In her novels, Meg Elison exposes humanity in raw form. A virus renders childbirth fatal and men come to outnumber women. People must find safety in numbers, though not necessarily with kindred spirits. Elison’s first novel, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, was an Amazon Best Book of the Year. Its sequel, The Book of Etta, just launched. In an interview with Nexus Media, Elison shares her thoughts on the nature of today’s conflicts.
In your novels, society collapses completely and has to reboot. In this world, what draws people together?
You can’t really say anything is human nature, but you can count on certain fundamentals. As much as we fear each other and worry about creating community, we do it anyway.
I’ve done a lot of studying in anthropology on how human groups began and how they persist. Our need for community forces us into groups where we don’t belong and gets us stuck with people we can’t stand. Our choice is to endure some grouping that’s fundamentally oppressive or fundamentally damaging to us — or to endure isolation.
Although we have a choice, we don’t really have a choice. It’s difficult to avoid the communal nature of humanity.
What’s the danger of isolation?
I’ve lived in a lot of places. I’ve lived so rural that there’s no post office delivery, and I’ve lived on a metropolitan grid, and they may as well have been different planets. Most of us have no concept of how anybody lives who isn’t us. We can’t conceive of others engaged in their daily lives, and it impairs our ability to empathize.
So, how do people decide who to trust or who to fear?
People choose something very simple to unite them. In The Book of Etta, I have all these isolated wanderers, and it occurred to me they were going to form some sort of cohesive grouping no matter what. The characters may have a common tribal history, or religion, or belief system such as “Slavery is acceptable” or “It’s not acceptable.”
I really wanted to delve into the difference between principles and how people actually live. Many characters made extremely difficult decisions because they believed no better world was possible. They were not willing to die for their ideals, and they’ll give up some of their freedom, safety and liberty in order to obtain some measure of peace.
Think about the way people make considerations or allowances within their families, and say, “The good of the family is higher than the personal good,” or, “This particular facet of my identity isn’t welcome among my family, so I’ll shepherd it, I’ll hide it, I’ll treat it carefully so that it’s palatable.”
It was very instructive for me to study history, especially the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, to discover how the rights of men were advanced often at the expense of women, or the rights of white women were advanced at the direct and calculable expense of black and brown women.
I looked at the ways in which people said, “We’ll accept this and hope for more later,” or “We’ll make these deals with the devil because it’s the only deal in town.” I’ve made it very extreme in these books, but it’s the same discussion my friends and I have as activists and as citizens: Can we accept a measure of independence and representation if it doesn’t bring everybody along?
My main character [in The Book of Etta], Etta, is not willing to make any kind of compromise when it comes to slavery and the terrors of the world she lives in, whereas most people have found their way to make peace. It’s that kind of thing that makes you either into a recluse or a hero. It’s all based on your actions — you have to be tough.
That said, at any time nature can show up and show you how ridiculous and pointless it is to fight amongst ourselves. I love as a writer being able to interrupt an argument between two people and say, okay, but wolves — or locusts or earthquakes. There are so many desperately uncontrollable factors for which we are completely at whatever mercy nature may have.
It’s an excellent backdrop to remind us of our own smallness and the ultimate futility of all our efforts. Man builds a tower, and sand tears it down if you give it enough time.
What’s the lesson from these novels?
People often read stories of deep discomfort and terrible happenstance so that they appreciate what they have. Reading post-apocalyptic stories makes me very, very grateful for a well-lit supermarket and traffic lights and the general rule of law — those can never really be taken for granted.
I do believe we can avoid futures like that. Even as far as we slide back, we can regain ground. It’s wearying and it’s awful, but we can get it back.
This interview was conducted by Josh Chamot, who writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.