Interview with Marianne Apostolides
Jan 18, 2018
Author Marianne Apostolides’s Deep Salt Water (see our recent review here) is a powerful and fearless memoir which weaves together the theme of abortion and climate change. This work combines strong individual recollections with the more global idea of the collapse of our natural environment.
Eric Maroney: I see this work as having many layers. It is a memoir, but there are elements of fantasy, science writing, poetry, and visual arts. This is not a run-of-the-mill memoir. Can you talk about how the cross-genre elements of your book work together?
Marianne Apostolides: It’s exciting to be writing nonfiction right now; that genre has been invigorated by intense experimentation with form. It’s interesting to note that different publishers have categorized these books differently: The Ghosts of Birds by Eliot Weinberger, for example, is classified as essay; Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue are classified as poetry and prose; and Mary Ruefle’s My Private Property doesn’t have any classification at all. I’d call all these works ‘hybrid,’ which is how I think of Deep Salt Water.
Given the number of cross-currents in the book, I’ll separate each in turn; I’ll start with the visual element, since that’s where the book began…
I had no intention of writing a book about abortion—none at all. The notion had never entered my conscious mind. Instead, the impetus for writing came from a series of collages by Catherine Mellinger, a visual artist based in Waterloo, Ontario. In the series called “The Sea and Me,” she layered ocean imagery atop photographs of women from vintage fashion magazines, creating images of gorgeous strangeness. For example, a beautiful, insouciant woman of the early 1960s kneels, her bikini made of florid, magnified squid tentacles. Catherine asked whether I wanted to write text to her collages. I’d never worked like that before—generating text to accompany visual art—but I was so compelled by her work that I told her I’d play a bit, and see whether anything interesting emerged. After a couple of days, I decided to write in the voice of an insouciant woman who, nonetheless, knows everything about the death of our oceans through climate change. I imagined a character who possessed this knowledge, a woman who structured an ethical life based on that knowledge, but who nonetheless moved through the world with blithe elegance. This was the idea; what happened next was entirely unexpected…
Within a week of writing in this voice, I found myself writing one small sentence, “Blythe was a fish in my body.” That sentence told me what I must do: write a book about the abortion I’d had twenty years earlier, and my relationship with the “father” of that fetus. This experience was intensely on my mind, since I’d recently reconnected with the man; as it turns out, he’d never been able to have children, despite years of trying and several miscarriages with the woman he married.
I immediately contacted Catherine, telling her my text no longer “spoke” to her collages. In her unending generosity, she encouraged me to follow where the work was leading. She asked, though, whether she might create collages based on the new narrative.
The artistic exchange between us was expansive: the collages appear throughout the book, an unexplained element of beauty and otherness, heightening the sensual, nonrational aspects of the writing.
The entire time I composed this book, I thought I was writing prose poetry! Although my publisher decided to categorize it as nonfiction, the mindset of poetry gave me a freedom I don’t think I would’ve allowed myself otherwise.
Unlike the prose that’s typical of memoir, I use structural and rhythmic constraints, while stretching syntax to the point where logic breaks; all these techniques ask the reader to slip inside the purely physical aspects of language.
I’ll talk about the language itself in the next question. Here, I’ll focus on the structure, which is fundamental to the understanding of the work. I’ve structured the book as thirty-seven discrete pieces, a number which mirrors the length of a full-term pregnancy (which lasts thirty-seven weeks). It’s divided into three sections, or “trimesters,” each of which tells the full story, rather than following a linear progression through the relationship, abortion, separation, and reconnection twenty years later. It’s almost as if every “gene” of the book were present from the beginning, but needs to be developed over the duration of the memoir. The “first trimester” is the most abstract and poetic; the “second trimester” is far more narrative, taking the reader step-by-step (scene by scene) through the story; and the “third trimester” fleshes out the themes. Some reviewers have found this structure confusing, wanting a straight trajectory, as many memoirs would provide. I understand that need for clarity. But abortion is awash in such complexity. I needed to create a sense of submergence, a need to release into the book’s themes and emotions, rather than an engagement head-on with the ethical and personal issues that constellate around the topic.
On a surface level, I use fantasy when setting scenes for Blythe, a character I’ve created of the child we didn’t have. Here, I’m fantasizing about what might have been, juxtaposing this sweetness with the brutal realities of the abortion clinic, or of the ocean chocked with plastic. On a deeper level, I’ll use fantastical language to describe what would otherwise be too stark and confessional. For example, I describe the women in the recovery room of the abortion clinic as sleeping fish. The actual scene was horrifying to me: dozens of women, all wearing white hospital gowns, in various states of unconsciousness. They’d all received general anesthesia; when they awoke, they were no longer pregnant. In recalling this scene, I “found” the underlying theme of the book: namely, that ethics is awareness of consequence—steady awareness, in the face of our mistakes—and the resulting alteration of our future behavior. But I couldn’t say that in plain language; it would ping off our minds—off our guilt, or our preformed positions about abortion. Instead, I imagined the women as sleeping fish:
The fish disengage from their surroundings. It’s hard to arouse them; it’s not like the ‘normal’ sleep of mammals. Trance-like phase of non-response. The mind is restful, free from sensory—sealed off as the world streams past. Tranquility that’s born of absence.
Several paragraphs in that vein, then, can lead to this type of directness:
The ‘sixth extinction’ is coming fast. I can’t comprehend it: I can’t put a scene to this phrase that will happen. A mass extinction—a magnitude of devastation, exceeding my imagination. Still, I want to be awake. Whatever happens, I will be awake. The slumberous maidens taught me that. A vision so supremely repulsive: the stupor amidst the mistakes we made.
The science is integral to the book, and required that I undertake a totally new way of writing. I always compose longhand; that didn’t change. However, what did change was that my research occurred simultaneously to the writing. I sat at my desk, pen in hand, and put my laptop on the bed (which is beside my desk in my tiny apartment!). As I started to imagine a scene, I’d search for online articles about the oceans: acidification; temperature rise and its effects on wildlife and ocean currents; depletion of fish stocks; the impact of oil spills; hydrothermal vents and their role in the origin of life on earth; etc. The scientific language, as language, was absurdly rich—not to mention its metaphoric possibilities.
As I composed a personal scene, I’d imagine its equivalent dynamic in the ocean, or I’d have an image of a sea creature I wanted to expand on. Then I’d swing around in my chair to crouch over my laptop and search for articles; filled with all this ocean language, information, and thematic confluence, I’d continue to write—not overthinking, not drawing direct parallels, but creating a medium in which “meaning” (across multiple currents) can be absorbed, almost subconsciously.
EM: Deep Salt Water is deeply concerned with abortion, as an individual choice with various outcomes, as well as a wider investigation into what it means to be alive—for life to even exist on this planet. Can you tell us some of the ways these ideas interact?
MA: As I mentioned in the previous question, I never would’ve written a book about either my abortion or climate change (let alone the two together) if I hadn’t been working with the collages by Catherine Mellinger. Although I didn’t write toward her original series “The Sea and Me,” I retained the aesthetic she’d created: namely, the juxtaposition of ideas that have no apparent relation, and the use of ocean imagery. If that aesthetic hadn’t served the story of the abortion, I would’ve discarded it. But the thematic parallels were so striking, I never for a moment thought I’d move away from the pairing.
In retrospect, I can clearly identify three main ways in which these two disparate ideas interact. On a simple level, the ocean-as-womb simile is one we can all comprehend immediately: this salt medium is our primal home, the origin of life. On a slightly more complex level, the ocean embodies various modes of time—something I explored in the book, as a middle-aged woman reconnecting with a man whom I’d dated when I was young. The ocean allowed me to explore geological time and mythical time, even as I questioned the human lifetime, and the months of fetal development. This also led me toward the idea of consequence, and therefore to the theme of the book, the most profound level at which the two main stories of the book—the abortion and human destruction of nature—dissolve into each other. Thematically, the book is asking how we arrive at our ethical selves through awareness of the consequences of our actions—through the ability to hold the vastness of time within our mortal bodies.
Women who’ve had abortions often experience immense guilt, even if we don’t question the rightness of our decision; and all of us are complicit in the degradation of the planet through climate change. We cannot be pure. Nor can we receive forgiveness from a consecrated entity that once held together Western monotheistic societies. Rather, in this “posthuman” world—the world of the Anthropocene—we, as humans, must arrive at ourselves as ethical creatures through our own efforts to see how our actions affect the world. The book asks: How do I strive toward goodness? How do I structure an ethical life? As an amorphous answer, the book seems to say: In these waves that threaten to drown us—waves of grief and fear, of joy and desire—we can arrive at our potency for goodness if we bear the burden of our awareness.
After completing the book, I came across a term in the scientific literature which encapsulates this idea. It’s called the “stand of the tide”: “A short period in a body of tidal water when the water is completely unstressed, and there is no movement either way in the tidal stream. The tide then reverses direction and is said to be turning.” We falter, we fail, we are fallible, as humans. But there is a moment when I am still. There is no movement. I am aware yet freed from tension, standing in stillness as my ethical self, as a part of a natural order and flow.
EM: Your other works all wrestle, in some degree, with both the limits and promise of the female body. Deep Salt Water plunges into this fraught area as well, but on an even wider field. Can you explain how this memoir is connected to your other works related to the body?
MA: All my work is an attempt to comprehend my body’s sensation and experience: desire, pain, fear, rage, appetite—all of which threaten to overwhelm me. In the past, they have overwhelmed me. I started my first book—a memoir about eating disorders—in lieu of a binge. I was twenty-two years old, a kid who knew next to nothing about literature (I studied political science at university, and often felt utterly lost in the two English classes I took, as if uninitiated into the codes and ways of “proper” reading). My first book, Inner Hunger, certainly isn’t literature. But later books return to this same struggle to comprehend the body’s knowledge—to call it into conscious awareness—to shape it into “meaning” which I can hold and own, can handle so it doesn’t drown me.
The Lucky Child recounts my father’s childhood in World War II—a childhood whose trauma led to my own embattlements with the body/psyche. That book was rejected countless times. I set it aside, writing two more books before it was actually published. By grappling with that manuscript, attempting to put the raw material of my father’s life into literature that’s compelling and truthful to my father’s experience, I basically taught myself to write. That effort is contained in Voluptuous Pleasure, a collection of nonfiction stories that began as a writing exercise: each piece was an experiment with narrative, building my ability to play with form, with voice. The result is a book that consciously questions the notion of narrative truth. Swim explores the eroticism of food, language, and family, using psychoanalytic literary theory as the pool in which we follow the thoughts of a thirty-nine year old woman who’s had an affair. My next novel revolves around the Socratic virtue sophrosyne—one of only four virtues identified by Socrates—a concept that’s translated (inadequately) as self-control or self-restraint. This concept intrigued me—in part because we seem to have abandoned it, and in part because it’s central to Ancient Greek philosophy and drama, where it’s discussed in four realms: anger, power, sex, and food…
For me, writing doesn’t begin in my imagination—a scene, a character I want to explore. Instead, writing begins with an urgency: the urgent need to understand my body.
EM: It seems to me you move from personal and scientific concerns at the beginning of your work, to a more mystical understanding of the human place in the world near the end. What kind of meaning do you give this progression?
MA: Quite simply, abortion and climate change exist at the limit of human understanding. I can approach these issues from a personal standpoint (with abortion) or a scientific standpoint (with climate change). Ultimately, though, they draw us toward the horizon of meaning; this is where a different kind of seeking must begin.
EM: On a related note, I am particularly struck by the idea, near the end again, where you write that abortion is a spiritual phenomenon. This is a jarring idea. Can you expand on this?
MA: I think you’re referring to number thirty-one:
Abortion exists in a realm I call ‘spirit.’ I can’t hold this concept inside my brain. In my womb: then I could, like the hint of a secret whose words I can’t know. Only whispers and tingling, like breath on the nape. Like the promise of more. I believe this sensation.
In answering your question, I’ll reiterate that sentiment: I can’t hold that concept inside my brain! Which also means I can’t convey the notion that abortion is a spiritual phenomenon—not through a normative mode of writing, or for example, the mode of this interview. But I’ll make an attempt…
I carried, in my body, the potential for a soul—a unique being who could have been. In having the abortion, I felt immense loss—as large as the depth of a person’s potential throughout his or her life. And yet, I am pro-choice. I firmly believe in a woman’s right to control her own body.
In the current political climate, I’m fearful of suggesting that abortion is “spiritual.” But I’m a writer; my work must exist outside the strictures of rhetoric. It’s my hope that Deep Salt Water can offer women the space to feel their grief—to hold the mystery of this act, just as we hold the mystery of birth.
EM: You provide a “Further Reading” section in this memoir. You obviously did your homework in writing Deep Salt Water. What are some things you would like readers to take away from your book? Further reading implies that we can all do more work to understand the thorny issues you tackle. How do we begin?
MA: By being aware… By being open to how that awareness might shape our behavior…
All the books and articles cited in “Further Reading” concern climate change; I don’t discuss abortion in this section at all. Prior to citing my resources, I include straight-up discussions of the scientific issues that inform the thirty-seven chapters in the book. My intention in including the references wasn’t to suggest that people will rush out to read Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences! Instead, the idea was this…
The creative portion of the book initiates an openness; now that the reader is open, s/he might be able to receive information more deeply. In a sense, the “Further Reading” section is a plea, or a desire: Please don’t let this book end here. Whether the continuation of the book comes from a person reading some of the articles referenced, or from greater attunement to new articles about the ocean, or from a reassessment of his/ her behavior (the use of plastics, the eating of farmed fish, the way the person votes in upcoming elections, etc.) is not me for to determine. The “Further Reading” is more an arrow than a destination.
EM: What is next for you? This memoir appears to point in the direction of a more mystical or spiritually themed book in the works. How has Deep Salt Water informed what will come next?
MA: All my books prepare me for my next question, but not by showing me what my next question should be. The questions come from my life, not my work: from relationships and engagement with the outside world, not from the solitary, self-contained process of writing. Instead, my books prepare me by deepening my capacity to question, and therefore enriching my approach to the answers. Writing, for me, is a spiritual practice—if we can define the term “spiritual practice” as a pathway for engaging with that which orients us toward goodness.
More concretely, I’m working on two books: a novel about what it means to say “I love you,” and a nonfiction book—or, well, a poetic-philosophic-nonfiction-hybrid book—about advancements in science and technology. Specifically, I’m exploring how neuroscience, gene editing, and augmented reality are altering the boundary of the human body and, therefore, altering the meaning of the human soul.
Marianne Apostolides is the author of six books, three of which have been translated. Her most recent book, Deep Salt Water, is a surrealistic memoir about loss, abortion and the oceans; her previous work of nonfiction, Voluptuous Pleasure, was listed among the “Top 100 Books of 2012” by Toronto’s Globe and Mail. Marianne is a recipient of the Chalmers Arts Fellowship, and the winner of the 2017 K.M. Hunter Award for Literature. Her website is: marianne-apostolides.com
Catherine Mellinger’s mixed-media collages can be found at: http://cargocollective.com/catherinemellinger/Deep-Salt-Water-1
Eric Maroney has published two books of nonfiction and numerous short stories. He has an MA in philosophy from Boston University. He lives in Trumansburg, New York, with his wife and two children. His book of nonfiction prose, fiction, and poetry, The Torah Sutras, will be published by Albion-Andalus Books in 2018.