Monday, 13 January 2014

Review of Marie Darrieussecq, 'Tom is Dead', by Gill Rye


Marie Darrieussecq, Tom is Dead, trans. Lia Hills (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2012 [2009]); originally published in French as Tom est mort (Paris: P.O.L., 2007)

Marie Darrieussecq’s novel, Tom is Dead, has been translated from the French into several languages, including Italian, Danish, Dutch and Spanish in addition to English. The English translation by Lia Hills is excellent. Set in Australia, the novel represents the narrative of a bereaved mother who is writing about the aftermath of her son’s death, aged four-and-a-half, soon after the family’s move to Sydney ten years earlier. The novel became somewhat controversial in France, when French author Camille Laurens, at that time with the same publishing company as Darrieussecq, accused her of ‘plagiarising her psyche’. Laurens, who had published her text Philippe (1995) in the aftermath of the death at birth of her baby son, maintained that Darrieussecq should not write about maternal bereavement because she herself had not experienced it. In fact, the loss of a child (and the fear of such a loss) permeates Darrieussecq’s oeuvre and, although she personally has not lost a child, the theme apparently has biographical resonances in her family. Darrieussecq hit back with a major study of plagiarism, Rapport de police (2010) [Police Report], which is also a manifesto for creative writing and a defence of fiction in particular. Laurens’s published outburst, almost 20 years after the death of her own son, arguably says more about a bereaved maternal subjectivity and the ongoing impact of a child’s death on a parent than it does about plagiarism. In particular, it emphasises the sense of singularity of such a loss, the feeling that no one else can suffer as much or in the same way, and, moreover, it articulates the desire that this loss and its impact is singular.
Tom is Dead explores the long slow process of grief and mourning from the inside, from the mother’s memory of the bereavement and its aftermath. Only at the end of the book does the reader learn how Tom died. Darrieussecq excels in finding ways in her work to express the inexpressible, and in this novel, she experiments with a whole range of language effects, metaphors, images and formal strategies to evoke the mother’s state of mind at different stages of her grief. For example, in a moment akin to Proustian involuntary memory, the bereaved mother recovers her son’s presence in the smell of baby shampoo: ‘That smell, all of a sudden. Fourteen years on. And Tom was there, baby Tom, contained in the bottle. […] I open the bottle and I’m with Tom, at bath time in our apartment in Vancouver. At home. […] I open the bottle and I intoxicate myself with Tom. The past enclosed in the bottle. The past present, in the present, as soon as I open it. […] Tom is in this bottle. Time stops. A laughing mouth, a rubber duck, dark wet hair, steam. He’s there’ (67-68). Her son is of course only there in her mind but, to her, his presence is real. Likewise, in the long episode in the novel where she hears his voice calling Mummy and tries to record it, she believes she really is in communication with him: ‘I loved his calls. I stopped still. ‘Montre-toi.’ Show yourself. I thought these words intensely, so that he’d hear me’ (97). Here, the narrative attests to a state of grief and mourning in which the mother impossibly communicates with, and conjures up the presence of, her dead child, because she needs to.
The mother-narrator of Tom is Dead is a writer in the process of writing her account, and the novel is also a reflection on the role of writing. For her, writing is not a form of therapy, but an exploration of how to speak about her child’s death and its impact. Ten years on, she maintains that time does not heal, but that the pain of loss is just as intense if less frequent than in the immediate aftermath. Indeed, the question at the root of the narrator’s account – and Darrieussecq’s – is whether it is even possible to express a mother’s experience of the loss of her child, and if so how? She tells of how she struggled with what, for her, was a new language, vocabulary, and concepts brought about by the death of her son: the funeral rituals, what to do with the ashes, how to process that he has gone. She tries to comprehend – and express – how she survives and the impact the loss has on her identity: ‘Tom’s mother is gone. The one who Tom saw. The one I was in Tom’s eyes, born with Tom and for Tom’ (154). And, in her mind, Tom himself is also a victim of this fractured identity: ‘Sometimes I feel like I have had four children, Vince, Stella, Tom, and then dead Tom. Or in this order: Vince, Tom, Stella, and dead Tom’ (7). Ultimately, though, her writing is intended, she declares, to be a part of a maternal letting go, which is not the completion of mourning, but, rather, a form of acceptance, ‘to give [Tom] the right to his death’ (170), in the way she gives her elder son his independence as he flies off to spend a year in France.
Darrieussecq’s novel engages with one of the most difficult and poignant topics relating to motherhood, but it is in no way bathetic. Rather, it makes full use of literary techniques and language in order to explore and express the complexities, the ‘unnarratability’, of a mother’s traumatic and intimate experience of loss. Indeed, Laurens’s very outrage on reading the novel tragically attests to the success of Darrieussecq’s literary experiment.

Gill Rye

Works cited
Darrieussecq, Marie. Rapport de police: Accusations de plagiat et autres modes de surveillance de la fiction. Paris: P.O.L., 2010.
Laurens, Camille.  Philippe. Paris: P.O.L., 1995.
----. ‘Marie Darrieussecq ou le syndrome du coucou’. La Revue Littéraire. (Autumn 2007).

See also:
Rye, Gill. ‘No Dialogue? Mothers and Mothering in the Work of Marie Darrieussecq’. In Marie Darrieussecq. Ed. Helena Chadderton and Gill Rye. Special issue of Dalhousie French Studies 98. (Spring 2012).

Trout, Colette. ‘From Le bébé to Tom est mort: Writing the Unspeakable Terror of Motherhood’. In Marie Darrieussecq. Ed. Helena Chadderton and Gill Rye. Special issue of Dalhousie French Studies 98. (Spring 2012).

Friday, 20 September 2013

AHRC research project: 'Beyond the Gene', led by one of our network members Clare Hanson


Beyond the gene


A project is bringing together researchers from the humanities and the sciences to examine a potentially world-changing new area of study.
Genetics holds a special place in the popular imagination. Even for those with only a passing acquaintance with the intricacies of DNA, the gene has become an integral part of public discourse on issues of identity and inheritance, fuelling fierce debates over racial and gender determinism, and promising medical breakthroughs.

What is epigenetics?

Epigenetics literally means ‘above the genome’. Professor Karen Temple uses a neat analogy to explain the difference between epigenetics and genetic study: “When you want to fill a room with light, you look at your lightbulb and check that it’s working – that is analogous to doing genetic study to look at whether the DNA is formed directly. But in turning the light on, you also have to have the switch on. Effectively, epigenetics is the switching mechanism, and whether the wires are right, whether the actual switch is pressed on or not.”
So what happens when a relatively new scientific field threatens to force a rethink of this genetic paradigm that has dominated twentieth century thinking? This is the focus of Southampton University’s recent cross-disciplinary project. Funded by an exploratory grant from the AHRC, Beyond the Gene brings together researchers from the humanities and the sciences to examine the cultural and social implications of a potentially world-changing science: epigenetics.
On a simple level, epigenetics is the study of biological processes that can switch genes on and off, producing changes in gene activity without altering the DNA structure. Some of these changes may even be passed through generations. If we’ve become used to thinking of our genes as a fixed blueprint, epigenetics shows that the process of human development is in fact more dynamic – and more open to environmental influences.
“Epigenetics makes it all so interesting, biologically speaking, because it means that the environment in which you’re growing up might be just as important as the genes that you’ve got,” explains research team member Professor Karen Temple, Professor of Medical Genetics and clinician. Research has uncovered epigenetic causes of certain rare diseases, and as technology develops, epigenetics may well come to explain more common conditions, including some cancers.
Professor Clare HansonProfessor Clare Hanson
Through workshops, discussion groups and public events, Beyond the Gene allows participants from a wide range of disciplines, academic methodologies and backgrounds to share their work and perspectives on this new science. What has emerged so far is that the cultural implications are considerable. “There’s a massive story here in terms of the implications of unraveling the notion of the power of genetic inheritance,” says Professor Clare Hanson, Principal Investigator on Beyond the Gene and member of Southampton’s Humanities faculty. “What are families bound by, if there are looser biological family ties?”
Looking at recent adoption memoirs by writers including Jackie Kay, AM Holmes and Jeanette Winterson as part of the project, Hanson has already found indications of a cultural shift away from the dominance of the gene. “Writers are picking up on the altering of the angle of vision, the focus on environment and the attenuating of the explanatory power of the gene,” argues Hanson. “So it’s a much more diffused, complex and holistic picture of how we come to be who we are.” Indeed, Jeanette Winterson was a speaker at a public event organised by the project, as well as noted scientist and professor of science Evelyn Fox-Keller.
In terms of the potential social impact, an important theme is the role of the environment in human development. “One of the key things we are talking about is that epigenetics takes you away from the emphasis on the individual, which is so characteristic of the focus on the gene, and it draws attention to the power of the environment that we collectively make, affecting the health, development and qualities of future generations,” says Hanson.
Given the potential social and cultural ramifications of epigenetics, managing public understanding is of great importance. The Beyond the Gene project looks at how scientists and those in the humanities can work together to avoid media misunderstandings and hysterical headlines. “I think epigenetics may be very important in deciding issues such as cancer risk, chronic disease risk and obesity. It could be something that really does get taken up by the public, but you want this to happen in a sensible way, rather than as something too simplistic,” says Temple. “Scientists who are trying to explain their work have got a huge amount to learn from the humanities.”
Bringing together academics and artists from such different disciplines is not without challenges. “The main problem is one of vocabulary. What do we understand when we say things to each other and how do we open up what is meant?” points out poet and artist Allen Fisher, who contributed a paper to one of the project’s workshops. Fisher, who has a longstanding interest in science, explains that when it comes to presenting their work, many of the scientists he encounters are naturally more interested in data and communication than in aesthetic judgment.
Promoting intellectual exchange and mutual understanding is key: “The artists need to understand what is meant by epigenetics, what is beyond the gene, and reciprocally, the scientists need to understand that data and communication isn’t all they can use as their process,” says Fisher. One of the main strands of the project involves looking at the ways in which humanities can contribute to creating new metaphors to aid public understanding of scientific advances. “What unites people in science and the humanities is that we’re interested in metaphors and narratives,” says Hanson. “There are lots of narratives and metaphors in science – it’s the easy way to paint the picture.”
Temple is keen to point out epigenetic studies do not imply the gene is redundant. “The gene really does matter. It is a code that starts the process off,” she says. “But we have this image of the gene of being the master controller, and it’s not like that; it’s one little component in the whole process.” Just how much epigenetics will ultimately contribute to medicine and society will depend on advances in technology. However, Temple predicts: “Epigenetics is here to stay.”
Article by Hannah Davies
Feature Description:
Date: 09/09/2013

Friday, 13 September 2013

New exhibition: 'Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood and Identity' at the Photographer's Gallery and the Foundling Museum in London

Motherhood and Identity Is Explored In New Photographer's Gallery Exhibition - ArtLyst Article image

Motherhood and Identity Is Explored In New Photographer's Gallery Exhibition

DATE: 17 JUL 2013
The Photographers’ Gallery is presenting Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood and Identity, an exhibition exploring representations of motherhood through the works of eight contemporary artists. The exhibition will aim to challenge long-held stereotypes and sentimental views of motherhood by addressing issues such as gender roles, domesticity, the body and the identity of individuals within the family unit. The work of the eight artists tends to be autobiographical in focus and sits within the documentary genre. Large in both scale and scope, many of the projects span over several years with some still ongoing. Home Truths is curated by Susan Bright.

The eight artists and projects taking part in the exhibition are:

Janine Antoni (b. 1964, Bahamas) has, for many years, explored the role of mothering through her relationship with her own mother and subsequently her daughter. In Inhabit (2009) we see Antoni suspended in mid-air wearing a dress designed as a house. The photograph is part of a performance piece in which, over the course of five hours, a spider slowly begins to weave its web inside the rooms of the house. The spider stands for Antoni’s daughter while she is the supporting structure it needs for its web.Inhabit, and other images in the series, reflect on the complex role of the mother requiring her to be flexible yet reassuringly constant, a dominating presence but one that is able to provide for the space needed for her child to grow.

In her series the Annunciation Elina Brotherus (b. 1972, Finland) records herself through years of failed IVF treatments. Full of art historical references, Brotherus’ images stand in sharp contrast to the traditional scenes and symbolism of Annunciation paintings. While the Virgin Mary receives the news that she is to give birth to the son of God, Brotherus pictures herself month after month in-front of a succession of negative pregnancy tests. Feelings of elation and abundance are replaced with those of sorrow and loss. Brotherus’ photographs question the term ‘mother’, suggesting that it can stem from intention rather than being bound to biology or the physical act of having a child.

In Elinor Carucci’s (b. 1971, Israel) series Mother (2004-2013) we see the artist, known for her intimate portraits of her family, extend her practice by working with her children. Through her photographs Carucci expresses her fears of motherhood – that it would result in the loss of her creativity and sense of identity. What she discovered however, were new layers of depth and intensity within herself and her work. Carucci confronts viewers with candid depictions of motherhood - from her changing body to moments of annoyance, frustration and exhaustion but also those of great joy and tenderness.

Ana Casas Broda’s (b. 1965, Spain) desire to have children was intense. She spent five years in fertility treatments before she was able to conceive her first son. With the birth of her second son she began exploring motherhood through photography and writing. For Casas Broda having children triggered memories and fears from her own childhood which exacerbated her post-partum depression. Using photography as a form of therapy, she was able to work through these dark periods and come to terms with her past. A selection of twenty-five images from this project, titled Kinderwunsch (2006 - 2013), is to go on display. Focusing on Casas Broda’s games with her sons, the photographs depict a series of complex interactions between the childrens’ developing identities and her own profound transformations.

Fred Hüning’s (b. 1966 Germany) work is comprised of a diaristic trilogy of books, Einer (2010), Zwei(2011) and Drei (2011). Starting in 2005, the books document, in a non-linear way, Hüning and his wife’s journey of love and loss as reflected in everyday moments alongside extraordinary and tragic family events. Einer tells the story of the birth and death of their first child and the struggle which followed as they try and cope with their loss. Zwei shows the couple’s healing process as they attempt to rebuild their relationship and Hüning’s wife discovers she is pregnant again. Drei is a celebration of life and love as the family is made whole again by the arrival of their second son.

Leigh Ledare’s (b. 1976, USA) project Pretend You’re Actually Alive (2002 -2008) is largely comprised of explicit photographs of his mother, Tina Peterson, interspersed with ephemera. The project, which was originally conceived as a book, will be presented as a series of seventeen images. Once a ballerina and model, Peterson later worked in amateur pornography. Her sexually aggressive behavior, combined with her fragile psyche, was the catalyst for collaboration between her and Ledare. The work results in a safe environment in which they are able to explore slippages of Peterson’s identity as well as confound and question conventional boundaries, ethical lines and taboos associated with mother/son relationships. It is a complex investigation into authorship, subjectivity, performance and portraiture which acutely undermines stereotypical attitudes towards the mother figure.

Katie Murray’s (b.1974, USA) video performance Gazelle showcases the artist as she tests her limits of endurance during a workout session. Following the birth of her second child Murray attempted to lose weight by using the Gazelle – Total Body Workout Exercise Machine. Frustrated by her family’s constant interruptions she began exercising with her two children strapped to her back and front. Serving as a running commentary is the voice of Tony Little, “America’s Personal Trainer”, blaring out sexist motivational clichés. The video is intercepted with nature footage of a mother gazelle suckling her young and escaping an attack by a pair of young cheetah cubs. Murray’s piece is a metaphor for her failed attempts at balancing the demands of a wife, mother and artist all at the same time.

Hanna Putz’s (b. 1987, Austria) photographs raise questions about today’s surfeit of images and the need to perform for the camera in an age of social networking and permanent surveillance. By photographing young mothers and their babies she aims to create a feeling of intimacy and closeness, but without exposing anyone. The mother, solely focused on her child, is oblivious to the camera’s presence and unconcerned about ‘posing’ for it. Composition and colour are of great importance to Putz, adding a layer of anonymity to her subjects by transforming them into sculptural forms.

Susan Bright said: The work in this exhibition is at times subtle, at times bold. Highly subjective, it can also be contradictory. It displays a sense of seriousness and intense reflection, often with a haunting quality. It has the ability to move, but also to question and disrupt assumptions without being judgmental. Like photography itself, the expectations and demands of motherhood are in flux; both subject and medium grapple for new meaning in a changing world. My hope is that the work featured here will open up debates about the continued representation and place of the mother figure, while raising questions about the identity and display of photography at this pivotal moment in which we find ourselves – at a crossroads between the singular photographic object and the sprawling nature of the networked image.

Home Truths is a collaboration with the Foundling Museum, London and the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago. The exhibition is showing across the two London institutions, with artists at the Gallery addressing issues of motherhood and identity and those at the Foundling Museum considering motherhood and loss. Both exhibitions are curated by Susan Bright. Artists showing work at the Museum are Ann Fessler (b. 1950, USA), Tierney Gearon (b. 1963, USA), Miyako Ishiuchi (b. 1947, Japan) and Annu Palakunnathu Matthew (b. 1964, Britain).

Following its display at The Photographers’ Gallery Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood and Identity will tour to the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago (MoCP) where it will be exhibited from 25 April - 13 July 2014. The exhibition will be accompanied by a major publication published by The Photographers’ Gallery, Art / Books, The Foundling Museum and The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago.

Hanna Putz Untitled, (LL1), 2012 42 cm x 60 cm © Hanna Putz
Courtesy of the artist

Friday, 30 August 2013

Reflections on Parenting in Global Perspective: Negotiating Ideologies of Kinship, Self and Politics (ed. Charlotte Faircloth, Diane M. Hoffman and Linda L. Layne), by Gill Rye

Parenting in Global Perspective: Negotiating Ideologies of Kinship, Self and Politics, ed. Charlotte Faircloth, Diane M. Hoffman and Linda L. Layne (London and New York: Routledge, 2013)
This is not so much a critical review of what is a cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural volume on motherhood (and parenthood more widely) as a comparative reflection on a project which would seem to have some similarity, in terms of themes and aims, with the work of the Motherhood in post-1968 European Literature Network. My reflections on this volume also lead to reflections on our own network project and forthcoming publications.
First, though, a brief description of the Parenting in Global Perspective collection of essays. The book’s fourteen chapters are divided into four parts – The moral context for parenting; The structural constraints to ‘good’ parenting; Negotiating parenting culture; and Parenting and/as identity – and there is a substantial editors’ introduction, plus a Foreword (Frank Furedi) and an Afterword (Ellie Lee). The contributors took part in a workshop at the University of Kent, where contributions to the volume and associated methodologies were presented and discussed. The academic field for the publication is identified as ‘parenting culture studies’ and the project’s overall aim is to ‘foreground the experience of parents as agents, recognising the important but neglected transformations that affect them as situated within networks of kinship, material culture, ideology and beyond’ (xviii). It involves researchers from both anthropology and sociology, and takes in parenting situations from a wide range of national and cultural contexts, from the UK and Europe to the US and South America, including migrant, refugee and other transnational issues. Although the declared focus is on parenting, and the volume includes some discussion of fathers, here, as elsewhere, ‘the topic of “parenting” […] [often] euphemises what is really “mothering”’ (54), and the majority of chapters are devoted to the experiences of mothers.
The editors’ introduction sets out a series of research questions for the volume, relating to the ways in which parenting in the contemporary era is constructed through the discourses of various child-development experts, what kinds of cultural assumptions and authoritative claims are made by them and what kinds of parents they produce, as well as how parents themselves negotiate and experience expectations about their parenting. These questions are also linked into constructions of the self, kinship and political relations, and how they affect the construction of gender, race, social class, and nation. The individual essays are linked by means of the theoretical concept of intensive parenting, largely drawn from sociologist Sharon Hays’s work on the ideology of ‘intensive mothering’ in The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood (1996), a concept and practice which, it is argued, is permeating internationally, and all the essays make explicit reference to this text, albeit sometimes somewhat tangentially. Another key concept (and text) for the collection is Frank Furedi’s Paranoid Parenting (2001), in relation to parents’ sensitivity to discourses of risk and to political trends ‘where parenting is increasingly understood as both the source of, and solution to, a whole host of social problems’ (1-2). The volume demonstrates a tension between commonalities in discourse, structure and experience, and a range of cultural, regional and individual specificities. Indeed, rather than being part of ‘the new “parenting” culture’ in global terms (1; my emphasis), the concept of intensive mothering actually seems to grow out of and be in dialogue with specific historical and cultural ideologies: for example, in Chile, intensive mothering is seen in policy discourse as a path to upward mobility for families, but also fits in with traditional Chilean notions of mothering; in Spain, the child-centred values of contemporary intensive mothering echo the self-sacrificing notions of motherhood from Catholicism and Francoism; likewise, the notion of motherhood as sacrifice is a traditional ideal in Turkey. Plenty of examples of resistance to and creative negotiations with the concept are evident: such as Dominican migrants in Madrid defining themselves against the traditional Spanish model; Sudanese refugees in the US modifying American concepts of child-centred parenting to maintain links with their traditional culture and ethnic identity; and many of the parents in the case studies seem to identify themselves against the mainstream.
Successful interdisciplinary work is stimulating but always challenging; even more so when it also crosses cultures. Notions of methodology and evidence, as well as cultural specificities, can disrupt discussion and limit outcomes. As in our own work in the Motherhood in post-1968 European Literature Network, which works across disciplines and cultures, the variables here are immense. The concept of intensive parenting is, therefore, used as a cohering principle for the broad-based set of contexts discussed in the Parenting in a Global Perspective collection. In our own network, the focus on Europe is designed to fulfil a similar function, especially since – within the EU at least – so many policy decisions affecting families and parents are made at European level. And our emphasis on European literature is designed to demonstrate that literary texts can offer valid and valuable insights within multi-discipline studies on motherhood. In both projects, a rich comparative forum has been produced, although, in the book, there is a certain sense of ‘randomness’ about what contexts, situations and case studies are included. Projects such as this are, however, dependent on, and grow out of, what scholars are working on – and, importantly, on what they can get funding to work on – at any one time.
My thoughts as I read through this book turned to how to produce useful publications from the discussions we have had at our five workshops held in 2012 and 2013, and will have at the forthcoming conference in October 2013. In this book, Lee concludes in her Afterword that the project has produced a series of alternatives rather than counter-narratives on parenting and has probably raised more questions than it has answered, while opening up new areas for research. This in itself is a highly successful and valuable contribution of course but, even while we plan a series of journal special issues and sections drawn from our workshops, we must not forget that, as Furedi suggests in his Foreword to the Parenting in Global Perspectives volume, the cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural conversations we have had at our events are extremely valuable in themselves.
Podcasts from the workshops are available on the Network website at . Please continue these conversations on this blog.
We are always open to suggestions for ways in which the Network can continue to contribute to debates on motherhood in Europe.
Gill Rye
August 2013


Friday, 26 July 2013

Maternity as Subversion or Subjugation?: The Double-Edged Maternal Narrative in 17 filles, by Julie Rodgers


1. The pregnancy pact

17 filles (2011) marks the first feature of French directing duo and sisters, Delphine and Muriel Colin. The plot is inspired by a real-life event that took place in a Gloucester (Massachusetts) high school in 2008 and which saw 18 teenage girls commit to a ‘pregnancy pact’ with the aim of conceiving almost simultaneously. In the case of 17 filles, the narrative is transposed to the sleepy seaport of Lorient in Southwest Brittany, a town razed to the ground by Allied bombings during the Second World War and later rebuilt in a rather austere and industrial architectural style. Lorient is depicted in the film as a town that is in decline with the dream of prosperity once promised by its reconstruction now far behind it. It is against this background of decrepitude and paralysis that a group of 17 fresh-faced and energetic lycéennes decide to take hold of their future and literally breathe life back into the staleness of their surrounding environment through procreation, much to the outrage of their parents and teachers. Reviews of 17 filles approach the film from a number of interesting perspectives: the invigorating nature of the narrative and the ability of youth to shake up a society that has become stagnant; the awkward transition from childhood into adulthood (not only are there 17 girls, the majority are aged 17 and thus positioned at the liminal stage of ‘no longer child but not yet adult’); and, finally, the feminist potential of the film in that it depicts a reclaiming of the female body by its subject. While the theme of maternity is, of course, signposted in these reviews (it is unavoidable), I feel that, perhaps due to its self-evident presence in the narrative, it has not been fully probed. 17 filles, despite its surface simplicity offers quite a complex and, at times, contradictory reflection on motherhood in contemporary Western culture. This discussion will focus on the ambivalent treatment of maternity which, for me, is at the heart of the film. I will argue that while an initial response to this film may be to read the act of becoming a mother as one that has capacity to be subversive, on closer analysis it becomes clear that the maternal narrative offered by 17 filles is actually one that corresponds quite closely to the patriarchal master narrative of motherhood, a trajectory that is rendered even more pernicious here in that is presented as a act of free choice when, in fact, it is deeply coercive.


2.    A subversive maternity?

Before illustrating the more prescriptive and, in parts, retreatist nature of 17 filles, I will examine what it is about this film that leads critics and spectators to view it as revitalising and rebellious in terms of its maternal discourse.

First of all, and this is perhaps where the feminist argument is strongest, in a similar vein to differentialist thinkers such as Irigaray, 17 filles depicts the maternal as something that imbues women with power. There is very little that the adults, despite their utmost determination, can do to reverse the situation, for French law states that no minor may be forced into having an abortion against her will. There is a sense of awe surrounding these pregnant teenagers who strut around the lycée with their bumps on display as fellow classmates, in particular the boys, gasp, but more out of reverence than horror. Indeed, Camille, the first girl to fall pregnant, is presented as a ‘leader’ of sorts whose followers increase in numbers on a daily basis.

Secondly, the film seems keen to present the pregnancies as a reclaiming of the female body. In an opening scene, the girls are shown in their underwear outside a classroom in a corridor of their lycée, each awaiting to undergo an individual medical examination during which their bodies will be measured and scrutinized. In another scene, we see them jogging and being timed, many of them doing so against their will given that they escape to the beach and hide there for part of the run. If, then,  the school is a place where the girls’ bodies are monitored and regulated,  it is when they are outside of its confines that the girls lay claim to their corporeality and inscribe their ownership on the body by deliberately seeking impregnation. The pregnant body is subsequently returned to the lycée where its heavy, swollen contours stand in stark contrast to the slim, lithe and rigorously disciplined female bodies supervised by the school authorities at the beginning of the film. The pregnant shape, therefore, becomes in and of itself a threat to the order of the lycée. The latter is illustrated in the scene of the class photo where the photographer is clearly uncomfortable with all these pregnant teenagers and doesn’t know how to position them in the shot, or, more specifically, hide their protruding bellies.

This reclaiming of the female body through the maternal in 17 filles extends well beyond the rebellious act of getting pregnant and into the full duration of the pregnancy itself via the girls’ transgressive behaviour throughout. When pregnant, the girls pay no heed to the rules and regulations of how to conduct oneself ‘properly’ while carrying a child as dictated by the master narrative. The girls are frequently seen smoking, consuming alcohol and partaking in vigorous and, at times, dangerous physical activities – for example, kicking around a burning football and recklessly diving into a swimming pool. The latter incident is particularly revelatory of the control that they retain over their bodies when pregnant as it takes place during a prenatal swimming class where, at first, all their movements are being closely monitored by an instructor. They are navigating the pool slowly and gently when all of a sudden another of the pregnant girls jumps in jubilantly from the edges and once again the order that the adults/authorities have tried to maintain has been dismantled. It is also important to mention in relation to this new-found control that the girls gain over their bodies during pregnancy (which, I should add, is most often seen as a time when the female body is ‘out of control’, thus this a further subversion of the master narrative of maternity) that the girls continue to position themselves as sexual beings throughout the duration of their pregnancy and remain confident in their ability to arouse sexual interest (evident in the various party scenes). In this respect, the traditional notion of the pregnant woman as both asexual and sexually out of bounds is reversed.

Perhaps the most subversive and progressive aspect of the maternal narrative in 17 filles, however, stems from the girls’ dream of an alternative form of mothering outside of the nuclear familar which emerges during one of their many chats together as a group. Their vision is founded on an all-female community where mothering would occur as a shared activity, among friends, duties would be divided out evenly so that each member could still retain a certain amount of personal freedom, and there would be no rules or regulations dictating how they mother. This concept of a maternal utopia where women take charge of their own mothering is further supported by the absence of any father figures in the film. In the few instances where we know who the father is, it is clear that he will not be involved (and this is the girls’ wish) in the raising of the child. The teenage boys function as little more than sperm donors in the film, with one of them even being paid 50 euro to do ‘do the deed’ (in the case of Clémentine, the last of the girls to get pregnant).

Within this vision of a maternal utopia presented by 17 filles is the question of young mothering. At one point in the film, one of the girls states triumphantly that they will be better mothers because the generation gap between them and their offspring will be greatly reduced, hence they will understand their children better. This proclamation, I feel, incites us to reflect on the master narrative of motherhood and how it positions maternity at a specific time in a woman’s life: after school and after marriage. The girls in this film subvert the ‘natural’ order: they will have children before they have finished their schooling (they will return after the birth) and without marriage, without any man at all in fact. 17 filles, therefore, proposes not only an alternative type of mothering (one that takes place within a community of women and which does not need any prescribed rules and regulations), it also questions why, as a society, we are so compelled to contain motherhood within a very restrictive life trajectory, deeming maternity that occurs outside its established slot (whether that be too early or too late) aberrant and disruptive.


3.    The maternal narrative as subjugation

Reading the maternal narrative in 17 filles as one that has the potential to subvert societal norms concerning motherhood and liberate women and their bodies, however, is very much the initial, surface interpretation. Further probing reveals that the representation of maternity in the film corresponds just as much, if not more so, to the master narrative of motherhood from which it purportedly deviates. Throughout the film, a number of maternal myths are perpetuated which are deleterious to an authentic experience of mothering.

First and foremost, it is impossible to deny the glamorisation of the pregnant body that occurs in 17 filles. All the girls are conventionally attractive to the extent that a reviewer for Le Monde remarked ‘le casting a exclu les disgracieuses’. The camera repeatedly focuses on the girls’ bumps, fetishizing them and their neat protrusion from an otherwise slender body. The girls incarnate, therefore, the perfect pregnant body so often encountered on the cover of women’s magazines but which is almost impossible to achieve and places immense pressure on women whose pregnant forms do not adhere to this unreachable ideal. Not only is pregnancy depicted as a state of glowing health and beauty, it is also presented to the spectator, for the most part, as an entirely unproblematic biological event. The girls appear to sail through their pregnancies with very little difficulty apart from one instance of mild disinterest in food. Any medical issues that do arise (a problem with the placenta and light bleeding) are quickly resolved and the pregnancy resumes its normal course. The risk of sexually transmitted diseases is equally brushed aside, with only one character making any reference to it whatsoever.

Even more pernicious than the glorification of the physical state of pregnancy in 17 filles are the various problematic socio-political messages concerning maternity disseminated (probably unconsciously but this shows the extent to which they have been internalised) by the film. Becoming a mother is presented as a means of acquiring status in society (for example, the girls are aware of the number of social benefits that they will receive). Although the girls do not turn their back on their education entirely (they all intend to return to the lycée after giving birth), they see maternity as a more direct route to personal fulfilment, recognition, and money! More subtly but much more insidiously, maternity emerges not only as means of improving the girls’ lives, it is also imbued with the potential to rescue its surroundings (Lorient) from an obvious economic and social downturn. Throughout the film, shots of the town suggest degeneration and discontent among its inhabitants. Juxtaposed against this are the scenes of the sea which are full of vigour, joy and possibility. It is interesting to note that in French the words for sea (la mer) and mother (la mère) are homophones. Subsequently, I believe that in the same way that the sea (la mer) serves as a place of escape from the grimness of Lorient, so too maternity (la mère) is posited as a ‘life-line’ of sorts for this town in economic and social decline and the pregnant girls are revered as its saviours. The girls then, unbeknownst to them, are being drawn into the socio-political discourse that turns to maternity for rejuvenation in times of economic deflation.

Furthermore, although 17 filles is keen to present these multiple pregnancies as a choice (except in the case of the ringleader, Camille, whose pregnancy is the result of a condom accident), to what extent can these girls really make their own minds up about having a baby when they know very little about the actual facts of the event? This lack of knowledge concerning maternity is evident in several scenes throughout the film: when they ask the pharmacist if they can share a pregnancy testing kit; when they discuss the foetus and display amazement at the information they read concerning its development; and finally, when some of the girls both giggle and squirm at the video portraying a real-life birth shown by the headmaster at the school in a bid to halt the ‘pregnancy pact’. As a result, it becomes disputable as to whether we can actually state that these girls are reclaiming their bodies and freely choosing to be mothers when they know very little about how pregnancy unfolds. It could be argued that women are deliberately misinformed/deprived of information by society in a bid to coerce them more readily into motherhood. Certainly, in 17 filles, the girls’ ignorance, albeit a source of much of the humour in the film, is disturbing given the serious impact on their lives of the decision that they have made. Alongside this is the fact that we are never really offered any clear reason as to why they want to have a baby. We can surmise as to their motivations (rebellion, desire for fulfilment etc) but nothing is ever confirmed. Given, therefore, that the girls don’t even seem to know why they want to become mothers, nor do they possess much practical information about the experience, I feel that 17 filles (again unconsciously) raises the question of how much real choice women actually have when it comes to maternity.

In conjunction with this lack of choice is a threat to the woman as individual brought about by the institution of motherhood. Granted, the girls in 17 filles are never positioned as individuals even in the pre-motherhood state. On the contrary, they are most often found in gangs and there is little detail to distinguish one from the other (their bedrooms, for example, usually a haven for personal expression as a teenager, are almost identical). However, this lack of individuality disintegrates even further when they become pregnant. More and more they travel around in what can only be described as a maternal tribe and, at times, when the camera focuses on their bumps, it is difficult to discern which belly belongs to whom. Of course, this ‘maternal tribe’ could be heralded as an alternative form of mothering outside of the master narrative, but it comes, it would seem, at the expense of the individual. The version of motherhood, therefore, that we are presented with in 17 filles is one where everyone ascribes to the same model and there is no place deviance.

This leads me to my final point which, for me, is the most oppressive aspect of the representation of maternity in the film - there is no tolerance of ambivalence in motherhood. As stated above, the girls seem to sail through pregnancy without any real doubts or fears and abortion is not a option for any of them. It is highly unrealistic to portray 17 pregnant teenagers who all embrace the idea of young motherhood so unproblematically. Alongside this is the chastising of mothers who display any ambivalent feelings towards their children, for example, Camille’s (the protagonist) mother. The latter is a single mother who has to work long hours in order to provide for her family. She is shown to be in conflict with her maternal status and it is clear that she struggles to negotiate her own personal desires with her responsibilities in the home. Due to her ambivalence, Camille’s mother is represented to the viewer as a ‘bad’ mother, one who is selfish and neglectful. The viewer is encouraged to empathise with Camille, especially in a early scene when she is depicted alone at home, assuming the maternal role by preparing dinner only to have her actual mother return from work and announce that she is going out to socialise, abandoning her daughter once again. Throughout the film, Camille repeatedly asserts that she will be a ‘better’ mother and devote herself to her child, thus perpetuating the notion that there is only one way to be a ‘good’ mother and that women who do not abide by this norm (namely, Camille’s mothers) are inevitably ‘bad’ mothers.

This non-tolerance of ambivalent  mothers in the film also extends to non-mothers. Motherhood is depicted as a kind of ‘cult’ or ‘in’ group and those who do not adhere to its model are branded deviant. An example of this is the character of Florence. A loner at school, Florence desperately wants to fit in and thus feigns pregnancy in order to be accepted by the other girls. As soon as her deceit is discovered, however, she is callously cast aside and branded a traitor. The choice of the word traitor is charged with meaning. For me it suggests that motherhood is seen as the natural state for a woman and that Florence, by failing to join in with the pregnancy pact and choosing to stand outside of motherhood, is viewed as an aberrant female, having betrayed not only other women but also herself and her supposed ‘core femininity’. The school nurse, another non-mother, finds herself on the receiving end of a similar dismissal. While during a conversation with Camille when she tries to encourage the latter to put an end to this pregnancy pact and dissuade any further girls from entering into it, Camille retorts viciously that she (the nurse) could never understand their motivation or what it feels like as she (the nurse) has never had children of her own. What we are witnessing here is a rejection of the non-mother whose reasoning is relegated to nonsense because she has no physical experience of being a mother. Motherhood, therefore, emerges as an institution that is deeply exclusionary and dismissive of women who do not fall inside its parameters. Again we return to the question of choice in motherhood. If this is how despicably non-mothers are treated, do women actually have any real choice in their decision to become mothers?


4.    Retreatism or Progression?

To conclude this reflection, I will return to the question raised in the title, that is, to what extent is the version of motherhood presented in 17 filles one that subverts the master narrative or one that merely submits to it? Near the middle of the film, an emergency staff meeting is organised at the lycée in order to deal with the pregnancy pact that is spiralling out of control. In a discussion that reflects many of the divisions between postfeminism (anti-feminist) and third wave feminism (progressive feminism) with regard to women’s behaviour in the twenty-first century, two distinct responses are forwarded by the teachers. The first considers the girls’ actions to be regressive, deleterious to their futures and a resumption of an out-of-date form of femininity that relegates women to the household and posits motherhood as their ultimate goal in life. The second, on the other hand, argues to the contrary, stating that the girls are reclaiming their bodies for themselves and refusing to listen to the diktats of society on when and how they should become mothers. As this reflection has illustrated, 17 filles does not adopt a clear-cut stance on the matter. An initial reading leads us to view the film as refreshing and daring in its depiction of maternity, and there is much to recommend this interpretation. However, as we strip away the initial layers of the narrative, it becomes clear that more noxious and manipulative form of motherhood lurks beneath, one that serves the needs of a patriarchal society rather than allowing women to take control of their own mothering in the way that the film initially sets out to achieve. Although the impact of a narrative should not be reduced to its conclusion alone, it is nonetheless important in the case of 17 filles to point out that a return to ‘natural order’ is restored at the end of the film. The idea of a maternal utopia so fervently discussed by the girls throughout the film has come undone following the departure of Camille who loses her baby due to car accident. The other girls subsequently return to their parents’ homes, give birth and resume their studies. Consequently, their transgression is corrected and any chance of truly positioning themselves outside of the master narrative of motherhood and thereby threatening its structures is promptly and, perhaps, inevitably quelled.


Friday, 19 July 2013

Report on Workshop 5: Motherhood, Religion and Spirituality, by Indrani Karmakar

The fifth workshop of the ‘Motherhood in post 1968 European Literature Network’ was held on 28th June. The objective of the workshop was to explore the connections between motherhood, religion and spirituality across diverse disciplines (such as anthropology, literature and religious studies) in order to investigate the various ways ‘religions are impacting on mothers as individuals and how women as mothers come to experience it’. The workshop, I believe, has been successful in fulfilling its aims as the presentations addressed specific research questions and the discussions yielded different perspectives on this issue.

Instead of going into the details of each paper, which might sound like repeating the abstracts, I will try to focus on some key issues which, I think, the papers highlighted and the discussions brought forth.

The Maternal Body (and Religion):

Pregnancy, childbirth, lactation: all these aspects of biological motherhood are of profound significance in feminist discourse and it has been a contentious issue resulting in both positive and negative views. Rachel Jones, in her responses after the first plenary session, indicated this debate around the female body, mentioning feminist thinkers like de Beauvoir who had rather negative and ambivalent views on female and/or the maternal body, and also positive accounts of the maternal body as articulated by thinkers such as Christine Battersby.  Different religions have always had a strong influence in this area, be it religious interpretations of the female and/or maternal body, ritualization of childbirth, or different theological discourses on motherhood.  Anna Fedele’s paper was particularly interesting as it explored how the physicalities of childbirth (which do not really count as emancipating in dominant feminist conceptions) have been regarded as not only empowering but a sacred experience on the part of the mother in terms of her own spiritual transformation, by the members of international Goddess movement. This sacralisation of motherhood, as the paper rightly argues, has the potential to challenge the dominant feminist conception of women’s emancipation. However, during the discussion Christine Battersby raised a very crucial point:  are we in a way ‘re-trapping’ ourselves while emphasising the physicalities in this way? I also think that it has the potential risk of reinforcing traditional ideas of biological motherhood.

Demystifying/Desacralising Motherhood:

Quite contrary to the idea of the sacralised motherhood with the potential of spiritual transformation, is the darker side of motherhood tinged with confusion, disappointment, and self-effacement. Julie Rodgers explored and problematized this area in the break-out session that she facilitated, which focused on an extract from Éliette Abécassis’s Un heureux événement [A Happy Event]. The extract juxtaposes a practising Jewish mother of ten children, who purportedly considers her children as her ‘whole life’, with a non-practising, secular mother of one, quite hesitant and confused with her maternal identity. The group discussed a number of questions concerning the encounter of these two different women such as: To what extent is religion influencing these two women’s motherhood as experience? How is the experience complicated and/or dominated by the institution?  What is, if any, the common ground of motherhood beyond the religious dictates (e.g. societal factors)? I particularly liked Sheridan Marshall’s interpretation of the supposed ambiguity of the word ‘whole life’. Is it a mother’s conscious decision and love to consider their children as whole life or is her life confined by them?  Sheridan’s own paper explored the connection between motherhood and religion in terms of the disappointment (and also ambivalence) they both generate. I would like to mention Pauline Eaton’s paper on Rosie Carpe here, as it, through the analysis of the novel, depicted how the image of Virgin Mary fails to be the model for motherhood today. The extract is also very relevant to the aforementioned issue i.e the maternal body, as it portrays Rosie’s inability to breastfeed her child and her experience of it. In relation to religion’s influence on motherhood, I must also mention ‘Limbo’, the text extract presented by Máire Ní Annracháin in another break-out session, which depicts the extreme agony of a mother whose child has been buried in the cemetery for unbaptized children. These poems unravel how religion as an institution impacts on maternal experience insofar as it can even aggravate and intensify a mother’s pain of losing her child. 

Negotiating Motherhood and Religion:

Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor’s paper offered important insights into how motherhood can be reshaped by women as an empowering identity and how it facilitates their religious belief which has otherwise been misinterpreted by patriarchal scripts. Muslim women in Britain negotiating their maternal agency and faith lives can be an example of empowered motherhood which is emancipating for women. Nonetheless, the potential risk, I think, cannot and should not be ignored that this might be seen as over-idealised version of motherhood which can be rather detrimental. In the context of Christianity, Dawn Llewellyn’s paper was interesting as it shows her research on motherhood and voluntary non-motherhood in connection with Christian women’s identity.

Motherhood, Religion and the Question of Situation: 

Undeniably situation plays a determining role in the connections between motherhood and religion and its impact on women. By situation, I mean national context and also the socio-cultural and economic conditions in which women come to experience both motherhood and religion. As Mohar Choudhury pointed out while discussing Sariya’s paper: the idea and practice of empowered mothering based on the foundational Islamic text experienced by Muslim women in Britain, might not retain its liberating nature in case of other Muslim women elsewhere (in India, for example, as she said). Sheridan’s paper on maternal and religious disappointment also shows the influence of specific national contexts in forming and/or destabilising the connection between motherhood and religion. The extract taken from the novel Life is a Caravanserai similarly provides much insight into this issue, portraying the changing time and its influence on the protagonist whose mother and grandmother represent two generations and two different sets of beliefs.

Maternal Ambivalence:

The papers and breakout discussions have shown motherhood to be a site of contestation and a site of transformation; to add to this, I would say, most of the papers have also shown motherhood to be a site of profound ambivalence. However, following Rachel Jones (who refers to Lisa Baraitser with regard to this issue), I would say that this ambivalence is not always and necessarily negative; rather, it has the potential to form a maternal subjectivity when a mother can actively reflect upon this ambivalence.

In conclusion, returning to the objective of the workshop – to explore ‘new or re-connections’ with diverse religions thereby enquiring into the influence they are having on women as mothers  – I could say the workshop not only succeeded in achieving this objective but also moved beyond this with more questions on and insights into motherhood.   















Friday, 3 May 2013

Report on Workshop 4: Motherhood, Migration and Exile, by Marie-Noëlle Huet

On April 26th, the fourth workshop of the series organized by the Motherhood in post-1968 European Literature Network took place. The aims of the workshop were, “on the one hand, to identify specific problem areas relating to the analysis of motherhood and migration in Europe, asking what kinds of insights literature may offer to the issues raised” and, on the other hand, “to explore positive strategies on the part of migrant or exiled mothers and of researchers who wish to understand and improve their situations.” Considering the different presentations and the many discussions that followed each session, I think we can say we succeeded in achieving the objectives of the event.

Since the videos of the event will soon be available on the website, I will not summarize the presentations. Rather, I will try to highlight the questions raised by the papers and the discussions that ensued, as well as put forth some of the impressions that lingered in my mind after the event.

Migration vs. Exile. The situation of migrant mothers and mothers in exile is a complex one. As it was shown by the papers from diverse disciplines (communications and media, social anthropology, literature, demography, sociolinguistics and sociology), the concept includes (but is not limited to) mothers leaving their child behind for working abroad (cf. Mirca Madianou’s presentation), mothers fleeing with their children (cf. Andrea Hammel’s paper), as well as mothers raising their children in a foreign country and language, sometimes not speaking the adopted language their children are growing up with (cf. Egle Kackute and Ana Souza’s papers). How do we define migration and exile? Is one phenomenon more permanent or more difficult to cope with than the other? Do both situations have the same implications for and impacts on the mothers and their family? Why do mothers migrate? Some women decide to leave their home country for work, others to study abroad where employment prospects are more promising, or to escape from political instability. However, reasons for migrating are often not only external. As Mirca Madianou’s paper on the case of Filipino migrant mothers exemplified, women are not only leaving the home for financial purposes, they also leave for personal reasons such as gaining more liberty and self-empowerment, fleeing from a dysfunctional couple or family, etc. Who migrates? Letizia Mencarini’s demographical input underlined that women are migrating more than ever before. While it is important to measure the phenomena of migration and fertility to get the larger picture, it is hard (with numbers and graphs) to draw a portrait of the migrants and get to know their stories.

Identity. The concept of identity is central to the questions of motherhood, migration and exile. What defines identity? Ana Souza’s paper showed that for the Brazilian women living in the UK she interviewed, to be Brazilian means being born in Brazil and speaking Brazilian Portuguese. So what becomes of their identity when they move to another country? I particularly liked the idea of the “replanted tree” she referred to. When transplanted in new soil (the metaphor for the adoptive country), the tree, whose roots grew in the native country, continues thriving, absorbing the sun and nutrients of the new environment. It becomes a different tree that might even be stronger since it will have proven to be adaptable. What happens to the identity when in a transitory space? Andrea Hammel’s paper on Julia Franck’s novel Lagerfeuer shows that performing the “mothering role” can be challenging in the state of “inbetweenness” that represents the transit camp.

Ambivalence. The good mother/bad mother dichotomy is still very (too) present in the social discourse as the discussions around the papers showed. For instance, the Brazilian mothers from Ana Souza’s study see transmission of Portuguese language to their children as an inherent element of being a “good” mother. The Filipino migrant mothers from Mirca Madianou’s study are in turn considered both heroes (of the Philippines’ economy) and “bad” mothers (because they leave their children behind). Even though the new technologies the Filipino migrant mothers rely on (Skype, text messages, social media, etc.) sometimes increase conflicts and cannot make up for the physical absence, they allow them to practice intensive mothering at a distance (by being virtually present on Skype during the family breakfast for example) while being the breadwinner. Are the characteristics of a good mother in the Philippines the same as the ones of a good/proper mother in Lithuania or the UK? According to Mirca Madianou, they aren’t since she believes motherhood is culturally specific.
Furthermore, the reference to Nancy Huston’s “dilemme de la romamancière” [dilemma of the novelist mom – or to play on words, the “dilemma of the momvelist”] according to which a “good” mother needs to be selfless since she wants to protect her children so they live and grow, whilst a “good” novelist needs to be selfish because she sometimes has to kill her characters, generated some discussions. As it was said, motherhood doesn’t necessarily imply self-sacrifice. Can we then say that the concept of good mothering or bad mothering is shaped by society’s expectations and normative discourses?

The voice of the daughter. During the discussion following the summaries of the breakout sessions, someone observed that the extracts from literature mainly depicted characters speaking as daughters (and hardly as mothers). It was mentioned that it is still hard to find fiction (and non-fiction) in which the main character (or author) speaks as a mother. While it is true of the texts we were presented with, I don’t think that statement is still completely accurate. I believe that more and more writers (in France at least) write about their experience of motherhood from the mother’s perspective. Karine Reysset, who was invited to the last workshop, is a very good example of that growing “trend”. She came to writing with L’innatendue (2003), a journal-like novel (written from notebooks) which focuses on a mother-to-be and on the relationship developing with the baby in utero. All of her subsequent novels deal with maternity and motherhood. I am also thinking of Eliette Abécassis’ Un heureux événement (2005) and Marie Darrieussecq’s Le mal de mer (2001), Le bébé (2005) and Le pays (2007) among others. Moreover, a lot of Nancy Huston’s fiction focuses on giving a voice to the mother. Some of the richness of her writing, I find, is actually to give a voice to the daughter, the mother, the lover; all of which roles are played by the same person. Since, as Marianne Hirsch puts it in The Mother-Daughter Plot: “Inasmuch as a mother is simultaneously a daughter and a mother, a woman and a mother, in the house and in the world, powerful and powerless, nurturing and nurtured, dependent and depended upon, maternal discourse is necessarily plural[1].”

And the father? This was the second workshop of the series I participated in and I realized (to my surprise) that, besides Katarina Carlshamre’s paper “New Father, New Mother?” (from Workshop 3), there has been no mention of the father in the presentations. I am well aware that since mothers have been silenced for too long a time, it is now essential to hear their voice and let them take the place they deserve in the social discourse. However, we cannot put aside the fact that fathers also play an important role in the family and since they now get more involved in the care and education of the children (in Occidental families at least), it seems unfair that we silence them in return. And like Ana Souza has recognized, not having involved fathers in her study interfered since they played a role in the amount of Portuguese spoken at home and influenced the children’s perception of the foreign language.

Thanks to new communication technologies, the relative ease with which (some of us) can cross borders, the government policies that encourage migration, the social programs that integrate incoming migrants, there is an increasing number of choices and solutions made available to migrant mothers or mothers in exile. It seems to me though (it is one aspect that stands out from all the presentations) that there is a lack of “models” to turn to. The very fact of leaving one’s home country to start a life somewhere else affects identity. Living abroad thus means having to redefine one’s identity, which can be a painful (yet potentially enriching) process. Can literature, by allowing identification to singular characters and by depicting life’s complexities, offer such models or, more modestly, offer valuable insights that would allow migrant mothers to create their own story away from guilt, vulnerability and ambivalence?

Please feel free to comment, endorse or criticize my input.

[1] Marianne Hirsch, The Mother/Daughter Plot. Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism, Bloomington/Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 1989, p. 196.