My Favorite Bit: Meg Elison talks about THE BOOK OF ETTA
Meg Elison is joining us today with her novel The Book of Etta. Here’s the publisher’s description:
In the gripping sequel to the Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, one woman undertakes a desperate journey to rescue the future.
Etta comes from Nowhere, a village of survivors of the great plague that wiped away the world that was. In the world that is, women are scarce and childbearing is dangerous…yet desperately necessary for humankind’s future. Mothers and midwives are sacred, but Etta has a different calling. As a scavenger. Loyal to the village but living on her own terms, Etta roams the desolate territory beyond: salvaging useful relics of the ruined past and braving the threat of brutal slave traders, who are seeking women and girls to sell and subjugate.
When slavers seize those she loves, Etta vows to release and avenge them. But her mission will lead her to the stronghold of the Lion—a tyrant who dominates the innocent with terror and violence. There, with no allies and few weapons besides her wits and will, she will risk both body and spirit not only to save lives but also to liberate a new world’s destiny.
What’s Meg’s favorite bit?
Most dualities are garbage. They’re an imposed system that people use to separate and order things that are neither separate nor orderly. We try to make order out of chaos because we want some control in a capricious universe that offers us precious little relief from confusion and terror.
My favorite bits in The Book of Etta are the ones where the characters and the world blur the binary.
This is a bit of a reveal, but Etta is a protagonist of fluid and changeable gender. They were assigned female at birth by a civilization that values female-bodied people for their ability to bear children. Etta is a descendant of our own world, a century after a plague has wiped out most of the women on earth and made childbirth a deadly dangerous undertaking. Although their life is privileged and protected because of their physical sex, they struggle to fit in. They don’t want to be a Mother or a Midwife: the duality presented to them as the only possible choices in how to live as a woman. Etta chooses neither.
Raised in a tradition that venerates a traveler who was a woman but passed as a man on the dangerous roads between the few strongholds of safety in a world decayed almost beyond repair, Etta takes to the road in the same fashion as their hero. They become Eddy: a young man with breast bound and head shaved who is free to go wherever he likes. Eddy is free and safe where Etta was stuck choosing in one of those false dualities. Eddy is not outside of that binary, but he is outside of hers.
Etta/Eddy confronts endless dualities in the other cities they visit. A world with such a stark lack of gender parity encourages the construction of unusual rules and roles. In some towns, hunting is viewed as strictly women’s work, since it takes patience and endurance. Sewing needs a sharp eye and a strong hand, which puts quilting in the laps of men. Superstitions about pregnancy and childbirth abound, and in some places a sexual lottery decides who will father and who will not. There are all-white towns that Etta/Eddy has marked on a map, but as a black person cannot enter. There are religions that bar the door against nonbelievers and towns that have something no one else does: a little electricity, weapons, drugs, crops.
Etta takes all of this in, just as we do. They have a chance to evaluate the binaries of life within first: are they Etta or Eddy? Male or female? Mother or Midwife? Once these are rejected as false dilemmas, they are capable of looking outside themselves and rejecting the dualities life has to offer. Life is messy. Death is messier. And the mess between the two defies any kind of description or categorization.
That mess is the central dilemma that Etta/Eddy must confront. In a world where living means killing, where slavers come to the gates of the city every day with mutilated slave children and ask them to buy, Etta/Eddy has to decide whether killing is the only way to live, or the only way to be free. They have to live every day with the question of whether or not people can change. Can they be just Eddy or just Etta? Can they forgive a slaver, or help them to become something else? Can they change a world run by tinpot dictators with harems full of children with anything but a bullet?
In most stories, there is a choice, there is a road that diverges in a wood and the main character must choose one and take it without knowing where it will lead.
Etta/Eddy realizes that the two paths in the wood are an illusion. People say there are two paths, but there is just the woods. Just trees to find their way through, and occasionally some footsteps to follow from someone who came this way before.
Sometimes, a person has to blaze their own trail. My favorite bit is setting up a character to go where no one has gone before.