We sat down to talk with Isabel Zapata, the author of In Vitro: On Longing and Transformation published by Coffee House Press, and the translator for this book, Robin Myers. We asked Isabel about the inspirations for both the content and the style of her book, and learned about Robin’s approach to translating this work from Spanish to English.
OWC: We can imagine just from the content what inspired you to write this book, but we'd like to hear directly from you- what was the inspiration for the story?
Isabel Zapata: So, okay, where to start. I never know where this starts. For many years, I was not sure if I wanted to be a mother. And then, when I finally decided I did want to be a mother, I encountered a lot of medical problems. I had taken hormones for many years to treat Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. So when I told my doctor I wanted to get pregnant, he told me that it might be more difficult than for other women. I started trying, and I realized that trying to get pregnant was a journey full of different emotions: what doctors said, what friends said, what I expected, the desire that played into it. I started to ask myself, why was I doing all this? Is it really worth it? To question myself, of what was the force behind this thing I wanted to do. So I started writing a diary, or a notebook, with what doctors said and what I thought. I finally got pregnant, and I had encountered a lot of medical problems, but also a lot of misogyny in the medical industry, especially around if I was the one with the problem, because in the end, the reason that we weren't achieving the pregnancy was because my husband had low sperm count. But for a while the doctor didn't even consider that he might be the problem. So I went through like a year or more of treatment in my body, my budget, my time, etc. just because the assumption was that if you're a woman, then you are surely the one to blame. And feelings of guilt follow from that. I finally had my daughter, and she was born like 2 weeks before the pandemic lockdown, which was another terrible thing, because I was, of course, very happy that we had achieved the pregnancy and that she was okay. But also it was a crazy time to have a little baby, because everything was so unstable. And I wouldn’t say that I regretted it, but I did have a lot of thoughts during the first months with her - if this had been a good idea, because it felt like the world was falling apart. It was a very difficult postpartum period. That's when I decided that I wanted to write this book, because through all this time, like the 2 years from when I decided that I wanted to be a mother, to the moment that Aurelia was born, I looked for things about this, and I found several books about motherhood - like the ambivalent nature of motherhood and the real, unromanticized side of motherhood. But I didn't find a lot of books about fertility challenges and fertility journeys that were literary. I found testimonies on the Internet- I could find women telling their stories, but not so much in a literary way, which I really craved, because I wanted to feel that I was not alone in that experience. So I thought, well, if I went through it and I can write the book that I would have liked to read, then why not? So I turned my notebook-of course I eliminated things, and I added some other things, and I made up some of them- and I made it into a book because it wasn't a book, it was a notebook, which are different creatures. So, it was born from the notebook, but it's not the notebook as it was. That was the process I went through.
OWC: That sounds really fascinating. And the result was amazing! So we're glad you turned your notebook into a book. This is a question for Robin- we saw your note on translation at the beginning of the book, and we've also talked amongst ourselves and thought some about translation - what it means to be loyal to the original work and what a good translation means. We'd love to hear about your experiences translating this work in particular. Because it was so intimate- it's such an intimate piece of work, so it must have been difficult to translate it and make sure to get everything across.
Robin Myers: I would start by saying that translating this felt like a natural continuation of a really lovely collaboration that Isabel and I have had for some time, and I've translated her work both as a poet and as an essayist before. My feeling about what Isabel writes is: anything that she writes, I will want to translate it. What I've always loved and admired about Isabel’s work, including this book, is its combination of intimacy and rigor. I think sometimes there's this sense that vulnerability in writing is automatically given value, like “oh, this is vulnerable, so it must be good,” while Isabel is always crafting what she is offering forth with style. I think when we talk about the relationship between writers and translators, there's this sense that the trust goes in one direction. But the trust goes in all directions, I think it has to. I want very much for the writer to trust me with their words, and I also want to trust their instincts and their style and their intention and their decisions. As I talk about in the translator's note, it was a very visceral first read and first draft of this translation, which is not the way I usually feel. It felt far rawer to me because of my own thought process and experience at that time. And I never know whether to describe the revision of a translation as a zoom in or a zoom out, because it’s sort of both. There's this sort of first thing that you end up with, and then the work for me - the real work - comes when you really get in there. But at that time, reading an early version of the book in this first pandemic spell, I had an experience as a reader that, Bam!, really knocked me sideways. Then I had the privilege of really engaging with it, and trying to take it apart and sit inside it. The book is dense in many ways, but there's something delicate about its construction, and so I wanted to make sure that the English prose felt both as deliberate and as strong as Isabel’s, but also light on its feet. And that was the task of really extensive revisions.
OWC: It's interesting you said that, about the writing style because that leads us into the next question. Isabel- We’d like to hear about your choice for the vignettes and the sparseness, because even with so little words there was so much impact. And we just didn't know if your style was always going to be these clips throughout your experience, or if it developed that way as you were going?
Isabel Zapata: So there's two interesting things to say about that. The first one is that I like to think of this book as belonging to a certain motherhood writing tradition, in which it is not uncommon that it's fragmented, and it has its reasons, which I think have to do with the nature of time when new mothers write. So right now my daughter is 3 years old, and that time kind of went by, so I don't feel like that anymore. But there is something about the first year or so in which you never have more than 1 hour to sit and write. So that's a reason why so many books on motherhood are fragmented, like Little Labors or Ongoingness or Linea Nigra. That's the structure that reality demands from you, more than just a stylistic choice. The other thing I wanted to say is that once I knew that it was going to be the structure of the book, there was some discussion if we should put all the fragments one after another and then make it a book that you could read in one breath, or if we should put one fragment on each page. And the Mexican edition is like the American one, with a little fragment on each page. But then, for example, the Argentinian addition, they decided to do it all in one go, interconnected, which, curiously enough, I do think gives you a different feeling when reading it. I wanted each editor to interpret the book and to make the book their own, so I wanted to allow them to do whatever they wanted to do, because the book is not mine anymore, it's also theirs. But I like that there is a lot of blank space in the Coffee House Press book because it does give you a moment to breathe. If you read one after another, you don't have the time to absorb what you just read.
OWC: We marked quotes from your book, and there is a specific one where you relate the blank spaces to the holes in the net in the ocean. So that's why we felt it was intentional to have so much blank space within the book. And we really loved that.
Isabel Zapata: Yeah, to have like a sea of things, and then you kind of grab one or another.
Robin Myers: It also makes me think of a review in The Believer recently, where the critic, in discussing In Vitro, talked about a line from the poet Jori Graham, where she says that there are poems that end and poems that stop. He describes In Vitro as a book for him that stops, that could easily have continued or have ended somewhere else. And I think there's also something really beautiful about that idea for the entire book - that it obviously has a structure, a propulsion, an organization. And yet there's also this sense of things flickering in and out.
Isabel Zapata: It was difficult to decide where to stop writing. It stops when Aurelia is very small, like 3 or 4 months old, and I could have continued writing and followed her into personhood, like into becoming a person, which a baby is not. A person in the sense of acquiring a personality and being able to relate with her, which I didn't feel able to do until she was like a year old. And that's a very difficult thing to admit, because while I did have an immediate protective instinct, I didn't love her immediately. Motherhood doesn't work like that. You love a person that you know- so you have to spend time with that person to love her. And I purposely decided to stop the book before that happened, because I didn't want her to become a characterI wanted the book to be about the feeling of wanting to have a baby, not necessarily of having the baby.
OWC: That leads us to our next question. The book covers a range of experiences. It's not just the desire, but it does end with motherhood. How did you choose the title? Did you always know that you wanted a title that captured the front end of that experience or did the title come to you as you were writing the book?
Isabel Zapata: Yeah, that's a very good question, because this book never really had another title. I usually have a couple of ideas that could work for each book. And this time it was very straightforward that I wanted that to be the title. I thought that it was very self-explanatory, very clear for readers what it was about. Also, for people that are not familiar with the in vitro process, fertilization, etc, it has a mysterious vibe, something that happens in vitro is a very small thing that happens under human control in a small little box. It has a quality that also has to do not only with the in vitro process, but also with the feeling of making something from scratch and with human intervention. I also like that the title could work in any language. Not that I was necessarily thinking “Oh, this is going to be translated to many languages.” What I did think about was that when you choose a name for a kid, or for a cat, or for a project, it matters that the more people that can understand it without having to explain it, the better. It's more accessible. Also, that's the reason that for the cover we thought of putting something that wasn't too motherhoodly, but more galactic, from outer space. I wanted for someone who saw the title and the illustration to think of an out-of-this-world experience, because it's a crazy process, from the beginning to the end.
OWC: That touches back on something that you said earlier, where you were looking for literature about a specific type of experience, and you weren't finding it. And so having a title like that also says, “this is the type of experience that we're going to talk about in this book”, as an alert to people who want to read that and are looking for that specifically.
Isabel Zapata: Yeah, I think it's such a painful experience, because mine had a happy ending, in a way. But there's another book by Julia Leigh- the book is called Avalanche- and it's a book which narrates the same experience as my book, from the beginning, from trying to conceive, but in her case, she isn't able to achieve it. She goes through 7 rounds of in vitro fertilization, which is so terrible on the body and for her relationship and everything, and at the end she decides to stop. But she is not lucky in having a baby. I think that's the only other book that I read that is precisely about that, because, of course, the experience might appear in movies and in TV shows, or in another book as something that happens to one of the characters. But to be in first person narrating, there must be others and I really looked for them, but I think that is the only other book that I know of. And for this topic, the more experiences, outcomes, thoughts we have, the better because we are all so different. And it depends so much on the doctors, your age, and on the couple. And that's why I don't like when people say, “Oh, we had enough with motherhood books.” There's so many of us, we have so much to say, and all of those voices are creating this tradition that I was talking about, and I feel very happy that our generation is leaving a more robust tradition through this creation. Not that there wasn't anything before, but there are many more books in this right now than there were 10 years ago.
OWC: Yeah, absolutely. This might be too personal, and you don't have to answer, but you did have a happy ending and do you think that's one of the reasons you were able to write and publish this book? Because it would have had a totally different feel if you didn't have that success.
Isabel Zapata: Yeah, I think that I would have written it anyway. It would have been a different book, of course, but while I was going through it, I very frequently thought “I have to write about this, because it's so crazy. It's such a transforming thing, whether I have a baby or not.” Friends approached me and wanted me to tell them more about it. And I think I was pretty secretive during the process. I didn't like to talk too much about it because I felt embarrassed. I don't know why, but it's a feeling that you have when you go through assisted reproduction, it's embarrassing. And yeah, I still don't understand why I felt like that. You feel dirty, Like if you are not able to conceive naturally, then maybe you shouldn't be having a child. It’s destiny telling you to take a hint. So I wanted to rub that off a little bit, and it's still there, because people still make comments like, “It's not natural” or whatever, but I feel like the more of us that talk about it, the easier it is for the ones that follow. So I feel a responsibility in a way.
OWC: That’s so true- and we thank you for leading the way. Going back to Robin, we also had a question about a specific aspect of the translation. The word “ghost” was used a lot, but it was used in a wide variety of ways. Was that a specific motif that was being used? Do you think that there were certain points that “ghost” was not able to convey the Spanish in English?
Robin Myers: Isabel can help me confirm this, but fantasma came up in Spanish quite a bit. That said, there are a wider range of quasi-synonyms in Spanish; the way we would talk about something being “ghostly” in English, there are more ways to say that in Spanish. But I’ll say that one of the things that was most striking to me in reading the book, and which I wanted to make sure I brought forth in the translation with equal vividness,, are the threads about the desire to become a parent - and the process of pregnancy, and the effort to get there - and the threads about grief. In Vitro is, among other things, a very powerful book about grief, and about the relationship between imagining a future and mourning past losses. I certainly see ghostliness as a motif that I wanted to be present in the English, too - this sense of the interplay between the habitation of the body and the practice of imagining people who are no longer here - whether because they have died and we've lost them, because they don't exist yet. There’s something important here about the role of the imagination, and about memory as a form of imagination, too. So yes, I definitely wanted the image of the ghost to recur as clearly in English as it does in Spanish.
Isabel Zapata: Yeah, I think I do use the word ghost a lot because, as Robin says, grief plays an important part. My mother died when I was young, and I do remember her- I was like 18 or something- but I never knew her as an adult, so I was becoming an adult when she got sick and died. So there are many things that I couldn't ask her about my own birth, about how I was as a baby, if she wanted to have me, how she got pregnant, you know, these things that you don't ask as a child, or maybe I did, but I don't remember, or even if you ask them, mothers don't tell you, because there is this pact of not telling the truth to your children when it's something painful to say. So when I got pregnant, and I had my daughter, I realized that I had all these questions, and so the ghost of my mother was made present again in my life, in all these unspoken things that we had never talked about. You usually think that when somebody dies, your relationship ends. So it's like, “Oh, she’s not here anymore.” But I realized that while my relationship with my mother stopped when she died, it didn't finish. Having a daughter brought her to life again in so many ways, in terms of memories that I now have of her that for many years I forgot, and things that I now forgive that for many years I wasn't able to forgive. And now, having a child, I can forgive and let go- about her way of doing things that I didn't understand, or maybe, if I still don't understand it, I don't judge her as harshly as I did when she was alive, and not only when she was alive, but when I was 25. I was like, “I am so angry, I am so angry about those things”. And now, I'm not anymore. It has evolved and it's difficult to think that a relationship with a dead person can evolve. In that sense, my mother is a character in the book too, her absence and the need that I had for her is a character. I never felt like such an orphan as I do now that I have a daughter. Maybe that's why there is a ghost story that goes through the book.
OWC: We just want to say thank you for being so vulnerable, not only talking about your pregnancy journey, but also your mom, because I think it will resonate with people. And I really hope that people do read this and feel like they're not alone if they've gone through that too. So thank you.
Isabel Zapata: No, thank you. Yes, I talked to a couple of women in workshops going through the same. I became friends with a woman who went to a workshop with me who lost her mother while pregnant. And I think it's a very singular experience,something happens inside your head. Like you always think of being a mother with your mother helping you.
OWC: This is our last question, and this goes back to you mentioning you had your notebook, your diary, and that was where you were pulling a lot of the experiences from. But we also really liked the quote “I alternate certain fragments with other people's stories. It's my house, but other women walk the walls” and the idea that this is not just your story, but you've included or made up other people's stories as well. And so about how much of it would you say is your story, and how much did you add in?
Isabel Zapata: Well, I think it's mostly my story. But I purposely didn’t write about some things that had to do with my relationship, which I didn’t think it was my right to talk about. And I exaggerated some things, because that happens when you write. So, if I thought something had an impact and it could serve to build tension and an atmosphere, I might have stayed in those moments-where maybe when they happened they weren't so important, but I might have stayed more with those moments in the book. And in my writing I'm also referring to all the reading that I did, because going back to that tradition of motherhood writing, I think there is something very characteristic about these books. Mothers that write usually read a lot of books by other mothers that write. That I've seen- I think it's a fact. So I think that the voices of many women that I read, like some of the books I mentioned before, those voices walk with me too, and walked with me in the past, in those months. They were my friends because I didn't talk about this much with anybody. So I talked to them. My story is not relevant because it's my story, it's because it's our story. Like the medical industry misogyny- some things happened to me, but they weren't as terrible as other stories I've heard. I was very privileged to be able to have a private practice doctor, and enough money to pay for it, and enough support. And it depends so much on that. I wanted to make a space to say, “It's many of us that go through this, in different ways.”
OWC: Thank you so much Isabel and Robin for your time today. This was amazing and we loved hearing more about your inspiration and your thoughts while you were writing and translating In Vitro. We can’t wait to see what you both work on next!