A Community Baby
By Laura BogartOctober 30, 2016
The book is a rhapsody of contradictions — love and brutality, in equal measures, shape the characters as, through a complicated surrogate pregnancy, they endeavor to create “a community baby.” The novel celebrates the human body’s creative potency and the savage poetry of its decay — subjects that have captivated Frangello throughout her career as the author of three other books and as an editor at Other Voices Books, The Nervous Breakdown, and The Rumpus. It would assume a more immediate resonance for her, when, in the course of editing Every Kind of Wanting, she underwent a bilateral mastectomy and chemotherapy for breast cancer.
I had a chance to speak with Frangello about the process of writing this novel, how compassionately and ethically to create characters outside of one’s lived experiences, the perilous beauty of the human body, and about her career in indie publishing.
LAURA BOGART: The novel has a choral-like structure, for which several characters share the stage, and each character — like Gretchen, the WASP princess in a flailing marriage; Emily, the bohemian waif turned harried mom and scheming surrogate; Miguel, one member of the couple adopting “the community baby”; or Lina, Miguel’s charismatic recovering-addict sister — corroborates or contradicts each other, while advancing not only their own personal stories, but the overall plot as a whole. How did you approach writing a multi-perspective narrative?
GINA FRANGELLO: What you talk about here — the way various realities corroborate and contradict each other — is a core passion for me in terms of why I write, and what I try to figure out when I’m writing. Gretchen thinks at one point about how we are all “the heroes of our own narratives,” and to me one of the great beauties of novels, more so than short stories or memoirs, which have their own beauty and richness, is the way a novel offers a sprawling canvas for multiple narratives that complicate versions of truth. The “villain” in one person’s life is the hero or the victim or the hapless bystander or the object of desire — in another’s, and so on. The plot here — six adults all involved in the creation of one new life — presented a focused way to explore how want and agency vary in different characters’ narratives. Everyone wants this baby, in different ways, for different reasons, and the pregnancy becomes a springboard for other desires and demons and stakes, which may be, for one character, at odds with the desires, demons, and stakes of another character. That is life: that ambiguity, that complexity, that subjectivity.
In an essay for Powell’s, you argue that “as writers, we also need to be able to imagine the other, in the sense of the ‘other’ being anyone who is not ourselves […] maybe it’s not so much whether to write what we know or not, as to change what we know.” In Every Kind of Wanting, you write from the perspective of characters who have life experiences outside of your own — particularly in Miguel and Lina. Lina is also bipolar and has a substance abuse problem. So, how did you “change what you knew” in order to create these characters? Did you try to find points of connection in your own life, despite the differences in background and history?
Absolutely, yes. Writing a character like Miguel, who is a gay Puerto Rican–Cuban man who spent the first 10 years of his life in Venezuela, is a challenge to a white, female writer. I drew very heavily on my access to a childhood friend with a very similar background, who could serve as a reader for me as I wrote, long before my agent or writing group saw the manuscript. I was concerned about issues of appropriation and also about issues of “representation,” wherein straight white characters are very rarely, if ever, taken to embody everyone in their identity group, but a character of color, or a gay character, can be read by critics and readers as being an educational or political mouthpiece to represent “all Latino people” or “all gay men,” and so forth. That attitude is, bluntly, an extremely messed up form of artistic racism that can deny characters their individuality and subjective nuances, and I really want to challenge that notion as a writer. The novel very much explores both white privilege and economic privilege, but I hope that it also challenges the concept that white, middle-class heterosexuality is in any way still the norm in the United States, against which divergent identities can or should serve as the exotic “Other.”
My own background is closest to Emily’s, who is white and grew up in urban poverty, and is now a mother and leading a more professional, middle-class life. Yet she was, for other reasons, one of the hardest characters to write. Gretchen, who is a white woman close to my own age and going through a divorce (as I recently did), may appear from the outside to be “close” to my own identity, but in reality, I have known far fewer people like Gretchen in my life than I have like Miguel or Lina. I grew up in a neighborhood that was blue-collar Italian-and-Latino-American, and I had never met anyone with Gretchen’s WASPy, suburban background or economic privilege until I was in college. One of the strange side-effects of racism is taking up some mantle of whiteness as one homogenous thing, when of course it is not.
Ironically, your book was published right around the time that Lionel Shriver’s controversial remarks against “political correctness,” and about a writer’s prerogative to appropriate a voice and culture outside of her own, caused great controversy in the literary community. How can a writer work with more deftness and sensitivity?
If you do not have intimate access to people who come from the culture and backgrounds you are trying to write, you cannot get feedback and guidance, so you’re going to have a much harder task in front of you. To some writers, that may mean that you’re treading on dangerous territory you should not attempt. On the other hand, the history of literature is built on writers who dared to write outside their own experience — Forester, Flaubert, Lawrence, it goes on and on — and while they have made mistakes, sometimes rather enormous ones such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, I would rather, personally, risk failure in an attempt to engage empathically with a wider humanity than “succeed” by playing it safe and only writing characters exactly like myself. I think there is much to learn from other writers’ ambitious, well-intended mistakes, and that while we may now justly scoff at the idea that, say, female sexuality should be defined by something like Lady Chatterley’s Lover, we also can’t ignore the fact that many of these works were groundbreaking in their time and paved the way for a more inclusive and open dialogue eventually. The ideal solution is to have a playing field in literature where people of all identities can be equally heard. We have to keep working toward that, which I admit is easier for me to work on as an editor than as a writer, since writers don’t have much say in what gets published. Writing fiction is fundamentally about empathy and imagination, and cannot be driven by fear, but writers also need to be good listeners, which includes being willing to listen to criticism, so that if someone says you are being hurtful to them culturally or racially, it is an opportunity to learn more and to try to do better, not to be defensive or go into denial.
Although fertility and pregnancy help spur the present action forward, the human body is, throughout this novel, an agent of chaos and betrayal — there’s Miguel with his life-threatening allergy to cold; Isabel’s cancer; Lina’s mental health struggles; and, of course, Emily’s high-risk pregnancy. In the course of revising the novel, you underwent a bilateral mastectomy and chemotherapy for breast cancer. Can you talk about how your experiences as a cancer patient helped to inform, consciously and unconsciously, your writing in this novel?
I sold Every Kind of Wanting in late fall of 2014, and I wasn’t diagnosed with cancer until a full year later. I had absolutely no idea when writing this novel, through all the revisions that led to its sale, that I would ever have cancer, much less that I would be undergoing such body-changing surgeries or treatments in the months leading up to its publication. That said, I have had a very long interest in the fragility, tenacity, and capriciousness of the human body and “health” in my writing. My last novel was about a woman traveler with cystic fibrosis; my debut novel features twin sisters where one suffers from IBS and the other from anorexia and chronic back pain from a dance injury. I have had health struggles in the past, prior to cancer, and I grew up with a father who was in and out of Intensive Care with physical problems and occasionally hospitalized for mental health issues. One of my closest girlfriends, who was like a sister to me, died of ovarian cancer in late 2011, shortly before I began writing Every Kind of Wanting. My partner, Rob Roberge, has bipolar disorder, which he has written about extensively, including in his memoir, Liar. Illness, whether physical or mental, can indeed be a chaotic experience, but I don’t personally look at it as a “betrayal.” Our bodies don’t “betray” us, they’re just being human. The United States is fairly singular in its odd, pervasive belief in perfect health as a normative, expected state; the human experience is vastly more varied than that, and while I wouldn’t recommend cancer as a good time, living with illness, disability, or pain is a reality very few people will escape experiencing. The beauty of the human body doesn’t exist without decay, much like joy doesn’t exist without grief, or connection without loneliness. I am interested in how the body often lies at the intersection of desire and struggle.
You’ve been at the helm of indie publishing enterprises, serving as an editor at The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown, and as the founding and executive editor of Other Voices Books. And now you’re with Counterpoint Press. Can you talk about how your experiences working in independent publishing has changed over the past decade? What are the advantages of working with presses like Counterpoint as opposed to a “big five” house?
Far too much has happened in my 21 years as an editor — I mean, we didn’t even take online submissions or have websites when I began in this industry. One enormously positive change, I think, is the way literary culture has been revitalized and globalized by online discourse. A writer can build a platform from anywhere now, without requiring a massive marketing budget. Readers can connect with writers in much more active ways. Independent publishers are taken far more seriously as artistic gatekeepers in many new media outlets — there is a lot to say about the way literary culture has evolved since our lowest years (maybe in the few years following 9/11, during the Bush presidency and such a climate of fear and economic anxiety that it seemed like narratives of reassurance were all the publishing industry, and Hollywood for that matter, was interested in) — I think artistically, we are in a flourishing place, especially with regard to how front and center the dialogue has become about inclusiveness in the arts. The downside, of course, is that with all this amazing brave new world online community, hardly anyone is being paid. Writing has moved further and further outside the economy, not just creative writing but even journalism. We are all supposed to be writing for “exposure,” because there’s no money — many major websites don’t pay, or pay a couple hundred dollars at best; indie publishers give nominal advances; even editors, such as with my work at TNB and The Rumpus, are usually volunteers or given only a stipend that doesn’t come close to a living wage, because where would sufficient money come from when content is free?
Literary novels moving further outside the economy also means writers not having to make artistic decisions based on anything other than quality. I teach four classes per term and freelance edit to earn money, and I have no illusions that any novel I write is ever going to translate into quitting my day job. This fact means I write what I want to write, and I get to work with people who I believe share a certain vision and who can help me grow as a writer. I love Counterpoint, because people like Dan Smetanka and Megan Fishman are some of the most passionate people in the industry, and Dan is a staggeringly gifted editor, and the press gives writers a great deal of input and cares what we think about things like cover art and events — they are collaborative and enthusiastic rather than treating writers like a cog in a wheel. Plus, Dan is one of the funniest people I know, so if you have to revise a novel at breakneck speed while chemo-sick, truly, he is your man.
Laura Bogart is a featured writer for Salon and a regular contributor to DAME magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Guardian, SPIN, Tin House, IndieWire, and Refinery29 (among other publications). She has received the Grace Paley Fellowship from the Juniper Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Laura Bogart is a featured writer for Salon and a regular contributor to DAME magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Guardian, SPIN, Tin House, IndieWire, and Refinery 29 (among other publications). She has received the Grace Paley Fellowship from the Juniper Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
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