Author Spotlight: Ali Berman

From “Because Your Partner Asked You To” by Ali Berman in Puerto del Sol, Vol. 47, No.2:

Because your partner asked you to, you will schedule another MRI and see another doctor. You won’t stall making the appointment even though you’ve already had twenty appointments in the last two months. An MRI doesn’t hurt, and though doctors push on the bottom of your feet so hard that it feels like someone is smashing a rock into the tender part of your heel, they could have a new idea. They could say that they could fix you. Take away your pain.

Ali Berman received her MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work can be found in Unsaid Literary Journal and Elimae. When not devoting her time to her fiction, Ali works as a humane educator for HEART, teaching children about human rights, animal protection, and environmental ethics issues. She resides in NY with her husband and two cats.

Below, Ali discusses chronic pain, the MFA, being an activist, and a “very dark” comedy.

“Because Your Partner Asked You To” deals with complex issues—the management of unexplained bodily pain, the overlapping categories of caregiver and romantic partner, and the possible guilt associated with both—and does so without either sentimentalizing the relationship or descending into depression. What was your strategy for handling those issues within the piece?

I think any person who deals with chronic pain will tell you that it impacts every aspect of life. You can be sitting and talking to someone, and while focusing on the conversation, also be in great pain. In order to live, you have to be an expert multitasker. Some days it works. Other days, it’s harder.

In this piece I really wanted to explore that push and pull that happens in a relationship when two partners struggle with how they want to handle an injury or illness. As much as we have medically advanced, when something happens to the body there are always choices to be made. What treatment option do we take? How many doctors do we see before we accept what has happened to us? Does stopping treatment mean we are giving up or that we are facing reality? And what happens if the person who is in pain feels it’s time to stop searching for the perfect fix before their partner? While the partner isn’t the one in pain, they are the one who has to compensate for what the other person can no longer do. So they have a say in what happens to their partner’s body. But, going through sometimes painful procedures just to satisfy your partner isn’t ideal either. It’s complicated. That complication is something I’ve thought about a lot since my chronic pain began back in 2007. And it’s something my husband and I deal with everyday. We both know the topic is sensitive so we’ve learned when to push and when to lay off. In this piece, I tried to capture that challenge. And I’ve tried to do it in a way that mirrors our relationship. I felt a constant sense of frustration and appreciation with the different paths we both wanted to take when it came to my body. He often worked so hard to research ways to fix my feet. I both resented him and loved him for it. It’s a balancing act in real life which I’m glad to see came through in the piece.

The piece, though cohesive in content, is also tied together structurally through the repetition of ideas—MRI, doctor’s visits, pain therapy—and phrases, especially the title phrase. How did this structure develop as you were writing? Was it planned?

As primarily a fiction writer, I find non-fiction to be challenging. Nine times out of ten, when I sit down to write something true about myself, it comes out as total rubbish. When I wrote this, I was feeling particularly sad and frustrated about the idea of seeing more doctors. My husband had been asking me for weeks to schedule the appointment. But I had just come off of six weeks of treatments five days a week forty-five minutes from home. I was exhausted.

Going into NYC, a place where parking is limited and being handicapped isn’t easy, so the appointment felt especially daunting. Writing this allowed me to meditate on these particular struggles. The title, “Because Your Partner Asked You To” describes perfectly the one and only reason I was willing to make the appointment. It also describes the last two or so years of treatments I’ve gone through. It’s a constant theme in our lives, as is my pain, and therefore felt like a natural way to structure the piece. But, I wouldn’t say the repetition was planned. It more just happened.

Your website mentions a production company, flipmeover, dedicated to raising awareness of social issues. In addition, you work with HEART, teaching children about social issues. How do you see those efforts intersecting with our writing?

Flipmeover, my new production company, is something Gary Ploski and I put in place because we wanted to have a way to communicate the things that are important to us outside of our regular artistic work. We wanted a venue to tell stories that purposefully tackle social issues. Whether that be something like “quiet de luxe”, a short film we made that deals with LGBT issues, or a more straightforward PSA, it’s our way of using our art and communication skills to start conversations.

Having flipmeover as a creative platform to address the things that are important to me has been incredibly freeing. I had been living two separate lives. An activist and a writer. I was afraid to let the two touch. When writing fiction, I try really hard to allow my characters to act without my own personal agenda. Sometimes we agree. Other times, not so much. Working for HEART and teaching kids each day about issues like child labor, dog fighting, climate change and so much more has really given me the brain of a teacher and an activist. I felt like that desire to communicate the many horrible things in the world and the simple ways we can make a difference was in danger of changing my fiction. Ultimately, I want the story and characters to be my only master. That’s not to say that social issues don’t enter my fiction. They do all the time. But I worry about the difference between art and preaching. With flipmeover, I can use my creative skills to work to change the world. That gives me the space to let my fiction exist without so much pressure from my activist half.

You also have an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. How did you decide on the MFA? How do you see it affecting your writing?

There is a lot of debate surrounding MFA’s and whether or not they are practical. For me, I found getting my MFA to be enormously helpful. I worked with amazing mentors like David Hollander, Brian Morton, Ernesto Mestre and Victoria Redel. And while I value each and every thing they taught me, the best thing my MFA gave me was the stamina to sit in the chair (or on the bed with the cats in my case) and get the work done. Ernesto said in class once, “If you’re a writer, write. If not, do something else.” So I did. I completed the first draft of my novel “If I Were Made of Paper” in grad school. For a writer, that’s probably the most important lesson there is. That, and becoming best friends with the delete button.

What current projects are you working or preparing to work on?

I just finished a YA novel about an atheist kid from Massachusetts who moves to a conservative religious community out in Colorado. It’s about to start looking for a home with my agent Laura Strachan. When I finish something really big, I tend to take a few months of down time. I write little pieces here and there, but wait before attempting to tackle something so huge. Since flipmeover is so new, I’m spending a lot of time on that. Our first film “quiet de luxe” is making the rounds at film festivals. Also, the next project we are looking to do, something I am still tweaking called “Unemploy Tim” is in preproduction. That deals with companion animal overpopulation and the 3-4 million shelter animals that are put to death in this country each year. It’s a dark comedy. Very dark.

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