What matters in representing childbirth in literature is making it visible. In a literary tradition in which the male experience has long been the main reference for any sort of human experience, childbirth as a life event has often been kept silent, relegated to the margins of discourse, like many typically female experiences such as puberty, pregnancy or menopause. In self-life writing written by men the main foundational event is often the first sexual experience, and if we go back earlier in time, participation in the war. Childbirth has only recently become an object of literary representation in its own right.
Rachel Bower is a young poet and academic based in Sheffield. She has published two volumes of poetry and has received several prizes for her poems, the list of which can be found on her website. Her main interest in her poetry is one that I happen to share with her, that is the representation of motherhood, in literature, and specifically in poetry. Her two collections, Moon Milk and These Mothers of God are both concerned with the poet’s autobiographical experience as a mother of young children, in the same vein as Liz Berry’s The Republic of Motherhood, but also with the figure of the mother in the culture in general.
Turning to poetry and being left empty-handed
The Republic of Motherhood is a short collection of poems published by Liz Berry in 2018. In it she explores the conflicting emotions she felt around the birth of her first son and the experience of early motherhood. Here is an extract from an interview she gave to the British Libray, in which she explains why she wrote this collection, and to which purpose.
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.