I was a twenty-something gadabout when I first read Hip Mama in the mid-1990s, with no intention of having a kid any time soon. Even without a direct connection to the subject matter, I was taken with the parenting zine immediately. I loved the voice and perspective of founding editor Ariel Gore, who lived in the Bay Area and was single-parenting the daughter she’d had at nineteen. When I got pregnant, at the societally approved age of thirty-two, I looked to her for guidance about how to become a mother while retaining my politics and identity. Lucky for me, her second book, The Mother Trip, had just come out. I bought a copy when she came to Chicago on her book tour, along with her first book, The Hip Mama Survival Guide. With chapters about the evil patriarchy and learning to be unacceptable, they were a welcome reprieve from the volumes telling me what to expect, what to do, what to want, how to be.
Hip Mama, which continues to cover the culture and politics of motherhood, went on to win an Alternative Press Award, and I remained a fan of Gore’s writing as she wrote seven more books, expanding into memoir and psychology with titles such as Atlas of the Human Heart, Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness, and the award-winning The End of Eve. Receiving a submission from her when I was co-editing the Sunday Rumpus was such an honor I almost couldn’t believe it was happening. We published “Blood Red Bougainvillea” in the spring of 2016, and that summer we published “Do You Have a Beau.” They were written in spare, lyrical language and though slim in size dealt with big themes of violence, shame, desire, queerness, magic, and motherhood.
Versions of both essays appear in Gore’s new book, the novel We Were Witches, which takes on the story of a very young mother named Ariel raising a child in the Bay Area and facing many of the same struggles that Gore has written about in her previous nonfiction.
The Rumpus: The voice of this book is striking. It’s authoritative, incantatory, and yet also naïve, in the sense that it lets the reader experience events with the immediacy the young protagonist does. How did you find it? Was it a search, or did it just speak itself to you?
Ariel Gore: I tried to start writing this book a hundred times over the years, but I could never find the rhythm of the language, so I’d set it aside. I was just the writer I needed to be every time, but for this book I wasn’t there yet. Then three years ago I moved back to Oakland—that’s where a lot of this book takes place—and being back gave me the quality of the light and the smells, and it gave me that linguistic rhythm I’d been looking for.
Once I caught the rhythm, I could write the book fairly quickly. I’d drive my son to school in the mornings and pass Mills College, my alma mater, and I’d come home to the same neighborhood where I raised my daughter in the 90s, and I stood at my tall kitchen table and I wrote to see where the rhythm of the language would take me.
Every month or so I met with a magical little writing group and they’d say, Oh, go down that rabbit hole, or, Show us another side of this tree. And I did what they said—I wanted to capture the openness and youth of my character and part of that meant opening up again to learning and being guided. I took an online workshop with Lidia Yuknavitch, which was an indulgence for me because I’m usually the one giving out the writing assignments, but, again, I wanted to let myself be told what to do. She gave beautiful advice. I sent a draft to Nina Packebush, who was finishing her book, Girls Like Me, a YA novel about a queer teen mom, and she said Up the magic and she said, Thank god there’s going to be something out there other than Juno. But I really just felt like I was playing around in the dirt with this project, because who would ever publish such a crazy book?
Then I read Black Wave by Michelle Tea—that book explores the novel/memoir problem in a way I’d never read before—and on the back cover it said Black Wave was part of this series The Feminist Press was publishing, and I was like, Pick my book! Pick me!
When I was a young mom, in a lot of the years I’m writing about in We Were Witches, I was kind of closeted because of family court and trying to date men, and I always felt left out by the cool lesbians in San Francisco, so having a purple crystal on the back of this book makes me super happy. Like I’m a real lesbian now.
Rumpus: In the first chapter of the book, the narrator Ariel says that her mother had been reading Sylvia Plath’s Ariel when she was pregnant, and you write that Plath was a “casualty of the soft, feathery war between art and motherhood.” That war is a well-discussed subject among women I know, with essays like “Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid,” by Rufi Thorpe and “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mom” by Kim Brooks being posted and reposted by us. But, despite the difficulty faced by a teenaged mother raising a child in poverty, I didn’t sense Ariel’s motherhood was at odds with her creative life. In fact, the two seemed entwined, to enrich each other. The war was between the mother-daughter dyad and the world—the angry men threatening violence, the banks closing accounts, the family court. Am I reading that right? I might be romanticizing. Correct me if I am. To what do you attribute the lack of mother-artist conflict?
Gore: You’re right. Sometimes I think my whole life has been an embodiment of the conflict between art and motherhood, but by letting the two coexist entwined, I live in peace.
The conflict exists in me, just like it does in everyone, but I refuse to make a choice between art and motherhood. I reject the all-sacrificing martyr-mother archetype and I reject the selfish male artist archetype.
In Western culture, the social role of the mother is as the keeper of the family secrets. The social role of the writer is as the teller of the family secrets. So when you’re both, it goes against the whole social order. We have very little celebrated history for the combination of the two because if our grandmothers tried that shit in a lot of contexts they would have had their children taken away from them, and if their grandmothers tried that shit they were burned at the stake.
Part of the problem expressed in those essays you mention might be having a husband. I’ve never had one, so I don’t know anything about that firsthand, but it does seem that the women I’ve read and heard recently exploring the mother/writer conflict in these terms have not just partners, but specifically husbands. From where I’m standing I can see that straight, married women face an intense pressure to suddenly go super mainstream when they have kids. Like, Okay, mama, enough art for you. It’s going to be all carpool and Superman cakes all the time now. But if you read Maya Angelou or Diane DiPrima, their experience of this issue was very different. Not easier, but very different. So we do have that model—a tradition for at least a couple of generations—for the single mother as bohemian artist/writer. And I think even married moms can take a look at that model and find some inspiration and some tools there. You can keep the husband if you like, but maybe all the adults have to be willing to go against the social order.
In the Kim Brooks piece you mention, she quotes her friend saying, “the point of art is to unsettle, to question, to disturb what is comfortable and safe. And that shouldn’t be anyone’s goal as a parent.” And I understand that sentiment—but that doesn’t resonate with me at this point in my life. My family has always been targeted for harassment because it’s a nontraditional family, and of course it’s my job to protect my kids from that harassment to the extent that I can, but it would be a fantasy to think that I could shield them from all the bigotry and injustice that a creative life becomes the counterpoint to.
It’s always a mistake to give up art for safety except in short-term, emergency situations where self-preservation has to take priority. We can’t give up art for safety longterm. And we’re not doing out kids any favors if we try.
It does make you wonder if part of progressives’ extreme resistance to early motherhood is that they do believe, deep down, that once a woman has children, she can’t do her own work anymore, shouldn’t have her own life anymore. It’s a place where feminism hasn’t won out over internalized notions that the Family Values people were right—that a mother being herself is a mother being selfish, that our children will suffer if we’re whole and complicated people. And of course I reject that.
For me, the answer is to reinvent motherhood, not just to delay enslavement to it. The answer is to reinvent art, too, so that we’re not just trying to squeeze our complicated experience into the oppressor’s format in hopes of the oppressor’s praise.
Rumpus: You became a mother again many years later, at a societally approved age, and with a partner. What was your experience at that point in terms being a creative writer as well as a parent, now of two kids.
Gore: Yes! I had my son at thirty-seven after having my daughter at nineteen, and I was partnered, although queer and not married so, again, not exactly getting invitations to the mom-party, but this time I was established as a writer. I’d been supporting my family as a writer and teacher and editor for years. I owned a little house. It was a hustle, but I had a level of stability I didn’t dream of when Maia was a baby.
And of course life is also a lot easier when people aren’t constantly making remarks about how your child should be taken away from you and put in an orphanage. No one has ever said that to me about my son. And I’m the same parent. I’m actually a worse parent now because I’m tired and my back hurts.
Rumpus: Ah, that gets to what I was probably asking with that previous question: when is very young motherhood a boon? What are the various factors that can stymie our creative growth and survival?
Gore: I’m all for young motherhood. The only problems were socially constructed. At nineteen, I was as ready to start my family as I’d ever be. I was as physically healthy as I’d ever be. I was getting gayer by the minute, so my biological clock had been ticking since age sixteen.
I wasn’t invited to the mom party or any other party, so I got to write. My first stories, like everyone’s, were just practice and experiment, so the baby wasn’t getting in the way of anything I didn’t have a sense of humor about.
Early motherhood didn’t ruin my life. I just did everything all at once—writer/mother/grown-up. I’m still clawing to dig myself out of the hole, but it’s good dirt and I have no regrets.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about the role banks and student loans play in the war between art and not just motherhood, but everything. That scene where, after a year of dire poverty, Ariel matriculates at Mills and is offered a fifty dollar bonus for opening a student checking account at the same bank that had closed her account summarily when she needed it most, forcing her to pay to get her checks cashed… Damn. That nails it. And then the worm in the fairy tale’s apple at the end. Spoiler alert: It’s the massive monthly student loan payment Ariel is making to this day. This is less a question than a space to vent.
Gore: Yes, capitalism and the banking system are the real enemies—they feed the rich off the dreams of the poor and leave no place for artists except as pre-gentrifiers.
Now, I got a beautiful education and I don’t mind paying for that. My professors deserved to make a living and I’d happily chip away at that bill for as long as it took. But the way student loans work, with snowballing interest, and the loans being constantly bought and sold and consolidated in nefarious ways, and the rules always changing, I’ve paid circles around what any of the rich kid’s parents ever had to pay.
And those loans were sold to me as the road out of poverty. So of course I feel tricked. And there’s shame in that. There’s always some shame when you’ve been hoodwinked.
We’re working on a spell to psychically absolve us all of these debts.
Rumpus: In my view, magical realism can be risky. It can go really wrong. But I loved every scene in this book where a human transformed into an animal or a bird talked. I bought them completely. I have to admit that I’m hung up on genre, and I kept asking myself what made this a novel, as labeled on the cover, and not a memoir, since the protagonist shares your name and lives a life that matches with what I know about you from your nonfiction. I told myself that maybe it was these magical realist episodes: the possum giving a warning, a blackbird stopping by to chat, a witch turning into deer who gives a secret assignment. But, these encounters seemed so real, as real as anything I’d read from you years past in essay form. I have to ask (is this a weird question?) were they real? Where did they come from?
Gore: Yes, those were real.
Whenever we tell a story, we’re re-dreaming reality. If the book publishing world had a “based on a true story” genre like they do in film, I’d have gone with that. But we only have memoir and novel. I’ve published two memoirs, a number of nonfiction books, and one traditional novel. I’ve taught memoir writing seventeen years. And the rules for what we call memoir have been in flux all this time.
Do we assume that dialogue is recreated?
Can we use composite characters?
Maybe, but be transparent about it.
Do we disguise the guilty?
Can we move an event five years earlier for the arc of the story?
Can we make a passive-aggressive aunt straight-up aggressive? Can we change a death date? Can we save a friend who didn’t actually make it? Can we give our character an ally she never had? Can we stand up and scream “fuck you!” when, perhaps, in the original life-version, we only whispered it under our breath?
We’re way into the realm of fiction now.
At a recent nonfiction conference, I actually felt pretty uncomfortable with the fictionalizations a lot of authors were calling memoir. I took more liberties with this book than I took with my memoirs, but I’m also feeling a little bit conservative on the issue right now—wanting not to call things memoir if they’re just “based on a true story.”
But the magical realist elements are some of the least fictionalized. They happened. I wouldn’t have felt weird about putting them in a book called “memoir.” I know what you should and shouldn’t say to a shrink, but I have a vivid sense of talking with spirits and the natural world. In memory, in particular, I see meetings with magical beings as clearly as anything else. And I think it’s clear in the writing that that’s just how I experience the world.
If you want to know a secret, the cat on the cover of the book is very much inspirited and in fact completely invested in each reader’s experience. Her intention is to activate the precise liberating metaphors in each reader’s body that they need at the precise moment they’re reading.
And I’m pretty sure that if we read We Were Witches aloud three times under a full moon, the universe will split open.
Rumpus: The book has a chronological spine, but there are many layers braided throughout. There’s a story that’s told through reading lists and turned-in papers, the fairy tales that are spun and re-spun, the phone calls and brief searing flashbacks, and poetic lists. How’d you decide what to put in and what to leave out?
Gore: I started with this question: How can we subvert the phallocratic narrative we’ve been handed? Meaning: In a world of dick art, what might pussy-affirming art look like? My character and the storyline came to me after that question, because who better to find an alternative to the violence of a patriarchal “success stories” than a queer teen mom? So my premise became this: A re-dreamed Ariel Gore sets out to invert Freytag’s Pyramid once and for all.
A lot of the book wound up centered on the years I was in college, but I didn’t know that was going to happen going in. That chronological framework rose up in the process. When I got to the middle, my re-dreamed Ariel was halfway done with college so I thought, Oh, all right. That little nod to the linear isn’t going to hurt my experiment here.
Rumpus: In my head, I kept adding When to the title of this book, calling it When We Were Witches. Of course, that says more about me than about the book. But there is the past tense—we were. On the one hand, it can refer to the treatment of women in previous centuries, the years when witches were burned at the stake, which you get into. On the other hand, you and I are of a similar age. I read just about all of the same women’s studies books you did at roughly the same time. I was crashing in those cheap apartments in the Mission. I was burning sage. What are you now? What are we? Are we still witches? Who is?
Gore: I like the When! And, yes, we’re still witches. Magic is just the steady development of personal power. Nothing dark or scary. Millennials are hella witchy.
We’re still witches as long as we keep activating the metaphors. As long as we’re less and less willing to be powerless. And that means everything from being less willing to be embarrassed about being weird to being less willing to disparage the feminine to being less willing to prey on the vulnerable.
It means staring directly into their surveillance cameras until they shatter.
It means that if we don’t like the script we’ve been handed, we can rewrite it.
It means being less willing to be silent.
It means learning to stay silent sometimes, too—for self-preservation.
It means reinventing both art and motherhood.
It means being less willing to dismiss our own art as less-than.
It means reclaiming our time, protecting our imagination, and engaging our creativity even if that’s just drawing a cool design in the dirt right now.
It means all of that—all of that all at once without shame and without artifice.
Author photograph © Ana June.