Unnamed Midwife cover photo

The Feministing Five: Meg Elison

Author Meg Elison’s debut novel The Book of the Unnamed Midwife explores a grim apocalyptic future in which a quick thinking and fiery woman survives a plague that wipes out most of humankind in weeks, leaving one female survivor for every ten men. Most of the women that are left become little more than sexual property, and are largely unable to survive childbirth.

The future that Elison imagines is fraught with danger for women, often grisly in its depictions of rape, murder, stillbirth, and violence. The protagonist, who alternatively calls herself Jane, Dusty, and Karen, is the kind of woman rarely seen in science fiction: bold, progressive, bisexual, middle-aged, and in full control of her sexuality and desires.

As bleak as the world can appear in Midwife, there are pearls of hope in the story as Elison in turn imagines the brighter sight of possibility when society must be built from the ground up. A radical rearrangement of culture and norms is underway, where families take new forms, labels are rejected, and the rigid rules of sexuality and gender don’t apply. Elison has noted that far too many books and television shows fail to adequately explore the ways a loss of social order would disproportionately affect women. So, she wrote the book she wanted to read, and people took notice: the novel was the winner of the Philip K. Dick Award, A Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of the Year, an Amazon Best Book Of the Year, and a sequel, The Book of Etta, is out next month.

megFor this week’s Feministing Five, I had the pleasure of catching up with Meg Elison to talk about feminist takes on the apocalypse, gendered possibilities of the future, the novel’s relevance in Trump’s America, and more. Catch Meg on Twitter and enjoy an exclusive sneak peek at The Book of Etta below!

Senti Sojwal: I’m really interested in why you chose to make your protagonist nameless. She’s such a powerful character, so fully realized and escaping archetype. Can you tell me more about why you chose to never reveal her name, and what that allowed you to do as a writer?

Meg Elison: It was first a commentary on how most women in science fiction aren’t really people. They’re not full characters. Secondly, it’s because names have power. Any kind who has heard the story of Rumpelstiltskin can tell you that it’s important that you have something about your true name that you don’t have to give that out. I really like that my protagonist doesn’t give that to anybody else. She was in control of who she was, and in control of even the most basic part of how others might interact with her. I knew from the outset that I wouldn’t give her a name. I really love Daphne du Maurier’s book Rebecca. One of the little tricks in that book is that she never names her protagonist either. It’s definitely an author’s trick that I was fascinated with at an early age. I knew that at some point I would write a character that had no name.

Senti Sojwal: In “The Book of the Unnamed Midwife”, the apocalypse leads to a renegotiation of cultural norms regarding gender and sexuality, in some ways that are terrifying and in some ways that are liberating and to me, progressive. For example, re-creating traditional family structures and rejecting labels of sexual orientation. What was your own personal process of laying out and exploring new modes of gendered possibility as you created this world?

Meg Elison: I’ve lived in lots of different places all over the country. I moved from Southern California to Northern California for college. One of the things I love about being here and being part of communities here is I see the radical rearrangement of families and people refusing to define themselves by their sexuality or to label what they are in a traditionally accepted way. I feel like I’ve lived through the queering of the nuclear family and of what we consider our “vertically arranged” identities into something that’s true and organic and different. I wanted to put the world, not in a happy way, but on a fast track, to a similar kind of queering. What if those most basic conceits by which we define ourselves were destroyed overnight? Who would we be then? It’s half because I’ve seen it in real life, it’s half because we desperately need it, but also it’s because I think it’s the way things are going to go eventually. I thought of the two sides of negotiation of cultural norms in the book — the one side of women become sexual property, the other of new gendered possibility — almost like past and future. There are so many examples in human history where women have been little more than sexual property or economic chattel. There’s many places in the world today where that’s true. In any society, however, where we’ve made changes and are daily negotiating gender, there’s a possibility for greater freedom. Not just for cis women, but for everybody. When we are free from these confines of biology and perception, what isn’t possible? The book is a combination of my worst fears and some of my most audacious hopes.

Senti Sojwal: Did you set out to write a feminist narrative of the apocalypse? What did you know you would have to do, or what roads did you end up taking, to ensure that this was a feminist story, at least according to your own definition of feminism?

Meg Elison: I did know I would write a feminist novel. All books are a little irritation that either gets spit out or turned into a pearl. My irritation was that there’s almost no science fiction, particularly post-apocalyptic science fiction, that is written from a woman’s perspective. Everyone says that if there’s a book you want to read that isn’t on a shelf, you have to write it, so that’s where it began. I think that’s feminist in nature. I am a feminist — an intersectional, trans-inclusive, radical feminist. Everything I do reflects that. It’s impossible to keep my politics out of my art, and I shouldn’t try, nor should any other artist. I created this novel out of my own feminist toolbox which has been made and honed in feminism. I wanted the main character to be a woman in how she defined womanhood on her own terms, not because she checked off certain boxes. I wanted her to grapple with the reality of sexual assault. That’s a fine line for writers — it’s very easy to use sexual assault as a quick means of upping your stakes or increasing your drama. Sometimes it even becomes eroticized. I wanted my main character, and other characters in the book, to confront the reality of that but not always lose to it or be cowed into a smaller existence because of it. That was one of the bigger choices I had to make. I wanted to create my main character as exploring some kind of gender fluidity. She’s conscious of her gender presentation. Her female body becomes strange to her, and she evaluates it in a different way than she ever has before.

Senti Sojwal: Women’s survival is at the heart of “The Unnamed Midwife”, and in so many ways at the heart of so many of our current political and social tensions. How has being entrenched in the process of imagining women’s survival in a post-apocalyptic world affected how you think of our current political climate, and about women’s very real fears today?

Meg Elison: It’s very strange — I thought of this book very differently, and thought of people’s criticisms of the book very differently before last November. I remember kind of laughing off when people would say, this book is so paranoid, things could never get that bad that fast, or we will never lose abortion rights. None of that turned out to be true or defensible. I’ve come to look at the book like I do other works that were influential to me — like Atwood — with the realization that these are always meant to be cautionary tales but they’re not so far from our imagination. They are crafted out of women’s actual experiences. These possibilities are not so extreme as we might imagine. I think of the book now as much more immediate, and much more incendiary over the last few months. All of these changes have happened so fast. We’re already thinking, how hard will it be to get a ten year IUD so I can outlast this term? How impossible would it be to get an abortion in my state? What will we do if Trump overturns Roe v. Wave? I’ve noticed differences in the tenor of how readers respond to the book post-election. I’ve never met a woman, though, who has read it and said “this is impossible, this will never be the case”. Most read it and say, in some circumstances, sure, it could get this bad. I have, however, sensed a shift in the tenor of reviews and letters I’ve received since Trump was election. For example, asking me if I knew something like this was going to happen or if I suspected it. The truth is I didn’t. As much as anyone else living in an elite coastal city, I expected that Hillary Clinton would be president. It was not some form of prophecy, I have never wanted to be wrong about something more in my life. If it’s helpful to anyone in facing what almost assuredly lies ahead, I’m glad it’s out there.

Senti Sojwal: Can you tell readers what’s in store for your next novel, “The Book of Etta”, which comes out next month?

Meg Elison: Yes, I’m so excited about it! The Book of Etta takes place in the same civilization the midwife helped to found. As a founder, she left her diary behind and they became sort of objects of tribal veneration. I sort of hint at that in the set up. Because of that, the midwife had a lot of influence on the arrangement of the society, what they value, and why. If you think about the founder effect in every sense, genetic and cultural, things never really stay the way people think they will. Even if you look at today, what did the founding fathers want for America? We have their diaries and letters, their published essays, and we still don’t really know and have drifted so far beyond what they imagined that their advice isn’t really practical. This civilization has some of the same problems as the midwife, but not exactly as she would have imagined it. There’s a lot more queering in “Etta”. There is a comparable amount of violence and hope. It’s after the same central question of who are we when we are and are not at the mercy of our biology, and who can we become if we search out the worst in ourselves, or the best?

>>>EXCLUSIVE SNEAK PEAK AT THE BOOK OF ETTA HERE!<<<

NYC

Senti Sojwal is an India born, NYC bred writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer. She graduated with a BA from Hampshire College in Gender Studies & Politics, and has worked with NARAL, The Civil Liberties & Public Policy Program and its sister program PopDev, and has written on feminist issues for Mic, Bustle, and What NOW, the blog of the National Organization for Women's NYC chapter. She currently works at Sakhi for South Asian Women, an advocacy organization that supports immigrant survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence through an array of culturally competent services and programs. Senti loves 90s pop, a bold lip, and is always hunting for the perfectly spicy Bloody Mary. She lives in Brooklyn.

Senti Sojwal is a writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer based in Brooklyn, New York.

Read more about Senti

Join the Conversation