17: Monica Youn
poet and lawyer
I'm excited to be publishing the first interview conducted by our editor Bindu Bansinath, who is also currently in the process of developing our essay column. She and Monica edited the interview together, and requested that I allow a breach of our typical word limit because of this. My hesitancy was eased while reading; it's a treasure trove all the way through. Bindu and Monica talk about infertility, toxic mothers, race and gender in poetry, and the female body under federal control. —Sophia
Monica Youn is the author of Blackacre, Barter, and Ignatz, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and the New York Times Magazine, and she has been awarded fellowships from the Library of Congress and Stanford University, among other awards. A former attorney, she now teaches poetry at Princeton University.
This interview was conducted and photographed by Bindu Bansinath on January 9, 2017, in Monica's Manhattan apartment.
BINDU: Talk to me about your experience of girlhood.
MONICA: My experience of girlhood was rather toxic in a lot of ways. I had to deal with a lot of judgments based on both gender and race. I grew up in Houston, Texas, which is the breast-implant capital of America. I was pretty much always the only Asian kid in my class, and that was very weird—the norms were very different from what I looked like. Only one guy asked me out in high school, which didn’t help my self-esteem much. I was the “brainy Asian kid,” except I could chug a six-pack of beer faster than the football players could, and they were impressed with that. So I was popular, but I was kind of like the class pet or something —there was always this feeling of foreignness. My school was all-girls; it had Daughters of the Confederacy debutantes and pretty explicit racism. I grew up internalizing those notions of myself. My mother also has very toxic norms of gender. She would tell me I was nasty for being outspoken, and she didn’t want me participating on the debate team because that was not ladylike. She would make me make my brother’s bed for him and clean his room because boys shouldn’t have to do that sort of thing. It’s funny, we just put together this toy stove for my toddler son, and my mother opposed us buying our baby boy a toy stove because she said it’s not appropriate for boys. So there were a lot of these messages that I had to just learn to block out, and sort of just get on with what I was interested in, which was poetry and law.
BINDU: And I know you’ve gone on to have a very successful career in both. How did you go about this process of blocking those messages out? I imagine it must have been difficult.
MONICA: I think I just decided at about age twelve that I’m not going to listen to my mother, my life will not go well if I listen to her, I will end up with an eating disorder if I listen to her. She was always pushing me to get plastic surgery because she didn’t like the way I looked. She would say things like, “Monica, the women at church have been talking about how fat you’ve gotten.” And I’ve never weighed more than I weigh now. Clearly this was untrue. I’d say, “Mom, you’re just lying to me. This is bizarre behavior.” So I think I figured out that her behavior was toxic, and that I would just not allow it to bother me, and I didn’t. But it just took a very explicit and conscious decision.
BINDU: It sounds like there must have been a toxic body-issue environment going on, not only with your mother, but you mentioned Houston is a plastic surgery capital? That I did not know.
MONICA: Yes. I remember spring break and girls in my high school would smear themselves with Crisco and lie on tinfoil in order to get a darker tan for prom—
BINDU: Literally baking.
MONICA: [laughs] Yeah, literally baking themselves! And you’re like, wow, what a strange idea of what people should do to be attractive. And there was a fad diet where people would eat nothing but strawberries and canned tuna. At the same time, though, my Catholic girls’ school was run by liberation theology nuns, and the great thing about girls’ schools is that the girl is the class clown, the girl is the class jock, the girl is the class brain. So for me to be the captain of the debate team and whatever else was encouraged.
BINDU: I actually went to a Catholic girls’ school myself, and I definitely understand what you’re saying about these social roles that are typically assigned to boys, and how wonderful it can be for girls to assume them. But you also mentioned that there could be a lot of explicit racism at school. Given this, I’m wondering what kind of female friendships formed in that period of time. How did you feel the girls in your school could be encouraging, as you said, but also limiting?
MONICA: I remember when I was thirteen, there was a social club for preteens that my white friends belonged to, and I wanted to join the social club, and I was just very gently told by my friends, “Oh, you’re not allowed to because you’re not white.” It was a whites-only club. And the way in which they said it was not at all hostile, just very matter-of-fact. As if they were saying something like, “Oh, I’m sorry, but you’re just not old enough,” or “I’m sorry, but you don’t live in the correct school zone” or something. Race as a category was considered that matter-of-fact, which is why I say the racism was just explicit. My white friends would say things like, “You’re not like the fresh-off-the-boat Asians. You’re not a chink. You act like a white person.” The way in which these people were very overt about their racism in some ways made it easier to deal with, because you knew that everyone subscribed to the same idea of a hierarchy, and you knew where you were placed on that hierarchy.
BINDU: I know when the speaker finds a racist statement so normal, it’s almost always a surprise to me. In the moment, I think, "What can I say to that?" And I generally, unfortunately end up not saying anything. But how did you respond to that?
MONICA: Generally, I think I internalized it. I mean, my parents were racists, too. They grounded me for six months for dating a black guy in high school. Their idea was they would try to be social climbers by sucking up to white people, and denigrating anyone who was not white. Except for other Asians, who were somehow okay.
BINDU: I’m South Asian, and I feel that racism that exists within Asian communities, and the idea of social climbing by adopting the racial hierarchy in which white is on the highest rung is something that people don’t often talk about.
MONICA: In the [Southern United States,] race is often thought of as a binary, graphed on a black or white axis. So it’s interesting to be in a city like Houston, which has a large Hispanic population and a large Asian population, and is a majority-minority city. You found yourself either being defined as not-white or not-black. My parents’ strategy was “Oh, okay, well let’s define ourselves as not-black.” It was terrifying, but I think that was their survival strategy. They were going to ally themselves with the whites, against the blacks.
I’ve seen a couple of interesting discussions of this dynamic, where there was kind of a conscious positioning of Asian Americans as against other minority groups in this country, starting in the 1960s, prior to the Immigration and Nationality Act. Whereas before that, under various exclusion acts, basically anyone who was not white was subaltern status. Around that time, there seems to have been this conscious, “Oh, well, let’s pull the Asian Americans out and deploy them against other racial minorities” in a really cynical attempt to say, “Oh, we’re inclusive, look at how well we treat Asian-Americans.” This whole “model minority” stereotype traces back to that strategy.
BINDU: On the issue of race, I read your article in Slate, “The Invitation You Can’t Refuse,” in which you spoke about how ethnic professionals are often invited to talk race, but when they do, they get accused of reverse racism. Whereas non-ethnic professionals can remain silent on these issues and not be scrutinized for that. I know you were speaking about this in terms of your experience as a lawyer, but I was wondering if you feel this applies to writing, in any degree?
MONICA: Oh I think so, definitely. As a person of color who teaches creative writing, you are often asked to make statements on racial issues, and these are issues, as everyone knows, that are incredibly complicated —politically, pedagogically, academically, aesthetically. People have extremely strong feelings, and if you put a foot wrong, you will be pilloried in one way or the other. So to have only the people of color required to state publicly their views on race—constantly—and never asking white people to do the same is a real problem. It can lead to a tremendous degree of tension with other colleagues. It can lead you to being seen as the person who’s always playing “identity politics,” the person who enforces “political correctness,” the person who’s not “collegial.” And it can really have a negative impact on your career prospects. It’s not fair to ask people of color consistently to bear this burden when you don’t ask that of white colleagues.
BINDU: In terms of writing as a body of work, and the content of said work: do you find people have an unfair, racialized expectation of you sometimes, that as Asian writer, you have to write about about Asian issues? And on the contrary, what happens if you don’t satisfy that expectation?
MONICA: I remember the first person who published me in a magazine—this was when I was twenty-two, maybe—and he’s a great editor. But he said, kind of half-jokingly, “Couldn’t you write something more ethnic? You would be more saleable.” There’s a pressure put on you to package yourself for white consumption. I think that was an accusation that Homi Bhabha leveled against Salman Rushdie back in the day. It’s a double-bind, because you might get some more publicity there, but then you’re always siloed as an ethnic writer who’s not writing the general, “universal” literature that “matters.”
I feel like those barriers are beginning to break down, and the tendency to group writers of color as “identity writers” just because they’re writing about their own experience in the same way that white writers write about their own experience is lessening. But I still notice mainstream journals —such as Library Journal— classifying writing by writers of color and LGBTQ writers as “identity” writing. As if “white” were not an identity, as if “straight” were not an identity.
I remember having this conversation, where I was talking to a white colleague who wasn’t really getting it, who was saying, “Why does race even have to be an issue, with regard to most content” And I was telling him that if he wrote a poem, say, about his childhood dinner table, he’d have steak and potatoes and dessert, but if I wrote about my dinner table growing up, then we had steak and potatoes, but we also had kimchi and rice and gim. As soon as you acknowledge that the kimchi dish is on the table, it becomes ethnic writing. And there is some pressure on writers of color either to whitewash their own experience in order to be more “universal” or to write accurately, from their own experience, and to be stereotyped as “ethnic” or “identity.”
BINDU: I’ve had a peer once ask me, why are your characters always Indian? Why not make this a more universal story?
MONICA: Yeah. It’s maddening. Some people really don’t get it. I think to be white in this culture is never to understand your own subjectivity. You always assume that your viewpoint is the universal viewpoint. I personally feel that that’s an enormous artistic disadvantage that white writers face.
BINDU: I know you’re saying that these hindrances are breaking down a little bit. But as a teacher, reading the writing of young people, do you see this issue present in their work?
MONICA: Occasionally, and I try to just ask some questions: who is the We in the poem? Who is the They? From whose perspective are we speaking? If you think you’re speaking from a universal perspective, why is that?
BINDU: Do you find that feeling like there must be a We is also a problem for young writers of color? That they feel obligated to represent a We as if there is a We in the first place? Which I don’t feel is always possible. It’s more nuanced.
MONICA: Yes. On a panel I once moderated, I think it was Akhil Sharma who referred to this as the But is your writing good for the Asians? question. The idea that you’re somehow writing as an ambassador of your race all the time. It’s not something that I’ve necessarily experienced, because I feel like when I’ve written about race, it’s been very much from my own bizarre perspective, that I think is readily recognizable as an individual, bizarre perspective. But I can imagine if I was writing about larger issues or current events, then that would become much more of a problem for me.
BINDU: Current events are making my head spin.
MONICA: I know. I had to write a poem for the inauguration—a poem against the inauguration—and it was very, very tough because I’m not used to writing about current events. It’s not something I have ever done. But I thought, it’s the writer’s responsibility, to adopt a more public voice right now, to put skin in the game, especially when called upon to do so. So I’ll give it my shot.
BINDU: On the note of this We in terms of race, does the We also apply in terms of gendered expectations? How do you feel like being a woman has shaped people’s expectations of what your writing should be?
MONICA: That certainly comes up with equal frequency. I think the degree to which one’s subject matter is considered important, or political, or ambitious, or relevant, or “masterful,” as opposed to personal, or confessional, or beautiful in an easy way, is terribly gendered in a very frustrating way. I remember I was in a workshop at Yale for graduate students. I was the only woman in the workshop. My work kept being referred to as Plath-y, which was enraging, frankly, because Plath-y was not considered a compliment by this particular group of graduate students. Even though I rarely wrote in the first-person, if I was writing about anything to do with my personal experience because I am a woman, then that was considered confessional and Plath-y. Whereas if it was a man writing that, it was considered not.
BINDU: What kind of advice would you give to young women writers who are trying to overcome the same kind of criticisms for writing the personal? I feel it has a broad import that a lot of people ignore.
MONICA: Just keep writing what you’re writing. Pay attention to who is telling you things, and take account of what their perspective might be. Even though a majority—it seems to me, from the people who take my classes—of the poetry world is female, the majority of the gatekeepers are still white males.
BINDU: I know you spoke earlier about your first editor, whose idea of saleability I found disappointing. But do you think that over the years you’ve seen any positive changes on the publishing ends of things, regarding what they expect or want in regards to saleability?
MONICA: Definitely. I think that things are much, much better than they were when I started writing twenty-five years ago, both for women and for writers of color. It used to be that there were only male gatekeepers and that there were only white gatekeepers. At Princeton, Oxford and Stanford, I did not have a single poetry teacher of color, and not by choice -- there were none available. So even being able to address these issues now is, I think, incredibly important.
BINDU: What kind of writers do you try to include in your own curriculum at Princeton?
MONICA: Well, I’m teaching a class right now called Race, Identity & Innovation. This is a hybrid workshop-seminar, and it’s partially in response to Cathy Park Hong’s essay, “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde,” which takes as its starting point that there’s a tradition in modern and postmodern poetics to treat experimental or innovative writing as always being impersonal. This was T.S. Eliot’s edict back in the day. It was then adopted by the New Critics, and it continued through death-of-the-author poststructuralism,polyvocality, appropriation, etc. All of these modes of writing presuppose an author whose biography does not matter —in a way that is exclusive of writing about personal identity, and particularly about race and gender issues. Cathy’s essay takes issue with this tendency in poststructuralist or postmodern poetics and criticism.
So I made up a class where the syllabus was entirely writers who are writing in what are often called innovative or experimental ways, but who are using race as a springboard toward those modes of innovation. Writers like Harryette Mullen, or John Yau, orBhanu Kapil, or Mónica de la Torre. It’s been an interesting class in part because it’s the only class I’ve ever done where the students and I are all people of color. Particularly with the election this semester, the discussions within that class would have been completely different had that particular dynamic not been in place.
BINDU: Now I feel like there’s no way for it not to be personal.
MONICA: Yes, and it’s sort of fascinating. I remember the first poem we discussed in that class was a poem by Jericho Brown called “The Tradition,” and he starts with traditional tropes of the Shakespearean sonnet and gradually twists the poem to end up with a litany of black men murdered by the police. The way in which one approaches the literary tradition in English as a writer of color, and what that positionality is, always built into your poems. That was a discussion that would have taken a very different form with a classroom of a different racial composition.
BINDU: Using the personal while also being innovative, and using race as a springboard is something I saw a lot when reading Blackacre. Can you speak a bit more about the process behind writing the book?
MONICA: Blackacre bears more on gender than on race, though there are a number of poems in there that are explicitly about race. The whole concept of of Blackacre is about how dependent our economy of inherited property is on control of the female body. If you are John Doe, and you want to pass your property Blackacre on to John Doe, Jr., then you have to ensure that Jane Doe is young and fertile and faithful. So in order to perpetuate this whole system of inherited wealth, you have to develop controls to punish or stigmatize women who are older, who are infertile, or who are unfaithful. You have a series of property laws, reproductive laws, you have marriage laws, you have inheritance laws—you have a whole legal system in place. Parts of that legal system have been dismantled, and parts of that have not been dismantled, and that’s a serious fight that’s entering a new phase now, post-election. Even beyond that, systems of social control are seamless, so that where the law leaves off, morals, stigma and shame take over.
So that’s what Blackacre is really about. Why is there all this shame surrounding the topic of infertility? Why is it that women come up to me after readings, and they tell me that they’ve had miscarriages or they’re infertile, and they always whisper behind their hands, and they’re ashamed—personally ashamed—in a way they wouldn’t be about any other medical issue? What sort of stories do we tell ourselves as a culture? What sort of stories do we pass down to our little girls about what is valued about being a woman, and what a woman is worth? My particularly toxic mother would charmingly often say, “Women are like fruit. After age thirty, they start to go rotten.” Which is sort of what I grew up with. I am infertile, and we managed to have a baby through an egg donor. I wrote Blackacre mostly while I was pregnant. I was looking forward to this great happiness of having a baby, but was also trying to exorcise all of this horrible negativity and shame that had kind of entangled itself in my psyche and my body over the past five years of struggling and failing to have a biological child.
BINDU: I know you’ve spoken about the shame of infertility in the past. You spoke earlier about being young and blocking out a lot of the gendered negativity you grew up with. But do you think that resurfaced in this time?
MONICA: Oh, definitely. I think that it’s easy to reject negative messages when you’re feeling confident and getting things done. Being childless is experienced as a form of failure, and there’s a lot of self-doubt and self-blame that goes on with that. And blame from other people, like my horrible reproductive endocrinologist, who asked me when my test results came back and I was trying to process, "What have you been doing all this time?" I was in my mid-thirties, a successful lawyer, a Rhodes scholar—no, none of that matters. "What have you been doing all this time?" But then you find yourself asking yourself, what have I been doing all this time? What was so important that I couldn’t have had a child earlier? Why couldn’t I have accepted that guy I rejected in my twenties? Why was my career so important to me—was it worth not having children? It causes you to question everything about who you are, because gender hierarchy is like race hierarchy. People are asking you, didn’t you understand that as a woman, your entire value was your reproductive value? Didn’t you understand that your first priority should have been to guarantee that value? As soon as you hit your early thirties, randomly women in gym locker rooms ask you how old you are, and then say, “Oh, you’d better have a baby soon.” And you’re just thinking, what were these women told growing up, and what are they telling their own daughters?
BINDU: I’m saddened and interested in the notion of shame, both in Blackacre and what you’re recounting now. How did you feel about not only exorcising it, but putting it in a book that was to be published and read? Do you think that sharing shame is an important part of dismantling it?
MONICA: Yes. I’m trying to be as public as I can be, quite explicit about the infertility, etc., because I don’t think this is something that should have to be whispered about. I’ve done nothing wrong. I have nothing to be ashamed of. Something went wrong in my body. It’s like any other medical condition. I have to say though, this book was very difficult for me to write for that reason. That spectre of publicity was the biggest fear I was grappling with through the book. Even now, I have blocked a number of my family members from my Facebook posts, because they don’t know my son is not genetically mine. My parents have forbidden me from telling them. It remains complicated, but I do feel like it’s important for a woman to talk about these issues. Because otherwise, other women are left to deal with the same issues in isolation and shame.
BINDU: I think it’s a really powerful and generous thing to do. You mentioned your family members, but how did your own parents react to the publication of the book?
MONICA: They were okay with it, actually. I think that they have grown a lot. It helps that they adore our son, who is their only grandchild. Previously, especially when I moved from law to poetry, I think they thought of poetry as something that I was not doing seriously, that it was not a serious profession, that I was just a dilettante who was flitting around. Now that I’m making a decent living as a poet, I think that they’re much more on board with it. I actually invited them to a poetry reading that I was giving in Houston, which is my hometown, and they came. I think they were very happy to see a packed room and lot of people asking questions, and hearing my explanations. They said they really enjoyed it. They knew the book was about infertility, and I think that they rightly assumed that none of my relatives read poetry, so the secret is not going to get out that way.
BINDU: How did you and your mom respond to the decision of using an egg donor?
MONICA: My mother was actually fine with it. I think by the time we had finally come around to an egg donor, she was so longing for a grandchild that she was like, "Do whatever you want, just give me a grandchild!" She did want the donor to be Korean, which she is. The egg donor thing was hard for me, because I was not one of these women who grew up saying, “Oh, I have to have a baby at all costs.” I myself was sort of an alien, changeling-type child, and not terribly cuddly. I had never been drawn to babies as a species, I had never really babysat growing up, and I had always thought that other people’s babies were like other people’s cats —they’re fine, but you just don’t care that much about them. I was worried that I would not bond with a baby that was not “mine.” Part of this was trying to figure out how much of the desire to become a parent, to reproduce, boils down to self-love—how much you want to see your own traits reflected in your child. And also, just wanting to feel a sense of yourself continuing in some way —the immortality aspect of it.
One of the problems with infertility as a condition is they will never tell you you are 100% unable to bear a child. They will tell you, you are highly unlikely to have a child, and you can do this, and you can do that, and you can give up this, and you can give up that, and you can go in for ever more improbable and undignified and expensive and painful treatments that will marginally increase your chances, and they will never tell you to stop, because they are making a living off you and your desperation. But you will just continue on and on. So finally I had set a relatively arbitrary cutoff date, and we just cut the process off. And I’m glad, because “natural” motherhood would never have happened for me —I can see that now. But it’s just hard to tell yourself this will never happen when you’re in the middle of trying for it. You always want to give it just one more shot.
The first Blackacre poem is about our final attempt at [In-Vitro-Fertilization,] where we failed because I ovulated a day early, so we missed the egg by one day. Just feeling like, oh, it’ll work next time, and then spending another year trying to get to a next time and not succeeding—it just becomes a very long, painfully drawn-out process. Someone just wrote a book about this that I read—the author’s name is Julia Leigh, it’s called Avalanche—and it’s a tough read, because this woman is just pushing herself down more and more difficult pathways trying to do this, and just subjecting herself to more and more.
The egg donor decision was also strange because you’re sort of shopping for someone to be your child’s mother, to create an embryo that is not genetically related to you, but whom you’re weirdly going to host in your own body. So this completely alien thing is just going to be—I love the word—“implanted” in me, and it’s going to do strange things to my body, which I’ve always made a point of taking care of, at apparently no slight risk to myself, etc. Why am I doing this? But I did feel like having the personal experience of being pregnant and giving birth were essential to me.
I had a conversation, actually, with Belle Boggs, about how much any form of artificial reproductive technology is stigmatized. People will say, "You could have adopted! You’ve wasted all this money doing this, and it’s just about your own ego", whereas they would never say that about really any other life decision that you made. I could have bought a car, or remodeled my kitchen, for the amount of money I spent on this process, but people would not have criticized me for buying the car, or for remodeling my kitchen, whereas people criticize you for bearing and delivering a baby with that same amount of money.
There’s this idea that because you have spent money on artificial reproductive technology, rather than on some other expenditure of money, you’re this acquisitive, grasping, unnatural woman —that’s also part of the stigmatization of infertility. Belle talks about this brilliantly in her book The Art of Waiting —that women who go beyond “natural” means of conception are viewed as greedy, wanting too much, usurping the role of nature or of God.
BINDU: I read your discussion with her on Literary Hub. It was powerful to read both of you talk about it. I feel like there’s not quite enough conversation and literature and poetry about destigmatizing this kind of shame, and that said, I’m concerned and frightened how reproductive health is going to look over the next few years.
MONICA: Exactly. It’s going to be ugly, because I feel like there are so many fronts to cover right now, and people have taken their eyes off the ball of reproductive rights. I’m not saying that there aren’t a million other crises to deal with, but the extent to which women’s freedom has to take as a baseline, reproductive freedom, was really brought home to me.
BINDU: Every time I look at the news, it’s disheartening to see more white men legislating women’s bodies.
MONICA: Yes, and talking in the language of punishment. In what other medical condition do you talk about punishing the patients?
BINDU: I’m worried this is just going to result in more shame.
MONICA: Oh yes, definitely. There’s no question about it. We have a president who talks about punishing women who have had an abortion, a president who brags that with five children, he’s never changed a single diaper, and who brags that it’s not his job to play with or raise his own children, it’s his wife’s job to deal with that kind of thing. It’s tragic to think of what might have been.
BINDU: From your perspective, how can we move forward in this climate and destigmatize shame for ourselves?
MONICA: Change will have to involve women refusing to participate in these systems of stigmatization. One’s mothers, one’s gym locker room companions, refusing to accept certain language and assumptions about what women are actually worth, and why they’re worth what they’re worth. I think that so much language in this culture takes for granted that women’s primary worth is reproduction. Even in Hillary Clinton’s campaign, the fact that she had to lead with the fact that she’s a grandma is astonishing to me. What if she had not been married? Why is that unthinkable?
BINDU: There was so much criticism about her not being “warm” enough. I kept thinking, do you want her to be your grandmother? That’s really not what she’s here for.
MONICA: I know. Having at one point been the only woman lawyer in the litigation department of a major law firm, that language just brings up for me so many memories. How if you were as sharp-edged and as confident as you had to be to be good at your job, then you were considered unlikable. I remember having my bonus docked one year because I was not considered likable enough by the lead partner, who would have all of the guys into his office to watch the baseball playoffs on the TV he kept next to his desk. It didn’t occur to him that part of the likability might have had something to do with the fact that I was the only woman lawyer in the department, as well as the only person of color. But this did not occur to him. His feeling was that he did not feel as comfortable with me as he did with the white men in the department, and thus, I lost $15,000 that year.
BINDU: Right, because his comfort is what matters.
MONICA: Because his comfort was what mattered. You see that sort of thing replicating itself. When I graduated from Yale Law School, which is the top law school in the country, my class was the first to be majority women, and the number of women from that class who are actually practicing law now is miniscule. Granted, one of my classmates is the governor of Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo, so they’re doing many other wonderful things. But practicing law, not so much.
BINDU: You’ve been writing poetry all throughout your career, but you made the transition from practicing as a lawyer to living as a poet. What inspired that transition?
MONICA: I had practiced law first in private practice, and then I got my dream job, and went to do election law at the Brennan Center doing voting rights and campaign finance reform. I was very, very happy there for quite some time. Then, in 2010, Citizens United was decided, and it just completely ate my life. Until that point, I could kind of get away and write at colonies, retreats, etc. But all of a sudden, I found myself as an expert and point person on How do we fix Citizens United? I stuck it out for several more years after that, during which I did not read a single book of poetry and I did not write a single poem, and I was pretty miserable. It just came to the point that I was going to continue in this job, or I was going to write poetry. I couldn’t do both; at that point it had become impossible. In my job at the Brennan Center, for every job opening that we had, there were 500 to 800 applications, so I thought to myself, "Okay, someone else can pick up the baton if I pass it —I’ve been holding the baton for five years." I’d gotten an offer to go teach poetry, and I decided to take that offer, and I did, and I’m very happy. Except my happiness —everyone’s happiness is now suspect, because I think I could have been doing more about the election, etc.
BINDU: Looking to some of the thematic elements of your poems, I wanted to discuss the thread of binding. In the context of Blackacre’s “Wide,” in which you talk about wide-hipped and wide-legged girls as threatening, as needing binds, and in “103 Korean Martyrs,” in which the girl at the end of the poem grows a dress with a binding sash, it was interesting to me, particularly in “103 Korean Martyrs, that the girl grows her bindings; they aren’t given to her. In what ways do you think women bind themselves?
MONICA: It’s not just women, but women do tend to do this—grow their own bindings. The image of the trellis, of something that is both a binding and a support, was interesting to me throughout the book. In talking about my childhood, we talked a lot about the toxic assumptions surrounding race and gender, assumptions with which I grew up. When you find yourself as an adult, having grown up with these kind of assumptions, the work of fully disentangling yourself from the assumptions with which you were brought up is not only not straightforward, it is not possible. You find that your self has been shaped by the trellis you were trained on. Just the extent to which you recognize that trellis, that you start to distinguish what is you versus what is trellis, is part of the work that I was interested in doing throughout this book, particularly in the Blackacre sequence. I mean, these are the same stories that chimed through my mind all the time—what I was always hearing about who I should be, what I’m worth, who I am. And if I’m to entirely disclaim these stories—I could do that—but who would I be then? Who am I, what is my history? The self can never be a blank slate. But what has been drawn on that slate is not always what you would want.
BINDU: Considering it that way, and looking to what I’ve been taught, it’s scary. We really do need to consider what we’re teaching our daughters, and making sure that they are the right things.
MONICA: Yes, and our sons. Teaching our sons what women are about. What men and women are about; what their capabilities are. Why shouldn’t a little boy have a baby stroller and a baby doll and a stove, and a little girl have trucks? Having just had a toddler playdate here yesterday, I think about these things.
BINDU: With your own experience of being a daughter, and now being a mother to a young son, what are the major things you’d want him to internalize?
MONICA: That empathy is not a gendered category. That would be the primary one. I think that that would take him quite some distance. It’s hard to even enumerate the number of assumptions that are available based on gender and race and class and nationality. So empathy is this useful, all-encompassing term that does a lot of specific work.
BINDU: Being a mother now, and in light of the struggle of coming into motherhood, how much of the pressure you put on yourself beforehand was personal, and how much was a societal expectation?
MONICA: I think a lot of the struggle and shame that I experienced around the issue of infertility had to do with my refusal to accept my own devaluation as an infertile woman. I did not want to admit, personally, that I was infertile, and thus I would force myself into fertility. Looking back on it, it all seems like this drawn-out period of psychosis to me. It’s so strange to say, why did I do that? Why did I not just go the egg donor route earlier? It would have made my life easier in a lot of ways. What was going on in my head, and what I did I have to overcome to do that?
BINDU: The fact that you’ve put work out that speaks to this, when there’s very little out there, is wonderful. There are a lot of women who wait later and later to have children nowadays—
MONICA: And they receive a lot of criticism for those decisions. Again, they are told that their primary value is reproductive, and how dare they devalue that reproductive capacity. Men don’t have to deal with [these issues.] It’s sort of astonishing to me. And the ways in which women who are parents are treated differently from men who are parents continue to astonish me.
BINDU: How do you see that? I know there’s a disparity between maternity and paternity leaves, but how do you see it with your own husband, or in people you know, that difference of expectation?
MONICA: Well, a few places, such as the academy, are making efforts to equalize parental leaves. But even in those places, culture has yet to catch up. So studies show that when male and female academics are given equivalent amounts of time off for parenthood, the women tend to actually spend time with the baby, while the men treat it as a research sabbatical. In this case, the familial expectations of caregiving are lagging behind the leave structure. If our culture doesn’t expect men to act as primary caregivers for their children, then oftentimes they won’t —they’ll just assume that childcare is primarily the mother’s responsibility.
And in my own life, my husband and I split baby care duties. But on the weekend, in my spare time, when he has the baby, I’m generally making food for the baby, or doing other baby-related tasks, talking to caregivers, researching preschool options. Often I will have playdates with my other friends who have toddlers their age. It’s all women. The men don’t go on playdates and don’t arrange playdates. They don’t plan the babies’ meals, research age-appropriate toys and books and clothes, make the caregiver and school decisions. It’s like the Daddy Day Care-type movies that assume that men are inherently incompetent and women are inherently competent child caregivers. It’s not about inherent competence, it’s about actual uncompensated and unacknowledged work. Nowadays they are much better about understanding that they have to change diapers and spend a certain amount of alone time with the baby. Not all of them. The ones who won’t even do that....are kind of beyond the pale.
BINDU: What do you think women in the world need or can do for each other presently?
MONICA: Support each other and support each other’s choices with imaginative empathy. And think about the language with which they use to talk about or tell stories about other women, and ask themselves where those stories are coming from. In Belle [Boggs'] book, she writes that after having the experience of infertility herself, she went back and looked at a collection of short stories she had published herself, when she was a younger writer, and found a character there who was a stereotype of the infertile woman who was pursuing IVF —who was this acquisitive, grasping “bitch,” basically. Belle was thinking to herself, "Why have I been spreading this poison around, that has now come back to contaminate my own existence?" And I certainly find myself criticizing other women in terms that are horribly gendered; horribly sexist.
I remember right after the election, I couldn’t manage to read anything I had previously been reading, but I wanted desperately to escape into a novel. So I finally decided on Octavia Butler’s book Kindred, which somehow felt consoling to read at that time. She has a scene in that book where there are these enslaved children, and they’re playing a make-believe game of slave auction. The little boy has put one of the little girls on the pretend auctioneering block, and he says, "Who wants to buy this slave for $200?" And the little girl says, "No no no, I’m worth at least $500. You sold the other little girl for $500, how come you’re only selling me for $200?" That really struck home, especially right after the election, in terms of how women compete with themselves under horribly unjust and sexist regimes of valuation and devaluation. You have women cutting down, competing with other women in the terms of a contest that have been set by men. It’s the Miss Universe pageant writ large. It’s horrifying.
I remember being at a party once, and hearing two younger women who worked at my incredibly liberal nonprofit referring to another woman, who was a friend of mine, as a cougar. And I confronted them and I said, "What are you doing? How dare you talk about this incredibly accomplished, wonderful woman in these sexist, reductive terms? That’s insane." The younger women I confronted were women who are about as left on the political spectrum as anyone is. I guess we all just need to be aware of how pervasive the language of the enemy is, and to be aware that when you’re speaking it, when you’re enforcing the enemy’s norms. There are more women in this country than there are men, women are the majority, so they cannot oppress us without our complicity.
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