Canadian-American novelist and short story writer Rivka Galchen turned to memoir for her third book, a move that was neither intentional nor planned, she said in a recent interview. Originally contracted by her publisher to compose a straightforward essay of literary criticism on Murasaki Shikibu’s “The Tale of Genji” and Sei Shōnagon’s “The Pillow Book” (classic works of Japanese literature), new mother Galchen found her mind, and her pen, wandering.
“But the paradox was that as my life had become a day of unprecedented length, a day that I was calculating to now be almost three thousand hours long… my thoughts had become unprecedentedly interrupted,” writes award-winning author Galchen in the third entry of her 96-page lyric essay, “Little Labors,” released in May by New Directions.
In retrospect, Galchen admitted, “I completely failed to put that essay together. When I turned in a draft to my editor — past deadline — it was halfway between being that essay and the book it is now. But my editor’s kindness and flexibility allowed it to become what it is.”
So what is “it”?
“Little Labors” is a compact collection of Galchen’s observations and reflections on her life, surroundings, and her changing identity in the months after her daughter was born.
Modeled structurally on Shōnagon’s “The Pillow Book” and infused with commentary on Japanese literature, “Little Labors” is not quite a diary, nor critical analysis, but rather a hybrid work that sometimes reads like a novel and other times like poetry. It is the type of intimate, insightful, and yet thoroughly accessible read that may certainly be appealing to new mothers — as many of Galchen’s observations focus on her infant, whom she refers to as “the puma” — but also to any contemplative reader, male or female.
The book refuses classification: Some of the entries, like the opening “Children’s Books” are bite-sized statements, while others are longer first-person essays or more critical analyses of babies as subjects of literature.
Reviews of “Little Labors” are comparing the book’s format to other recent memoirs written by women who are also mothers — Maggie Nelson, Sarah Manguso, Heidi Julavits, for example; works that investigate the emotions and conflicts that arise at the intersection of parenting and the creative life.
“The book’s structure emerges naturally from the way it was produced,” Galchen replied when asked about the nontraditional format. “In fact, the structure tells its own story, of the kind of soil in which these plants grew. For mothers writing specifically from the situation of having young children around — maybe it’s not a surprise that these books have similarly fragmented structures. ”
In “Little Labors,” Galchen is quick to inform the reader that she didn’t want to write about “the baby.”
“I wanted to write about other things,” she writes. “Mostly because I had never been interested in babies, or mothers; in fact both topics had seemed perfectly not interesting to me: maybe I was even repelled by mothers and babies as subjects to write about.”
‘My bookshelves meant either there were no good books by women, or I had somehow read in such a way as to avoid them’
And yet Galchen navigates her hypothetical disgust with adeptness, beginning first with an outward glance toward the role of babies in literature, art, and pop culture (for instance, the absent presence of the in-utero baby in the classic TV show, “I Love Lucy,” or babies as a parable in the film “Forty-Seven Ronin.”)
She then turns inward, offering throughout the book insights often packaged as humor.
“My life with the very young human resembles those romantic comedies in which two people who don’t speak the same language still somehow fall in love,” writes Galchen.
Later, though, in an essay toward the end of the book, she almost contradicts this when she notes, “I sometimes feel, as a mother, that there is no creature I better understand than my child. This is probably because she can’t really say anything. I am beginning to worry, as she is just beginning to speak, that we are entering the beginning of misunderstanding.”
Born in Canada, but raised in Norman, Oklahoma, Galchen is the daughter of two Israeli immigrants. Her father, Tzvi Gal-Chen, was a professor of meteorology at the University of Oklahoma and her mother was a computer programmer at the National Severe Storms Laboratory.
Galchen’s first book, the novel “Atmospheric Disturbances” published in 2009, was awarded the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.
Galchen describes her childhood growing up Jewish and Israeli among a community of often poor, often Evangelical Christian neighbors as formative.
“The kind of people who were attracted to my family as foreigners were the best kind of people because they found us interesting,” Galchen recalled. “On Passover, my mother — who was for a time president of Hillel — would plan a seder and people would come from far away. Non-Jewish people, too, simply because they were interested in experiencing Passover.”
“I don’t know if I would be a writer if I didn’t have a childhood like that,” Galchen said. “I didn’t consciously think of myself as a fish out of water, but I guess I was.”
Named Rivka after her paternal grandmother who died a relatively short time before she was born, Galchen went instead by the name “Ricky” for most of her childhood.
But when Galchen’s departure for college in New York coincided with her father’s sudden death, she decided, “Maybe my name is Rivka.”
“I was in a totally new setting, I thought, why not just use it?” she said. “I had this masculine name my whole life. In my mind I was taking on my own feminine name, but also a Jewish name, my father’s mother’s name.”
Her connection to her identity as a woman in the world, prior to giving birth and after, is a subject she explores in “Little Labors,” as well.
In the entry entitled “Women Writers,” Galchen admits to feeling confused and ashamed, for instance, when she discovers in her mid-twenties that all the books in her shelves were by men.
“I wasn’t going to get in a rage about it,” she writes. “But I was unsettled, since my bookshelves meant either there were no good books by women, or I had somehow read in such a way as to avoid them…”
At the conclusion of “Women Writers,” Galchen claims no true envy for men, however, save for one advantage they seem to hold over women.
“The envious thought was simply that a man can have a baby that their romantic partner doesn’t know about. This is a crazy thought, of course, but I find myself feeling it with such sincerity that I cannot see its edges,” she writes. “I pretend to envy things like their higher incidence of ungrounded confidence and monomania, but I don’t really envy those things, and I’m not sure I even believe in them — but this, the covert-baby-having thing, was the first real thing.”
In a way, “Little Labors” is politics masquerading as the personal; social commentary in the guise of private reflections. Galchen said she did not plan to write a political book. As many writers, she said, she simply feels grateful that “people want to read it.”
“I felt acutely aware [when I was writing the book] that the thoughts I was having about children were going to be gone, the sentiments would soon start to feel alien,” said Galchen.
Writing the book was selfish, a way to travel back in time to when her daughter was small, when the identification to motherhood was new.
A year and a half later, and “already, the whole landscape of being with her is different than the book,” she said. “I didn’t want to forget.”
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