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June 26, 2020

Our Job is to Hear Them

Photo of an abandoned mall sign, spray painted in bright colours, against a blue sky.

I have been thinking a lot about how those of us who are white people can continue to have conversations about race, but also about how “conversations about race” isn’t most effective when it’s just us yelling at other white people. And this is not to say that white people don’t need to be yelled at, BUT I am not sure the white people in my feed are necessarily those who most benefit from the “Things to Stop Saying to Black People” memes that begin with, “Quit asking us if we twerk.” I have never asked anyone if they twerk. I don’t know what twerking is.

But those of us with social skills enough to, say, know not to touch people’s hair, still have thinking to do, racist biases to unpack. Which is why I keep clicking on these memes, because I want to do this work, to figure these things out. But I think that memes are not going to be where the answers are found, and that original thinking (and learning) is required instead.

And so I want to write about what I’ve learned and am still learning about listening, and about how listening is more important than understanding. (“But you see, Meg, just because we don’t understand doesn’t mean the explanation doesn’t exist.”) For a long time, my friend would talk about how conspicuous he felt as a person of colour in my hometown—and I just assumed he was being sensitive. I used to hear stories of racism, and assume there must be more to the story, because things like that don’t just happen. And then one day another friend told me that her son was being teased for the colour of his skin, and I replied, “But that doesn’t make sense.” Because so many kids in the class were people of colour, was what I meant. And she gave me this look, a look that turned my world around. In that look I saw the fact that I have no idea, and that to define my understanding of the world by the limits of my own experience is such a fallacy, that it’s ignorance. And who would want to live in the world like that?

I will tell you that when I heard about the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, killed when police arrived at her apartment during a mental health episode here in Toronto, I was unsure what role the police had played in her death, figuring it must have been an accident. Because “things like that don’t just happen.” But of course this is when the world was still reeling from the murder of George Floyd, killed when a police officer knelt on his neck for nine minutes. And if we hadn’t seen a video of that, would anyone have believed it?

But of course, plenty of people would have believed, their life experience having established that police brutality is an unremarkable fact of life instead of an aberration. And those of us who have remained ignorant? It’s only because we weren’t listening, because certain voices matter more than others, because we’ve been so invested in the status quo, in our comfort, that we’ve failed to read the world.

So what now? Because the point is never to be one’s own awakening. The point is what we do with our knowledge, with our power. Voice your solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Call your mayor and city councillor and demand police defunding. Support Black-led businesses and organizations. Keep learning, keep reading. (I recommend Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped, and Desmond Cole’s The Skin We’re In.)

Keep listening.

The stories are there. Our job is to hear them.

January 17, 2017


The first definition of “reconcile” in the Merriam Webster is ” to restore to friendship or harmony <reconciled the factions>” but it’s the second definition that is more meaningful to me: “to make consistent or congruous <reconcile an ideal with reality>.”  This definition certainly resonating in general, because in the past two months my ideals and reality have certainly been at odds, and reconciling that has been a process. The world is more complicated than I ever knew, which makes “restoring to friendship and harmony” seem like a pipe-dream, except: restoring, how? Because when was there ever friendship and harmony? It all sounds a bit like the notion of making America great again—elusive and facile. The first definition is a misnomer. Reconciliation is a process, and in order to be properly it is a process that will never end. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about reconciliation lately, as I’ve been reading I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean It Up. A friend of mine has also recommended Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair. I’m interested in and troubled by the way that people seem unable to constructively disagree with each other. (Another book along these lines that I’ve appreciated is Creative Condition: Replacing Critical Thinking With Creativity, by Patrick Finn.) I take some solace in the fact that people in disagreement, while inconvenient, is actually much healthier than the alternative, and that the potential for learning is infinite. A community in which everybody though the very same thing, and nobody challenged anyone or asked any questions, would be the very worst thing I could imagine. Worse even than the state we’re in now.

Remember my mantra for 2017, “Listen. Be Better.” I’m trying. It’s a challenge, and such an opportunity. Once upon a time, when I was young and things were simpler, I fervently underlined the following bit from Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, a play I loved: “This is the best time possible to be alive. When everything you know is wrong.” Such a prospect is more terrifying than I ever thought it would be, now that we’re kind of here and, you know, with the collapse of the world order, but still, there is something extraordinary about it too. I’m thinking about reconciliations big and small, in terms of domestic politics and literary criticism, even. Literary criticism, especially, because I wonder if this is a constructive metaphor with which to understand the process that has to happen in order for anything to happen.

Literary criticism, the best kind, is a conversation. A back-and-forth, a broadening, the prying of a text wide open. The best kind of literary criticism isn’t just about the text itself, but it’s about everything, and it invites big questions and many different answers. It provokes debate and causes the reader to change her mind—about the text, about the world. It’s not about whether a text is necessarily good or bad, but about the things it makes us think about, the places it takes its readers beyond itself. Literary criticism is a process, a collaborative ongoing pursuit which requires generosity, openness, consideration and respect on the part of the players involved. If no one’s listening, nothing happens, but if everyone is willing, anything can.

I was thinking about all this as I read Debbie Reese’s review of the award-winning picture book, Missing Nimama, which I reviewed in 2015—and you can read my review here. I am a huge admirer of Debbie Reese’s scholarship and advocacy about representations of Indigenous people in children’s books—she’s taught me a lot and she challenges my understanding in uncomfortable and constructive ways. She’s not afraid to go up against really popular authors—see her review of Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts. I don’t always agree with her assessments of certain books, mostly because there are so many lenses through which readers approach a book, and hers is one, but I’ve never found her to be wrong.

While I still appreciate Missing Nimama and celebrate its success, Reese’s review shows me my own weaknesses in approaching it as a writer and a critic. Reese writes: “To me, however, Missing Nimama …. strike[s] me as something Canadians can wrap their arms around, to feel like they’re facing and acknowledging history, to feel like they’re reconciling with that history.” She continues, ” To many, this review…will feel harsh. Most people are likely to disagree with me. That’s par for the course, but I hope that other writers and editors and reviewers and readers and sponsors of writing contests will pause as they think about projects that involve ongoing violence upon Native women.”

And this is just the point. The pause, the reflection. Disagreeing is even okay, but it’s failing to consider that is inexcusable. The point is the conversation, the questions that are asked, which are far more important than the answers. And how we take these questions with us, this broadened perspective, with the books we read and the books we write. The point is to listen, and then be better.

UPDATE From Carleigh Baker’s review of Katherena Vermette’s The Break:“A generous storyteller, Ver­mette does not take it for granted that all readers will inherently understand how damaged the relationship between indigenous people and Canadian society has become. As readers, we can honour this generosity by not allowing ourselves to be lulled into a satisfying sense of camaraderie, having suffered alongside fictional characters. We can honour it by not repeating over and over how strong the women in this book are. It is true, they are strong. But let us not nod our heads in grim recognition of this strength, as if acknowledgement equals solidarity [emphasis mine]. Let us not pull our lips into thin lines and furrow our brows and express amazement at their resilience, as if its origin is a mystery. This makes it too easy to dismiss.”

November 23, 2010

Talking In Circles and Coming Full Circle: Talking About Talking About Motherhood

Marita Dachsel’s first book of poetry All Things Said & Done (Caitlin, 2007) was shortlisted for a ReLit Award. Her poetry has been published in many Canadian journals, in a recent chapbook, Eliza Roxcy Snow (red nettle press, 2009), and as part of Vancouver’s Poetry In Transit Program. Currently, she is working on a novel as well as finishing Glossolalia , her second poetry book, in which she explores the lives of the polygamous wives of Joseph Smith, founder of the LDS Church. After twelve years in Vancouver, during which she received both her BFA and MFA in Creative Writing at UBC, she now lives in Edmonton with her husband, playwright Kevin Kerr, and their two sons.

Marita is also editor of the “Motherhood and Writing Interviews”, which are published on her blog (scroll down, links in the sidebar) and include conversations with writers Annabel Lyon, Marina Endicott and Sara O’Leary. When I recently found myself having conflicted ideas about connections between motherhood and artistry, I thought Marita might be a good person to talk to, and it turned out I was right. What follows is our conversation, which took place over email during the last month or so.

Kerry: Marita, I think I’m beginning to change my mind. You see, I’ve been fascinated by narratives about motherhood since before I was a mother, and as I prepared to become one, I devoured the modern “ambivalent motherhood canon”.

But I’ve been reluctant to pursue such narratives myself. When I interview writers, I insist that their work is what’s important, and I avoid questions about writing and motherhood that would probably fascinate me as much. I worry that such questions would undermine the writers’ works, would undermine the individuals as artists, would undermine me as an interviewer and a reader. But I can’t shake a suspicion that these questions are important, that perhaps we just have to carve out a time and space for them. Or not. I’m not sure.

Did you feel any similar qualms as you embarked upon your Motherhood and Writing interviews?

Marita: When I first conceived of the Motherhood and Writing interviews, I had no qualms at all. I think that may have been because I really wasn’t aware of all the books written about motherhood and writing. I’m sure if I had dug a bit, I would have discovered them and not felt the need to start the interview series.

The interviews came from purely selfish place. I wanted content for my blog, but more importantly, I really needed to know how other writing mothers did it. My boys are twenty-two and a half months apart. When my second child was born, I panicked. I remember clearly breast feeding him while reading a biography of Margaret Laurence and having the terrifying flash that I would never write again. I knew I wasn’t as driven as Laurence was and couldn’t make the choices she had. My nascent career was over.

After my husband helped talk me down, I realized that of course my career wasn’t over. There were many, many writing mothers out there who were kind, loving, stable mothers. I wanted to talk to them simply to know how they did it. How does a mother balance all those things mothers do and make time to write. And I wanted to talk to women who were in various stages in their careers–from award winning to not yet published.

The project was supposed to be just for a year, but I’ve managed to draw it out longer, partly out of laziness and partly whenever I think it’s time to shut it down, I’ll get an email or a comment on the blog from some writing mother out there to thank me. It’s important, especially in those early difficult years, for those in the trenches to be reminded that they are not alone, that there are other women out there who are struggling, too. And, of course, that it will get better.

That said, recently I’ve begun to have qualms. Maybe it’s because I’m no longer in the trenches, or maybe because I’ve become sensitive that I might be contributing to the creation of a “motherhood ghetto”.

We would never ask a man how he manages to write while being a father, so why do we feel it’s relevant to ask a mother? Is it because there is an assumption that the woman is at home with the babies and that the man is not? And that if she isn’t, she should be? It’s insulting to both mothers and fathers. But I don’t know what I’d rather see–interviewers asking fathers what they ask mothers, or stop asking mothers what they don’t ask fathers.

So, yes, I am now quite conflicted. I hope that in the context of my interview series, the questions I ask aren’t insulting because that is the point of the interview. But I don’t think if I was interviewing a writer in another context, I would feel comfortable about asking about their relationship between writing and motherhood, unless the writer brought it up or it was clearly related to the writing.

Kerry: But yet, beyond domestic drudgery and “how does she do it?”, fascinating connections abound concerning art and motherhood. These interest me the most, and they’re questions that could serve to illuminate artists’ works and the experience of motherhood in general.

But there’s the matter of the ghetto, which you mentioned, and that, as Rachel Cusk mentioned in the introduction to A Life’s Work, that “motherhood is of no real interest to anyone except other mothers.” Why do you think this is?

Marita: I think there are a few reasons and they’re interconnected. The first that popped in my head is that it isn’t paid work, it’s part of the spectrum of “women’s work” (this label makes me want to scream, but I’m using it anyway). Also, because it seems anyone can get knocked up and therefore become parents (which anyone who has struggled with infertility knows how false this is), there is no understanding that parenting is a difficult job. I mean, how hard can it be, right? Turn on the t.v. and feed them and the job is done, right? Um, no.

It’s also invisible work. In public, unless you are a mother or you’re at a child/parent place (playground, school, etc.) you really only notice mothers when their children are in melt-down mode. Mothers are noticed when they are “failing”. I don’t know about you, but once I became a mother, I noticed how invisible I suddenly became.

But there is the inherent sexism of women’s work, too. In a patriarchal society, women’s work isn’t valued work. For mothers, the outcome is important–we want children to become obedient, hardworking adults–but how it’s done isn’t important. The idea of the loving mother is celebrated, but please keep that mechanics of that behind closed doors. We want to see smiling mothers and quiet children–not the day to day drudgery.

All these economic and feminist reasons I’ve been obsessing about since I became a mother, but this morning I woke up with might be the most basic reason: because it’s shop talk. Who likes going to a party and have to hear workmates talk about their jobs the whole night? Maybe it’s that simple with motherhood. People who aren’t mothers don’t care because they can’t relate, don’t want to relate. The politics and theories don’t interest them because they don’t affect them. (Although, I think the politics of motherhood does affect the wider society, however I’m sure the banking industry has an impact on my life, but I don’t really want to hear about either.) It seemed like such a revelation this morning, but now writing it down to you, it feels a little weak. What do you think?

Kerry: I actually love that idea, that it’s shop talk– it is! And it’s easier to think of motherhood being boring for that reason rather than motherhood itself being inherently boring. And yet, putting motherhood up/down there with dental hygienisthood and geography teacherhood isn’t quite right either, is it? Or perhaps it undermines what I’m most interested in about motherhood– how it changes how we understand the world, how we understand our bodies, other women, our own mothers. Issues of empathy, bonding.

I think that motherhood is mostly boring for a reason you mentioned– that it’s so ordinary. Everybody’s mother was a mother, and a lot of daughters will end up being one too, and quite a few of them even managed to go about it without waxing ad nauseum on the subject. Without having conversations like these.

Do you think it’s a phase, this obsession with motherhood? You’ve mentioned that you’ve moved away from it as your kids grow out of babydom. Was it a necessary phase? A useful phase? And how do we make it about more than navel-gazing (which so much online conversation about motherhood, I regret, never manages to do)?

Marita: On a personal level, I think it is a phase, at least at this level of intensity. I wonder if it is a product of our society, this need to analyse it so much? I can’t imagine mothers of our grandmothers’ generation dissecting it so much. Is it because we generally have children at a later age? We’re having less children? We’re not as physically (and perhaps emotionally?) as close to our families as generations past, so it’s more foreign to us? So many questions I don’t know how to answer.

For myself it was both necessary and useful. I was the first of my close girlfriends to have a baby and other than my small, immediate family, I have no relatives in North America. My husband had some friends with children, but I wasn’t in his life during their early years. Despite always knowing I would have a family, I had no idea what those early years of motherhood would be like. I became obsessed. I think that’s normal.

I learned so much about motherhood, about myself. I especially needed to see my position as both a writer and a mother reflected back at me. It’s almost silly now to think how desperate I felt, how much I needed to see that yes, I could be both a writer and a mother. The day-to-day life of writers and mothers can be terribly solitary. I needed to know that I wasn’t alone.

How do we get past navel-gazing? I don’t know. Partly we need it to be navel-gazing, because we need to see ourselves, our situations reflected back to us by others, and how can we do that if we don’t talk about ourselves?

Motherhood is incredibly transformational, especially for those of us lucky enough to have been able to conceive, carry, and birth our children. The physicality of pregnancy and birth is so intense, so raw and life-changing. Birth changes you. You battle through this profound visceral event, and on the other side of it, you have a new title, a new job: mother. It’s crazy. Of course we’re going to talk about it, analyse it, try to make sense of it.

I’m curious about your desire to take beyond the navel, that’s my impulse too, but I’m not sure what the forum should be. Are you specifically talking about the online world?

Kerry: Oh, I’m talking about the whole wide world, but online in particular. I think that’s what I liked about your motherhood and writing interviews– that they were looking at motherhood in the context of something bigger, and that was so interesting to me. Perhaps I also needed a reflection of mother/writers, to know it was possible.

Whereas the whole mommy blog circuit was just depressing, uninspiring. Once I’d grown accustomed to being overwhelmed by my crazy blown-apart new life, I didn’t so much want that experience affirmed, as some bloggers delight in doing. Maybe I am unusual in this, but I wanted to believe in the possibility of something better, something more. That I wasn’t limited to this entrenched idea of motherhood– of being forever harried, depressed and stretched to the point of exhaustion. I mean, of course it was nice to know I wasn’t alone in the hardships, but when life is really awful, how much do you really want it reflected back at you? And how far can that kind of reflection really take you?

If we’re talking beyond navels, I’ve been really inspired by the work being done through the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement (MIRCI, formerly the Association for Reseach on Mothering). Their book Talking Back to the Experts was a real tool of liberation for me as a new mother, and I also appreciated Mothering and Blogging: The Art of the Mommy Blog, which gave me such an appreciation for what blogs about motherhood have done in particular for marginalized or isolated mothers. These books had me understanding my own experience in a wider context, and also addressing issues of feminism and motherhood and how these ideas support and contradict one another. That motherhood was a job that required a great deal of thinking, learning and understanding. Worthy of an area of academic study, even– I liked that.

I wonder if the level of analysis and need for understanding you so astutely addressed is particular to artists– writers tell these stories over and over again, but would an architect fixate on the narrative quite so much? Does our artistry give us the means to engage with motherhood as we do, or do you think it happens to everyone?

Marita: Thank you, I’m glad you liked the interviews! I think you nailed how we can take the discussion of motherhood beyond the minutia–by talking about it in relationship to something else. Perhaps that is why we talk about it so much now. Our mothers’ generation was fighting for our rights to be anything we wanted to be, and now, our generation is figuring out how to negotiate our place within so much choice and what that all means.

As a huge, sweeping generalization, there seems to be two types of mommyblogs. The negative, complaining ones you mentioned and then the ones on the other end of the spectrum, where everything is perfect and idealized. No chaos, all domestic bliss. It’s hard to be in that place, too. Neither options feel honest or a reflection of my reality. But I must to admit that I still read a couple regularly, and one of them is the “perfect life” kind. (However, if she didn’t post every day, I probably would stop that one, too.) I can’t read the negative ones at all.

Your last question is a hard one. My hunch is that most mothers want to reflect on motherhood, at least early on and I think that’s why mommyblogs are so popular. That said, artists have the creative vocabulary to fixate, which many people do not, but more importantly, it’s our job to fixate. A new mother who returns to work at her architecture/accounting/law firm has other work she’s paid to do, but as artists, one of our jobs is to obsess. So many artist-mothers that I know try to work from home at the same time as trying to be a SAHM. Both are full time jobs, so it makes sense to me that this obsessing ends up being reflected in our work to some degree. Writers specifically create narrative, so of course we’re going to examine and dissect how this new character is changing our personal narrative arc.

I believe that every experience we have somehow influences our work. I haven’t read Emma Donoghue’s Room yet, but my hunch is that it would have been a very different book if she wasn’t a mother. You’ve read it. What do you think? And do you think you can tell if an artist is a mother? Would you want to?

Kerry: I think an artist can imagine her way into motherhood, and I say this with assurance because I’ve read Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. I remember reading the novel The Almost Archer Sisters by Lisa Gabriele too, and being stunned to discover that Gabriele wasn’t a mother– it’s a funny, popular novel, but her depiction of mothering a disabled child is stunning. I asked Alison Pick if she’d made changes to how she wrote about parenthood in her novel Far To Go after her daughter was born, and she said she’d pretty much got it right the first time (and she did).

What was remarkable about Room to me was not how “right” Donoghue got my experience, but that she’d actually managed to articulate aspects of my experience I hadn’t before been conscious of– which is really incredible. I’m at home all day alone with Harriet, and I remember as I was reading that everything I said and did was taking on a new resonance. I had never realized (perhaps because Harriet is still so young) how much a mother constructs her child’s universe in the various real-world Rooms in which they find themselves– the womb, the empty house alone all day.

I think if Donoghue hadn’t been a mother though, Room would have had a different kind of emphasis. I recently read James Woods’ review of the novel in the LRB, and he wrote about its lightness, its readability, the cutesy focus on Jack– and how the actual story that inspired the novel would not have such a rosy tinge. Because of her focus on the mother-child bond, Donoghue was able side-step a horror story, the fact that an actual mother probably would not construct such a fair and happy world for her child, would have neither the tools nor the capacity to do so. Room is a fairy-tale, really. Perhaps as a mother Donoghue was unable to look the real situation in the face (and I can’t blame her). Her story is a hypothetical one rather than a particular one, and there is safety in that.

And I must say that you’ve just answered my question, Marita! Well done. You ask, “Can you tell if an artist is a mother?” and I think, perhaps, one can’t. (Though sometimes, with bad artists, you can tell when they’re not a mother cough cough Christos Tsiolkas). Which means that my longing to ask or not to ask questions to artists about motherhood is kind of beside the point of the art. Has more to do with my own life and my own interests at the moment than art itself. (Ah, sweet navel, nice to gaze at you some more…) Which doesn’t mean these questions don’t matter, and can’t be incredibly useful/interesting in some respects. But perhaps my aversion to dwelling upon them comes from a rational place?

I think, Marita, that we’ve come full circle, and in a satisfying way. Do you think so? Can you tell if an artist is a mother?

Marita: Yay! I’m glad I helped you find your answer. I agree, I don’t think you can tell if an artist is a mother, and one wouldn’t want to. There are things that only some mothers can know, like what let-down feels like, or when your water breaks, but those details are so small that they are insignificant when it comes to the creation of art.

Someone once told me to not write what you know, but write what you want to know. This seems rather relevant to this conversation. I’m more drawn to writing about certain subjects and themes at the moment (my polygamy project) because of motherhood, but I know I won’t only write about those for the rest of my life. As artists, it’s what interests us in the moment, and for some it is motherhood.

I do think, however, that we still need to have conversations amongst writing/artist mothers, even if it is simply to compare navels and say, yes, that’s normal too.

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