Mallory Tater’s poetry and fiction have been published in literary magazines across Canada and shortlisted for several awards. She was the 2016 recipient of CV2’s Young Buck Poetry Prize. Tater’s first book of poetry is This Will Be Good and she is the founder of Rahila’s Ghost Press, which publishes limited-edition poetry chapbooks. Tater completed her MFA in creative writing at UBC and lives in Vancouver with her husband.
Mallory Tater’s debut novel, The Birth Yard, weaves an intricate narrative, equal parts suspense and action, while twisting contemporary social anxieties to dizzying extremes. She meticulously deconstructs the intricate relationships between womanhood, government and the female body. A startling and important debut novel, The Birth Yard echoes Margaret Atwood’s dark and cautionary classic The Handmaid’s Tale. But this is no dystopian world; there is no totalitarian government. The Den exists now.
Interviewed by Jennifer Caloyeras.
Jennifer Caloyeras (JC): You have created an entirely new society in The Birth Yard with original rituals and codifications. Did you take your inspiration for this community from anything in particular?
Mallory Tater (MT): I think the very first time I was captivated by extremist cults was an Oprah episode covering when the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints compound led by Warren Jeffs was raided. Many girls who had been sexually abused were rescued and put on live television to tell their stories.
It doesn’t take much to research and find a plethora of information on infamous cults such as the FLDS, People’s Temple, The Westboro Baptist Church, Children of God, The Source Family, and so on. Cults thrive on the washing away of individuality and encouraging ultimate devotion. This control is achieved through labour (the members of the Source Family cult in California moved from all over the US to work in the cult’s vegan restaurant), through control of fertility (FLDS children were and still are forced into polygamist marriages), and through chemical indoctrination (Israel’s Lev Tahor cult forced its members to take psychotropic drugs).
There is a scene in The Birth Yard where the girls are forced to drink Feles’ hair and blood steeped into tea. I based this on the Aum Supreme Truth Cult in Japan who drank their leader’s blood as an initiation ritual.
Geographically, I had the landscape of Bountiful, BC near Cranbrook in mind, a cult run by Winston Blackmore in which many sexual abuse allegations have surfaced. I’d reflect on how close some of these communities are in proximity to us and how concealed they are, how tucked away by natural elements.
JC: What kind of research went into writing this novel?
MT: I consumed many documentaries and docu-series on cults such as Three Wives One Husband, Jesus Camp and Holy Hell. I read memoirs by women who escaped polygamy in Utah. I spent time learning more about pregnancy and its garden of variation, complications and beauty. I listened to TED Talks by women in the Westboro Baptist church who’d fled and were now marginalized from their community. I re-read essays on Group Think and the Bystander Effect once taught in a psychology course I took. I examined the prestige of scientology society, the poverty of the FLDS and the sermons of Children of God. I listened to a podcast about cults called Zealot, which was lighter in tone (akin to maybe My Favourite Murder) during idle hours. I let myself become taken by the insular worlds Sable was to find herself in. It was an invigorating and gritty rabbit hole.
JC: You make some parallels in your writing between the fictitious world of The Den and The Birth Yard and our current modern-day society. Can you expound on some of those?
MT: I decided to write my novel The Birth Yard in July 2016. I remember the inciting rage moment in which I began putting pen to paper. It was shortly after the president of Turkey likened a childless woman to “half a person”, just before we heard the soon-to-be president of the United States brag about doing anything he wanted to women including grabbing them “by the pussy.” It was the same week that Statistics Canada posted that less than one-fifth of all leadership roles in Canada are held by women. Right around the time there were rising profiles of organized right-wing groups and misogynistic online communities like Incels and Proud Boys. I wrote what started as a short story about an eighteen-year-old girl living in a commune that believed in the rampant revival of female hysteria as an epidemic of sorts. This cult, Sable’s home, mirrors more closely the backroom dealings and discrimination of our current mainstream political and social climate than anyone would like to admit.
Sable has only ever known a segregated environment where her education is restricted and her body isn’t her own. In The Den, there is no reproductive choice. It is a place that holds radical beliefs in female hysteria, male supremacy, and totalitarian fertility control. Our own politicians and social climates stifle the voices of women in such similar veins.
JC: How was the experience of releasing a dystopic novel into the world during a global pandemic?
MT: My fascination with cults and extreme religion has only grown through this COVID-19 pandemic. I find myself thinking of my fictitious cult, not a right-wing Christian cult but a cult with a totalitarian government in which the deities are political leaders, akin to the way the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints might see their leader, Warren Jeffs. I wonder what the leaders of my cult would think of all of us social distancing in our modern society adjacent to them, our anxieties of the unknown, our fragile healthcare system and economy, our current living in fear. They’d probably be smug and agree that their resistance to our societal structure and values has saved them from disease. They’d probably thank their “God,” a misogynistic narcissistic university professor, for creating their divisive world.
It’s this “Us” vs “Them” mentality that fascinates me about cults and zealous religious groups. I wonder, with how ‘spiritually prepared’ and ‘enlightened’ and ‘fearless by faith’ they claim to be, if The Den would have still all stockpiled hand sanitizer and toilet paper. I bet they would have.
During COVID-19, they’d probably see the rest of us trying to hold each other through virtual community, through neighborly courtesy, through charitable donations, through the bad days when we may argue, the days we can’t get out of bed, the days our friends are laid off, or our loved ones become sick, the days we try our best, as insignificant. Futile. Pathetic.
Of course, they’d be completely wrong. The kindness, thoughtfulness and empathy I have seen from our society, my own neighbourhood, my own friend group, our “Mainstream” during this time, has been nothing short of magnificent.
JC: Sable’s grows so much as a character from a follower to a free thinker. Can you talk about how this incredible protagonist came into full focus for you as a writer?
MT: I tried to develop the youth in Sable’s voice—the curiosity, the naivety and then this anti-authoritarian underbelly that seems to storm out of her by the time she is at the Ceres yard. This slow sense of reaching toward your own autonomy and your own sense of self once you’re almost into adulthood is so vulnerable and beautiful. It’s the same way any teenager may ask themselves what do I believe in? Who do I want to surround myself with? Who do I want to be? But the situation for Sable is more dire and extreme because The Den is such a harsh, controlling environment. My editor, Jennifer Lambert, and I decided to use The Den’s educational system and doctrines against them in a sense to help build Sable’s knowledge juxtaposed with her maturation and eventual distrust. The textbooks and tools used to promote The Den’s leadership and ultimate control tactics were always at her fingertips. It was about making her shift the way she consumed and began to question them. That was a helpful avenue to convey the overall environment of The Den with an eighteen-year-old protagonist. To this day, she feels very real to me, someone close, a friend.