The Review was honored to catch up with Myla Goldberg—whose story “Earth, Sky, Sea” centers our Winter 2020 issue and is available in full to non-subscribers this week only—to talk about politics and why we must reject the term “domestic drama.” Goldberg’s most recent novel, Feast Your Eyes, published by Scribner this past April, has been named by NPR as one of the best books of 2019 and is a finalist for the 2019 National Book Critics Circle Award.
— Jennie Vite and Julia Harrison
SR: In “Earth, Sky, Sea,” you acknowledge the current political climate: the two main characters, Erin and Andrea, give their opinions on immigrations bans, threats from Iran, and a disastrous president, but just as quickly, they return to their domestic obligations of playdates and dentist appointments. Why give a political frame to a story so deeply focused in domestic drama?
Goldberg: When and how do you talk about politics? I’m guessing it comes up in between conversations about whatever personal or professional obligations you might have, shoehorned into various passing moments of your life. I’m interested in the overlap between the political and the personal, the issues and events that make the news and the smaller-scale issues and events that constitute our lives. For many of us, there’s this weird disconnect between much of the news we read and the forces that shape and inform our day-to-day existence, with larger cultural and political forces touching us in unexpected but very real ways—like when Erin ends up having to mail-order a Turkish IUD because her health insurance doesn’t cover birth control.
And now, a message from our sponsors about the term “domestic drama.” Can you think of a male writer to whom that term has been applied? How much do you want to bet that if a female writer penned a story about a woman who traverses her neighborhood from swimming pool to swimming pool it would be deemed “domestic”? Instead, John Cheever wrote “The Swimmer,” and it’s celebrated as a classic of American literature. “Domestic drama” is a term created by a male-dominated publishing industry to minimize stories by and about women. It’s time to give it the burial it deserves.
SR: You describe Andrea’s apartment as a place both gentrified and comfortable, her walls painted “pistachio . . . cornflower and faded denim . . . half butter and half tangelo.” The description intimates a bored affluence—both the comfort and dissatisfaction of a life colored by paint cards. Can you speak on the tension between comfort and detachment you address in your story?
Goldberg: Greetings from Brooklyn, one of Northeastern America’s great epicenters of comfortable detachment, where the direct relationship between affluence and complacency plays out every day. One of the many problems with being comfortable is that it turns injustice and calamity into highly abstract concepts. The comfortable know, technically, that the earth is warming and that children are being imprisoned at the border, but much more real to them is the delicious, gluten-free energy bar they’re holding that’s made from locally sourced ingredients and promises to boost their immune system and neurotransmitter levels. It’s perfectly natural to want to construct a life that protects us from discomfort and harm, but this has the unfortunate side effect of making most of us extremely unmotivated to sacrifice some of that comfort to achieve a more equitable world.
SR: Erin’s decision to terminate her pregnancy seems to strain her relationships with her husband and with Andrea. How do you consider isolation’s relationship to opportunity from a storytelling perspective?
Goldberg: I’m actually going to use Erin’s decision to terminate her pregnancy as a way to address a different issue: the astonishing underrepresentation of abortion in fiction. The most current, widely reported statistic is that 1 in 4 women in America have had an abortion. That’s more than 42 million women. Off the top of my head, I’m having a hard time thinking of even ten books or stories that address abortion. Four decades since abortion was declared legal in this country it remains one of our most shameful and secret acts. If we want to stop tearing ourselves apart as a country, one of many things we’ve got to start doing is speaking and writing about abortion. It’s not about agreeing with each other: it’s about listening to each other, but we can’t do that unless we start talking.