The Handmaid's Tale

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Post-Apocalypse Now: The Hard Work of Cli-Fi

Climate change is here. Trees are dead and dying, insects and songbirds are disappearing, wildlife has declined by 60 percent, glaciers worldwide are melting and ice sheets are collapsing, and weather patterns are shifting.
What will our future look like? How fast and for how long will things change? Are we mentally and physically prepared to deal with the impacts of these changes on our communities and socioeconomic structures?
In 2017, David Wallace-Wells wrote an article for New York magazine called “The Uninhabitable Earth.” He outlined the absolute worst-case scenario for climate change problems across the globe, including forest loss, sea level rise, changes in ocean currents, species loss, and more. At the time, he was vilified for overstating his case and misrepresenting the science—which he didn’t—though others argued that he had started an important conversation needed to avoid climate disaster.
Since Wallace-Wells was writing for a public audience, many people—readers unlikely to pick up a scientific journal—got his message, and they took it to heart.
Scientists themselves are also addressing the “what will happen” and “are we prepared” questions from a different angle: scenario development. They have teamed up with social scientists to derive plausible future scenarios based on both predictions of physical earth parameters (e.g., temperature, precipitation, biodiversity, wildlife, human populations), and how social scientists and humanities researchers think society will respond to those changes (e.g., economic, migration, political). In an interview with the LA Review of Books, seismologist Lucy Jones notes that the key question facing a post-disaster society is whether humans band together in communities to help each other or look out for themselves at the expense of others.
We don’t need more data to prove that climate change is a problem. Instead, we need to show people what life will look like under current and future climate-change conditions, and to share ideas about how to mitigate those conditions. We know that people are more likely to absorb information from stories than from data and lectures. Thus, like scientists collaborating with social scientists, authors of post-apocalyptic literature also apply scenarios to create analogues for our potential future, in the same way that George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are used as analogues for the current political climate.
Post-apocalyptic novels such as Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Eric Barnes’s The City Where We Once Lived, Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus, and Sherri L. Smith’s Orleans could potentially prepare us for a future following either ecological and social collapse and/or a global pandemic. But how well do these books portray that future, and is that future realistic enough to engage readers after they’ve finished reading, to persuade them do something about adapting to and reducing the severity of climate change?
1. The Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
This 2000 classic depicts California in the mid-2020s, where rain occurs only once every six years, and the country is falling apart both economically and socially. Residents live in walled and gated communities to protect themselves from the outside world, but protagonist Lauren knows they won’t be safe forever. As she teaches herself survival skills and caches an emergency bag, she is also pulling together her thoughts on a new philosophy of life called Earthseed. When her neighborhood is breached and her family is killed, she escapes with two of her neighbors to join the hundreds of people walking north on the main highways. Despite the dangers (drug addicts, thieves, slavers, etc.), Lauren gathers a group of trusted people with her as she walks, and shares Earthseed with them.
While the dangers of the post-apocalyptic world are clear, this is ultimately a hopeful book. Lauren has hope in humanity, which is why she connects with people on the road, helping them instead of isolating herself from them. However, Lauren is also a realist, and she and her group protect their own as necessary. The key is in deciding who is a threat and who might be an asset. Their group represents a diversity of ethnic backgrounds, giving them strength in numbers. The ideas of Earthseed also bring these travelers together and help them build a community they might not have otherwise.


2. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
This allegorical tale doesn’t necessarily give us a practical understanding of how to exist in a future world, but instead provides multiple thought experiments for readers to consider how they might behave in a similar situation.
Like Homer’s Odyssey, The Road follows a man and his son on their travels. Except they’re not traveling by ship, but by foot towards the coast, across a devastated, dead landscape that is permanently cold and either raining or snowing ash. It isn’t clear if theirs is a world stripped by nuclear winter, volcanic eruptions, or constant wildfires.
The world of The Road wasn’t made for children. In their travels, the child and his father meet characters who challenge their pre-apocalypse morals and values, and graphically illustrate to the boy what is required to survive. He finds it difficult to make sense of a world in which his father says there are good people out there, while also ignoring or killing the people they meet.
The father often returns to his memories, which is how readers learn his wife killed herself because she couldn’t bear this life anymore. This memory—plus other events—make the reader reconsider what makes life worth living. “[The father] thought about his life but there was no life to think about…”
Why do they keep walking in such a dead world? How do you raise a child in such a world? What lessons is the father teaching his son—not just with his words, but by his very actions? What morals and values will you have to change or set aside to survive in such a world?
3. The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
Hig is a small-engine pilot and Bangley is a munitions expert. They live in an abandoned airport that they’ve set up to defend from marauders. The world has been emptied of people by a flu pandemic, followed by a blood disease that kills most people and leaves those who survive in quarantine. Climate change is also a problem, with minimal winter snow pack, low summer streamflows, hot summers, and animal extinctions.
Hig and Bangley represent opposite sides of a community: Hig is more likely to talk to a stranger and try to build a relationship, while Bangley is more likely to shoot first, as he believes it’s every man for himself. As Higs says, “Follow Bangley’s belief to its end and you get a ringing solitude. Everybody out for themselves, even to dealing death, and you come to complete aloneness.”
Following the death of his dog, Hig finds himself increasingly lonely and decides to fly to the last airport from which he heard a transmission several years ago. On his way there, he discovers a woman, Cima, and her father living off the land in a box canyon far from the main roads. Here the book takes on an Edenic tone: the one man on earth finds the one woman on earth and they get together.
Like The Road, The Dog Stars asks hard questions about what you need to do to stay alive, and about what is enough to keep a person content and happy. How do you justify killing people who had planned to attack you first? How do you engage with a community of people under quarantine instead of avoiding them as most people would? How do you reconcile the memories of your previous life with this entirely different, unexpected and unplanned life? It suggests that in a post-apocalyptic world, you take what you can get or go without.
4. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Station Eleven is rich in the connections it makes between far-flung people and their past and present lives. The narrative switches between the present—20 years after the Georgia flu has wiped most of the population off the Earth—and the past, in the years prior to the flu outbreak. It centers on a group called The Symphony, a travelling caravan that brings music and Shakespearean theatre to the many communities that have sprung up around the Great Lakes in the wake of the pandemic.
In the present, the world has largely returned to a peaceful state. There are small settlements in places where people decided to stop walking and make homes. People hunt, grow gardens, and make their own bread. Life has not returned to what it was, but to something that most people can manage. In this case, community rather than individuality is the key for survival.
Station Eleven offers tips for dealing with the aftermath of an apocalypse. Stay put for some time before you start moving, to allow for some of the violence to die down. Move out of urban areas and into rural areas where it’s easier to hunt and grow food. Connect with like-minded people and settle in groups. Parse out work so everyone has a task and things get done. Most of all, have compassion for other people. Remember that everyone has their own set of haunting memories. As one of the characters says, “…doesn’t it seem to you that the people who have the hardest time in this—this current era…the world after the Georgia Flu—doesn’t it seem like the people who struggle the most with it are the people who remember the old world clearly?…The more you remember, the more you’ve lost.”
5. The City Where We Once Lived by Eric Barnes
This book is somewhat allegorical—the characters have no names, and are instead defined by their occupation: the writer, the gardener, the minister, the scavengers, the pressman, etc. They live in the North end of a city that has been largely cut off from the South—it was the southerners who decided to separate from the North, which they saw as dangerous and broken. Rather than see the value in the community the North has created, a political commissioner says “it is places like this and people like you that distract us from the work we should really be doing. The support of good people and good places, that’s what we should be providing.”
This narrative represents an example of community over individuality: For the several hundred people living in the North, there is no violence, looting, or stealing. The North has a sense of calm, quiet order. People take what they need where they can find it and leave the rest in its place. The irony is that people in the South imagine the North is a lawless place where violence is rampant and survival difficult. But readers are still faced with tough questions. What is your “capacity for violence?” How do you keep living in a city where all your family has died? How do you motivate yourself to get up every day and have a purpose?
6. Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins
In Gold Fame Citrus, climate change has reduced western water supplies to a few small reservoirs that are guarded around the clock. The landscape west of the 100th meridian is completely arid, and a massive dune complex called the Amargosa Dune Sea has formed in the interior of the continent.
The main characters leave the California coast for a community they’ve heard exists at the southern edge of the Amargosa. Ultimately, the female protagonist ends up in this community, which is a cult run by a charismatic, polygamous leader to whom all community members must submit. He claims to find water in the desert via dowsing, when he’s really raiding Red Cross caravans to steal water and food. As Watkins writes, “It seemed possible, as he spoke, that his words might summon thunderheads, that his voice might bring rain.” This novel reminded me of Mad Max: Fury Road, where the keeper of the water is also a keeper of women, and where the leader chases away undesirables by forcing them into an arid and deadly landscape.
This book also asks hard questions: How do you trust people after the apocalypse? How do you decide whether to stay or to go? How does a country manage climate migrants? Is looting ever justifiable? How do you reconcile the person you were before the apocalypse with the person you are now? How do you build up mental fortitude to survive these new times?
7. Orleans by Sherri L. Smith
Smith’s novel is set in a southern United States that was hammered by seven major hurricanes—beginning with Katrina in 2005 and ending with Jesus in 2019. In the aftermath of the hurricanes, death and disease—particularly Delta Fever—are widespread. In 2025, the U.S. government withdraws from Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, and Georgia, and builds a wall to keep southerners and Delta Fever out.
The people (mostly of color) left in the south organize into tribal units based on blood type, as Delta Fever affects people of each blood type differently. It is 2056 when protagonist Fen de la Guerre delivers her tribal chief’s newborn daughter during an unexpected raid on their camp. After the Chief dies in childbirth, Fen must decide what to do with the baby. Dodging blood harvesters, members of other tribes, and an old friend who has betrayed her, she finds an unlikely ally in a northerner named Daniel Weaver, who has crossed the Wall illegally in an attempt to cure the Delta Fever. He is ultimately the last hope for the baby girl, and she sells her intricately braided hair to help save him.
Smith’s book explores the lengths that people will go to survive in a hostile environment, and the importance of building communities to support and protect each other. It portrays peoples’ adaptability in the face both of natural and man-made disasters and it shows how government misinformation spreads.
Ultimately, post-apocalyptic fiction pushes us to the extreme, to the worst-case scenario, just like Wallace-Wells’s New York magazine piece. It forces us to consider how far we’ll go to stay alive, how much we’ll sacrifice, and what we’ll do. Are you willing to steal or to fight if necessary? To kill if necessary?  This type of fiction shows us how society might organize itself—from every person for themselves (The Road, The Dog Stars), to small self-contained and interconnected communities (The Parable of the Sower, Station Eleven, The City Where We Once Lived, Orleans), to cult-like communities run by charismatic would-be prophets (Gold, Fame, Citrus; Station Eleven). But post-apocalyptic fiction also gets us off the hook when it comes to climate change and social breakdown. In these books, the apocalypse has already happened and there’s nothing we can do about it. The flu pandemic has wiped out the population, climate change has completely altered the earth, the city has been abandoned, society has fallen into ruin, the nuclear winter is upon us. We are tasked only with surviving these conditions—not with preventing them.
If we focus only on the apocalypse, aren’t we, in effect, accepting that climate change can’t be stopped? That millions of people worldwide are doomed to climate injustice? As Kathleen Dean Moore writes in Great Tide Rising, “The burdens of climate change—hunger and thirst, poisoned air and water, inundation, disruption, and wars—are imposed disproportionately on the world’s poorest communities and those that are the least responsible for its effects.”
In October of 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a special climate change report. Their tone was uncharacteristically urgent, giving us only 10 to 12 years to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Right now, the global temperature is already 1°C warmer than it was in pre-industrial times, and we’ve already seen the impacts: hurricanes, wildfires, flooding. To prevent significant future change, we’ll have to maintain a temperature increase of only 1.5°C. Unfortunately, there is only a small likelihood we’ll meet that goal—instead we’ll likely end up with a temperature that is 2.0°C warmer than in pre-industrial times. The difference between 1.5 C and 2°C might seem small, but it has major impacts on global climate—particularly because it sets off feedback loops built into the climate system due to the reflectivity of sea ice and snow cover, the impacts of forests and wildfire on the carbon cycle, and the increasing acidity of warming oceans and their impacts on corals/shelled organisms.
We need literature that bridges the space between the present and the apocalypse. That considers the immediate future and the hard decisions that must be made to avert, or at least minimize, disaster. This is where a new genre called climate fiction—aka cli-fi—comes in. By writing novels about ongoing climate change and other environmental disasters, cli-fi allows us to explore what the near future might hold.
Books like Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (about climate change), and Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (about rising sea levels), and Omar El Akkad’s American War (about civil war, race relations, and climate) paint a picture of what our not-so-distant future may hold.
The apocalypse may be coming—and authors have envisioned it for us in many different ways—but its actual shape depends on the actions we take in the here and now, before the end of days.

Image: Unsplash/Dikaseva

Stories Overlooked: The Millions Interviews Chaya Bhuvaneswar

Winner of the 2017 Dzanc Short Story Collection Prize, Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s White Dancing Elephants is a daring look at the power of imagination. Bhuvaneswar, a practicing psychiatrist on the East Coast, has created intricate characters who fight back against narratives that limit their existence, natural circumstances or human-made, from birth and death and disease to racism, classicism, and sexism, shuffling together ancient fables with realistic contemporary fiction and a dystopia with robots. (She’d also been previously kind to include my book in her list of novels to read on the way to a political protest.) I was excited and nervous about meeting Bhuvaneswar over email to talk about her debut collection.

The Millions: Let’s start off by talking about writers who have been a major influence. I saw in an interview that you mentioned Jesmyn Ward. Can you tell us why and which other writers and books had a lasting impact on you?

Chaya Bhuvaneswar: I loved A Small Revolution, so I’ll mention that first—psychologically gripping, real, and an important part of the larger canon on books about revolution. I like to think that in its own way, my book is also about revolution, about subversion, and I would say that there is likely a set of books, large and somewhat shifting but definite, that led me to be a writer, period, because of their astute and surprising way of depicting awareness, rebellion, determination. These are human qualities I truly believe in. So that has led me to a lot of very different books—from Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina to Sapphire’s Push (both of which I wrote about here). While these are very different books, they relate specifically to the collection in that I am not just writing about “survivorship” as a sort of condition, but as a form of internal resolution. As one decision or series of decisions. As a form of self-determination, often at great and unexpected cost. I think without consciously deciding it, several books, including The Handmaid’s Tale (before the Netflix series, but then also, thrillingly, during its rise), Tracks by Louise Erdrich, and individual stories, like “The Children Stay” (which is completely astonishing, an Alice Munro story mostly inside the head of a modern Anna Karenina-like character).

In terms of how much I’ve gained from Jesmyn Ward’s work, I think more than anything her quiet confidence and determination are a complete inspiration for women writers of color who have to cling to the belief that “anybody will care” about the characters we write about, dream about. Will anybody care about, for example, an Indian immigrant who becomes a spoken word poet, or (even more of a question) a retired, cranky man so choked with grief at being separated from his son that he is rageful and perhaps unforgivable to the daughter he lives with who has a disability? Does anybody care about these lives—a black woman psychoanalyst wealthy enough to be envied by others; a Korean-American lady doctor-slash-workaholic? So far the answer has been a resounding “yes” in nearly all cases—but I believe that would not be as true without the model of the thrilling success of Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing. She and others have opened doors for the stories of overlooked, ordinary people of color to be told and celebrated and sung. 

TM: I felt that kind of confidence come through in your stories too, beginning with a narrator who whispers to her unborn child to the roar of the girls in captivity near the end of the book. How did you come up with the arrangement of this collection?

CB: One of my favorite short story writers, Maile Meloy (whose work I recommend reading here, especially; “Madame Lazarus” may be my favorite story of hers, ever) said once in an interview how she just sort of played with the order of the stories on the “back of a napkin” the way you’d shuffle a song playlist.

I think it was exactly like that. I was pushed up against a deadline, reading at AWP 2018 and having a blast generally, and I came back late one night and sat there shaping a response to the editor asking me to delineate the order, and this is just sort of what came out. I am incredibly grateful, as well, that our publisher and editor in chief at Dzanc, Michelle Dotter, really “went with” a lot of what I proposed as my instinctive responses to her questions. She had a lot of trust in me to shape the edits that in retrospect is so wonderful, really.

You try for the standard things—to vary POV, not have three stories told in the first person back to back. But I think as with a song list, there is a dreamy, playing quality and hopefully the main thing is that people enjoy it. To that end as well, I am thrilled to note that on the release date for White Dancing Elephants, Large Hearted Boy, that blog that posts “song playlists,” is going to post one I put together with the wonderful editor, David Gutkowski, and I guarantee—I KNOW—people will enjoy it.

TM: In your essay about being a writer and a psychiatrist, you say, “I write as a self-defining activity, without judging if what I write is any good. I write because I have seen people whose ability to write was taken away by illness. I write because I am mortal, and know it.” Tell us more about that because I feel it speaks so much to your characters in your stories too, about being keenly aware of their mortality.

CB: The daily routine of being a doctor in contemporary practice fundamentally changes your relationship to the physical act of writing. I mean, we just have to write SO MUCH. And all of it has to be written with a certain kind of care, because the medical record belongs to the patient, and so while there is a certain amount of productive “thinking out loud,” aimed at helping the medical professionals reading the record diagnose and treat various conditions, ultimately there can’t be anything in the medical record that doesn’t directly serve the patient. We have to be honest but at the same time as tactful as we can. It’s a constant goal we keep in mind.

So there’s this high wire you become accustomed to—writing a lot (thousands of words a day) but at the same time, writing with care and writing where there is so much at stake. And more than anything I think that has affected me as a writer. It helped make writing something I could own. Versus the publicly acclaimed and fraught and competitive position of “writer”—where, like, you read about Gary Shteyngart getting taken to a warehouse to sign thousands of his books, or you read about Terrance Hayes being “number two!” on the global list of contemporary poetry books selling on Amazon now, or whatever. I don’t know about all that. But I know that when I sit down at my desk, I can write, and as long as that’s true, I’m grateful. I have what I need.

TM: You explore the very edges of boundaries, particularly between life and death over and over in these stories—a woman grieving the loss of a child, kidnapping and sexual assault, sexual abuse by a parent, suffering from cancer, and connected to these the idea of switching places, roles—therapist and patient—playing constantly with societal expectations often with those with less power asserting themselves powerfully. I’m curious about your thoughts about the #MeToo movement?

CB: Mainly I have a few fragmentary thoughts to offer here (hoping of course that the shards will illuminate a little bit—that whole concept of “synecdoche” that I feel like I learned about from reading Forster but don’t even remember exactly how. Howards End, perhaps?).

First, the notion of “edges of boundaries”—I’m very influenced by the concept of “liminality,” from religious studies, which I first encountered when studying the poet A.K. Ramanujan’s really brilliant translations of medieval Hindu poetry. In these poems, mostly written by men but also by a few women, every definition was shifting and changing. Gender, sexuality, location, faith—all fluid, as fluid as language. I am interested in this fluidity as a source of resilience, and often I’m drawn to characters who don’t yet see the positive aspects of change, who deeply fear it.

Second, the responsibility of women to other women. I guess I still believe in an idea of “sisterhood,” but rather than prescribe it to anyone, I try to remember and celebrate those moments when women have shown me that solidarity. Whether in small ways—like sharing advice about how to care for a newborn—or other ways, like the woman administrator at my undergrad college, who actively encouraged me and other female students to come forward about a particularly egregious harasser.

I do feel like the way we find a path forward through the #MeToo movement is by remembering a common humanity. This is one reason I love the title of Roxane Gay’s anthology, Not That Bad, because it illustrates how utterly inadequate that type of label is for many of these experiences. Yes, you don’t literally lose a limb from being harassed. But you lose some part of your dignity and you end up having to fight to get that back. It is that bad, to suffer violence, especially when you’re in a space, as a working professional or student or any kind of occupational role, where you should just be allowed to perform, period, and not be given that extra burden, the extra barrier. I do think that #MeToo experiences constitute a form of resistance by the status quo, against the entry of women in equal numbers, and with equal or greater power, into professional and educational and financial spaces (including the entertainment industry) where male dominance had been the norm. Harassment is a way of making us uncomfortable. The movement is saying: We won’t stand for it. Amen.

Are You My Mother? On Maternal Abandonment in Literature

When I write fiction, at least a first draft of something, I try not to think too much. Or maybe it’s that I try to keep my thoughts small: words, images, rhythms, a character’s particular way of holding a key. I try not to think about the symbolic meaning of said key—if keys keep showing up, I try not to think about why. In revision, sure. The keys will have to go. But for the first draft I willfully maintain a half-state of ignorance. This is how I was able to write basically the same short story twice. (I like to think the second “version,” published years later, is better.) It’s how I build parallels and thematic arcs into my work before I recognize them as such and risk overdoing them. It’s how I got many drafts into my first novel, The Little Bride, before I realized—when my editor brought it up, as a simple matter of fact—that the two central mother figures in the book leave their husbands and children. They don’t say goodbye, or leave notes, or send word of where they’ve gone. They just disappear, and don’t come back.

Initially, I was drawn to Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, by its premise: the book tells the story of the Lees, a multiracial family in 1970s Ohio reeling from the mysterious death of their middle child, Lydia. I found myself reading late into the night, fascinated by Ng’s imperfect characters working their way—imperfectly—through grief, moved by her restrained yet startlingly emotive prose, in awe of her masterful use of an omniscient narrator who switches points-of-view mid-scene as soundlessly as Marilyn Lee opens the door to her daughter’s empty bedroom. Then, mid-book, I found myself holding my breath as the narrative flashed back to one summer, years ago, when Marilyn cooked her family’s favorite meals, dug out her textbooks from her long-abandoned college career, and without a word moved an hour away to Toledo, where she rented an efficiency apartment and attempted to start again as a student.

Eventually, Marilyn returned. The family moved on, not speaking of her disappearance—when we meet them at the beginning of the book, we hear nothing of it. Marilyn’s great defection has been silenced. But of course it hangs over them, as it hung over me. Ng’s portrait of ambivalence is heart-breaking: “often, when she opened her books, Marilyn’s mind whirled. Equations jumbled and rejumbled, hidden messages jumping out at her. NaOH became Nath, his small face wide-eyed and reproachful…” Marilyn begins calling the house to listen silently to her family’s voices, to get just enough of them to shore herself up—not to face a lover or a boss, but herself.

Literature is full of disappearing mothers. Many of them die—think of all the orphans. A significant number commit suicide, including Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Edna Pontellier, and Helen in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. Others are forced away by war (Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, Amy Bloom’s Away), or oppressive governments (Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale). Other mothers only imagine killing themselves, or leave for a couple hours (Laura Brown in The Hours does both) only to pretend neither happened. Less common are the women who are neither psychically wrecked nor physically threatened but simply and unbearably torn between motherhood and selfhood, tormented by their feeling that the two can’t coexist. These are characters like Marilyn Lee, or the narrator in Alice Munro’s story “Nettles,” whose separation from her husband costs her her daughters, or Leda in Elana Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, whose explanation for her three-year abandonment of her young daughters speaks to the central, wrenching paradox all these authors explore: “I loved them too much and it seemed to me that love for them would keep me from becoming myself.”

Why so much motherly abandonment? It makes for good conflict, of course. It can help define characters and set plots in motion. Most importantly, it’s an act that even in 2014 remains, in many ways, the ultimate taboo.

Granted, plenty of literary fathers leave, too. But when Rabbit goes running, when Francis Phelan tragically drops—and kills—his newborn son and leaves town in William Kennedy’s Ironweed, a reader (at least this reader) feels sorrow, disappointment, grief, a certain amount of anger, but not shock. Their leaving, it seems, in these and countless other stories, is part of their condition. Whereas when a mother leaves, we assume she must defy her very nature.

Celeste Ng –– who was kind enough to correspond with me, via email –– wonders if this assumption lies partly in our—limited—notions of what’s “natural.” She points out: “Plenty of animal mothers leave their offspring as a matter of routine. Harp seals abandon their pups early on. Cuckoos notoriously lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and abandon them—tricking other birds into raising a chick that isn’t theirs. Even cute, cuddly, pandas often have twins and then abandon the one that seems weaker. And many animals, when stressed or starved, abandon their young—or eat them.”

Our tendency to forget this, Ng says, shows up in the first stories we’re told. “Look at the classic children’s book Are You My Mother? The baby bird goes looking for his mother, and because he’s never seen her, he thinks a cat, a dog, a cow, a hen, a plane, a car, and even a boat might be his mother. So from a very early age, we get the idea that without a mother, you have no real sense of self—you have zero idea who you are or what you’re supposed to do in your life. I’m being a bit facetious here—and I’m not saying that we’re wrong about how important mothers are, either—just that mothers hold a very revered place in our culture and our psyche. Maybe that’s why this plotline appears so often in literature. Losing the one person who’s supposed to nurture and protect you in your most vulnerable years—what a fundamental fear.”

This fear belongs primarily—and primally—to children. Which may be why telling the story of a mother’s leaving not from a child’s point-of-view (Where’d You Go, Bernadette, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) but from the mother’s can feel risky. Writers are all too aware—however hard we may try to ignore it—of the reading public’s impatience with “unsympathetic” characters, and it can be tempting to put sympathy before truth. Ng says that in an earlier, “melodramatic” draft of Everything I Never Told You, Marilyn’s frustrations with her life led to a breakdown and visit to a mental hospital, until Ng took the leap and rewrote her as “a stronger character, with particular desires, who made the choice to leave her family.”

It’s striking, too, that Marilyn bolsters her resolve to leave by thinking of her mother’s old, spine-cracked Betty Crocker cookbook, while in The Hours, Laura Brown urges herself on—and ultimately comforts herself—with Mrs. Dalloway. Emma Bovary, of course, chain-reads romance novels. It’s as if the authors of these books, knowing the challenges they face in portraying mothers who call it quits, brought in iconic texts as units of cultural precedent, backsplashes for the mothers to fling themselves against, asking what they want, and facing what they are.

A mother abandoning her children is an inversion of the orphan tale. It may even feel to some readers like a perversion. It’s a story that’s easy to read and say, without thinking, “I can’t imagine.”

And yet, most of us can. What parent hasn’t at some point longed to flee, even for a day? Parents who are passionate about their work perhaps experience this more acutely. I know I’m guilty of frequent mental abandonment, whether I’m wrestling with a plot problem as my daughter performs “Let it Go” or jotting notes in magic marker for the novel I’m now revising though I’ve promised to draw a tree. I’ve come to accept this as part of the deal, part of my commitment to being both a mother and a writer: I go away in my mind so that I can stay.

I should mention. That novel I’m revising? It begins with a teenage mother leaving her baby in a pear orchard. Don’t ask if I was thinking, when I first wrote this opening scene, about its resonance with my first novel, or all the other novels in which mothers disappear. I wasn’t. But I am now. And I’m thinking about how maybe my cultivated first-draft obliviousness is a little like the trips I take in my mind as a mother: a benign and necessary neglect. If you read the latest woo-woo about parenting, you know that “they” are now recommending we leave our kids alone more, not alone alone, but with enough space that they can figure things out, take risks, make mistakes. Maybe I’ve just known, all along, that my work needs space, too. In any case, I intend to keep up my willed inattention, and let all of us—the kids, and the books, and me (me!)—grow strong, and a little wild.

Image Credit: Irina

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