The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project #205: Beth Alvarado
Beth Alvarado’s latest is Anxious Attachments, whose essays, Aisha Sabatini Sloan says, “evoke the fluidity and awe of an underwater journey.” Anxious Attachments has just been longlisted for the PEN America Literary Award for the Art of the Essay. Previous books include Anthropologies: A Family Memoir, as well as the prize-winning short story collection, Not a Matter of Love. Forthcoming in 2020 is Jillian in the Borderlands: A Cycle of Rather Dark Tales, which Alvarado describes as fictional essays.
Beth Alvarado listens deeply and laughs easily, even, and maybe especially musically, at the more difficult bits. We talked about the ability of babies to contain and alter time, creative nonfiction as muse and medium, and the trend of autotheory.
The Rumpus: The cover of Anxious Attachments is beautiful, a series of doors. I first presumed that it is the viewer, the reader, who enters and walks through all these doors, but now I’m considering that it could be something external coming through the doors toward the reader.
Beth Alvarado: Oh, that’s true. There could be something coming through the doors from the outside, like the weight or impress of the times on our private lives. I had a very different world view before I got married. I came from a middle-class white family who believed that you have personal agency and control. And when you couldn’t control things, that’s when you got angry—felt cheated because you didn’t get what you assumed you deserved.
But when I got married to my husband, who was from a working-class Mexican American family, I gradually learned another way of seeing, that outside forces change us, limit us, or deny us agency. None of us lives in a vacuum, right? But if you are privileged because of race or class or gender, you may not notice this, and then it’s hard for you to believe it’s different for others.
The things that have always caused me the most anxiety, as an adult, are those things coming from the outside. I no longer have any illusion I can control them. And that’s partly what I write about in these essays: the tension between the social/political and the personal. For me, when I write nonfiction, my mind moves from the outside to the inside. I am starting, usually, with something in the world and moving to a more interior place to try to make sense of it.
Rumpus: Your voice as an essayist is very clear and recognizable throughout the collection, although the essays span a number of years, and you yourself, presumably, have changed over time. Which of these stories do you feel closest to at the moment?
Alvarado: Probably the ones about my daughter’s twin babies, like “Ordinary Devotions,” which is about their birth on the eve of Trump’s election. Or “Cautionary Tales,” about taking care of them during wildfire season. Or the one, “Die Die Die,” about gun violence and my son’s boys playing video games. I wasn’t one of those women who pressured her children to have children. I was happy to move on to the next phase of my life, so to have children, again, be so central to my life, you know, I don’t know if this would have happened if my husband hadn’t died.
I think we all need people who are central to how we feel about ourselves. When I get upset at this point in my life, I really would rather be playing with those babies than doing anything else, even writing, maybe because the person I used to go to is not here anymore. And even though I believe he’s somewhere, I don’t have access. So one thing that surprised me in writing the recent essays is how central my children and grandchildren are to my being sane in the world. I also learned that I could write essays—although it’s harder to write stories—in the chaos of mothering.
Rumpus: Why, do you think, it’s such a radical statement for a professional and successful writer to say that you’re drawn to your grandchildren?
Alvarado: It’s that old anxiety about not being taken seriously as a writer if I’m a mother, that secondary sexism. Plus, maybe, a kind of ageism that grandmothers are sweet old ladies who bake cookies. And I do need that other half of my life, the writing life, the teaching life. Without it, I might have been totally swallowed by my inclination to just be with my daughter and her babies. When I hold them I forget I’m in my sixties. Women my age are often nostalgic about that time of their lives, even though it was probably the hardest time, you know, because they were totally encroached upon by these other creatures.
Rivka Galchen asks in Little Labors, one of my favorite books, “What drug is a baby?” and the answer is “an opiate,” because, Galchen says, the baby “suffuses me with a profound sense of wellbeing,” where nothing else matters, where you have no ambition, which is exactly how I describe heroin in the first essay of Anxious Attachments and exactly how I feel when I’m rocking the babies. There is no past, no future, nothing but the moment.
Holding a baby is like meditation; the baby “contains” or stops time. If you are grieving, that is good. But if you’re thinking about all the things you need to do and the baby won’t fall asleep, it is extremely frustrating. You have to train yourself to breathe and observe the thoughts as they float by if you ever want the baby to fall asleep. You have to be willing to stay in the moment.
I’ve come to think that babies train us to focus on them—it’s maybe an evolutionary thing—because this is what they’re going to need throughout their lives. Children, especially teenaged children, but even grown children, at times, need undivided attention.
And, culturally, this is what we’ve come to expect from mothers; it’s one of the myths of motherhood, and one thing mothers write in the face of. Our culture expects a mother to have the ability to give herself over to someone else’s needs. To be infinitely interruptible. Paying attention is a kind of devotion. Mothers prove their devotion by putting their children first.
So this is the conundrum of motherhood. You are asked to do the hardest thing there is to do as a human being, especially if you are a writer: to give yourself over, completely, to another human being. Yet that giving over of the self, of consciousness, is also a form of prayer, a practice that expands your heart and your consciousness.
Of course, no one could do that continually, yet mothers are expected to, and it’s why, when a mother is unable to, when she is “self”-centered, the child feels abandoned. When the self-centered mother is you—and, of course, she is you—you feel guilty that you couldn’t do the impossible.
And the anger over feeling guilt about something you know, intellectually, you shouldn’t feel guilty about? I could go on and on and on. Which is why motherhood is infinitely interesting and, as my daughter says, “humbling.” All of those layers of unresolvable conflict.
Rumpus: And somehow we survive ourselves and each other. With works such as Little Labors, do you think there’s a generational move in nonfiction writing toward permission, even humanity, in motherhood?
Alvarado: I do. I love Galchen’s book. She calls her baby “the puma.” The work I’ve read by young women now is mainly about infants and young children and even the difficulty of giving birth. It’s all very important work. I haven’t seen much writing about having teenaged or adult children. Karen Brennan has written brilliantly about her children, in all phases of their lives. She and Grace Paley are the ones who first gave me permission to write about the domestic, really. They were huge influences on my writing.
Rumpus: In Lisa Borst’s essay, “What a Mess,” Wayne Koestenbaum notes that in the 70s, there was a strong correlation between feminism and poetry because in poetry you could establish a voice and establish a self that could be heard, and now, with nonfiction, underrepresented and queer-identifying writers are gravitating toward creative nonfiction and autotheory for the same reason, to be able to take possession of the voice.
Writers such as Maggie Nelson and Arianne Zwartjes practice autotheory, or nonfiction that weaves the personal, cultural, and theoretical into its own hybrid form. Is this a way to get the personal essay on the Literature Highway? Of elevating it? A new way to fit into the box, or a reimagining of the box?
Alvarado: Maybe. Nelson—it’s not like she’s written The Argonauts to get published—I mean, that’s how she thinks, right? Same thing with Zwartjes. With Bhanu Kapil, Christina Sharpe, Aisha Sabatini Sloan, Tisa Bryant, Brian Blanchfield, Wendy S. Walters, and, going back, Gloria Anzaldúa, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich. Any time you’re writing nonfiction, you’re constructing a self.
You are creating a persona, a character. The narrator, the “I,” is a construction. It’s an authentic voice, but it’s not really you. It’s who you are in the moment in relationship to that particular subject. For instance, Nelson is a different self in Bluets and in The Red Parts than she is in The Argonauts.
For one thing, the self is not static, and that’s what I think autotheory does really well. It reveals a self in process. It creates a self—not the self—with intention and, because it’s more theoretical, makes the construction of a self a visible part of the subject matter. You know, art criticism, literary theory, philosophy, that’s part of how Nelson thinks, who she is, and very much a part of her lived experience. This is true in Karen Brennan’s work, too, in both her poetry and her prose, and, in her case, I would say the theory informs everything whereas in Nelson’s The Argonauts, it’s part of the subject matter overtly.
Rumpus: While there’s some pushback in revered circles about the personal essay being literature, there seems to be no stopping the CNF train. Why are people reading nonfiction?
Alvarado: For me, nonfiction is an exploration of the self in tension with the world. Reality is so much with us right now that we need a way of understanding it, and one way to understand it is to read how other people are interacting with it. I love essays where I can trace the way someone’s thoughts evolve. There’s a kind of intimacy with the mind that’s creating the work.
Rumpus: There’s an argument floating out there that the personal isn’t so important in this cultural moment.
Alvarado: I would go back to Carolyn Forché, who talks about the political and the personal coming together in the social realm. What’s happening in the world has weight in our personal lives, especially now: we can’t quit thinking about it; we’re acutely aware of the relationship between the two. But when I say “we,” I am really talking about the white writer, or at least about someone who has never been marginalized, someone who doesn’t realize that distinctions between the political and the personal are arbitrary, false even. Maybe that’s what essays can do: demand our attention, connect things that may seem random or disparate, help us see clearly. There’s a reason so many of us are turning to Baldwin, Lorde, Anzaldúa, and Rich to learn about what the essay form can give us. If the essay is the “mind on the page,” it also can be a way to transform old ways of thinking.
Photograph of Beth Alvarado by Brigitte Lewis.