If I could make a multidimensional line drawing, with fine articulations, fanciful depths, repeated variations, and foggy smudges – the more it is the same, the more it changes – that would be my representation of motherhood.
If I could make a multidimensional line drawing, with fine articulations, fanciful depths, repeated variations, and foggy smudges – the more it is the same, the more it changes – that would be my representation of personhood.
Sometime in the last couple of months, there was a question raised in a periodical I was browsing about how many, and which, books in the English language literary canon have a mother as the protagonist. This discussion caught my attention because both of the main characters in my first novel, Variations, are mothers; their status of “mother” is not incidental to their stories, but agonistically central. Mulling the ways mothers are represented in literature and art, I speculated, vaguely, because I didn’t really research and tabulate, that by and large traditionally they took on primary roles in static frames – visual art, especially sculptures, statues, variations on the trope of Mother Earth. The mother, in abstract, generates and contains. As a living, historical figure, she seems either too unwieldy (abstract grandness combined with (what is perceived as) very limited room for discursive and spatial maneuver) or too quotidian, rhythmic (repetitive acts of mothering combined with a repetitive focus on and celebration of successful reproduction) to be the dynamic protagonist of a coherent and particular narrative.
In the days that followed, my gloomy mullings floated and thinned but didn’t disappear. And then I went to Goa where I stayed with my mother, hung out with my aunt (her sister), and met other relatives – some mothers themselves, others ineluctably defined by their relationships to mothers in some articulation or the other – who, in an Indian way, carry a meaning of mother that is both glorifying and glorious. As I was drawn to bask in this meaning, the discomforts of my novel niggled. Variations struggles to represent and tell the story of both the (very real and deserved) glory, and the self-representational and practical possibilities that the glory crowds out.
My mother, as mother, is a heroine and recognized as such by many who know her. While far from perfect as a person, she lives her commitment to her children (and her siblings, whom she mothered after her own mother died) in a way that can easily be mythologized, with all of the magnificence and ludic pettiness that characterize mythologies. Such a mythical mother figure matches, and even exceeds, any masculine quest-er figure, but it also presents a two-faced challenge to women who live in its shadow. Not being a questing figure itself, it doesn’t provide a model for a feminine quest; and if a feminine quest is undertaken within the practical and categorical frame of motherhood, the protagonist can find herself shadow-boxing herself, dwindling in a kind of auto-immune disease of self-consciousness.
So where did these thoughts and perceptions – fragments in indistinct interiors of my mind and senses – take me? To an unsatisfying, inconclusive, but lighthearted end.
I don’t have to choose. I can be two-faced, fractal, or chaotic. I can love this and be gloomy about that. I can write about this and live something that is different, whether bigger, more petty, more loving, more frightened, more banal, more stalwart, more frantic, or just aging.
Also, I am not alone. Starting in the late twentieth century, writers in English, and probably in other languages as well, are finding more ways to experiment with mother-as-protagonist, often enough Mother Agonistes.
Postscript: Those of you who are worried that my novel is written in the same style as this post, don’t be! The novel is ordinary story-telling.