Published on October 24th, 2016 | by Meg Lemke0
“What Drug is a Baby?” & An Interview with Rivka Galchen on LITTLE LABORS
Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors is modeled on an 11th-century Japanese “pillow book.” It’s the new-mother-wondering-wtf-just-happened version of a pillow book. This weird compendium of lists and prose poems and essayistic responses to questions to herself, bound in a lovely slim package by New Directions, got enough hype that I came to the book admittedly bit skeptical. Yet then I was delighted as I let her charm in, full with that gorgeous feeling of being in a precise mind that is not your own but feels like it enough that you hit a familiar moment and blush.
We published “Orange,” a longer excerpt, on MUTHA today. But here’s another little bit that I loved, “What Drug is a Baby?” (an excellent question, right?). It says more about the book than I could. And keep reading for more questions for (and answers from) Rivka Galchen… – Meg Lemke
What drug is a baby?
On many days I think of the baby as a drug. But what kind of a drug? One day I decide that she is an opiate: she suffuses me with a profound sense of well-being, a sense not attached to any accomplishment or attribute, and that sense of well-being is so intoxicating that I find myself willing to let my life fall apart completely in continued pursuit of this feeling. On another day, the baby calls to mind a different set and prevalence of neurotransmitters. I recall the mother of twins who said to me that, yes, she loved her girls, but one afternoon she found herself thinking with easy understanding of the woman who had drowned her five children, and she, my friend, after having that feeling decided to call for help. She called her mother. Her mother said to her, The human baby is useless, the human baby is like no other baby animal, the animals can at least walk, while the human baby is a nothing
– Rivka Galchen (From Little Labors)
MUTHA: There have been many reviews of Little Labors puzzling to describe it. What is the book to you?
RIVKA GALCHEN: Maybe a very nuanced mood ring? It wasn’t a deliberate plan, but what I ended up with was a record of what life felt like (to me) for a short space of time, under the influence of Baby. So the bits in the book are thoughts, but inebriate thoughts. I’m no astrologist, but I did feel like: oh maybe this is what people mean when they talk about orbits, and returns. That was the state I was in. And the book is a record of that. Not so much a record of me, or of the small person who was with me, but instead of the ether that we co-inhabited.
MUTHA: It’s modeled on “the pillow book,” but is it also influenced by tumblr/twitter/our current age of tidbit reading?
RIVKA GALCHEN: Probably! Although I don’t tweet or read twitter, and I don’t know how to Instagram either. But that doesn’t mean those influences don’t make their way into the apartment, like that mysterious molasses smell that has overtaken the city a couple times. I did find, though, that while being with the young being I could only really read long things? I read Ferrante, Knausgaard, Trollope and even some Dickens, but I seemed to have lost my ability to read more ‘dense’ work.
MUTHA: Did you write it during the baby’s naps?
RIVKA GALCHEN: I was a sleepy person even before there was a baby in my life. Sometimes I think I’m mostly sleeping even when I’m awake. Which is to say that I think I wrote the book during my own naps.
MUTHA: You describe your own wonder at your transformation from a writer uninterested in children to a mother intently interested in your own (and in “children” more generally). This transformation is a wondrous thing, indeed, and I wonder if it still feels as fresh to you—where are you now in your life and writing?
RIVKA GALCHEN: I have this theory—not true but maybe true-ish—that basically we’re all children, regardless of our age, but that it’s only when we have children, that we really notice we’re children (even though it’s a commonplace to talk about feeling like a kid.) But until you watch an infant rage about a carrot being in two pieces rather than ‘whole,’ I think there’s a major mirror missing onto one’s own most powerful emotions. So yes, the book now feels alien in many respects to me—I’m no longer living under the influence of baby, and a young child is a different play altogether—but it doesn’t feel alien in this particular respect. It’s not just that childhood is interesting, but that small creatures are an interesting species. A strange mix of mystery and predictability. A different relationship to detail. A kind of joy in recognizing error. I’m still preoccupied by that. It has eclipsed entirely the interest in childhood that came from my own memories of being a child. So my writing is following that, in various ways more or less indirect.
MUTHA: You call your kid different animals in the book. What came after the puma and then the chicken? For me, some of the most affecting passages in the book discuss how our sense of proximity to the mind of our child shifts as they become more separate…
RIVKA GALCHEN: She has passed marmoset and gone chimpanzee, it’s true. There is a perennial mourning about her independence, even as, sure, I know that’s wrong. She told me that for Halloween she wants to be yogurt. An idea I never would have come up with. So it’s that strange thing, that the more human she becomes, the more startled I am to realize that she’s other than me. I think she’s the one who’s supposed to have the privilege of being startled by that.
MUTHA: What have you read recently that you loved, and why?
RIVKA GALCHEN: I loved The Making of Zombie Wars by Aleksandar Hemon. It was so funny, which I think of as an incredibly generous (and difficult) thing to be. And it was a way of thinking about certain toxicities of American culture, without the thought-obliterating direct interaction with the toxicity of reading about the election.
MUTHA: What else are you obsessed with right now—what do you find inspiring?
RIVKA GALCHEN: There’s a Chinese restaurant not far from my house, and the waitress there always takes time to pay special attention to my daughter, brings her extra wedges of orange, and I think Thank God for this woman. It’s sappy, and middlebrow, I know, but I’m more moved than ever by everyday unheralded kindness. Sometimes when I read Leonardo, The Terrible Monster to my daughter, I tear up when Leonardo acts kindly, despite his not needing to. Like almost everyone else I know, this election has made me very, very, very sad. And agitated. The one plus side is that feeling the ascendancy of hate has made me so deeply aware of and appreciative of every small little kind moment of the day.
MUTHA: What are you struggling with now as a parent—and separately, as a writer? Are they related? What’s working?
RIVKA GALCHEN: That’s a good question! Yet I feel that I keep such things secret from myself. I don’t know. I think I just wish I had more space for reading with no particular purpose or work in mind. I wish I could pack more idleness into the day. I guess that’s the rub, it’s not made for packing.
MUTHA: Do you have any advice for creative mothers who are stuck? Does anyone ever have any really good advice for anyone else? What’s the best you’ve received? What hasn’t helped?
RIVKA GALCHEN: My mom for years was trying to get me to write a guidebook to vitamins. Yet even vitamin advice seems annoying! Still, I think we all would do well to eat greens. And look up word etymologies.
MUTHA: Is there a question you wish I’d (or someone) would ask?
RIVKA GALCHEN: Would you like yam fries with that? Maybe it’s a vitamin thing, I am having powerful yam emotions for a few days now.