“The first rule of in vitro fertilization is to never talk about in vitro fertilization,” Isabel Zapata tells us from the waiting room of the IVF clinic, where she refrains from asking the other women how they got there, where they are in the process, how they’re responding to the medications. But there are no rules against writing about in vitro fertilization, which she does in her memoir In Vitro: On Longing and Transformation, translated from the original Spanish by Robin Myers. “I want to shatter the vow of silence that isolates the painful parts of motherhood,” Zapata begins. “I’m raising my voice so that the story can take on a life of its own and find its place in the company of other women.”
In Vitro is a feat of compression: slim, fragmentary, and generous with the white space, allowing ample breathing room to take in those painful parts: the misogynist gynecologist who tells Zapata that all she needs to do to get pregnant is “give [her] crazy head a rest.” The violent undertones of her clinical experience, from the injections that leave her bruised to the “gun-shaped speculum.” The anxiety that takes hold along with the embryo. The unexpected visitations from her deceased parents as she reckons with the prospect of being both a mother and an orphan. And of course the pain of childbirth, “a pain so colossal that it needs a new name.”
Between fragments also serves as a space for Zapata to negotiate what is said and what is not said. It is not what she includes but what she leaves out, she tells us, that keeps her account from becoming a diary. She refers to it instead as a serial novel, a myth, a ghost story. She quotes Muriel Rukeyser: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?”
The book’s five parts correspond to the phases of Zapata’s journey from infertility to motherhood, and they are accompanied by watercolor illustrations of the invisible parts of her experience: the disappointing results of a spermatobioscopy, two embryos ready for transplant (one of which she deems the “rebellious sibling” because it seems to want to escape), a waving fetus captured by ultrasound. Alongside the pain, Zapata gives us the magic and the mystery. At the Monterey Bay Aquarium, she meditates on the jellyfish and decides to name the baby after their genus, Aurelia. “I’m the aquarium now,” she says to her future daughter. “You’re the jellyfish.” She returns again and again to her own mother, considering the similarities between a growing fetus and a growing tumor: one a celebrated beginning, the other a dreaded ending. “My body’s tenant doesn’t disturb me; she transforms me.”
Zapata, a Mexico City-born writer and editor whose previous books include three collections of poetry and one of essays, draws from a library of novelists, poets, and artists. It is as if we are reading over her pregnant shoulder as she attempts to navigate the change she’s brought about in her life: we get her musings on the writings, as they pertain to motherhood, of Gonzalo Rojas, María Auxiliadora Álvarez, Philip Larkin, Natalie Shapero, Gérard de Nerval, Simone Weil, and others.
In Vitro is also in conversation with the developing motherhood canon, and Zapata samples the classics: Maggie Nelson, Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, Sarah Manguso, and Nuria Labari. (I double-underlined a quote from Labari: “Motherhood is a knife without a handle… You can’t grab it without impaling yourself.”) One of the themes of In Vitro is what it means to write about fertility, pregnancy, and birth in the first place. Zapata perfectly captures the dilemma of writing one’s own labor: “The boundaries between protagonist and narrator are blurred: I’m both a woman giving birth and a woman accompanying a woman giving birth.” Ultimately, she seems to feel she must try: “If you say it, you break, but if you don’t say it, you break.”
The book searches for an ending, though there is no easy place to land a story that ends in a birth—especially if that birth occurs in February 2020. But what is it that Rukeyser said would happen, if one woman told the truth about her life? Another kind of birth: “The world would split open.”
In Vitro: On Longing and Transformation
By Isabel Zapata
Coffee House Press
Published May 9, 2023
Shayne Terry's work has appeared in American Chordata, Catapult, CRAFT, Electric Literature, TriQuarterly, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere. Born and raised in northern Illinois, she lives in Brooklyn. Find her at shayneterry.com.