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Reviews

Summer reading/summer writing

As the pandemic rages on and mothers across the world are forced back home and renounce their creative projects en masse (yours truly included), reading seems like the best possible alternative to writing for mothers in lockdown with small children. 2 recent novels explore the tension between women’s creative endeavours and their roles as mothers: Night Waking by Sarah Moss (2011) and The Group by Lara Feigel (2020). What the two novels have in common is that they both give the relationships mothers have with their children the same weight and intensity that are usually reserved for women’s relationships with men. When children are portrayed in fiction, they are very often the symbol of the female character’s choices (of family over career, for example) – an encumbrance or a source of untarnished joy, they are the reminder of women’s relationship to heterosexuality. But very rarely are mothers’ relationship with their children described for themselves as worthy objects of narrative depiction, and more particularly the fraught and ambivalent bond which unites a mother and her small children. Both novels also explore how the women’s creative endeavour are constantly threatened by the demands of children and how mothers need to clear their own path in order to balance their duties to their children with their duties to their own artistic vocation.

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Work in progress

The Birthing Stories project

This project, speaheaded by Charlotte Danino, from the Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, aims at bringing together the expertise of academics (linguists, literature specialists, etc.) and medical staff in order to analyse the birth narratives told by women on social media, in interviews, novels, poems, etc. The main idea is to make sense of the particular words they use, their intonations, hesitations, which words and ideas they still find difficult to articulate in order to better understand what women are really saying when they are narrating this peculiar moment in their lives. I would like to look at the images female authors use when they write about their experience of childbirth, and interrogate how genre matters in how it is delievered.

The first aim is to establish a corpus of birthing narratives from the mothers themselves, and to complete it with a literary corpus composed of autobiographical narrative, memoirs, poems. The aim is then to work hand in hand with medical specialists, midwives, gynaecologists, and see what can be made of this insight into women’s interior perception of the event.

Watch this space as I will be posting the calendar for our new seminar, as well as news for the first of two conferences, which we hope to hold some time in the Spring or Fall of 2021. In the meantime, go and check out our website to find out more about what the project is about.

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Work in progress

Why so few babies in literature?

Why indeed?

This is one of the first questions Marie Darrieussecq asks in the memoir she wrote to recount the birth of her first child and her transition to motherhood. (Read the review of this book here)

What is a baby?

Why so few babies in literature?

What about the discourses around them? Why do we say “baby” and not “the baby”?

What is a mother? And why women rather than men?

Marie Darrieussecq, Le Bébé, 2013 (jacket blurb)
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Billets Reviews

A review of Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution

The mothers: collecting their children at school; sitting in rows at the parent-teacher meeting; placating weary infants in supermarket carriages; straggling home to make dinner, do laundry, and tend to children after a day at work; fighting to get decent care and livable schoolrooms for their children; waiting for child-support checks while the landlord threatens eviction; getting pregnant yet again because their one escape into pleasure and abandon is sex; forcing long needles into their delicate interior parts; wakened by a child’s cry from their externally unfinished dreams–the mothers, if we could look into their fantasies–their daydreams and imaginary experiences–we would see the embodiment of rage, of tragedy, of the overcharged energy of love, of inventive desperation, we would see the machinery of institutional violence wrenching at the experience of motherhood.

Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born, 280

That quote says it all. It contains all the complexities and ambivalences of motherhood–the anger, the frustration, the fragility, and the joy as well. Rich’s is a mammoth of a book, a sort of encyclopedia of academic motherhood. Although it was written in 1976, reading it today still makes the reader feel like a major breakthrough is happening, a new light is being cast on a field which had been kept in the dark for ever. Many books have been written about motherhood since Rich’s Of Woman Born, yet the sense of urgency which pervades it still makes it today a compelling read.

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Reviews

A review of Marie Darrieussecq’s Le Bébé

What’s a baby? Why so few babies in literature? What about the discourse surrounding them? Why do we say ‘baby’ and not ‘the baby’? What is a mother? And why women more than men?”1

Marie Darrieussecq – Le Bébé

Marie Darrieussecq (b. 1969) is a familiar figure in the French literary world, where she is mostly known as a novelist with titles such as Truismes (1996), Naissance des fantômes (1998). Her only foray in the field of autobiography is Le bébé (2002), in which she recounts her son’s first few months, and her coming to terms with motherhood. Despite her hints at a difficult pregnancy followed by a difficult, preterm birth, the tone of the book remains one of slightly amused detachment – the exhaustion of the first few weeks as well as the distress of being physically separated from a baby too small to be held are glossed over and delicately brushed aside. Darrieussecq’s account is not one of conflict or desperation, like Cusk’s A Life’s Work for example; she is exploring motherhood the way a writer experiments with a new object or a new form. Unlike other female writers whose voices were suddenly extinguished by the birth of their first child and who struggled first with the fatigue and then the guilt to recreate their own mental space, Darrieussecq’s voice flinches slightly, but is soon reestablished. She does not perceive writing and mothering as antagonistic activities, but as two streams of her own self harmoniously blending into one. She even experiments with a new form – the interrupted form of mother writing – and the very existence of the book, Le bébé is testimony to the persistence of her uninterrupted artistic abilities.

  1. This translation and the following are mine []
Categories
Billets Reviews

A review of Kate Zambreno’s Heroines

The only way our narratives will be told is if we write them ourselves. I urge you to write your own selves, your true and complicated selves. My scribbling sisters. We are amateurs. We are dilettantes. We are all those terms they use to dismiss the girl writing. We need, perhaps, to reclaim those terms, as well as these categories of “minor” or “outsider” or “illegitimate”

Kate Zambreno, Heroines
Watch Kate Zambreno read from her essay

Kate Zambreno (1977) is the author of several novels and essays, including Green Girl (2014), a novel inspired by Jean Rhys and her female characters adrift in urban darkness, weighed down by their dependence on men and alcohol. In her essay called “Garish, Glorious Spectacles”, Roxane Gay praised Zambreno’s novel as a “searing” look at “the intimate awareness many women have about the ways they are on display when they move in public, about the ways they perform their roles as women”. Jean Rhys was already a central figure in Zambreno’s previously published essay Heroines (2012), an essay-cum-memoir in which she tries to make sense of her own relation to writing as an artist and a wife by looking at the fates of  several Modernist female writers, whose artistic voices were too often suppressed by a patriarchal society, but also by their own artist husbands. In Zambreno’s collection of women’s voices, Jean Rhys, with Anais Nin maybe, is the only writer who really ever manages to rise above the silencing of women’s experience; she is “the patron saint of girls, then women like me, who have always been so mute, cast aside, their subjectivity surrendered in the big novels, world.”