REVIEW: After Birth by Elisa Albert
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In 1991, Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna wrote what came to be known as the Riot Grrrl Manifesto for her band’s fanzine, Girl Power. It opened with a reasonable demand:
“BECAUSE us girls crave records and books and fanzines that speak to US that WE feel included in and can understand in our own ways.”
Two decades after Hanna’s manifesto, the Riot Grrrl movement is remembered for its music — Bikini Kill, Heavens to Betsy, Bratmobile, Excuse 17, Calamity Jane, and, of course, Sleater-Kinney, whose eighth studio album, No Cities to Love, was released this January: “Exactly 50 years removed from the birth of “R-e-s-p-e-c-t,” exactly 40 years removed from the birth of Horses, exactly 30 years removed from when Kim Gordon first yells “brave men run away from me” in the Mojave desert, exactly 20 years removed from Sleater-Kinney, “a primal, insurrectionist warning shot from the margins,” Pitchfork’s Jenn Pelly contextualized in her rave review of the album. In other words, Riot Grrrl was — is — a movement that erupted out of a long history of angry women behind microphones. So then, with the ongoing success of the Riot Grrrl movement, it might be fair to say Hanna’s demand for “records and books and fanzines that speak to US” has been met. Or, almost.
Because the books — where were the books? Literature has no shortage of great feminist authors, but Riot Grrrl never seemed to affect the novel in the same way that it changed and challenged the music industry.
But if 2015 is going to be a Riot Grrrl renaissance, heralded by Sleater-Kinney’s comeback album, then Elisa Albert’s After Birth deserves a spot in the forefront of the conversation.
It’s easy to use Riot Grrrl adjectives to describe Albert’s new novel: “fierce and focused,” “short and punchy,” written with “righteous fury” and the “wild-paced abandon that comes with being caged and then free.” But what is surprising about After Birth is that Albert’s claws aren’t hungering for the patriarchy — she is fueled by the anger that comes when one woman betrays another.
The novel begins a year after Ari has given birth to Walker. It is November in Utrecht, New York: “A town, I guess you’d call it, a once-upon-a-time town, some blocks of cheap, amazing, mostly run-down houses crying out for restoration by the likes of us. We are happy to oblige them, the houses. We live like kings. When Paul got this job I was six months pregnant and we thought: okay, yeah, go fuck yourself, Brooklyn!”
But Utrecht leaves Ari isolated and alone. Her husband, Paul, is a good-hearted man, but he doesn’t understand the emotions (Guilt! Anxiety!) that come with motherhood. Ari’s own mother, dead of cancer, haunts Ari’s daytime hours with judgments, criticisms, and certainty of her daughter’s failure.
And then there is Ari’s horror over her cesarean section: “They cut me in half, pulled the baby from my numb, gaping cauterized center. Merciless hospital lights, curtain in front of my face. Effective disembodiment. Smell of burning flesh. Sewn back up again by a team of people I didn’t even know, none of whom bothered to look me in the eye, not even one of them, not even once. Severed from hip to hip iced, brutalized, catheterized, tethered to a bed, the tiny bird’s heartfelt shrieks as they carted him off somewhere hell itself.”
Ari swears that “the baby books said nothing about this,” but as Albert goes on, it becomes clear that neither did any of the women in Ari’s life. And it’s the women who have to protect each other, and they have failed Ari completely.
Then Mina comes to town, nine-months pregnant. Mina is a former member of the proto-Riot Grrrl band the Misogynists, and Ari — working on her gender studies dissertation, and a dibble-dabbler in bisexuality — is instantly enamored. She meets Mina at a friend’s party: they bond over the weirdness that is human pregnancy. “Such a mindfuck, right? Can’t sleep? Weird dreams? Sciatica, indigestion? Peeing constantly, sick of being told to, like, ‘enjoy this time’?”
When Mina has her baby, Ari winds up becoming the mother figure and friend she didn’t have during her own pregnancy. It’s almost too good to be true; it is too good to be true. At one point a friend asks Ari, “Why do feminist organizations implode?” to which she replies, “Because women are insecure competitive ragey cutrags with each other. In a nutshell. A lot of the records of some of the better known ones are, like, in archives. Women in women-only groups just rip each other to shreds.” The conversation exists as a warning to the reader: Mina is going to hurt Ari, because that’s what women do.
After Birth roars with the anger of betrayal. Albert is abrasive and sharp, intelligent and painfully real. There is no room for gentleness in her novel, no time to waste looking for a kinder way of speaking. It’s as if After Birth, while raging against the isolation of motherhood, wants to reverse it. Often Albert is speaking, through Ari, directly to her female audience:
“Two hundred years ago — hell, one hundred years ago — you’d have a child surrounded by other women: your mother, her mother, sisters, cousins, sisters-in-law, mother-in-law. And you’d be a teenager, too young to have had any kind of life yourself. You’d share childcare with a raft of women. They’d help you, keep you company, show you how. Then you’d do the same. Not just people to share in the work of raising children, but people to share in the loving of children. Now maybe you make a living, maybe you get to know yourself on your own terms…And then: unceremoniously sliced in fucking half, handed a newborn, home to your little isolation tank, get on with it, and don’t you dare post too many pictures. You don’t want to be one of those.”
After Birth comes twenty years too late to truly be Riot Grrrl literature, but something about it begs that you put on the new Sleater-Kinney, notch up the volume, and breastfeed (in public, why not) while you’re at it. Because After Birth is looking for a fight, it’s unladylike, it’s pissed off, and it’s going to tear everything you thought about birth and motherhood to shreds.
by Elisa Albert