It took American writer Elizabeth Gilbert 16 years to return to India, after her maiden visit in 2004, a visit she chronicled in her phenomenally successful memoir Eat, Pray, Love (2006). “But the person I am now is nothing like who I was then. Time and love and loss do that to you,” says Gilbert, 50, when we meet in New Delhi. The intervening years have seen Gilbert produce several volumes of non-fiction and two more novels — The Signature of All Things (2013), and, most recently, City of Girls (2019, Bloomsbury). It has also seen her negotiate relationships with candour — the end of her decade-old marriage, her subsequent relationship with her best friend, the Syrian writer, director and musician Rayya Elias, whom Gilbert lost to cancer in January 2018. The journalling that began with Eat, Pray, Love now continues on social media, where Gilbert shares intimate details of her life in the hope that other women will learn from her experiences. “I really, truly believe in the saying, ‘The god of woman is autonomy (Alice Walker)’. Culture will teach you otherwise but somewhere in our souls, we know that’s not true,” she says. In this interview, she speaks of writing that is her quietest place and why she talks about her scars. Excerpts:
A woman who survives her desires is not a usual occurrence in literature. What was the journey like from the cerebral Alma Whittaker in The Signature of All Things, who spends a life in longing, to the visceral Vivian in your latest novel, City of Girls?
There are so many things that led to writing City of Girls but the one thing I haven’t spoken about that much is that it came as a bit of a response to The Signature of All Things. The fact that Alma could never have sex, never know that experience, there was a part of me that said ‘Let’s just rip the corsets off this time and let the woman go wild.’ I also wanted to write a character who was different from Alma in that she wasn’t an intellectual. Vivian is bright but she is not a scholar. She is visceral, artistic and she is a New Yorker. She is not going to be sitting in a laboratory or a library. For me, it was also about changing up the priority of the character. But they both created really independent lives and that’s been the case of all three of my novels — they have been about women who, in completely different circumstances, have created their autonomy.
What made you stir up the literary template?
Those books, plays and operas that’s written about the ruined women — it’s a literary trope for a reason. It’s a good, dramatic story. That’s why the world loves Anna Karenina (by Leo Tolstoy). It’s got everything — despair, sex and suicide. But I do not believe that it’s an accurate representation of women’s lives, not then or now. The reality that I have experienced or seen in the lives of the women I know is that what that story says of the ruined woman is that you cannot survive your disasters, and all evidence points to the contrary. If women could not survive our terrible decision-making when it comes to sex, love and romance, there would not be a woman left alive in the world. We make really bad choices. As much as City of Girls is about autonomy and agency, it’s also about female desire — being carried away, being out of control, doing stupid things, regretting them. That’s a part of every story of every woman and to imply that somehow we can’t survive that is degrading to women. We can survive our stupidities. Later in life, if you become a good friend to yourself, which is my ongoing project, then not only do you survive yourself, you become very fond of yourself. You look back at your stupidity and you go, ‘Oh sweetheart, look at what we did. But also look at how it actually turned out.’
Does this forgiveness not come easily in literature because more men write women?
Certainly, traditionally it’s true. There are more male novelists and that’s a major factor in men controlling the narrative. But even when women get a hold of the narrative, they often tend to be about can I or can I not find true love? Will somebody claim me? Will I be able to belong to someone? As I get older, I am less interested in that story and more interested in stories about who a woman becomes regardless of her partnership interests. That is the story that I want to talk about.
I know you finished writing the book when you were mourning the loss of your partner Rayya Elias but did the #MeToo debate have any part to play in how the City of Girls was conceived?
I was certainly aware of that. So much extremely justified anger was coming out and I am a passionate defender of the #MeToo movement. Men have gone too far forever and they are still going too far. Why is it that we have a rapist in the White House who has had dozens of accusations of sexual assault? The anger is extremely justified. This, however, was not that story and I think it’s really important to recognise that not every story has to be about everything. That’s (#MeToo) happening, I am a supporter of it, but it also happened that for years I have been wanting to tell the story of a promiscuous woman whose life is not destroyed by her choices and I am going to go ahead and tell her story and I am not going to allow either the politics of the day or my own politics to influence what would have been accurate for 1940. So there had to be a separation of myself between the political activist who I am and the novelist who I am. Sometimes, I think political activism can be an art ruiner. Somebody asked me, do you feel artists have a social responsibility? I don’t. I think citizens do. I divide myself between a citizen and a novelist but I don’t think artists have social or political responsibility in their work. My obligation is to be a great storyteller above all.
There’s a lot of you in your books and on social media. Do you ever feel the need to keep something for yourself?
No, because I am a ruthless novelist. It’s all grist for the mill. I am very careful about rescuing other people but I am not very concerned about exposing myself. I think Brené Brown (writer and professor at the University of Houston, USA, who researches on the linkage between courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy) said it best when she was talking about how you don’t write from your wounds, you write from your scars. Your open wounds should not be put into the world. So there’s stuff that I am currently working on in my life that’s very personal. But when it reaches a point when it is no longer electrified, when it is no longer causing me direct pain, where I have learned something and come out on the other side of it, why wouldn’t I share it? I don’t want to do it within the actual moment of pain because then it’s just me pouring blood on to the page. But my scars don’t hurt so I am happy to talk about them.
What has grief taught you?
Grief is such a humility lesson. It’s love lost, love taken away and if you didn’t have the love, you wouldn’t have the grief. But both love and grief have in common is that, at least in my experience, I had no control over them. I like to really be in control of my life and grief and love both show up every once in a while to remind me that I am really not. I think of grief as a kind of a god who you have to kneel before. That’s something my friend Gigi, who is Rayya’s ex-wife, who was with me at the end of Rayya’s life, taught me. Gigi is a dancer, she is into her body the way that I am in my head. What Gigi taught me is that grief is a physiological tsunami when it hits you. It’s not just a loneliness or a craving, it’s very physical. The sobbing, weeping, anger — those are bow-down moments, where your only job is to stop all resistance, to go completely limp. You let it take you because any resistance will just make it worse. But because we want to control our emotional experience, because we are so afraid, it’s very difficult to let go. If you can bow before that god and just let the wave take you, it will be done with you at some point. At some point, you are there on your knees and suddenly you are not crying any more; you think I have to go to the bathroom, I wonder what’s there in the refrigerator. It’s like you come back from it into your life. The process of grief is really about letting that happen for as long as it needs to and seeing it as an act of love, of honour to the person whom you have lost. But it takes a lot of strength to surrender.
How did it change you as a person?
If you are able to sit with yourself while you are going through your most difficult emotions and not abandon yourself, then I think you have come back to life. That’s what the ageing process for me has been about, learning how to be in pain and in anger and just be a good friend to myself. If you can learn how to do that with yourself, then other people’s outrageous emotions stop being so frightening. Anger I still have problems with but I am not afraid of anybody’s grief. I can sit with somebody who is in deepest sorrow and not feel frightened by the huge operatic reactions that they are having. The Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield says, whenever you see somebody behaving in a way that you think is too much, he has a name for it — ‘me on a different day’. There are very few emotions that you could ever have that I haven’t had, there are very few reactions that anyone can have that I haven’t also had. So me on a different day means when I am sitting with you and you are having a tsunami of grief, I know what that is and I know that sometimes you just need a loving presence in the room, not to fix it but to just be present.
How different is writing from the many public speaking events that you do?
Writing’s the quietest space that I have, it’s the most private thing that I do. It’s odd because once it’s done it becomes the most public thing that I do. But the space that I have to go into in order to create a book is so intimate, so silent and so private, it’s the happiest home of my life. It gets more so as the years go by. It used to be difficult for me in my 20s when I had three jobs, lived in a tiny apartment and always had roommates. Now, I am blessed enough that I can do what I just did in India. I went to Goa for 17 days and spent it working on a new book. I did not speak to another human being except for the waiters at the restaurants that I went to. It was just me and the story alone with each other.
You mentioned that your next novel is on grief. Is it done?
It’s not ready to be talked about just yet. But the first draft is done and I am really excited about it. My editor hasn’t read it, my agent hasn’t read it, my sister hasn’t read it. I literally just finished it a couple of weeks ago in Goa.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines