Close Relations: Discussing Families and Fiction

March 6, 2009 | 2 books mentioned 3 min read

On Wednesday, the Aloud Series at the Central Library in Downtown Los Angeles hosted writers Antonya Nelson and Marisa Silver in conversation with Bernadette Murphy. The topic was “The Domestic Drama: Novel Form or Formula?” and, after short readings by Nelson and Silver, the conversation began. Why are we, as American writers, so preoccupied with familial dysfunction?

coverAntonya Nelson called our fascination with stories about family a quintessentially American preoccupation. Family, she said, “is where a lot of our personal battles are lodged,” but that those battles, no matter how small and personal, are also political. Marisa Silver agreed. Silver also argued that stories about family provide a “dramatic rubric”; that is, narratives of family are imbued with desire, conflict, and even, say, an enemy. Later on in the talk, Bernadette Murphy mentioned a lecture at Antioch University given by Dorothy Allison, where Allison argued that all good literature has home at its center. Nelson agreed, saying that family is our most powerful institution, and that the home is the most powerful setting for it. She discussed her most recent novel, Living to Tell, in which her main character, after paying his dues to society (in prison), must return to his family to pay an entirely different penance – and perhaps a more meaningful one. (This discussion of home reminded me of Alice Munro, who has described her short fiction – and I’m paraphrasing my former teacher and friend Dan Chaon – as a house with many rooms one can wander in and out of, and not in any particular order. I’ve always loved that.)

Although the conversation was enjoyable, the three writers also bandied about the usual platitudes about how reading allows us to see the world better, that it expands our capacity for empathy, and helps us to understand our own lives. I agree, but we’ve heard such slogans before. Instead, since all three guests were women, I hoped they might discuss the role of the female writer in depicting the home and family. Not that male writers haven’t taken up these topics – they certainly have – but, I wondered, are our perspectives on “the domestic” gendered ones? I’m reminded of a Virginia Woolf quote from A Room of One’s Own, wherein she says, “…the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so.” (Really, Virginia, naturally?) Traditionally, women writers have gone indoors, so to speak, to tell their stories, and to explore what matters to them. What about now? How are women writers redefining (or maintaining) notions of family, home, motherhood, and so on? (I know, I know: I should have raised my hand during the q&a.)

Other highlights of the night included Silver’s discussion of the mythologies our families create for us, those roles we are given to play and/or reject. I also liked her description of writing as a “limbo between waking and dreaming.” Antonya Nelson’s reading impressed me deeply; I love her work. She read from the first pages of “Nothing Right,” the title story in her new collection. Check out this passage:

He was her second son, and he’d never been the one she understood best. Recently, she’d found herself disgusted by him: She didn’t want to share a bathroom or kitchen, bar soap or utensils with her own boy. His brother, who’d passed through adolescence sobbing instead of shouting, had not prepared her for Leo. The pure ugliness of a more traditonal male’s tranformation to manhood – the inflamed skin and foul odor, the black scowl, the malice in every move – might eventually convince a parent to dispair, to say to that child, “You are dead to me.” Because it would be easier–more decorous, acceptable – to mourn the loss than to keep waging a hopeless battle.

Nelson also told an amazing story about a baby-thieving nurse, and described her impulse to write as the desire to “investigate a situation,” and to get at “what the police blotter can only allude to.” She said, near the end of the talk, that, for her, writing is “a way of getting to the bottom of mystery.”

The discussion meandered naturally, from references to Marilynne Robinson to Peter Taylor to the world famous Octomom. It wasn’t a bad way to spend a Wednesday evening…

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.

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