July 21, 2014 § Leave a comment
Possibly the most surprising thing a woman with no children can learn from a woman with children is that the ambivalence never leaves. The childless (or child-free) woman must therefore re-evaluate her conception of her own position as nuanced and that of the mother (or child-encumbered woman) as necessarily simplistic. From purely anecdotal evidence it seems to me that far from disappearing on the birth of a baby, ambivalence might well be the defining feature of parenthood, and of motherhood in particular (fathers in general still having fewer compartments of their life that are affected by the fact of having children).
Children or art? It seems like a tough choice. Having it all is reserved for people who have “real” jobs, not the kind of vocation in which paying for daycare to allow the writing of an as yet financially uncompensated book can seem like expensive vanity. Many of the essays in The M Word, a collection by established and emerging writers edited by Kerry Clare, address the intersection of motherhood and writing, which might also be described as the intersection of motherhood and selfhood.
Several essays deal with this forked road, “children” signposted one way and “writing career” signposted the other. I would have liked—no, I would like very much in a further volume of this extremely interesting book—to see whether this ambivalence and hesitation is widespread across society. What about women who start their own businesses in non-creative industries: selling clothes, party-planning, inventing useful products that fill needs, and are patronisingly labelled mompreneurs? Is it a question of time-management/time-insufficiency as a freelancer or self-employed person? Or do doctors and lawyers (or should we call them momdocs or momyers?) feel the same professional panic too, whether related or not to mat leave–induced career-flatlining? What about teachers, secretaries, shop owners, farmers, civil servants, hairdressers? Is the shock of motherhood a double blow to a writer because her career/vocation is so entangled with the self in a way that doesn’t happen if you have a job you go to at set hours? Does religion make a difference—if you have always believed your role as a woman is to nurture children, is the transition easier? And indeed the experience of men: do they notice or experience such a binary split between parents and non-parents?
Some of the writers in this collection have more reason than others to feel stationed far outside maternity’s central zone, as Kerry Clare’s introduction puts it: women who become stepmothers without having had children of their own; women who either by design or circumstance raise and bear children alone; women who either by design or circumstance have no children; women raising children with a female partner. Then there are the women who have had abortions, or had their babies adopted, or had their children (yes, plural) die. These open-hearted essays are all fascinating and absorbing, and sometimes heartbreaking. Ultimately these writers are speaking, as they take care to point out, for no one but themselves, and they do it tremendously well.
The main message I took away from The M Word is that being a mother can be desperately awful and pretty wonderful. Also that not being a mother can be desperately awful and pretty wonderful. The ratio of awfulness to wonderfulness is often but not always related to the strength of your original desire to reproduce or to remain childless, and to whether your ultimate fate aligns with this. Motherhood–many different, dark, unspoken aspects of it–is no fairytale even when it does have a happy ending. Ambivalence climbs the intertwined helical strands of maternal feeling and artistic ambition like a voracious vine, clinging, powerful. Being a mother heightens emotional extremes (despair to joy and back again dozens of times a day) while muting actual life extremes (possibility of adventure, spontaneity, freedom from responsibility).
Having read all these essays, it was fascinating to turn immediately to Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation. Described as a portrait of a marriage by some blurbs, it seemed, given my recent immersion in stories of parenthood, more a portrait of how having a child changes everything: minds, relationships, careers, people.
I’m not going to write about the book here, but there were so many brilliant quotes that I want to share just a couple, because Offill manages to convey the most painful of truths in the most exquisite ways.
‘A boy who is pure of heart comes over for dinner. One of the women who is dabbling with being young again brings him. He holds himself stiffly and permits himself only the smallest of smiles at our jokes. He is ten years younger than we are, alert to any sign of compromise or dead-ending within us. “You are not allowed to compare your imagined accomplishments to our actual ones,” someone says after the boy who is pure of heart leaves.’
‘My Very Educated Mother Just Serves Us Noodles. This is the mnemonic they give [my daughter] to remember the names of the planets.’
‘How has she become one of those people who wears yoga pants all day? She used to make fun of those people. With their happiness maps and their gratitude journals and their bags made out of recycled tire treads. But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.’
Dept of Speculation is a wonderful novel about getting older and losing that brief and mostly illusory freedom that children believe all adults enjoy. I’ve seen several bloggers suggest it for the Booker longlist; I do hope it will be there.
July 3, 2014 § Leave a comment
Also featured are Kerry Clare on Miriam Toews and a very interesting analysis of the Giller Prize by Alex Good. Buy yourself a print copy and admire the glossy Seth cover.
January 15, 2014 § Leave a comment
In 2012 I had one clear favourite out of all the books I’d read: Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods. This year I had no single best book. Here are my top ten books from 2013, plus a bonus one, in no particular order.
- Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer (which I reviewed for the Globe and Mail)
- The Canvas by Benjamin Stein, translated from the German by Brian Zumhagen
- Idiopathy by Sam Byers
- For Sure by France Daigle, translated from the French by Robert Majzels (which I reviewed in last week’s TLS [paywall])
- The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan (which I reviewed for the National Post)
- First Novel by Nicholas Royle
- Not Anyone’s Anything by Ian Williams
- Double Negative by Ivan Vladislavic
- Permission by SD Chrostowska
And now some recommendations for 2014. Two of my friends are bringing out books: Jonathan Bennett’s excellent The Colonial Hotel and Michelle Berry’s Interference, which I haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading. I’m also looking forward to Carrie Snyder’s Girl Runner, Eliza Robertson’s Wallflowers and Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao. On the translation front I recommend Quebec author Raymond Bock’s Atavismes (translated by Pablo Strauss), from which two very good stories were excerpted in the Review of Contemporary Fiction last year and Julia Deck’s Viviane: A Novel, which I suspect Kerry Clare (whose forthcoming non-fiction anthology The M Word looks absolutely fascinating) would like.
January 8, 2014 § Leave a comment
I’m not including people who published a book in 2013, nor people who have one coming out in 2014 (post to follow…probably), but here’s a very short list of some of the Anglophone Canadians I want to read more of, and soon. Maybe some of them have been quietly beavering away and do in fact have a book coming out this year. So much the better. Whenever their books are launched, I’ll be first in the queue. I wish I could have included images but WordPress was not cooperating.
The Withdrawal Method, Malla’s debut short-story collection, is fantastic. Its stellar nature may have led me to be overly harsh when reviewing People Park, and I could well be in a minority of one in thinking it wasn’t his best work even though it was fascinating, ambitious and clever. Nonetheless, I look forward eagerly to a new Pasha Malla book. For a little taste, check out Malla’s fantastic review of Robert Walser in the Globe and Mail last year.
Another great short story writer. Williams’ Not Anyone’s Anything is, like The Withdrawal Method, the perfect blend of realism and grounded fantastic. Williams is also a poet and was shortlisted last year for the Griffin Prize.
Everyone seems to love Jessica Grant’s Come, Thou Tortoise, and I think its success is partly down to the fact that it can be a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I liked her short stories in Making Light of Tragedy even better. What will be next?
Malarkey was one of the big seriously literary novels of 2012 for me, with its strange but brilliant mixture of exuberance of tone and the grief and darkness it deals with. Since Malarkey took ten years, we might be waiting a while for the next book, but we know it will be excellent.
Heather Birrell’s second short-story collection, Mad Hope, was another great 2012 book. I didn’t intend this post to be about so many short-story writers, but it is a genre that Canada as a whole excels in. A bit more to the realist end of things than some of the others, Birrell can write stories that feel as though they actually thump you in the chest.
Simple Recipes came out when I was living in Vancouver and Thien was quite possibly the first young Canadian writer I had read. She’s written three books since then, the latter of which, Dogs at the Perimeter, was a powerful and lyrical novel about the aftermath of the Cambodian genocide. On top of her fiction writing, Thien is also a smart thinker.
January 3, 2014 § 1 Comment
My friend Emily Midorikawa has been working on a new website, Something Rhymed, about the literary friendships of famous female authors. Each month they’ll profile a different pair and post a challenge based on some feature of their relationship. This month the focus is on Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf. Go and have a look!
December 6, 2013 § Leave a comment
Sumia Sukkar is a 21-year-old Muslim British writer, raised in London, of Syrian-Algerian ancestry. She studied creative writing at Kingston University. The Boy From Aleppo Who Painted The War is her debut book, and was launched at Foyles in London at the beginning of November. The Times, in a recent review, noted the authenticity of her research, and how moving her novel of autism, love, art and war is. Sumia is currently working and writing in the Middle East.
When did you first know you wanted to write books?
I’ve been writing ever since I could remember. I used to write short stories when I was young and show them to my teacher. My parents then bought me a lovely notebook for my birthday when I was 7 and I started writing my first ‘novel’ . So probably ever since I was 7.
How does writing fit into your typical day?
I’m a traveller so it varies really. Day, evening, night. I can just say it happens everyday in my red notebook.
Do you type or write by hand?
First draft by hand then I type it onto my laptop. I then edit again by hand on the printed pages.
What have you read recently that you loved?
Dance, Dance, Dance by Haruki Murakami. Such an enigmatic book!
What are your all-time favourites?
The Great Gatsby, Wuthering Heights, The Time Travellers Wife and everything by Haruki Murakami.
You can either write or read for the rest of your life – but not both. Which do you choose?
How brutal a question! I can’t possibly pick. Writing… no, Reading… No… I can’t do this!
What’s your third R, and why?
Ramen. Got to love my noodles.
December 4, 2013 § Leave a comment
Le Quartanier is one of Quebec’s most interesting publishers. It has just celebrated its tenth anniversary by putting out a collection of ten novellas by its authors. I reviewed Rosemont de profil by Raymond Bock, whose short-story collection Atavismes is coming out in translation (by Pablo Strauss) next year with Dalkey Archive. You can read the reviews of all ten books over at ambos.