In both Rumaan Alam’s second novel, That Kind of Mother, and Sheila Heti’s third, Motherhood, the functions and symbols associated with mothering—along with the ambivalence that can come with it—are conveyed with an authenticity that feels akin to reading nonfiction.
Because Alam’s work delves into racial complexities and blended family dynamics that accompany transracial adoption, he has a bit less wiggle room or freedom to roam than Heti, whose writing gives the impression of a woman loosed, set free from her inhibitions about contemplating (more so than anything, really, actively avoiding) becoming a mother as she nears 40.
I read That Kind of Mother slowly, to savor it. I enjoyed Alam’s Rich and Pretty, recommended by a friend who shares my taste in books, but in That Kind of Mother, I saw the honing of a craft. There’s not much work for Alam to do in this arena, but for me, the matter of motherhood hits close to home—I am an adult orphan; my mother died six years ago. Even when she was alive, we had a bit of a challenging relationship; her mental illness required that I nurtured her more than I was nurtured. And this role reversal, which began when I was a young girl, alongside the general angst that women writers are almost conditioned to cultivate, fearing that I might not have the creative energy or time to write if I had children (more on that when we get to Heti) set up a pretty adversarial relationship between me and motherhood as a concept.
I like motherhood–outside of the toxic and damaging Mammy figure–as an idea. I love motherhood for other people. But I have never been able to shake having lunch with a Pulitzer Prize-winning author in Berkeley before leaving the Bay Area and asking her what she thought about having a child. “It is,” she said, “a ball and chain. You will be shackled for life.”
Alam’s book shows that not everyone feels this way–that for some, having a child is the best way to begin a family, to write one kind of story of self and to continually revise it as you go along. The main character, Rebecca, is a white woman poet, married to a busy, irritable Christopher. Their life is perfectly fine. At the start of the novel, they have one son, Jacob, who is cared for by their black nanny, Priscilla. Priscilla dies in childbirth, and Rebecca adopts her child, Andrew, despite the fact that Priscilla’s daughter, Cheryl, is living and has a respectable job as a nurse.
Rebecca decides, pretty much without consulting Cheryl, that she’ll adopt Andrew. This is not the kind of thing that would be without societal friction—the gaze of others, the discomfort of seeing mismatched skin between parents and child as if it were some kind of personal imposition—in 2018, let alone in 1985. “Let strangers think her ovaries had failed her; she didn’t want the baby who would one day be a boy hear his mother discussing him as she might new drapes, an exotic ingredient, fashionable sunglasses: as a thing so lovely that you ad to wonder about its acquisition,” Alam writes. “His story could not be easily summarized but Rebecca didn’t want to say even that.”
Rebecca is fascinating, irritating, and important. She epitomizes a very particular kind of white woman in our culture; one who is unnervingly earnest, who wants only recognition for trying to understand, even if she has no intention of believing, the lived experiences of the people she claims to want to understand and help. She does not know what she doesn’t know—like how to care for Andrew’s black skin, which she tells his sister is “just skin,” even though Cheryl rightly pushes back on that well-meaning dismissal. Rebecca believes that the power of her imagination and good will should be enough to triumph over the real world forces of racism that will alter the course of her sons’ lives differently.
As readers, we know this is why she doesn’t answer Andrew’s question, “Why are we a family?” as he grows older—because it is more complex a question than she would like it to be. She is trying to solve a problem in society that is beyond her powers, a problem that needs a lexicon she doesn’t have. Instead of admitting this, she lands on something that is not a lie, but not fully honest, either. That Kind of Mother is a novel that is also a way of helping contemporary readers with our current silences and fraught dialogues.
In Motherhood, Heti confesses with hilarious, quirky detail, that she basically wants to be anything in the world but a mother. The book is full of wit. I’m a person who dog-ears galleys for quoting, and I found something quotable on nearly every page. Using a faux system of divination in the tradition of I Ching, Heti voices the angst of women everywhere who worry that motherhood will become their central identity at the expense of everything else—though in some ways, women don’t really get to choose. Some of it cuts close to the bone, but I liked the sting and found it kind of delicious.
A woman must have children because she must be occupied…There’s something threatening about a woman who is not occupied with children.
Something about this seems true, but also like she would prefer it to be true. It was, again, hard for me to know, since, like most women readers in particular, I have my own subjective view of motherhood, the lens through which I think about such things. I found this quote most resonant:
The most womanly problem is not giving oneself enough space or time, or not being allowed it. We squeeze ourselves into the moments we allow, or the moments that have been allowed us. We do not stretch out in time, languidly, but allot ourselves the smallest parcels of time in which to exist, miserly. We let everyone crowd us…Having a child solves the impulse to give oneself nothing. It makes that impulse into a virtue. To feed oneself last in self-abnegation, to fit oneself into the smallest spaces in the hopes of being loved—that is entirely feminine. To be virtuously miserly towards oneself in exchange for being loved—having children gets you there fast.
Whether one agrees or not with Heti’s assertions or follows her arguments with herself, Motherhood is the most refreshing novel I’ve read in a long time on this topic. It’s made bittersweet by the fact that in the end, she reveals that she actually just wants what many of us want, which is the approval of her mother. She is still her mother’s daughter, awaiting word that even writing these truths is okay. She probably won’t have a child of her own to look for her approval.
I. Bibliomancy is a form of divination in which one consults a book for answers and advice. The process is simple:
Stand the book up on its spine.
Ask your question.
Let the book fall open to a random page.
With your eyes closed, place your finger on the open page.
The passage on which your finger lands contains your answer.
I made my first foray into bibliomancy while reading Ronald Johnson’s ARK for a graduate class on serial poetry. It was partly a matter of coincidence: In “Ark 73, Arches VII,” Johnson references the “sortes vigiliane,” or “Virgilian lots,” the proper name of the ancient Roman bibliomancy by way of Virgil. This was the first I’d ever heard of the practice, and I was curious to try it out.
I had another motive, too: I was looking for a way to reanimate the text. ARK is by no means a boring work, but it is an imposing one, a textual architecture thick with imagery, reference, incantation, and meditation, often collaged together fragmentarily. It is Whitmanic in its scope and joy, but this yawp endures for hundreds of pages. It’s a poem best savored in bits and pieces over time.
Unfortunately, graduate seminars necessitate speedier reading, which can harden Johnson’s oracular collage into an impenetrable surface of image after image after image—a stultifying litany instead of a kinetic careening. Bibliomancy was a way to foreground the sense of playfulness inherent to ARK that I had lost in marathon reading sessions. There’s a certain undeniable thrill to hopping from verse to verse according to the whims of the book and your blind finger.
An excerpt from my Q&A session with ARK:
Q: I would like to know more about my future in general.
Q: I want a new job. What kind of work am I best suited for?
f lux f lux f lux f
lux f lux f lux f l
ux f lux f lux f lu
x f lux f lux f lux
f lux f lux f lux f
Q: Where is my path taking me in life?
into pool of being being
ripple to what Ends ring going, gone
This being my first crack at divination, I stuck with your basic first-time-at-the-palm-reader’s set of questions. The answers, as you can see, arrived obliquely. Part of the fun of bibliomancy is hashing out the message for yourself. Ghosts wouldn’t be so connotatively rich if they made perfect sense. The occult, etymologically speaking, is that which is hidden.
What bibliomancy does is break the voice out of its monologue, placing it into a dialogue with the reader. It shepherds the figure in the crosswalk to the other side of the road, where you stand waiting to strike up a conversation.
Indeed, the voice is what one encounters when bibliomancing a text: not the author’s spirit, but the recurring figure locked in space-time, the autonomous consciousness birthed into language when the writer’s moment and the world’s moment touched and were forever rendered an object apart.
Bibliomancy isn’t a Ouija board; it doesn’t summon the spirits of the dead or distant. In only places the textual voice into a more dynamic relationship with the reader. We prod it with a question; it pushes back with an arcane response. That dialectical moment is where the magic happens.
Is a book a kind of ghost?
Yes, but depending on how we define “ghost.”
The folkloric and pop cultural ghost, at least in the traditions with which I’m familiar, is a disembodied spirit, a soul lingering on past its body’s exit. The exact mechanism of ghost production is hazy at best. All we know is, on occasion, death hiccups.
I’m not personally interested in this class of ghost, except when it comes to B-grade horror flicks. Its existence depends on a type of too-neat dualism: soul here, body there. Where the soul goes, there go consciousness and agency. The ghost rattles chains, spits blood from the sink spout. The body rots.
Consciousness, though, is profoundly embodied. Subjectivity arises at the continuous moment when self meets world, a process facilitated by means of matter. We forget how physical even the act of seeing is, but the eye is nevertheless an organ. It is the corpse that transforms light into imagery—and further up the chain, the fleshy masses of our brains arrange the sense data into more or less coherent understandings of the world, which the self navigates accordingly.
If a ghost is a disembodied soul, then we can’t call books ghosts. For one, books fail the “disembodied” test by virtue of being physical objects. And from what living creature was the book separated? The author? Can’t be. Authors tend to walk and talk for at least a little while after their books have come into being.
There are other, kookier definitions of “ghost” available to us. As with most things in life, this is where it gets interesting.
One especially outré theory goes that ghosts are not disembodied spirits but space-time glitches. To wit: The fabric of space-time itself gets kinked up in such a way that an event plays out at the right place but wrong time. According to this theory, your garden variety home haunt is not a dead person’s spirit, but the dead person themselves. They’re just “happening” at the wrong time.
I’m no physicist, but I can see why this theory doesn’t have much truck in the scientific community. Space-time doesn’t actually work that way. Still, it’s an alluring thought, and one that poet Cole Swensen makes use of in her spirit-themed collection, Gravesend.
In the poem “Varieties of Ghosts,” the speaker describes a stranger’s hypothetical encounter with a ghost version of the poem’s addressee a century down the road. “[T]he day,” our speaker begins:
arrayed itself in overlapping screens a superimposition of scenes in which
someone a century later crossing a street turns around too quickly and there you are
A “superimposition of scenes” offers an apt way to analogize the space-time theory of ghostliness. Time doubles back on itself and superimposes an earlier scene of the universe on a later scene. Presto—a ghost.
Swensen never mentions the space-time theory explicitly in Gravesend, though her imagery and stylistic choices bring it to mind often, particularly her heavy use of caesuras, which fragment her poems into paratactic units of language that relate to one another more spatially than semantically.
The ghost as a kink in space time: It works for Swensen, but can we consider a book to be an insoluble knot in the fabric of the real?
I think we can. Every book is a hardened mass of space-time persisting beyond its predetermined endpoint, because every book is ultimately a product of its historical moment and of the contents of the writer’s mind, which are also, of course, historically determined.
Tristan Tzara’s instructions on how to write a Dadaist poem offer a useful illustration of this principle:
Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article. Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
The Dadaist poem draws its language from the historical moment quite literally by hijacking the words of a newspaper article which, we presume, describes or analyzes some current event, as newspaper articles are wont to do. Tzara can say that the poem ends up “resembling you” because the poet’s authorial hand is at work, even if only in arranging newspaper clippings. At the thin and calamitous border between the inner-self and the outer-world: That’s where a poem gets born.
Non-Dadaist poems follow the same principle. They can’t help it. All poems are made up of words, and words exist in languages, and the forms and meanings of languages are shaped by their historical moments. Just look at the way the existence of the Internet has changed contemporary poetry. Something like Tommy Pico’s Nature Poem could never have existed before the age of plentiful Wi-Fi, not simply because Pico uses chat lingo like “ppl” or “u”:
oh, but you don’t look very Indian is a thing ppl feel comfortable saying to me
What rhymes with, fuck off and die?
It’s hard to look “like” something most people remember as a ghost,
but I understand the allure of wanting to know—
Knowledge, or its approximate artifice, is a kind of equilibrium when
you feel like a flea in whiskey.
The animating tension in these lines—and throughout the poem—springs from the struggle between an almost existentially exasperated irony and a probing, risky, sincere empathy that exposes the speaker to all manner of fraught relations. That’s Weird Twitter in a nutshell: Sincerity and irony grappling with one another, so close in their charged embrace that each passes through the other and comes out resembling its own double.
The poet works with a historically determined language and its historically determined concepts. As it passes through the poet’s hands, the language acquires some of the poet’s characteristics and concerns. This happens consciously, as when a poet chooses to write about personal matters, but also unconsciously. A poet can try to remove themselves from the language, to write totally impersonally. It can’t be done. The poet transmits themselves by touch in the act of using language. When Rosmarie Waldrop embraced the impersonal art of collage, her poems nevertheless ended up bring about her mother. (See Waldrop’s collection of essays, Dissonance (if you are interested). )
I’ve spoken at length about poetry because it’s the genre I know best, but all the same things can be said about fiction, about nonfiction, about any linguistic art that produces a text. All writing depends on language; all writing is, in some sense, the crystallization of a hybrid world-historic and author-historic moment. This crystal persists past its expiration date; it occurs whenever the book is opened, whenever the text is read. Every encounter with a book is an encounter with a different hunk of space-time superimposed on your own moment.
We speak often in the literary world of a writer’s “voice,” their idiosyncratic style of handling language. A voice is a kind of strange consciousness, distinct from but yoked to the writer. It often has its own agenda. In workshops, I’ve been amazed time and time again by perceptive readers surfacing facets of poems I don’t remember carving—but sure enough, they are there.
“Our writing is smarter than we are,” a former professor of mine, Laurie Sheck, used to say.
Like a human consciousness, the voice is the product of a liminal space. It comes into being when the writer and the historical moment meet; it finds its body in the language that results from this encounter. Swensen’s stranger crossing the street at the wrong time is the figure of the voice. You turn and it’s there. It’s always there. It declaims—for pages and pages it recites its endless and endlessly reiterated litany.
But a consciousness can do more than monologue if it comes into contact with another consciousness. How do we crack open the crystal and slip inside? How do we break the shell surrounding this displaced moment and usher the figure out to speak with us rather than at us?
We bibliomance, of course.
Image Credit: pxhere.
A little more than 10 years ago I was an MFA student finishing my thesis, a collection of short stories that I had no intention of publishing. I wanted to be a novelist; the stories, I figured, were teaching me how I might do that. After I graduated, I started a book. Between SAT tutoring jobs, bookstore and cheese store shifts, and teaching my own workshops, I would sit down to write — and also panic. I thought, I have no idea what I’m doing! It was true, I didn’t; as anyone who’s written both knows, novels and short stories are very different beasts. At these moments, I would hear the voice of my former thesis advisor Margot Livesey in my head. In her sweet Scottish lilt, she’d urge me forward. She was (and is) an author I admire, and I wanted to make her proud. In this way, I put one sentence down, then another and another.
Livesey isn’t a preachy teacher. She doesn’t have little slogans or rules; she isn’t the type to ban certain points of view from her classes, or tell you that dead grandmothers are a tired trope. Her treatment of fiction and writing is open-minded and deep, and she considers and critiques a manuscript both on its own terms and against a long tradition of fiction. She is encouraging, and yet her expectations are high. As with the best teachers, she invited me to be the writer I wanted to be, while also pushing me to be better than that.
She is also one of the most talented novelists working today. Her gift, in particular, for writing complicated characters is what inspires me most. Through her fiction, she continues to be my teacher. Livesey’s new novel, Mercury, is a kind of morality tale, but without an easy sense of right and wrong. It’s also a literary thriller, about a husband and wife and the secrets they keep from one another, and the ways in which they fail to see each other truthfully. It’s got an eye doctor, a beautiful and powerful horse, an African Grey parrot named Nabokov, and a gun, which does, of course, go off.
Livesey was kind enough to answer some questions via email about teaching, reading, and writing her excellent books.
The Millions: You spend the fall in Iowa City, teaching graduate writing students at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In the spring you’re in Boston. Can you talk about how writing (and perhaps reading) changes for you, depending on whether or not you’re teaching? How has teaching influenced you as a writer, and, conversely, how has your writing influenced you as a teacher?
Margot Livesey: Teaching every autumn, I find myself plunged into the varied worlds that my students are creating, and at the same time rereading the stories and novels I’ve assigned for my classes. Both I think, I hope, influence my work. I do reread quite often but rereading with a class in mind, trying to figure out an author’s decisions, forces me to think more deeply, and more critically, about works I already admire and that’s nearly always fruitful. Maybe I can imitate how Jhumpa Lahiri manages her shifts in point of view in The Namesake. Or steal something from William Maxwell’s use of journalistic techniques in So Long, See You Tomorrow.
Meanwhile my students offer me maps of the contemporary world, constantly under revision as we debate voice, character, and motivation. In our workshops I get to study those maps in detail and to see how very good readers are responding to fiction. I cherish their voices in my head when I’m teaching and they remain, perched on my shoulder as it were, when I’m not — avoid that cliche, think about the setting, do you need to mention politics, is the animal too symbolical, is the dialogue going deep enough, can the mother have a more interesting job?
My own writing has made me very aware that there are some things I need to write to advance a novel or a story which the reader absolutely does not need to read. I tell my students a good first chapter is a chapter that helps the author to write the rest of the novel. Of course, later, the first chapter also needs to be a good ambassador but being too critical, too early, can sometimes distract the writer from what she really needs to do.
TM: Are there any themes or styles that are popular with your students right now? Which writers are inspiring and influencing them?
ML: A number of my students are dealing with material that engages with race, class, and gender in interesting ways. They cherish the work of such writers as Junot Díaz , Edward P. Jones, Toni Morrison, and Zadie Smith. Others are interested in the work of Jonathan Franzen, the sweeping panorama of social concerns, or in grittier voices like Bonnie Jo Campbell and of course Raymond Carver. Still others are working on historical material or using texts within texts. Rather than a single popular theme or style I would say there’s a wonderful range of themes, forms, and subject matters being explored.
TM: Your husband is a painter. Can you talk about how his work with a visual artist informs your process? Do you talk to each other about your work?
ML: Eric paints large abstract oil paintings. He works in layers on seven or eight paintings at once and many of his paintings take well over a year to complete. I don’t know if he’d agree but I think of his work as having a novelistic quality; the colors and composition gradually come into focus. We do spend a lot of time talking about our processes although I am often not very forthcoming when I’m in the midst of a new novel. Happily when I have nothing to say we can fall back on talking about our reading, a passion we share.
TM: At a recent event you told the audience that you write on a computer without the Internet, and said this was essential to your process. Can you talk more about this? I also can’t stop thinking about how you said that sometimes you read the dictionary during your writing time. I hope this is true! If so, what dictionary are you reading, and what recent gems have you come upon?
MG: Research is often a crucial part of my novel writing but it can also be very distracting. And then of course I can so easily fall into checking email. For a while I did try to be disciplined, but more recently I’ve solved the problem by having two computers, one on which I write fiction and essays, and a second one, a laptop, on which I do my correspondence and go online. Sometimes I go back and forth between the two 20 times in a few hours but I still think that this is better for my concentration and my efficiency.
I used to read poems or stories when I was stuck, but too often I was fatally seduced. Now I have a shorter Oxford English Dictionary in which I browse, sometimes purposefully, sometimes randomly, as I try to think what to write next. I often treat it as a kind of I Ching, simply opening it at random. I love knowing where words come from — disaster — ruin of the stars — and seeing the examples of usage: “Disaster always brought out the best in Churchill.”
TM: So much of your work is about morality and Mercury in particular is about life’s murky gray areas, when it’s not always quite clear what is right and what is wrong. Can you talk a little bit about how morality and making-hard-choices informs the characters you write, and the stories you tell. Your Iowa colleague, and another former teacher of mine, Ethan Canin, used to say in class that fiction writers are “moral philosophers.” Would you agree, and why or why not?
ML: I do agree with Ethan, but I would also paraphrase John Updike’s comment: The novel is our greatest psychological experiment. I am very interested in what people will do given certain possibilities. And I am very interested in how we are often quite confident in analyzing other people, but surprisingly reluctant to analyze ourselves. I think the best characters in novels combine that confidence with a sense of appropriate mystery and I think it is the job of plot, or conflict, to let us look more deeply into that mystery.
I am still a little surprised by how deeply interested I am in moral choices. Clearly I was paying more attention in my Scottish Sunday school than I realized. I remain deeply puzzled — I’d have to say indignant — that as adults we can find ourselves in situations where there is no obvious right thing to do.
TM: A few friends of mine, all of them women, have taken up or returned to horseback riding lately, and with your book and Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare, it seems that horses are…trending! What drew you to write about horses in Mercury?
ML: I think horses, and our relationships with them, are fascinating. I knew when I started Mercury that I wanted to write about an ambitious woman and I knew that I wanted the object of that ambition to be something that many people, but by no means everyone, would value. A horse seemed perfect: large, complicated, fragile. I haven’t ridden much as an adult, but I did as a teenager and I felt I knew what it was like to inhabit that passion. Riding around Boston turned out to be very different from riding the Scottish Highland ponies of my youth. I loved visiting the stables and observing various horses and riders. And I loved reading books about horses including Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet and more recently Jane Smiley’s Horse Heaven.
TM: And, because this is The Millions, I must ask you: what are you reading?
ML: I am currently reading Peter Ho Davies’s The Fortunes. The novel opens with an account of Ah Ling who hopes to strike gold and ends up working on the railway. Part II follows the life of Anna May Wong, Hollywood’s first Chinese film star. Part III explores the racially motivated killing of Vincent Chin in Detroit in 1982. In part IV we learn how these three are connected as an American couple struggle to adopt a Chinese baby. Davies writes beautiful and dangerous sentences, and I love his timely exploration of issues of race and racism.