"What Right Did I Have to Speak of Your Life?”
A Conversation with Ashley Nelson Levy
When I launched this newsletter in July 2020, my children had just started summer camp after three months at home and all I wanted to do besides stare off into the middle distance was talk to other writer-parents about their work and how they managed to do it. I didn’t know if anyone else would be interested in getting into those particular weeds but it turns out that hundreds of you want to read about process and childcare. Not only that, but the writers I’ve approached have been willing and eager to talk about how they balance their two modes and how parenthood impacts their work. It has also been exciting and gratifying to have publicists reach out to suggest authors for interviews, which is how I connected with Ashley Nelson Levy, whose debut novel, Immediate Family, published in August.
If you’re like me and have spent any (all of the) time on literary twitter lately, you’ve probably been doing some thinking about what it means to tell someone else’s story. Writing from experience, whether fiction or creative nonfiction, means having to grapple with the fact that our lives necessarily overlap with the lives of other people. Putting our stories on the page usually means putting theirs on the page as well, and our portrayals of those people can often run counter to the way they see themselves. And it can feel paralyzing, that need to account for the ways in which we end up rewriting someone else’s experience. Immediate Family is a book about transnational adoption, about infertility, about siblings and how those first relationships can have shape the way we think about family for the rest of our lives. But one of the questions at the core of the novel is: what right do we have to another person’s story? One month and one very long school break ago, I spoke to Levy about finding the right shape for this particular story, writing about adoption with a newborn in the other room, and the emerging “motherhood canon.”
Photo Credit: Eustacio Humphrey
Talk to me about the road to this novel. You wrote it before you became a parent.
It's interesting because most of the book was written pre-motherhood and then I had this funny life thing happen where, in the same six-week period, I sold the book and I gave birth to my child.
I love that. Two births.
Yeah, and actually I was nervous about it at the time, for the obvious reasons. I had probably like six months to a year worth of edits ahead of me from FSG, with this creature in the next room, in my small apartment. But as I somehow found time to work on it, I thought about how this is a book so much about the longing for, and the waiting for, and the absence of a child. And I was in such a raw space of new motherhood working on it and I was a little concerned about how that might affect the shape of the book. But I think it really deepened that final round of edits because, particularly for the narrator, so much is about her imagining or exploring this lost time, this lost record of time that she's had with her younger brother before they met in those first three years when he's between orphanages. And in the book Danny's put up for adoption when he's nine months old and I think actually having a child with me from week to week and month to month, all of a sudden it really just started to resonate with me. Even by six weeks, eight weeks, my son still wasn't a very sentient being, but he absolutely knew who I was. He knew my scent, my voice, and so the trauma of that loss at nine months, with each month with my son passed, just became more poignant to me and deepened for me as I was- as the narrator was thinking about that separation and the effect that it's had on his life and as a result, it's a loss or grief that the whole family comes to feel in its way. So, in the strangest way, it actually ended up being, I think, a really helpful layer to the last round of edits and having a child at home and thinking about really what it would mean for a nine-month-old to be separated from his mother at that point. Even in the book, Danny always says he doesn't remember but what mark has been left there?
Yeah, I always think about that because I'm an anxious person-
And there’s that writerly thing where you're kind of always thinking about ultimate doom even during happy moments, and it's just part of life, just how we think. But every baby I've had, I've thought, if I die now, they will not have any memory of me. But I also wonder whether there would be *something* there because of how intertwined we are in that stage? I think you quoted Winnicott’s “the mother is the baby.” For that period of time – and I have a four-month-old right now, so I'm in it – you are one person in so many ways. So I really appreciated that part of the book and I can see how that would enrich it, having that experience of new motherhood in terms of imagining what this character has lost.
It was helpful because she is thinking and she's studying all these different texts on attachment theory and really this term that's been common in the adoption community around the primal wound, but she's trying to really understand what that means. But I think, yeah, really being able to experience that outside of text in my personal life was helpful. So that was an interesting layer to the edits but before that, yeah, it took a long time to write. It's deceiving because it's a very short book, but I worked on it for probably about seven years. I had grown up in a transracial adoptive home and so it kept finding its way into my writing, but it took me a really long time to figure out what part of that experience I was really interested in writing into. So the book took a lot of different forms, it wasn't always this direct, intimate second person address. It was a first person novel, it was a third person novel, it was a non-fiction experiment for a while. And I think I just kept exploring all these different paths because I was also very, I think, nervous or anxious about what I was trying to do, which is really take a harder look at the complexities of growing up in a transracial adoptive home and also really capturing the love that lives there. I always wanted it to still feel like a tender book. These were never going to be like cruel Flannery O'Connor horrible people where you just want them all to self-destruct. And so I think the book reached an important turning point when I realized that was an ambivalence that really belonged to the narrative and gave the story its momentum. She is very resistant to tell the story of her life and her fertility struggles and of her brother and their family but she's also compelled- I mean resistant in many ways because of the power dynamics that are in place, she's the white older sister, she's the biological child, but also feels compelled to because she loves him. In a way he's asked her to with this wedding speech and, because their stories are inextricably linked, she realizes as she digs in deeper that there's no way she could really separate the two. And so I think this question of perspective for me became really the most interesting angle to tell the story. She is constantly examining how the person who's telling the story affects that shape. And she says right from the beginning, very explicitly, ‘what right did I have to speak of your life?’ and then I think spends the rest of the book really grappling with that and maybe comes up with an answer or maybe not.
That definitely struck me because that's such a huge question, I think, for anyone who's writing almost anything, fiction or nonfiction. Who is allowed to tell a story? Because everybody's story overlaps with somebody else's. You're never just writing your own experience. I really appreciated that part of the book where the narrator is wrestling with that. What about this particular form and genre felt right to you?
Once I experimented with this direct address to him, I realized that for the kind of book that it is- I mean, it very quickly becomes a confessional. And a lot of the book lives in this transitional space where she's careful about the boundaries of appropriation and how far she's going to veer into his story versus hers and how that changes or if it does, if the person you're talking about is people you're closest to in the world, your own brother. And so as I started playing with that, I realized that this very direct, intimate address and this one-way imaginary conversation allowed her to ask a lot of questions because it is a book with probably more questions than answers.
I love that. That's something I've been settling into in my middle age, writing from a place of questions rather than answers.
Yeah and I think it's also so much a book about all the things that have become unspeakable, primarily between them in the way they've handled conversations around race and the way that they've had this recent fracture in the relationship and haven't quite found the way to move through it. And then I think also as the second thread that's moving through the book, the things that have become unspeakable for her in her own life. I mean, she's searching for a language about this experience with infertility and the deeper she gets into it, I think the harder it is for her to talk about it with her husband, or even those around her. She kind of sinks into this isolation. So she's scratching for a language there, too, in this direct form. I’ve also been thinking a lot since it's published – it never explicitly calls itself a letter, but it's often been talked about that way – is a letter a form of courage or is it a form of cowardice? Do you write it because you're trying to be brave or does the person on the other end ever see it? But I think in either case it fits for the book in what she's trying to understand in this poignant moment of giving him away at his wedding.
So let me ask you a question because the only person who gets a name in the book is Danny, the brother, the adoptee. And I'm interested in that because people like to talk about how names and character descriptions are becoming less prevalent in contemporary fiction, and we don't get to know the narrator's name, but we do know Danny. So he, in some ways, gets to be this full-fledged character. And, as I was thinking about it, I kind of visualized it as a literary portrait mode, which is how I take most pictures of my kids now. In portrait mode, one or two people are clear and everyone else is blurry in the background. But then, it's the narrator who gets all of the interiority. So I wanted to ask you about that dynamic.
That's so interesting. I mean, it's definitely true I think for the core unit of the family. There had been more peripheral characters in other drafts around the family and the more I wrote and dug into it, I felt pretty strongly about the fact that it was really about these four people. I mean, the husband has a little bit of a cameo, but even still, not much. And it's interesting, other people have asked about that. I think part of it actually was, it was just by way of the form, the more it turned into this direct one-way conversation with Danny, the less need there seemed to be, and everyone started to be referred to as how they exist within relationship to him. And so I think part of it was just the way it fell into the form. It wouldn't make sense or it felt a little unnatural or fiction-y actually to address some of their other names based on the way it's structured.
But I think part of it is also, this is very much a work of fiction but there has been, as often is the case with female authors, a lot of conversation post its publication around how true it is to life, which I expected and which male authors I can hardly recall ever get asked. And I think part of it was, obviously, there is a piece of it, it would be a little odd for me to be writing about this very niche story of this family if I didn't have some direct experience. But I think having no names, maybe it was acknowledging that a little bit to the reader, the way it might be interpreted as nonfiction as well. And opening it up almost to refuse it a little bit or acknowledge that that's going to be understood or it's going to be an assumption on the reader's part.
I also want to ask you about your essay that you wrote a little while ago about the future of the so-called literature of motherhood, because again, and this is obviously the project here is to talk about writing parents, but you wrote about how you worried that you had come too late to the mom books party. And it strikes me that it has not actually waned in popularity based on the books that I'm reading and the people that I'm interviewing. We seem to have, so far, an inexhaustible appetite for these kinds of things. But I do think that your book occupies a different space, where, if it's about motherhood, it's about trying to be a mother. You have some really moving passages about infertility. But then again there is also a lot about the narrator's mother who has to be a mother to two different children with different backgrounds. Do you think of this book as part of this growing canon or do you think of it as something different?
Yeah, that's a really good question. I do very much consider it a motherhood book. And I think that maybe something that isn't explicitly said, but I think what the narrator's trying to scratch out is this piece that doesn't get talked about with so many women, the pre-motherhood, the longing, the waiting, the searching, the physical preparation of your body: isn't this motherhood, too? And even if the novel doesn't end happily with the child in her arms, I think she's still taken away a piece of that motherhood experience in all the work she's done in trying to get there. And there is this fictional mirroring that's happening with her mother too and I think maybe finally appreciating what that five-year wait for a child meant in a totally different capacity. So I do like to think about it as part of that, because this is not a new or maybe interesting conversation, but so much of the announcement of bringing children into the world is the shot on Instagram and there’s silence about what's happened before. And so I think the narrator would argue that that is part of motherhood too. I think she's exploring motherhood through some different paths. I think she's also looking at it through the lens of her relationship with her brother. Anyone who's an older sibling has probably had these moments of feeling like a caretaker and their younger sibling would probably vomit at hearing that, you know, ‘you’re definitely not my mom.’ But she says at one point, I don't know what frightened me more, the idea of life without parents or life without children or being the only parent you have left. She's thinking about this responsibility, akin to being a mother, in her future with him and wondering if she's equipped for that and prepared for that, which is, I think, totally different, but almost like a shadow of that itself.
I'm glad you mentioned that because as I was thinking through this question of where this novel fits in this imagined or constructed motherhood canon, I also thought that even as it is a book about motherhood, it's also a sibling novel, which you don't see that much, or at least I haven't seen much. It's such an incredible depiction of what it can mean to be a sibling and that includes sometimes a care-taking role, but it's also very much related to motherhood because I think part of my role as a mother of more than one child is planting seeds for the relationship between those children and mediating that relationship. And again – sorry, but this is where my mind goes – what is it going to be like when I'm no longer there? Will they look out for each other? What will their relationship be like? And I think this novel really unpacks that so beautifully.
Yeah. I think me and, by extension, the narrator are very much that same kind of person in the sense, like, what happens when we're all dead? And I think that is one of the things she does explicitly say a lot in the book she's thinking about: what does the future look like when our parents aren't here and you and I are the core unit? What does that look like? How will we care for each other? What will happen to these kinds of stories and family mythology and the family record if we're not speaking or if we don't call, or if we don't open the door for each other and care for one another, despite bumps in the road?
Your writing about infertility is so moving. I was struck by the narrator’s description of feeling like her body's broken because she can't do this one thing.
In her writing about her struggles with infertility, she talks a lot about the emotional piece but I was also interested in the physical grief that she has in her body, the shame, even just the alienation from her body and that she feels very chemically altered. She feels like a contaminant, she doesn't feel like a woman, whatever that means anymore. And I think what became interesting for me as I was running through that is in these moments of physical grief, she actually thinks of her brother and there's this almost like interesting, fictional mirroring that is happening, where she's recalling times in growing up where she has noticed him feel so uncomfortable in his own skin, or grief in his own body in some way. And she's not calling those two things the same, but she's still seeing these two different griefs, physical griefs that they're carrying reflected in each other and she's remembering them. So that was an interesting thread between them that came out as I was writing about the motherhood piece.
So last question, which I apologize if it's a terrible one but how is writing, now? Are you working on something else? How is writing with a toddler?
It's definitely different with the kid but my writing life has always happened in the hours around 9:00 to 5:00 and it already existed in carved out spaces. And so I'm just going to try and reapply that discipline in some way to the next book, it's probably just going to mean even fewer hours of sleep, but-
It got to come out of somewhere.
Yeah but I'll be so interested to see what the literature looks like for women in the years to come about this time. So many of the books that I love are these books from writers like Rivka Galchen and Sarah Manguso, Kate Zambreno, that are talking about the struggle between motherhood and productive artistic life. And I fiendishly need to read those things but for this particular book, I really wanted to strip any artistic ambition out of it and really focus on the ambivalence around motherhood with, or without that, can be intense enough knowing if you're up for this, especially if it's going to take a long time to get there. And really how the shape of your body and how that can affect the shape of your home in some senses, depending on how all of this goes. So I think all of which is to say, I will discipline my way toward the next project, but I would just be fascinated to see how women talk about this time. I'm going to need to read plenty of that.
Order your copy of Immediate Family here.