Meg Elison was in her final semester at UC Berkeley, and every single day of RRR Week was an uphill battle against the finals looming ahead. An idea — astounding in its completeness — came to her just before finals week was to begin. On the Friday afternoon after her last final, she sat down; in a single sitting, Elison wrote the first 13,000 words of what would become her debut science-fiction novel, “The Book of the Unnamed Midwife.”
Elison transferred to UC Berkeley unsure of where she belonged on the bustling campus. She had been involved in an underground counterculture newspaper before college, and it was during her senior year at UC Berkeley that she began working as an opinion editor at The Daily Californian, and her love for the freedom of work in journalism was cemented.
“When I would run into people reading (my newspaper), it was the best feeling,” Elison said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “It’s a godlike power. It’s a way to shape the world into the way you want it to be, to tell someone who you are and to create a self portrait without a camera or a brush.”
Still, Elison knew becoming an author was her higher ambition. “I felt I could die happy if I died a published author,” she explained. “That was enough.”
As an author, Elison knew she could communicate her passions and sense of self, even in a genre as fantastical as science fiction. She began her journey of expression by detailing her experiences with poverty and loss in dutifully kept diaries. Many of these early-life struggles served as potent inspiration for “The Book of the Unnamed Midwife.”
The story itself focuses on a nameless female protagonist trying to survive in a post-pandemic dystopian America that particularly decimates the female population, where women are treated as a sex commodity by the surviving men. She finished writing the story in only six months and eventually worked out a deal with Sybaritic Press to publish it. In 2014, “Unnamed Midwife” was awarded the prestigious Philip K. Dick Award, an honor reserved for sci-fi works. From there, everything took off: A new publishing company, 47North, agreed to re-publish the book, which came out last Tuesday. The sequel to “The Book of the Unnamed Midwife,” “The Book of Etta,” is due to be released in February 2017, and a third book is also in the works.
To write “Unnamed Midwife,” Elison drew heavily on her deepest convictions. Themes of female empowerment and sexual autonomy are rarely addressed in the science-fiction genre, but these subjects were of absolute importance to Elison. She had read a significant amount of feminist literature, and in it she discovered words for an already-familiar experience.
“I read all these different apocalypses,” she said. “Aside from two books out of hundreds, I found almost no true representation of women. Many of these women in the stories should have had access to birth control, but it never comes up. Everybody says that if it’s a book you want to read and it doesn’t exist, that means you have to write it. I have so many books to write to fill this hole.”
A feminist science-fiction novel evolved into a story of survival, as Elison drew from memories of her upbringing. Her father was a military man and her mother struggled with mental illness; they divorced when Elison was very young, and what followed was an endless wave of evictions and temporary homes. By age 14, she was living on her own, homeless and trying to survive. The result was a very checkered education, and eventually Elison dropped out of high school completely.
“Being very poor makes you always think about survival,” she said. “There’s a kind of survivalism of the wealthy — ‘How much can I stockpile? How much can I hold on to? What can I prevent other people from taking from me?’ — and then there’s survivalism that’s conditioned through poverty — ‘What are the forgotten things? Where are the overlooked places? Where can I go where no one will know?’ Poverty makes you invisible — that’s your superpower.”
She did find an escape from her struggles — literature — and so she voraciously read any books she could get access to. Eventually, her love for reading blossomed into a love for writing as well, yet another piece of Elison’s upbringing that is reflected in “Unnamed Midwife.” The majority of the novel unfolds through a series of brutal journal entries.
As her debut novel, “The Book of the Unnamed Midwife” captures the spirit of Elison’s artistry. The human capacity to survive is something authors have explored for as long as science fiction has existed as a genre, but Elison brings to it her own definitions of sexuality, resourcefulness and determination.
Meg Elison will be at at the Booksmith in San Francisco on Nov. 15.
Contact Shannon O’Hara at [email protected].