Vartika Rastogi talks to acclaimed author Ashley Nelson Levy about her debut novel Immediate Family, the literary tropes and cultural narratives around adoption, motherhood, the body and female desire since the overturning of Roe v Wade.
Ashley Nelson Levy’s debut novel Immediate Family (Daunt Books Originals) made its way to bookstores in the UK shortly before I started working in one. Since then I have had the pleasure of seeing the way people interact with Nelson Levy’s novel on the shelves, of witnessing how its unique premise captures their attention, of engaging with the conversations that spring up around it before they decide to take a copy home. I myself was wholly captivated by the book when I first came to it: I read most of it in a feverish daze on my way home from work, missing my stop on the bus because I was so immersed in the beauty and sincerity with which the narrator revisits her relationship with her adopted brother on the day of the latter’s wedding, and staying up late at night to absorb her delicately textured narrative of the complicated, imperfect, unending love between them. I finished reading in the wee hours of the night, enveloped in the narrative’s glowing intimacy, its honesty, its gentle exploration of the emotional dynamics within a transracially adoptive family and its unsparing examination of the charged politics surrounding it all. The next morning, I picked it back up and began all over again.
Recently, I had the opportunity to discuss the book with Nelson Levy, and to learn more about the manner in which Immediate Family came about. We exchanged answers on a live, collaborative google document over the course of several months, and spoke about the motivations and intricacies behind this beautifully crafted novel about motherhood, infertility, race, and the many ways in which to talk about the love housed within our ideas of family.
In Immediate Family, the readers are made privy to the relationship between the unnamed narrator and her brother, Danny, who was adopted from a children’s home in Thailand at three years of age. What brought you to write on this theme, of the dynamics between a trans-racial, trans-national adoptive family?
Most simply: I grew up in one. But it took many years and drafts to understand what part of our experience I wanted to talk about. At a certain point I realised that I wanted to explore the complexities of transracial adoptive homes while still capturing the love that lives there. That tenderness was important to me, alongside the novel’s tensions.
In my discussions about the book over the last year, I have often cited the narrator’s ambivalence as the momentum that moves the reader from page to page. She is both resistant to telling the story of her family and compelled to tell it, in part because her brother has asked her to, requesting that she give a speech on his wedding day. The narrator then dives into their story for what feels like the first time, and along the way she becomes caught up in the question of perspective, of who gets to tell the story of a family and how that affects its shape. She asks her brother in the opening section of the book: “What right did I have to speak of your life?” and then spends the remaining pages in search of an answer.
I’ve been open about the fact that I grew up in a transracial adoptive family, but I’ll admit I was surprised when, during the book’s initial publication in the U.S., there was so much discussion in reviews about how true it was to my life. The question of autobiography tends to trail female authors more often than male ones. For us, it’s publishing a diary, whereas for men it’s making art.
I wrote Immediate Family as a novel for, what felt to me, a critical reason: a memoir might have told the truth about our family, but that wasn’t the truth I was after. I wasn’t interested in that version of events; a more honest rendering would have been a blander tale. The story needed to be fictionalised so that it could examine, unapologetically, questions around race, adoption, fertility, the longing for and fear of motherhood, the many definitions of family, and how we can fail those we love, even though we love them. I also wanted to take a hard look at whiteness and its effects on a transracial adoptive home, and the form allowed me to circle those questions in a less conventional way, shuffling around in time, in memory, in adoption narratives in literature, in institutional documents, and so on. I should also probably add that I don’t think I could ever get my family exactly as they are on the page, and it was a relief to turn us into other people.
As a bookseller, I definitely know what you mean by the question of autobiographical ‘truth’ trailing works by women more than those by men–it shows up in the questions people ask of the books they pick up, and in what expectations they hold of the real people behind the books that they come back to the shops for. I have noticed it, for instance, in how works like Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa – a “MeToo” novel written from the perspective of the victim of a predatory relationship – are assumed to be built upon the author’s personal experiences, versus the distance with which people regard, say, Nabokov and his narrator, Humbert Humbert, from Lolita. Such attitudes also carry forth into readers’ perceptions of the socio-political reflections in such works by women.
Immediate Family, too, has a narrator whose personal experiences of whiteness, adoption, fertility, and familial love entwine with and reveal certain political truths that shape them. Have you noticed any schisms between your portrayal of these realities and your readers’ takeaways from them in the time since the book came out?
That’s an interesting question. There were some discussions about the novel being an anti-adoption book, which, from my perspective, couldn’t be further from the truth. What the novel is critical of is not adoption itself, but the narratives of white saviorism that have formed around it, in literature and in public discourse. We’re seeing this narrative rise again now with the religious right around abortion bans and the suggestion that adoption is a plausible solution to forced pregnancy.
In terms of whiteness, I noticed that people tended to shy away from this aspect of the novel when discussing it, about its effects on the home and the adoptee.
The publisher’s blurb frames your novel as a sort of epistolary fiction – the narrator’s heartfelt letter to Danny excavating their journey together – which functions as a prelude to the speech he has asked her to deliver on his wedding day. To me, it read more like the sister’s attempt to communicate her feelings with her brother, to write that letter, write that speech. Within the narrative of Immediate Family, you also bring up the ‘Life Book’, a tool suggested by the adoption agency to help the child understand his life before adoption and give language to the process of coming together and into his new family. I would love to know if you perhaps conceptualised the novel as the narrator’s attempt to create a less sanitised, less standardised, more intimate ‘Life Book’; to retell the story of their growing up as brother and sister with all its struggles intact.
Yes, definitely. The narrator becomes obsessed with so many of these institutional documents in an effort to fill the missing space of not only language but shared experience. There is a lost record of the first three years of her brother’s life that inevitably affects the years to follow. She studies the little they’ve been given of that time – paperwork that describes his weight, height, and history of illnesses in the orphanage, often incorrectly – and imagines a narrative in the absence of one. The documents provide a sense of solidity, even though they contain errors. At a certain point, she has to acknowledge her role in that narrative, in knowing that there’s really only one version of the story she herself can tell or understand. Also embedded within the pages is the record they share as a family, with all its varying translations. She turns to these documents again in later years to try to put words to things that have become difficult to talk about, like the implications of her brother’s life in a white home and her failure to recognize them, despite her proximity and love.
There were more documents in earlier drafts of the novel, but what stayed were things like the Life Book. I was particularly interested, like the narrator, in this small manual often provided by adoption agencies to help families give language to the beginning of a child’s story, even if the adoptive family was not present for it. The narrator is surprised to find that even though the manual is oversimplified – reductive, even – parts of it have structured their story. She’s critical of that institutional shaping while still seeing the faint image of her family within it.
Regarding your point about the book’s intimate structure – it’s true that what you end up reading is not the speech, but the narrator’s private letter to her brother. The novel never reveals what she says at his wedding, though I think a reader could guess. Instead, it reveals what has become unspeakable between them. I also hope it reveals the depth of her love.
The manner in which the narrator’s love for Danny comes through in the novel – her sheer honesty in addressing the rifts between them without ever becoming hurtful or brutal – is certainly one of the aspects that made it resound so much when I read it, but I was also curious to know how this would translate when she was addressing him more publicly, in the differently intimate space created by the wedding party. Did you ever consider or attempt to write down this toast, perhaps outside the scope of the book itself?
You know, I didn’t. Because my curiosity was never in what she would say publicly, but rather in what she could never say.
As you have mentioned elsewhere, Immediate Family works alongside several conceptions of adoption: the institutional, the interpersonal, the historical, the literary. At one point, your narrator brings up how in the Victorian canon, and in adoption plots in most literature since, “a stranger steps into the house to build it up or burn it all down”. Would you say that the book has been a conscious attempt to undo such an idea?
Throughout the book the narrator looks at her family’s story within the larger context of the adoption narrative. As you mention, she looks at it through institutional framing (for example, the Life Book), through the historical framing of transracial adoption in America, and literary framing. She’s interested in how the adoption narrative has traditionally been represented in books and what families like hers have looked like.
I read a lot of Victorian literature while drafting the book, writers like Trollope, Austen, Dickens, Eliot, and the Brontës, and these two paths for the adoption plot continued to appear. One trope is that the adoptee will come into the house and restore and save the family, typically a family without biological children or with children that are awful. The other path is the opposite: the adoptee will enter and create chaos and destruction.
George Eliot has an example of the former in Silas Marner, where a blonde orphan shows up on the doorstep of the town misanthrope and brings him back to life. Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights is one example of the latter – an ominous adoptee figure, described as dark and practically feral, without language. The narrator becomes interested in why these two clear paths have been marked in fiction and asks what’s problematic about that; she examines her own family within these adoptive tropes.
At one point she asks where the third option is, of a house caught in a cycle of composition and demolition. Constantly rebuilding. That feels truest to me of most homes.
This idea of constant rebuilding within the home – any home – comes out beautifully in the book, through your narrator’s portrayal of how the Larsens navigate the spending addiction Danny develops in adulthood. There is one particular scene that remains with me: the one where Danny is caught charging several purchases on their father’s credit card, and the brief space in which you talk about how the family works its way through it. There is so much tenderness in this one scene, even as it reveals the kind of tensions that could fracture a different kind of relationship. To me this scene reveals something specific to the nature of familial love, and I would love to know if you were thinking similarly while writing it.
I’m glad to hear you felt a tenderness and that it resonated with you. In those recurring cycles of anger and tenderness, the book constantly attempts to reframe those feelings within something larger, for example the reasons why Danny might spend, or why the parents feel guilt regarding his addiction, or why the sister, at a certain point, shuts down and looks away from it. I didn’t want anyone off the hook. Everyone is accountable in some way, and complicit. But they are also all responsible for so much of the healing and care that happens throughout the story.
In my reading, Immediate Family is a book just as much about motherhood as anything else. You devote a lot of attention to the narrator’s mother in her yearning to adopt a child, as well as the narrator’s own struggles with conception. And, of course, there are instances where you wonder about Danny’s birth mother and her struggles with letting go of her son. How did you go about so tenderly weaving these concerns through your novel? What made you focus on them in the first place?
I’m so glad you asked this, since I see this very much as a book about motherhood. This question of what or who a mother is comes up often. I wouldn’t say it offers a direct answer, but it’s interested in the less traditional paths of parenting and caretaking.
The most obvious one is the path she watches her own mother take, a woman who waits for five years to adopt her son and then, once he arrives, spends the rest of her life navigating an experience that is very different from the one she had with her first child – one that raises questions of race, of belonging, of what the loss of that first family means for him. Another path is the narrator’s own relationship with her brother, six years her junior; she often sees the faint image of motherhood in her role but also acknowledges that she’s not that person for him – their mom is very much his mom, and she is his sister. It is a role she tries on sometimes, before quickly changing out of it. She says at one point: “I don’t know what scares me more, the idea of life without children, or without parents, or being the only parent you have left.”
Then there’s the narrator’s struggle with infertility. After years of unsuccessful treatments, she loses track of the original desire that drove her; she’s no longer sure what she’s looking for, or even hoping for, from this experience. The book attempts to examine versions of motherhood that don’t fit into neat categories. The waiting for a child, the longing for a child, all the work done to get there – I think this is part of motherhood, too.
The novel’s dealing with fertility treatments and questions of adoption also inadvertently lends to a focus on the politics of the body, especially the female body, which is so often spoken about only in medicalised terms. In your writing, you have given space to its other aspects: the body as a vessel for yearning, for discomfort, for questioning. At this time when women’s bodies are being policed and re-targeted towards control in the United States and elsewhere, how do you look back upon the ways in which your narrator speaks of her bodily journey in the novel?
While writing the novel I wanted to look more closely at how far we are willing to go, emotionally, physically, at the expense of relationships, work, personal happiness, to fulfill a deep and often unspeakable biological need, especially when a body is supposed to meet this need on its own but can’t. I wanted to write about the grief that comes with not feeling at home in your body, about how your body can dictate the shape of your home.
The narrator confronts so much shame and anger over her body during the course of the novel. She’s turned herself over to pills, injections, follicle measurements, fallopian tube inspections, longing, only to ask herself at the end of the day if she wants the desired result. I think if she herself were to answer your question she would consider the term forced pregnancy, remarking that in her case she was the enforcer, her body separate from the decision, without agency. In submitting to it, in willing it through science and drugs, she still feels a kinship with women who know it isn’t for them, or with women for whom something in the process goes wrong – as things continue to go wrong with her body. She feels close to that grief, to indecision.
What should we do with our conflicting desires? I continue to think about this question as it pertains to parenting, to fertility, to the novel, and to our bodies. Women have myriad reasons to choose not to be a mother in the U.S., a country with stark socio-economic and racial disparity, no universal healthcare, no universal childcare, no guaranteed paid parental leave. Female lives and female desire is at constant and continual risk. I think this question of female desire is a key part of the bodily journey of the novel, as you describe it.
You have recently brought a lovely baby into the world (congratulations, I wish you both the best of health!). Has your own journey so far as a mother brought further insights into what you have said and done in the course of your novel – and vice versa?
Thank you for that! This is my second child; the first was born just a few weeks before I sold Immediate Family in the U.S. I was incredibly anxious about this at the time: I had six months of edits ahead of me from my publishers while I was also learning to live with this new creature in my apartment. I was in such a raw space of new motherhood and was concerned about how that might affect the shape of the book.
But as it happened, that coinciding experience deepened the final round of edits; so much of the novel explores the lost time of the first three years of her brother’s life while he’s in the orphanage. Danny is put up for adoption when he is nine months old, and having my child with me from day to day, week to week, month to month – all of a sudden the meaning of those nine months and those three years resonated with me in a whole new way. Because within a few weeks of his birth my son absolutely knew who I was. He knew my scent, my voice, his cries often calming after he was passed to me from a friend’s arms. The trauma of that loss at nine months became even more poignant to me. I kept thinking about Danny’s separation from his birth family and the effect that it had on his life, a loss that the adoptive family as a whole comes to feel in varying ways.
Thank you. It is always extremely enriching to gain insight into a writer’s process, how it is simultaneously produced by their own shifts of perspective and those in the world around them, and how all this may, in turn, lay ground for what is to follow. Are there any ideas and issues from your time writing Immediate Family that you feel inclined to explore in your work here on out?
Motherhood will certainly continue to find its way into my writing, with all its nuances and complexities, tenderness and grief. And I can’t imagine female desire not finding its way into my work.
Your book, with all its references to existing literature and its deft exploration of the recurrent theme of familial journeys – of the love that exists within them and envelopes them – is truly one of a kind. I have held this belief since I first read it, and I have had many people at the bookshop speak about how similarly it made them feel. I would love to ask if you have some recommendations for those still holding on to the warmth that Immediate Family opened us up to.
Thank you so much for saying so. I worked on the book for seven years, so it’s fair to say that hundreds of books live within it, and influenced it. I do kind of think that a writer’s first book somehow contains everything they’ve ever read, or maybe every book that follows does, too. In terms of warmth, specifically, some novels I would recommend again and again: Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin, and Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.
Ashley Nelson Levy’s Immediate Family is published by Daunt Books Originals and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops now.
Lucy Writers would like to express their deepest thanks to Vartika Rastogi, Ashely Nelson Levy and Jimena Gorráez for making this interview happen. Feature image is a cropped photograph of the author by Eustacio Humphrey.