Anita Barrows is the author of the new novel The Language of Birds. She is also a poet, and her poetry collections include Testimony. A clinical psychologist, she is a professor of psychology at the Wright Institute, Berkeley.
Q: What inspired you to write The Language of Birds and how did you create your characters Gracie and Jannie?
A: The Language of Birds began 20 years ago as a long single chapter I titled "Missing."
The chapter, not included in the book as it is now but alluded to, was a sort of poetic evocation of a mother who was beautiful and intriguing and compelling and deeply disturbed, and a daughter – the sister of the narrator – who was equally compelling and autistic.
In that chapter, each of the two characters the narrator describes continually goes missing – both actually and metaphorically.
The chapter stood by itself for years, as I found myself unable, despite my intention, to figure out what would happen to these three people.
I am a clinical psychologist who works with children and adolescents, some of whom are on the autism spectrum.
When I was first starting out in this field I worked in the psychiatry department of Children’s Hospital, Oakland, and was given, as one of my first patients, a 5-year-old child who was brilliant and poetic but definitely on the autism spectrum.
This child taught me nearly everything I know about doing therapy. She also lost her mother (to cancer) at 10, and ended up seeing me in therapy until she graduated from high school and occasionally afterward.
My colleagues and supervisors kept insisting that I write about her, but I couldn’t imagine doing that without somehow compromising her confidentiality, so I declined. Yet she haunted me, and it was that child whose voice I eventually gave Jannie.
Jannie’s story is not that child’s except for the autism and the fact of her mother’s death; and in many ways Jannie is a composite of that child and many other autistic children I’ve worked with. But when I wrote Jannie’s dialogue, it was the voice of that child I heard.
Gracie is in some ways myself, though I never became a chronic liar nor deliberately isolated myself as she does in adolescence. I had a mother who was profoundly depressed and unavailable, and though my mother never killed herself, she also never embraced me, comforted me, listened to me.
Like Gracie, I never told anyone when I was in high school that my mother was so troubled; nor did I tell anyone about my father’s beatings of her and me, my father’s sexual abuse of me, my younger brother’s early inability to speak in any comprehensible way.
Although I had a wide circle of friends (unlike Gracie), I hid a great deal and therefore did not feel that anyone really knew me.
From second grade on, I had written stories and poems, and a beloved camp counselor and an equally beloved sophomore year English teacher suggested that I was a writer; so, like Gracie, I began to turn my hiddenness into writing.
Q: How would you describe the relationship between the sisters?
A: Young Gracie is embarrassed by Jannie and also envious of the symbiotic bond between Jannie and their mother. She often wishes Jannie would run away and go missing for good.
After their mother’s death, she resents being pulled in as Jannie’s caretaker and also feels unseen – her needs seem so minimal compared to Jannie’s. But she also kind of counts on her responsibilities for Jannie to shield her.
Jannie does not seem to relate to anyone but their mother at first; but somewhere in mid-childhood, when Jannie has joined the world through her relationship with birds, she begins seeing her sister more clearly and feels more bonded to her than Gracie realizes.
When she draws a portrait of Gracie, she reveals how clearly she actually “sees” her.Yet she senses Gracie’s resentment of her and feels a distance she can’t bridge. She sees in some way that Gracie can’t stand her birds, and she takes that deeply personally.
After Jannie goes missing in the mountains Gracie comes to know her own deep love for her younger sister, and the respect for Jannie which has gradually been developing in her grows enormously.
She comes to see how extraordinary her younger sister actually is, and realizes that they have indeed shared experiences with one another which Gracie had felt she had gone through alone.
As an adult, Gracie feels protective of Jannie and admiring of her; and Jannie feels that Gracie is someone she can count on and trust. Part of what was compelling for me about writing this novel was developing their relationship and allowing each of them to emerge from their loneliness and find the other.
Q: The writer Elizabeth Rosner says of the book, “We meet characters etched by pain and loss…Yet through the profound empathy of this writer, we are also granted an intimate window into the subtle art of saving and being saved.” What do you think of that description?
A: I am so deeply grateful to Liz Rosner for her reading and commenting on my book. My characters – including the girls’ mother, their father Sam, his partner Kate (who becomes the girls’ stepmother), and Gracie’s friends Gina and Nick, are all etched by pain and loss; each has found their own adaptation.
Gracie and Jannie at first embody their pain and loss nearly exclusively, and birds and writing begin to allow them to find a way into connection.
I am moved by Rosner referring to my “profound empathy;” it’s certainly the case that I love all these characters and am able to find, even in their stumbling and not always compassionate attempts at adapting to their losses, the parts of them that want to connect.
Saving and being saved, for me, are implicit in connection -- are literally dependent on it – whether the connection is to other humans or to sentient beings other than humans. So I feel that Elizabeth Rosner has touched upon the core of what my novel is about.
Q: As a clinical psychologist, a poet, and a novelist, how do the three areas inform one another for you?
A: When I was in my 20s I hesitated to contemplate working in any job that would challenge me too much and possibly “take away” from my writing. At the time I considered myself a poet and nothing else.
Once I’d had my first daughter and begun to realize that I was not happy in my marriage to her father, it began to be clear to me that I did need work that would support me better than clerking in bookstores or teaching six-week gigs with Poets in the Schools, and I thought either medicine or psychology would serve me well. (Talk about challenges and time stolen from writing!!!!)
Medicine, I reasoned, would take longer to prepare for, so I applied to a psychology doctoral program and was accepted despite having had no courses in psychology in my undergraduate work.
I have found again and again – another daughter and two grandchildren and countless animals later – that it was absolutely the right choice for me: what I have learned from doing clinical work about all the things encountered in living – and the vast range of people I have worked with – has been invaluable, has tempered and deepened and made and remade me as a human being and has fed my writing of poetry and my novel with understanding and probing – more than with content but certainly with kinds of “slant” content – in ways that I can’t imagine having had the money or the privilege or the support to sit at my desk and write all day could have done.
Being the single mother of two daughters and a very involved grandmother, being a socialist and activist who has worked clinically with children in Bosnia and India and Occupied Palestine, I have found that all these threads have fed my writing.
What they might have taken in sheer hours has been more than repaid in vision and scope. I am a highly social being and I love talking and listening to people, and the practice of listening has certainly fueled my clinical work as well as my writing.
Poetry, which I still consider my organizing principle, has definitely shaped my writing of prose, my sense of sound and timing. And my novel (it may be only my first novel, as I am already cooking up a second….) is in many ways an outgrowth of the ways I tend to tell stories in my poems.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: In May of 2021 a volume of poetry I titled Testimony was published by Kelsay Books, a sequence of 20 poems and a coda that documented events from war-torn, occupied, carceral parts of the world and internal stories of struggle and imprisonment – and juxtaposed these against the beauty that surrounds us, the natural beauty which, imperiled as it is, still nourishes our souls.
I found that, after those poems were published, I was having a hard time writing altogether -- maybe just as well, since I had a lot of detailed work to do to ready The Language of Birds for publication – but when I began writing again in the fall of ’21, what I realized was that I wanted to continue that sequence with new material.
I’m finding that the new material, while still addressing the “big picture,” is possibly a bit more “personal” – not about myself (I have an aversion to confessional poetry) but, for instance, telling some stories of individuals in more intimately developed ways, like the story of the great-grandmother of a friend of mine who grew up rural-poor and had her first baby at the age of 11.
I’m also beginning to imagine a second novel which might be the story of Gina in Birds – a very different person from Gracie – working class, queer, politically very engaged, and a committed poet. I’m not sure yet what she will “do” in the novel, but her character is revealing itself to me and I find myself listening.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Let’s see…..I am a huge optimist and believe, even in this very fraught moment in time, in the vigor of the imagination and in the capacity of the life-force to renew and restore itself and to find ways to endure; this may relate back to what Liz Rosner says about “saving and being saved” in her blurb for Birds.
I am, I’ve discovered, far more defiant than I am fearful. I have a lot of energy, even at 75, and I don’t need a lot of sleep. I’m curious about everything.
I am a terrible cook and, while I’d like to be a good gardener, I am continually promising myself to take good care of the vegetables I plant and continually failing them (I just this morning planted kale, fava beans, beets, and lettuces and am going to try once more….).
I’ve been blessed to translate four books from the German of Rainer Maria Rilke’s work with my great friend Joanna Macy. Before that, I translated something like 11 books – novels, plays, nonfiction – and a lot of individual poems – from the French and the Italian for American and British publishers.
I’m studying Spanish now with a lovely small group of people I’ve seen only on line, since we started during the height of COVID.
Both my grandfathers were rabbis and I believe in God as the writer Chris Hedges defines God – “the name we give to the belief that life has meaning.”
I have three dogs, two cats, and seven birds, and my birds – parakeets and finches and a canary -- have helped me understand Jannie.
I am relentlessly passionate about dogs (I have two Golden Retrievers and a Cardigan Welsh Corgi, and I walk with all of them three miles every morning) and no one who knows me could imagine me without dogs. (There’s a wonderful dog, Lizzy, in The Language of Birds and I hope readers fall in love with her.)
I guess the last thing that’s important to know is that if I had to choose between my writing and my clinical work on the one hand and my children and grandchildren on the other (as in Life saying to me years ago, “you can have what’s in this hand but not what’s in that one”) there would be no contest: my children and grandchildren would win in a fraction of a second.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb