Anna Prushinskaya’s A Woman Is a Woman Until She Is a Mother: Essays paints a beautiful and bitingly honest portrait of motherhood. The author draws on writers Alice Walker and Anne Carson, advice from her own Russian grandmothers, and lessons with her doula to show the range of ideas about how a child comes into the world and the ways in which it changes a woman. Is the biggest discomfort the birth? Or is it the sleep deprivation, fears of the child dying, pumping breastmilk in a supply closet?
Being a writer complicates the matter, Anna admits. Day-to-day experiences become “material,” which either enriches or cheapens her relationship with her son. A peaceful afternoon listening to music with her son feels “so stock” she’d rather leave it out. “I judge myself for wanting to omit this life from an imprint of life, this essay,” she writes. “Then, I judge myself for that, because I am a writer and I require honesty first and editing second.” Still, the prose is clear and economical, each sentence saying something big without extraneous words (“The author needn’t author the reader’s imagination”).
Her debut essay collection, A Woman Is a Woman Until She Is a Mother was released in November by MG Press (also the publisher of Fail Better interviewee John McCarthy’s Ghost County). Anna has also written for The Sonora Review, The Atlantic, Pacific Standard, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and she has been an editor for Joyland Magazine and Electric Literature. She earned an MFA from Brooklyn College-CUNY, and currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with her husband and two sons.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever written?
Anna Prushinskaya: The worst thing I have ever written. I think probably I would have to say that some of my attempts at writing novels in graduate school. I have always been interested in poetry and short-short/in-between formats, as is probably apparent from the collection of essays, but I really wanted to try to write a regular old novel in school. It didn’t go very well.
Do you think size was the main problem with those novels? Or did it also have to do with the story or just trying to write something “regular”?
AP: I think the main problem was that I was trying to force something to happen. I don’t know what the experience of writing is like for other people, but for me, I tend to experience these moments that have a lot of resonance, create a fire, propel me to explore an image or idea. And I don’t think that for me this type of experience or relationship to writing lent itself to writing long-form fiction. Maybe that will change someday.
Even with all of the images the book packs in, your essays and even your sentences are very concise. Do you write a lot and then trim, or are you extremely meticulous throughout the process?
AP: A little of both. For example, with this collection of essays, this was probably at least twice the size of the final draft in the beginning. But some of the images or moments that are found in my writing just come out like that, too. So the trimming is mostly cutting the material between the things that I think best express the experience I’m hoping to describe.
One experience you explore is your childhood in Soviet Uzbekistan and how you tell people you immigrated to the U.S. at age 13 to get more “credit for [your] Russian-ness.” In what ways has this influenced your writing?
AP: I think my immigration experience influences everything really, how I view the world, my writing, my parenting. It’s hard to articulate that influence in a short response. So when I say that I want credit for it, I think it’s sort of similar to something I talk about in another part of the book, when after the baby is out, I had the sense of losing that public marker of having just been pregnant and become a mother, two deeply affecting experiences.
While most of the book is about having children, there’s a later essay about not having kids. (Which contains one of my favorite sentences: “It is funny to think about this careful, logical thinking in light of my current situation, standing next to the freezer and eating chocolate chips by the handful because I cannot stand to hear the baby cry.”) Why was it important to explore this side, too?
AP: One of the things that I was hoping to explore through the book is the contrast between the private and public aspects of my experience. I look for example to two famous essays by Rebecca Solnit — “The Mother of All Questions” and “Men Explain Things to Me” — when I think about this. While experiences and decisions are complex and different for everyone, many times through the lens of someone else’s judgement, they can be reduced to a particular category of experience (of “woman” or “mother,” for example). I wanted to make clear that I was sharing my own experience and that there is a broad spectrum of many diverse experiences with motherhood or not.
What type of project are you working on now? And what new struggles has it presented?
AP: Right now I am in the early stages of more essays, this time about transformative moments more broadly, moments that when one looks back on them delineate the “before” and the “after.” There’s a book called Trauma Stewardship that I read some time ago and am still thinking about, which deals with some of the issues I might address through the book. I think one thing I’m working on right now is to allow this project to come together organically in the same way that A Woman Is A Woman did.