In Conversation with Zach VandeZande
Melanie Sweeney is a writer, a mother, an animal lover, a feminist, and my friend. We’ve known each other throughout our grad school careers, and though our paths have diverged wildly over the years, she’s remained one of the most insightful and empathetic people in my life, which shows through in her writing. Her latest nonfiction work, Birds as Leaves, is a chapbook about motherhood, gender, nature, and the body, and it will be out this month from The Lettered Streets Press as part of their Split series, just in time for Melanie to give birth to twins. The book cuts through the standard narratives of womanhood, motherhood, and living inside of a female body to examine the aspects of these experiences we don’t often talk about. It might be the most incisive, heartfelt thing ever written entirely on an iPhone while a baby slept on top of the writer. More than that, it’s an honest portrait of the everyday fight of refusing to be told how to be a woman. Below, we talk about the structure of narrative, the messiness of truth, and the cone of silence that sometimes surrounds women’s bodies—all while artfully dodging the topic of crushing self-doubt.
ZVZ: Obviously I'm a big fan of the book, or else I wouldn't have contacted you for the interview (I probably would've gone with the "like the book on Facebook and avoid the subject entirely thereafter" method otherwise), but I'd like to give you a chance to advocate for the work. Let's set modesty and crushing self-doubt aside for a moment: Why do you think what you've written is important? What do you hope your reader gets from reading the book?
MS: But I'm so good at crushing self-doubt! This is the most insular piece of work I've ever written, so there's always the fear that it will be too narrow, too self-important...
If I really show my sentimental heart, as I often do, the real, sappy answer to this question is that I want my chapbook to give voice to some of the hardest things to speak about. It started with mothering because there is so much noise about how to be good mother and what we should live up to, and I was so angry about all of that that I just couldn't keep quiet. But so many people do keep quiet. And as a culture we woefully misunderstand postpartum mood disorders and how to help women and families deal with them, so I want my story to be an example, not of what to do to get better, but just of what one experience looks like, to provide one of the less sensational stories. Because we tend to hear only the run of the mill happy ones or the extreme bad ones, the postpartum psychosis, the mother drowning all her children one by one, and if we hold our own lives up to those, it's often very easy to say, "Well, I'm not going to harm myself or my baby, so I must be okay." The extreme cases are much less common, and it would have certainly been helpful to me to have heard about mothers going through the less imminently dangerous but profoundly troubling struggle I was facing.
The anger I felt about the ways people spoke of motherhood helped me to tap into a similar anger about past violations of my body, which were also these kind of not-extreme but very real offenses, and to give myself permission to own those experiences in the ways that I lived them. I don't think anger is usually very helpful, but in this case, it gave me the right to speak about things I've always struggled to say—not necessarily because I was ashamed, but because I always felt it was my word against someone else's, and I didn't always feel that my voice carried an equal weight. So, in sharing about these experiences now, I hope someone who has felt similarly unentitled to his or her own story will read the chapbook and feel bolstered by the idea that no one else gets to decide what's true for us, or how our experiences weave in and out of each other to create our whole lives. I hope they'll feel that I honor that and that they will honor it for themselves and others, too.
ZVZ: I wanted to talk a bit about how you arrived at this structure for the book. It's a gorgeous lyric essay, with a mosaic structure that calls to mind the work of Carole Maso or Evan Lavender-Smith's From Old Notebooks. The book makes a case for itself, obviously, but I'd like to know how you ended up here in your writing.
MS: These are both writers whose work I admire. My first exposure to Carole Maso was her novel, AVA, which is this stunning, brilliant book that uses a similar mosaic structure, though it's even more fragmented, more pared down. It was the first book I'd ever read that privileges a strong emotional understanding above the chronology and total clarity of the plot. It gave me an intuitive structure long before I ever needed it.
When I began to write the material of this essay, I wasn't writing an essay at all. I was in this intense situation where I felt boxed in, stifled, unheard as a struggling new mother, and there were things I didn't know how to say, so I put them in a document on my phone. Over the months that I wrote those fragments, I was consistently surprised by how varied they were. They weren't just about motherhood. Suddenly, I was remembering old relationships, old experiences of my body, images from the natural world. Because I put them all in the same document, and because I had nothing at all in mind for what they should be collectively, they all just co-existed equally, and I eventually realized that there was meaning in the spaces between them, in the images and language that kept repeating. When I eventually decided to shape that material into a cohesive essay, I realized the heart of the thing, the truth I'd been puzzling together for myself, was there in the structure, so I had to largely leave it alone.
ZVZ: There’s a quote by David Shields I like a lot, where he’s relating the story of an old friend who’d written several years’ worth of notes and didn’t know how to make it into a book. Shields response was, “The notes are the book. I promise you” which he follows up with “I promise myself.” I think there’s a lot of fear among writers of how messy truth is sometimes, and how necessary that mess is. Why do you think this is, and what do you do to alleviate this fear?
MS: This is the perfect anecdote. I have always classified myself as a fiction writer. I never wrote much of anything else, though I enjoy reading poetry and nonfiction. But the more I have studied fiction, the more frustrating I find it. There's a parallel between the piecing together of a short story and the piecing together of a narrative like Birds as Leaves. The difference for me is that, when I write stories, I get so hung up on the technical aspects of what I believe is good story-telling. So I might get a first draft without any of that filtering, but then I agonize for several drafts, usually several months, to find some perfect way of crafting an air-tight narrative that manages to retain spontaneity and magic, and I always fall short. I falsely believe that I can (or even should) write a flawless short story. I'm sure that comes from the workshop model, where every piece of a story is debated to death, as well as my own tendency toward perfectionism. The thing about carefully containing the mess of a narrative is that, when you go too far, you end up having to fabricate the mess you know should be there. It's a difficult balance, and it usually makes stories feel inauthentic.
My approach to Birds as Leaves was different from the start. I never had any intention of shaping my notes as a narrative or publishing it. I also wrote the material in the moment, as I was experiencing most of it, so there's not as much emotional distance from which overt reflection could happen. I didn't know what it all meant as I was writing it. That was the point of the writing. I was performing a kind of excavation of myself. As I revised the text and discovered what I'd written, I didn't want to add passages clarifying what those discoveries were or, I don't know, taking all the notes and translating some kind of eloquent meaning from them, which is where I often push my fiction to go. It is a text about sense-making, and readers can enact the sense-making just as I did in writing and arranging it. It's messy in the way that our own stories, particularly of our identity and trauma and big transitions in life, tend to be.
Of course, I had my doubts. For one thing, at forty-odd pages, it was a difficult length to categorize. Is it an essay? Is it a short book? Should I make it a longer book? And the subject matter, though it's grounded in motherhood, is kind of all over the place. I wavered many times about how unpolished and green it might seem to publishers. Maybe they would come back and say, "Give this more time." It doesn't feel like a traditional memoir that knows what it's about -- you know, like a redemptive addiction story. It's very much still rooted in the middle of the struggle, exposing the process of understanding. So, I definitely questioned if it was "done" as it was. But every time I came back to it, it always felt like the truest thing I'd written, and I couldn't bear to change it. I was lucky that I'd read other books and essays which sit comfortably in a space that resists packaged meaning -- Carmen Giménez Smith's book, Bring Down the Little Birds, is a great one; Anne Carson's NOX is another -- which gave me the confidence that what I'd written wasn't just a starting place for a better narrative, but it was a worthy narrative as it was. I connected with Joshua Young and others at The Lettered Streets Press, and they had the perfect space for it in a split series volume, sharing pages with Jasmine Dreame Wagner's poetry chapbook, Seven Sunsets. It's a whole volume that blurs boundaries, pairing prose and poetry, essentially saying, "Forget boundaries. Everything here is privileged equally." I couldn't have hand-picked a better home for Birds as Leaves.
ZVZ: The book is very much focused on the female body, particularly in motherhood, but also more generally as something that can be powerful and has use. Why do you think our narratives about female bodies are so out of step with the reality of having and using one?
MS: To be really simplistic about it, the main narratives we hear about female bodies in our culture are that they are sites of desire and sites of risk. They should both attract and repel other bodies, usually male. So girls and women grow up walking this line between adorning and dressing and performing our bodies to fit certain cultural standards of beauty (or resisting this), and anticipating danger to our bodies. And success at one often means failure at the other, so it's an incredibly limiting bind. What I think we're starting to hear are more positive stories about girls playing sports, girls challenging their school dress codes, young women demanding to be supported and protected by their universities in matters of sexual assault and gendered violence. All of these are paths toward a collective view of female bodies as active, autonomous, and empowered.
As far as narratives about mothers' bodies are concerned, from pregnancy through postpartum, we are still very much in a place where we think female bodies should be managed closely, usually by others, usually by doctors. We test for all kinds of problems, and we learn all these rules about what to eat and not eat and how active to be and if baths are okay, etc, etc. And strangers in public offer all kinds of unsolicited advice and monitoring, too, reinforcing the idea that pregnant bodies are risky and that the people who live in them can't be trusted to make the best choices for themselves and their babies. Books about birth are full of fear-mongering and not-subtle passages urging full cooperation with doctors (many mainstream books don't mention midwives at all). People who research their birth options and consider out-of-hospital birth or have reservations about standard protocols in birth are often doubted by those close to them, accused of being high-strung or even irresponsible. So, culturally, we resist narratives where mothers are informed about and active in birth. And postpartum bodies might as well have a cone of silence around them. The excess skin, the excessive bleeding, the sweat, the pain of breastfeeding, the aches and adjustments of the body as organs and other parts go back into place -- we largely resist talking and hearing about these very real aspects of the postpartum body. Instead, our narratives are about mothers "getting their bodies back," meaning primarily that mothers lose weight and tone up and eradicate all signs of recent pregnancy. They must go back to being objects of desire. Which, of course, doesn't jive well with breastfeeding, but that's a whole other long answer. The reality is that these bodies are capable -- of gestating life, adapting to extreme changes, producing more blood, carrying extra weight. These bodies birth babies. These bodies create the perfect nourishment for those babies. We should be impressed by all this.
ZVZ: We seem to be making some progress as a society in paying attention to individual trauma, but the trauma of childbirth and motherhood seem to still be largely sidelined. Why do you think that is? Is it just all these cute, loud babies muddying up the narrative? Or is it something more pervasive?
MS: The worst lie about childbirth is that the only real objective is to end up with a healthy baby. This paves the way for easy dismissal of any ambiguous or negative feelings a mother has about her birth experience. Even fellow mothers dismiss this trauma, partly, I think, because of the idea that all medicine is good, that anything that happens in birth is a necessity, when research indicates that some standard protocols and interventions are not evidence based and can lead to worse outcomes for moms and babies. There are cases where care providers perform episiotomies and other procedures against the mother's explicit refusal to consent, which to me is a horrific violation, but if you accept that doctors know best and all that matters is a healthy baby in the end, what exactly do you do with that? Birth trauma comes from a wide variety of experiences. It can even result from a physiologically "normal" birth. This is a major life event that involves not only physical challenges and unpredictability, but also the mother's history, expectations, environment, and support people. The fact is, if a person feels traumatized, that's all we need to know. We shouldn't tell a mother to just be happy her baby is healthy or to be grateful she had the doctors and technology she needed (especially when these may have caused the trauma). But most of what new mothers hear are clichés that rush them past any lingering feelings about the birth or their first days of motherhood. These thoughtless lines silence mothers' actual stories, the realities they're living, in favor of an extremely limiting narrative of baby bliss and fulfilling motherhood, which teaches them that we don't want to deal with their real lives, or their real lives are wrong.
Ultimately, motherhood remains one of our most romanticized ideas, and we cling tightly to the noble, selfless, all-loving, instinctual mother who is totally fulfilled by her child. Mothers who don't embody that image—and most of us don't—have to be partially obscured, partially unseen to make them fit, or else they must be dismissed as bad mothers.
ZVZ: You recently wrote an excellent blog post about, among other things, finding out you were pregnant with twins, and the way that moment felt like one in which you were being stripped of agency while everyone around you acted as though you were experiencing a miracle, which strikes me as reminiscent of something that's at the core of Birds as Leaves: when a person's narrative is out of touch with cultural norms, they often feel lost, schizophrenic even. Why do you think it's important to pay attention to these counter-narratives, even when, as in the case of your feelings about having twins, they may be temporary or mixed in with competing narratives?
MS: What it comes down to for me is very simple: We are whole people who embody contradictions and ambiguities, and we need to be seen as what we are, period. When our narratives run counter to the norm, we (or at least I) crave understanding, validation, and acceptance. Finding out I was expecting twins changed a lot of my plans, from the image I'd had of my ideal family to how and where I could give birth to financial and practical logistics. It was a huge disruption that touched on issues of identity for me as well as deep personal anxieties. So yeah, the reactions of people who mainly just relished the thought of holding two sleeping infants at a time stirred up a lot of anger for me because it was reductive; it didn't leave space for what I was feeling. I've learned through experiences like this one to seek out the people who can handle that ambiguity, and to not engage very deeply with the people who can't. When people won't privilege your own narrative—which is your truth, your reality—over what they think it should be instead, it makes you confront the discrepancy between the two with the false idea that only one can be right. When people give your story the same value as any other, they are saying, "I see you. I believe you." Often, that's all we really need to hear.