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Elisa Albert's newest book explores the dark side of the fertility industrial complex


Aviva Rosner wants a baby. She wants a baby so much that she wrote her newest album about it. And Aviva hates the fertility industrial complex set up for people who can afford it, the fertility treatments and the doctors who make a lot of money providing them. But she submits to some of it anyway. At this point, I should let you know that Aviva is the fictional character at the center of a new novel by Elisa Albert. It's called "Human Blues." And in it, we watch this force of a woman go around and around in her head about her own desires and how far she's willing to go to satisfy them. I asked Elisa Albert what's inspired Aviva's deep need for children.

ELISA ALBERT: You know, equal parts cultural programming and epigenetic programming and ancestral voices and, you know, all of it in a big, complicated stew in her head. I think part of it is physical. She just feels that desire. She wants to bring forth a new person from her body.

MARTIN: But she also bristles against all this societal pressure that she feels, right?

ALBERT: Right. She's questioning everything, everywhere she goes, everywhere she turns. It's a hard place to live, but I hope it's a fun place to read.

MARTIN: I mean, I will say that that part of the book really resonated with me. I was 38 when I had my first kid, and I remember someone once told me when I was pregnant for the first time that now I would really know what it's like to be a woman, like before, I was just a failed version of a woman, but now, now you're going to get it.

ALBERT: That's so toxic.

MARTIN: It definitely is.

ALBERT: Those messages are everywhere. Those messages come from every direction.

MARTIN: So Aviva has this desire, and she does what people with the ability and privilege do in her position. She goes down the road of infertility treatments because, we should just point out, she's tried for a long time with her husband, and it's not working. But Aviva is so angry about it.

ALBERT: She - yeah, she hates it. I mean, she dips her toe in. She prevaricates for a long time, like, do I want to do this? And she kind of feels like, no, I don't like this, but she kind of dips her toe in anyway because she's also confused by her own reactions, like, what's wrong with me? Why is everybody else fine with this? But I'm not. It must be me. I must be flawed.

MARTIN: But what's she so mad about? I mean, infertility treatment helps a lot of people become parents.

ALBERT: But at what cost, is the question. And I don't see a lot of diversity in the way that we relate to infertility in this culture. And Aviva's voice just nagged at me, you know? Like. She's constitutionally resistant to doing, quote-unquote, "what everyone else does." And that's just a fantastic jumping-off point for a novel, you know? What if you're someone who very much wants a child but can't get pregnant, and what if you find when you search your soul that you can't in good faith engage with this industrial complex? You know, what if you're fluent in all the ways historically that the medical industrial complex has enacted a lot of harm, especially with regard to the, quote-unquote, "female body" and especially with regard to the female reproductive body? And what if you're someone who's willing to try and kind of connect those dots for yourself? That's where Aviva's coming from.

MARTIN: The book is the first I've ever read in which time is measured in menstrual cycles, which is crazy when you think about it, because why aren't more books written this way, because for people who menstruate, a lot of us, this is the clock that we're born with? I mean, it's the most fundamental you can get. And yet I picked this up, and I was like, oh, this is revolutionary. Was it fun to just sit there and be like, oh, yeah, I'm going to write about all the things - menstruation, ovulation, all the testing, like, the nitty and the gritty of what it means to try and try and try to have a baby this particular way?

ALBERT: Totally, totally because also in this culture, what I see most of the time when I'm looking around is a denial of all this and just a kind of glossing over - you know, this kind of, like, oh, no one really wants to know about this. Let's just silence ourselves because, like, this is unspeakable. And that's a really weird dynamic to me. So, yeah, it was great to say we're going there.

MARTIN: Can I just ask a really personal question, and you can not answer it? If you know people who are trying to get pregnant, all of us have either experienced infertility ourselves or have a friend or a family member who's gone through this. Was there someone in particular who went through infertility who inspired this particular part of the story for you?

ALBERT: OK, how can I answer this? I had a very, quote-unquote, "easy time" getting pregnant the first time and then no more. And I wanted very much to have a large family, but when I thought about it, which I did for a long time, I found that I wasn't willing to submit myself to the system, to the industry, to sort of make my will a reality or try. You know, God knows it doesn't always work. In fact, it doesn't work a lot of the time. And we don't hear those stories enough either.

MARTIN: Right, right.

ALBERT: And there's a lot of suffering and pain. So Aviva just sort of burst into my consciousness, and it was kind of like what if you are somebody who desperately wants to be a parent, and it's elusive? Do you insist, and how do you insist, and what are the implications of that for you, for the people around you, for, like, the human being that you're insisting upon? What does that all mean? And I just became obsessed with those questions. And she was a really beautiful vehicle for thinking it through.

MARTIN: Why make her a musician?

ALBERT: Because I wish I was a musician.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

ALBERT: And I was obsessing with Amy Winehouse at the same time. And as a writer, you don't choose your obsessions. You make use of what's there. You look around, and you say, OK, this is what I can't stop thinking about. This is - the story is laid out in front of me. I can't escape it. I have no choice.

MARTIN: You've written before about motherhood and the challenges of all this. So clearly, this is something that is inside you in this deep way, that you want to keep writing about. Did this satisfy that for you?

ALBERT: I doubt it. I think once you've been through the looking glass, there's no going back. And I'm forever obsessed with informed consent and the body and the ways that we choose to or are conscripted to interact with science and technology and the way that science and technology help and/or hurt us. You know, I'm obsessed with our checkered past when it comes to responsibly using technology. And, you know, I expect I'll have a lot to say about menopause.

MARTIN: It has been such a pleasure to talk with you. Elisa Albert - the new book is called "Human Blues." Thank you so much.

ALBERT: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.