This interview was originally posted at BrazosBookstore.com on 10/21/16
There are exceptions to everything but for the most part, living artists are the be all, end all for me. I like the connection and contradiction between a piece of art and the person behind it. The only type of surprise I savor: the one where somewhere in Houston, I am waiting to hear the speaking voice of a writer I don’t know.
The first time I try to call Monica Youn, she asks if we can reschedule. “I’m sort of having a baby crisis,” she says, and at the time, knowing nothing about Youn outside of BLACKACRE, the thing I think is that I am not a mother—meaning yes, of course. That world comes before this other one.
Three days later, I start by asking her to tell me about her book, which is maybe the only question I ask every person I interview. Since the title draws on legal jargon for a hypothetical estate—“Blackacre” is the equivalent to Jane or John Doe as applied to physical property—I suppose I had a mild expectation she would say something about that, or allude to her years as a lawyer.
She starts three times. “It’s not about one thing in particular,” she says. Then she offers the poet version: “Coming to terms with necessity and to what extent the imagination can transform what is given and to what extent the imagination has to come up against the limits of what is possible.”
There is a pause while I finish typing the last thing she says but she takes the moment as though I am standing there with a microphone, eyes big and face shiny. Here is the heart of it: “my own inexperience dealing with infertility and its aftermath, especially the shame that surrounds the concept of infertility.”
This is what it means to talk to a living poet about her work and hearing what it means to her. Because Youn, on paper, is elusive and dense and steeped in structures that I never studied in school. She is, to say it plain, too smart for me. There is no amount of time that I could have studied her meditations on Villon’s fabled hanged man, “Epiphyte,” and cycle of various -acres and found a baby at the bottom of it, unless she told me it was there.
The kaleidoscope of emotion is easier to speak about now that the baby is two, BLACKACRE is out, and she enjoys teaching at Princeton. But it was not always like this, and the book is a physical talisman that represents the five years her and her husband spent trying. “At the same time I was going through this issue with fertility, I was coming to the end of my legal career,” Youn says. “I was coming to an end of a lot of things in my life.”
It is one thing to choose not to produce children; the inability is the ultimate female failure—at least, according to certain stigmas. Youn and her husband, during this process, were “required to deal with a lot of side taboos in the States but also in Korea, where my family is from.” In the end, Youn and her husband decided to use a donor egg, and Youn tells me that the pregnancy itself was a positive experience.
The egg donor process, pregnancy, and writing happened in tandem. “I wanted to get all that darkness out of my system before I became a mother,” Youn says. The memory is still there, of course, and Youn acknowledges that. But better to focus on and try to understand or weave through that before needing to jump headlong into this other thing.
On the top of the questions I never ask is what the writer hopes readers will find in her book, but it seemed like a good question to ask Youn, given that the inspiration for the book and my experience of the book were so different. “You know, after readings, women come up to me and they tell me about their experiences with infertility and they’re always speaking in whispers,” Youn says. “They’re personally ashamed in a way that they wouldn’t be ashamed of another medical issue. And I think part of the reason I wrote this book, even though it was quite difficult to be this public about something this personal, is that I want to sort of start a conversation about that shame and what it’s about, and to try to dismantle it.”
Right away, I think of Lacy Johnson and her memoir THE OTHER SIDE and how it was published at a time when America was beginning to open up conversation about rape and sexual abuse. It went on to be a finalist for an Edgar Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award. BLACKACRE has been longlisted for this year’s National Book Award for poetry, following her previous collection IGNATZ, which was an NBA finalist.
“Perhaps [BLACKACRE] would have been different if I wrote it at a different time during the process,” Youn says. “I wrote it when I knew there would be a happy ending.”