But I love Raising Arizona — such a preposterous caper — as a depiction of long waiting and child/family-longing for the way Hi is able to go to two places in his mind, in the last, beautiful dream sequence. He sees a future in which he and Ed act as unseen well-wishers for Nathan Junior, and also in which they are old and gray-haired and somehow have the family they once imagined. This film is not about how others see the couple but how they choose to live together — Albee’s masterpiece Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is like that too, when we realize the intimacy that actually unites George and Martha. I’m interested in the imagination as a tool for survival.

VS: I knew next to nothing about the fertility treatment industry, so everything you wrote about it here was surprising to me. Most especially, I was troubled, as you write being, by “the idea that investors are somewhere making money by exploiting the lack of coverage for a financially and emotionally risky medical procedure.” It seems such a dystopic, eerie capitalism. This is just one of many skilled and clear-eyed critiques you make of the industry, which feel even more pointed as you write from a place of having been in that system. I’m wondering what your impression is now, some years removed from that system, and if there’s any new information about which to be hopeful regarding coverage for women who are attempting to conceive?

BB: I’m glad that we had the opportunity to buy our so-called cost-share plan, which made it possible for us to pursue a safe, single-embryo transfer IVF, because we knew that we would have more chances (we paid a high, flat fee for the chance to go through IVF three times). But I’m also bothered that someone made money — above and beyond the high cost of treatment — because our lack of insurance coverage made us too afraid to pay per-cycle (I was afraid that if we had one failed cycle, I’d be too risk-averse to pursue a second cycle). The existence of these plans seems predatory to me, or at least opportunistic, even though I’d make the same choices if I had to do everything all over again. These plans are often not entirely up-front about the likelihood that you’ll even get all three or six of your chances: there are important details (aren’t there always?) hidden in the fine print.

And there isn’t really much new in the way of advances in insurance coverage: still just fifteen states mandate coverage, and among those fifteen states we see a lot of variation in what and how much they cover (you can find lots of information about state mandated insurance coverage at RESOLVE’s website). I recently met a woman in North Carolina who has had great success petitioning her employer to add fertility/IVF coverage to their plan. That’s not a possibility for many of us, of course — she works in a high-tech/high-demand field, but she actually started a similar advocacy campaign at a university when she was in graduate school, and she was successful there, too. I wonder what would happen if more of us spoke up about the need to cover this very common medical condition.

VS: More than just a personal investigation into your own struggles with fertility, and more than an examination of fertility through various cultural prisms, The Art of Waiting seems to me to be a call for new narratives on fertility, baby fever, motherhood. It seems a call to dislodge the culturally installed and reified narratives to which we have become attached and accustomed. Which I found so admirable and also so brave — this rallying cry to bust the mythos of one of society’s most ubiquitous narratives. Does that sound right?

BB: Yes! I have been a teacher for basically my entire professional life, and I think we need all kinds of narrative for young people, for all of us. I don’t think most of us are well-served by the narrative of “miracles” and things just happening to you — I’m for choice, and access to choices for everyone, and openness and honesty.

VS: As a fan of your fiction, I’m wondering if you foresee a return to that realm anytime soon, or if your interests have skewed toward the nonfiction realm for the time being. It’s kind of unfair how deftly you navigate both.

BB: Thank you, Vincent! I am always interested in writing both, and feel pulled all the time to write and research new nonfiction, but my next big project is finishing this novel for Graywolf, The Ugly Bear List. It’s set in the world of for-profit education and inspirational/Christian writing. I also have a lot of new stories I want to write…

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