Uncomfortable Somethings: On Isabel Zapata’s “In Vitro”

By Claire CalderónJune 3, 2023

Uncomfortable Somethings: On Isabel Zapata’s “In Vitro”

In Vitro: On Longing and Transformation by Isabel Zapata

“THE FIRST RULE of in vitro fertilization is to never talk about in vitro fertilization,” writes Isabel Zapata in her memoir, In Vitro: On Longing and Transformation. In a defiant disavowal of this and other cultural norms surrounding fertility, pregnancy, and birth, the Mexican poet chronicles her experiences—both the visceral and the corporeal—in frank and unflinching detail. In Vitro was originally published in Spanish by Almadía in 2021, and was translated by Mexico City–based poet and translator Robin Myers for this 2023 edition from Coffee House Press. In a refreshingly personal preface to the text, Myers—who has been weighing whether or not to have a child of her own—confesses that Zapata’s language made her feel vulnerable in a way for which she was unprepared. Although accustomed to developing a certain intimacy with every manuscript she translates, Myers admits that she’s “not usually swimming in it, soaked to the bone.”

As a reader, I savor this bit of insight into the alchemical process of translation, this glimpse of the human otherwise hidden behind the act. Somehow, knowing how the text moved Myers, how it implicated her, adds to its aliveness. Admittedly, I am standing on the cliff’s edge of potential parenthood as well, wondering what might await me should I choose to advance toward it. But there is more to the affinity than simple identification. What Zapata has to say about her pursuit of parenthood rebuffs the platitudes that those of us with wombs are so constantly inundated with. Here there is no room for the “it’s all worth it in the end” sanctimony of Hallmark cards. Something raw and magnetic takes its place: a reading experience Myers likens to “looking through the eyes of someone who isn’t afraid to look steadily, and for a long time, at something uncomfortable enough that many others would rather glance away.”

Among those uncomfortable somethings is the violence of the fertility treatments Zapata undergoes. There is the vomiting and abdominal pain caused by an overdose of her prescribed hormone injections that leaves her bedridden and vomiting on her birthday; the painfully throbbing bladder at an embryo transfer; a bout of herbal remedy-induced puking and shitting that ejects “strips of charred cloth, layers of old mucus, shreds of scab and flesh” from her intestines. And then there is Zapata’s misogynist of a doctor, who blames her for her inability to conceive, advising Zapata to calm her nerves while deeming it unnecessary to analyze her husband’s sperm.

It is clear from the outset that Zapata already understands—with a sobriety striking for someone as committed as she is to the relative optimism of fertility treatment—that becoming a mother is a somewhat brutal, if not self-destructive, undertaking. And it’s that self-awareness that makes Zapata’s style uniquely engrossing. Several times throughout the book, she offers disclaimers (“Anyone who wants meticulously recounted procedures and incontestable results will have to look elsewhere”) and ruminates on her own process (“this story is revealing itself in real time, even for me”). In so doing, she grants readers the sense that they are a part of something actively unfolding.

Only around 150 pages long, In Vitro is a story in snapshots, marrying unsparing honesty with extraordinary tenderness, each word carefully selected, each section substantive, yet distilled. Zapata is a poet, after all—she knows precisely how to use spaciousness to its fullest effect, to make us not only savor her gorgeous prose but also sit with its meaning. Reflecting on the connection between her approach to writing and her experience with conception and pregnancy, she writes:

For a long time, I thought my penchant for minor genres, for fragments, for the small, for what happens in vitro was a defect that diverted me from major themes. A character flaw. Until I realized that my desire inhabited these miniature spaces. My life was reconfigured by an embryo that knew how to multiply, without overflowing, until it formed the organs of my daughter.

Chilean novelist Alejandro Zambra describes encountering Zapata’s writing as something akin to listening to her speak. “Sometimes […] it even feels like we can speak back,” he adds. I’d venture a step further and liken it to one side of a conversation between close friends, the kind of relationship in which messy feelings and uncomfortable truths are shared without fear of judgment or the need to win the other over. The excerpts of other texts and various art and current events references Zapata weaves throughout the book have a similarly conversational quality to them, as though related, in passing, to a confidant with no particular agenda except to circle ever closer toward the heart of the matter.

Zapata copes with the relentless uncertainty of her fertility journey, and the fear it provokes in her, by flirting with alternative scenarios—trying on the lives of total strangers whom she encounters on message boards or conjures out of the anonymity of statistics. During a particularly obsessive session spent on a website that calculates the probability of miscarrying based on various demographic factors, Zapata writes,

The miracle of finding no blood when I wipe myself after I pee is so astonishing that it demands measurement. And so I spend a lot of time changing the parameters—I imagine I’m twenty-five or forty, that I’ve already had two children or lost a baby at age twenty—to see how the probability of miscarrying is altered. I think about the women I could have been.

Occasionally, Zapata pivots from speaking about the embryo (and eventual fetus) her body is harboring to addressing her unborn child directly. “We already have hopes and beliefs about you,” she writes, “and we deposit them into your ghost before you exist.” But this shift in point of view is not consistent enough to transform her future daughter into her own character, not even when, as the pregnancy advances, a name is assigned to her. Instead, it is driven more by an emotional impulse than a literary one, a kind of wishful thinking, as Zapata herself confirms when she confesses,

It’s cheating, I know: writing these things, using you as a recipient. The worst kind of deceit. An easy device, like when my mother died and I’d fall asleep fuming aloud, airing my grievances to her. That’s what’s left of my grief: the fear of forgetting her voice. You don’t yet have a voice, but sometimes I can hear it.

Reading In Vitro, I was reminded of Ada Limón’s poetry collection The Carrying (2018), in which she chronicles her own efforts to conceive and imagines possible futures for herself as a mother or nonmother. In one poem, Limón encounters several dead animals on the road on her way to the fertility clinic and, unable to shake the image of them, wonders, “What if, instead of carrying / a child, I am supposed to carry grief?” Here, Limón echoes one of In Vitro’s central themes: the surprisingly intimate connection between grief and longing. In other words, how yearning for something to come into being is strangely but stubbornly tied to missing what once was.

In Zapata’s case, the grief is mostly connected to her mother, whom she lost to cancer when she was 20 years old. Zapata explores this paradox of loss and gain in fascinating ways. When the fetus begins to grow inside her, restricting her air supply, she entertains a comparison to the tumor that once held court in her mother’s pancreas, another entity that feeds on the body’s resources in order to thrive. Later, she talks about her mother’s ashes, which weighed roughly six and a half pounds when removed from the urn—much like the heft of a newborn baby. And when she is in the throes of labor and “[d]ying feels like a good idea,” Zapata is suddenly overcome by a memory of her mother in winter, frail in a blue, oversized coat and fading “like a dying celestial gleam” into the snowy landscape surrounding her.

Despite the haunting beauty of this image capturing a rarely discussed intersection between life and death, the birth is not the grand finale one might expect from a book about pregnancy. Instead, the final pages of In Vitro occupy a kind of no man’s land of postpartum haze, in which the doubt that has thus far defined her journey never resolves. After all, Zapata’s daughter was born in early February 2020, just days before the first cases of COVID-19 cases were reported in Mexico and the world plunged into a prolonged state of uncertainty.

In describing her postpartum experience, Zapata makes room for both the revelatory and the grotesque. She shifts gracefully from describing the urge to “yank the thorns from [her] perineum” or “stick [her] head in an oven” to declaring that she has never felt as close to anyone as she feels to her daughter, and that they are “invent[ing] a vocabulary for loving each other.”

Zapata acknowledges that birth has changed her irreversibly, but she is still working out exactly how. “Maybe the last line of this book is the first of another,” she writes, “the start of something that doesn’t belong to me and which I therefore don’t attempt to define.” With this, Zapata resists the pressure to flatten a deeply transformative experience by trying to resolve or neatly summarize it, bowing instead to the fluidity and unruliness of its nature. In creating a container for what is still evolving, In Vitro uplifts the value of naming what is so often left unspoken about the flawed project of parenthood. Reading it feels like permission to break all the silences that do not serve us.


Claire Calderón is an Oakland-based writer and reader with a fondness for stories from the fringes. She is at work on her debut novel, Tomato Skin, a speculative biography about her Chilean bisabuela’s life in the shadows.

LARB Contributor

Claire Calderón is an Oakland-based writer and reader with a fondness for stories from the fringes. She is at work on her debut novel, Tomato Skin, a speculative biography about her Chilean bisabuela’s life in the shadows.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!