This summer I wrote here about Joanna Walsh’s ‘Drowning’, a story where a mother pitches herself into the sea. “It is my choice,” she announces, wading deeper into the water. Irresolute, the story leaves the reader gazing upon this sea-bound figure “moving arms and legs”, suspended there, where “despair turns quickly over to happiness and back to despair again,” near-drowning, near-happily-ever-after, not sure.
It’s a theme I want to tease out, a canon, or even a ‘countercanon’ (as Lauren Elkin put it in The Paris Review earlier this year), compiled of short stories that give voice and form to experiences of motherhood, and mothers-as-subjects. To put together an anthology, perhaps not quite a dozen, but certainly a few, to thumb, to clasp close, to pocket. Because, on becoming a mother, finding yourself at sea, suspended in that abyss, near-drowning, near-happily-ever-after, not sure, isn’t there that need for a body of literature… a body of literature that recognises this self-become-mother, and in which you recognise your self?
There are plenty of ways of thinking about this thing of motherhood in literature, but Maggie Nelson pretty much nails it in The Argonauts, when she says, “But here’s the catch: I cannot hold my baby at the same time as I write.” So, here’s the catch: the practice of mothering gets in the way of writing about it. Sure. But also, aren’t there some brilliant short stories depicting motherhood? And, I just wonder what sort of poetics they conjure when anthologised?
‘Drowning’ is redolent with those earlier depictions of motherhood in the seventies where women took to testifying to their experience, and in so doing to making the personal political. So, when I first read ‘Drowning’, I was already there, in motherhood as abysmal, as oblivion, motherhood as death of self, say… In Lynda Schor’s 1979 ‘My Death’ it’s not the sea but the bathtub in which the mother drowns herself, and then in her case she was dead already:
‘Listen Ruth, I’m dead. Could you pick up the kids for me and keep them a while till Dave picks them up?’
‘I’m dead too. I was going to call you and ask whether you could pick up Rosalee?’
Somewhere between ironic and deadly serious, Schor charts an afternoon as a mother, dead, but obliged to carry on with her chores. “The baby sucked greedily, unaware of my condition.” Her husband suggests she think of something more positive, chiding her, “You always complain.” The story casts an acerbic gaze on parenthood, one typical of the era, but not without resonance today.
‘Drowning’ was first published in Vertigo, And Other Stories, 2016. ‘My Death’ is anthologised in Mother Reader: Essential Writings on Motherhood, ed. Moyra Davey, 2001)
And even before that mother-as-subject, mother-as-madwoman in the attic had been portrayed in The Yellow Wallpaper. The first sentence – “It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer” – prefaces a tale in which this ordinariness becomes increasingly and disturbingly deranged. I read it when I was a teenager, and I read it then as a narrative of hysteria. Written at the end of the Nineteenth Century, it’s certainly of that era, the epidemic of hysteria, of Charcot and the Salpêtrière, and the narrator’s own “hysterical tendency” is mentioned on the second page. It’s only now, on rereading as a mother, that I recognise it as an explicit tale of the post-partum condition. While the absent baby is only mentioned three times in the whole story, it’s the wallpaper that absorbs the new mother’s gaze:
The color is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing.
You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well underway in following, it turns a back-somersault and there you are. It slaps you in the face, knocks you down and tramples upon you. It’s like a bad dream.
The outside pattern is a florid arabesque, reminding one of a fungus. If you can imagine a toadstool in joints, an interminable string of toadstools, budding and sprouting in endless convolutions – why, that is something like it.
It is not the baby but the wallpaper that is the object of her attention, that keeps her up at night, and with which her own self increasingly blurs: the story ends when she has switched places with the woman creeping in the wall paper: “It is so pleasant … to creep around as I please.”
First published in 1892, my copy is Virago, 1997
‘Mrs Fox’ isn’t a first-person telling of motherhood, but for its staggering sentences, for its depiction of motherhood as becoming-animal, for its writing of the mother into folktale, it belongs here. There is a frank curtness to this as with all Sarah Hall’s stories; it is both tautly written and oozily bodily. ‘Mrs Fox’ won the BBC International Short Story Award in 2013. The scene of encounter between husband and wife-become-fox, which I am quoting only in part here, still stalls me.
Beneath one trunk there is an opening, a gash between stones and earth. Her den. … She cocks her head, as if giving him licence to speak. But no, he must not think this way. Nothing of the past is left, except the shadow on his mind. … There are four, they stumble towards their mother. … As she feeds them her eyes blink closed, sensually, then she stares at him.
Privy to this no man could be ready.
First published in 2014 by Faber as a Kindle single, and collected in Madame Zero
Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is billed as a single sentence, but that’s not where the charm lies (nor in the Joycean inflections) – though ‘charm’ there certainly is in this hesitant, expectant monologue of a pregnant German woman in Rome. It’s 1943, her husband’s at war and she is on her way to listen to a Bach concert. The monologue is structured by the woman’s walk through the city, it becomes a detailed, personal, psychological map of a city read through the body of a pregnant woman, and I turn to it again and again for the attention it gives to the architecture, to the textures of brick and stone, the steps and bridges, rivers and views. Unable to read Italian, ignorant to the realities of war, the woman’s monologue has a touching naïvety to it that only starts to fall away in the very last pages.
First published as ‘Bildnis Der Mutter Als Junge Frau’, 2006. This first English translation, Peirene, 2010
As if maternity gives itself to monologue, and then, Tillie Olsen’s 23-page monologue is coloured by the very impossibility of finding the time to gather thoughts:
And when is there time to remember, to sift, to weigh, to estimate, to total? I will start and there will be an interruption and I will have to gather it all together again. Or I will become engulfed with all I did or did not do, with what should have been and what cannot be helped.
And yet it’s the domestic scene, and this story itself, that provides the occasion for that gathering together and totalling. Elaborated over the ironing board, this is an exquisite piece of writing balancing regret, retrospect, guilt and defensiveness as the mother deliberates how she brought up her first child, her monologue rhythmed to the methodical back and forth of the iron… It’s tender and jarring and unresolved:
Only help her to know – help make it so there is cause for her to know that she is more than this dress on the ironing-board, helpless before the iron.
First published in Tell Me a Riddle, Dell, 1961/Virago 1980
The monologue, the reverie, and in equal measure the fragmented, the interrupted… as in Sarah Ruhl’s ‘On Interruptions’ in which the text is interrupted, left hanging, as – full-blast, mid-sentence, in rushes the child.
Sorry. In the act of writing that sentence, my son, William, who is now two, came running into my office to ask for a fake knife to cut his fake fruit.
The artifice of the story is cut through by the antipathy of writing and mothering. This happens a second time, and on the third the thrust of the child’s hand onto the keyboard makes his presence visible in the text:
Perhaps that is equally 7. My son just typed 7 on my computer.
So motherhood acts beyond the page, and interruption makes for jagged texts, for shards and sharp edges.
In 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write, FSG, 2015, and available here
Also in fragments, ‘Out of My Hands’ is gorgeous, and gappy, as if the text is occupying the fissures, the rare spaces found in between the motherwork. It brings together the reverie and the broken in a form that is at times sumptuous and at times unnerving.
In The White Review, No. 21, March 2018
Likewise, for Kathleen Jamie, the writing, the thinking becomes a happening-in-between, a happening-alongside:
Between the laundry and the fetching kids from school, that’s how birds enter my life. I listen. During a lull in traffic, oyster catchers. In the school playground, sparrows.
Being mother is the invisible scaffold to many of the texts in Sightlines and Findings, and in the moments that scaffolding show through it revises, or reshapes the sense of the text itself, revealing just how her ecological writings are pinioned by a maternal subject seeing perceiving the world. This trope is most insistent in ‘Light’ where a passage on the change of seasons, and the changing light is shot through with the cry of a child outside – “She makes a call poised just between play and fear” – turning it into a suggestive shard of reflection on the liminal instant being child, becoming teenager: “Filaments and metallic ribbons of wind-blown light, just for an hour, but enough.”
In Sightlines, Sort of Books, 2012
A taxonomy of the everyday of motherhood (“feed the boys, wave my husband to work, fill the dishwasher, pick up toys, clean spills, glance at the clock…”) makes its focus the milk, the story is ensconced in the hours spent in breastfeeding and expressing milk. Testifying both to the day-to-day tasks and to the absorption with these tasks, it is mimetic, but mimesis doesn’t mean not sublime, and not winding. It has all the tropes of the short story: narrative arc, foreshadowing, characterisation, rise and fall of tension and it is also the most searingly moving and acute rendering of motherhood, and the very precariousness of being a mother, that I have read.
If I am washing dishes, everything must be fine. If I am scrubbing scrambled egg from a pot, everything must be fine. … If I stay home and hang the clothes on the line, that means everything is normal, doesn’t it?
In The Dublin Review, number 70, Spring 2018
In January The White Review published ‘Accumulations (Appendix F)’ by Kate Zambreno online. The text was printed as a thin column, so the reader could scroll and read one-handed, while breastfeeding. As such it both established the nursing dyad and, with the insertion of a screen into the mother-child configuration, it gave permission to break it. Permissive and equally provocative, this publishing act mirrors the stance taken by the text itself, which begins, “I’ve been keeping a mental list of all the pieces of art that I’ve nursed Leo in front of this past year.” It’s taxonomic, ekphrastic, playful and irreverent, at one instant positioning the nursing mother and child in front of the El Greco ‘Holy Family’, at another in front of a Harry Dodge video. “I figured if there were so many penises in that room it was okay to have my breast peek out through my leather jacket, like a floppy blue-veined sac of a sculpture, scratched and sad.” So there’s this discomfiting layering of reading subject, writing subject and written object… it unravels, subverts, queers… anything I’ve ever read about motherhood, and I’m dwelling on it still…
In The White Review online