Like Juggling Knives: Talking with Rumaan Alam
That Kind of Mother is Rumaan Alam’s second novel. Set in the 1980s, it’s the tale of Rebecca Stone, an aspiring poet in Washington, DC. She’s married to a very British man named Christopher. At the story’s outset, Rebecca welcomes a child into the world.
Without giving much away, the couple hires Priscilla, a black woman, to look after the child. Raising one kid is hard enough, but Rebecca and Christopher (for reasons I won’t divulge) also adopt a child, a black infant.
What we find, over Alam’s several hundred delicious pages, is that Rebecca, like a lot of her contemporaries, has a gauzy fantasy of what it means to black. That Kind of Mother, and its exploration of the massive gap between white people’s fantasy of black people and black people’s reality, reaches a rather brutal conclusion.
Recently, Alam and I talked about the weirdness of conversation, the limits of the employer-employee relationship, and the grossness of heterosexual sex.
Rumpus: I think the funniest moment in the book is when Rebecca is listening to her husband melt down and gets distracted by memories of butt play with an ex.
Alam: [Considerable laughter] I hate the conversation around likability because it seems irrelevant, right? Most people in my experience are profoundly unlikeable, so it makes sense that our fiction characters would also be unlikeable. But what is of interest to me is real people are illogical, and don’t always understand even what they’re doing or thinking, or the ways in which those things make no sense. And what I try to capture—and what I respond to as a reader—is that sort of the mercurial nature of thought.
For example, I mentioned the movie Hannah and Her Sisters in this book. One of my favorite, favorite parts is Barbara Hershey and Michael Caine have kissed, and they’re talking about how they can never do this again, and she pauses and says, “I have to get my teeth cleaned on Wednesday.” And it’s a total non sequitur. And then she says, “The dental hygienists all wear gloves and masks because they’re afraid of AIDS.” And it is such a remarkable thing because that is exactly the kind of insane thing that you would think and say in a moment of heightened drama. You’re having a panic about your children, or your life, or your family, and then suddenly you’re like, “Oh my god. We’re out of bananas.”
Rumpus: It’s remarkable how you convey slight pauses, or beats in conversation. Indeed, you write of the spaces in conversation “where the information was.” There’s a bit of dialogue, and then a paragraph or two, and then another bit of dialogue.
Alam: There’s a lot of dialogue in both my books. And the word “said” is a weird particular personal bugaboo. When you do a lot of dialogue, all of those saids just pile up on each other. In some ways, the reader doesn’t actually see them because the way that you read, and the way your mind is digesting, are two different things. But I stripped a lot of those directional verbs out of the text. So a lot of what you’re talking about is someone will say something, and then there will be some kind of observation around their physical business, or whatever, and then they finish the thought. That, in my experience, is how conversations unfold.
There’s a convention about the depiction of these things, and the convention is very removed from reality, you know? Conversations are very rarely A person saying one thing, and B person saying another thing, and people talking over each other. People change the subject. People hem and haw.
Rumpus: One hundred and fifty pages in, Rebecca and Christopher have sex, and it is deeply unattractive, but thoroughly accurate.
Alam: Those are my feelings about heterosexual sex generally, Elon.
Rumpus: I have it in my notes: “does not make a good case for heterosexual sex.”
Alam: In the defense of those characters, they do not have a great marriage. In the first draft of the book there was more of an understanding of Rebecca’s past. That she had some sort of erotic past, and that there was dimension to her as that kind of human being. The book’s focus really narrowed to what’s happening in the window that we’re watching her, as opposed to before we meet her.
So it’s not really my disgust with heterosexual sex, although I can see that reading. It’s just that she’s a deeply cerebral person, and [Christopher] is a deeply venal person, and they’re ill-suited to one another. Much as Charles and Diana, I think, were ill-suited for one another.
Rumpus: In most books, I think, the feelings people have for each other are not ambiguous. But one of the reasons why the relationships, especially between Rebecca and Priscilla, make for uncomfortable reading is because it’s never clear, to me anyway, if Priscilla even likes Rebecca.
Alam: Well, it’s not salient to the relationship, right? In an employer-employee relationship, the employee’s personal feeling about the employer is not salient because that’s not the transaction. For Rebecca, it is salient because the transaction is tied up with the emotional feeling around her child, so that makes a lot of sense.
But how do you critique when you’re only showing one side? It’s very difficult. On the one hand, Rebecca can seem exhausting and ridiculous, and Priscilla can feel very elusive, like she’s forever turning a corner just as you’re about to catch her. But to me that is consistent with how reality works. And the same is true if you invert the book, and you imagine Priscilla chasing Rebecca around corners, and never really getting at her because that is how people relate to one another.
Priscilla vanishes. Literally, I mean; I dispatch her. It’s a very complicated. It’s a tricky balance because I am playing with a lot of tropes, right? To have the black people cast as caregivers is one kind of trope. She’s a nanny and her daughter is a nurse. I was very mindful of that choice. To have the black person die is another kind of trope. To have them die in circumstances that are almost somewhat heroic is another trope. But how can you critique something without using the language that already defines how we think about these things? It’s like what I mentioned before about not wanting to use the verb “said.” I wanted to use the no-nonsense black nanny, which is such a type, on every sitcom, on every conventional form of entertainment. There’s a stoic black woman with a straightforward perspective who is setting people straight, you know? I wanted to use that, but hopefully make her feel like she’s a real human being. The fault is that Rebecca fails to grasp that, and we are all sort of implicated in that.
My hope is that people will take from this book that Rebecca’s failure to see the actual humanity there is a moral failing, and it’s one in which many of us are complicit.
Rumpus: There are these implicit walls that you put between Rebecca and Cheryl. Cheryl kept saying Rebecca’s name in conversation, which, if you’re close to somebody, you don’t really do.
Alam: They are very close, by virtue of external circumstance or impulsive decision. And I think that you see Cheryl make genuine overtures towards closeness, and I think there is a genuine connection there, but it is almost not quite enough. They’re just kind of missing each other.
Rumpus: There was no point in the book where Cheryl seems to transcend tolerating Rebecca.
Alam: Well, it’s very important to me to point out that Cheryl is also a person who has made a very particular and ambiguously moral choice to tell a lie to Rebecca about the whole circumstances of everything. To me, there’s not a good team and a bad team in this story, which feels true to reality. That’s another thing about writing about race: it is like juggling knives because It’s so easy to just reify the worst conventions of the literature around this. So Cheryl is not the hero, nor is she the victim. Cheryl has done something really pretty bad also. It’s complex. But I think that Cheryl does appreciate, on a human level, that this woman loves her brother, and cares for him. But isn’t that the way life works? Feelings are very complicated.
Rumpus: Have you ever seen Home for the Holidays? There’s this lovely line towards the end, in a tense scene with two sisters. One says, “We don’t have to like each other. We’re family.” This feels like that a bit. You just have to endure.
Alam: I think that’s true. Maybe you can extrapolate a sort of metaphor about race from that because you do have to endure. I mean, there has to be a deeper reckoning, but also, at the same time, there has to be this sort of persistence. It’s all locked together, hopelessly, forever.
There’s no breaking away from that.
Rumpus: I liked Rebecca’s increasing professional success as a poet. That was a surprise.
Alam: [Laughter] Well, let me ask you this: would it surprise you if her name had been John Berryman?
Rumpus: I guess? No, the reason it surprised me is because, how often do poets ever succeed?
Alam: Well, a lot of this book started when I read Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow’s novel about Delmore Schwartz, and it’s just one of the best books I’ve ever read. I mean, that’s a very different book about a very different kind of person, but it is possible for a poet to succeed, and it was possible in a different time. She’s a poet, and I don’t mean to make any big points about poetry. She’s a poet mostly because I chose an art that I didn’t have to describe. But also because I venerate poets.
Initially she had a kind of middling level of success, and I can’t remember if it was my editor or my agent who told me that she should become phenomenally successful. That choice gives the book such an interesting texture. It’s sort of fantasy fulfillment, on the one hand, and it sort of affirms the ways in which she is a very stubborn and present character even though she seems sort of wishy-washy. I mean, it was great fun to write about her professional success.
Rumpus: And Alice Quinn gets to be a character.
Alam: Yes, and there are a lot of real—I’m making air quotes—people like that, who pop into the narrative. I hope somebody who knows Alice Quinn reads this book, and says to her, like, P.S. It seems like you’re in this book.
Rumpus: So you haven’t heard from Alice Quinn?
Alam: No, no. Certainly not.
Rumpus: I think a mistake of fiction authors is when they include examples of the work their writer characters are producing. It’s probably meant as a means to show the author’s virtuosity as a novelist. And it’s always awful. And you don’t have a single line of her poetry. Maybe just a fragment early on, but that’s it. It’s smart because otherwise you’d shatter the illusion that she’s a good poet.
Alam: I was reading Cat’s Eye, which is one of my favorite novels by Margaret Atwood. And I have to say that when she describes the protagonist’s paintings the book cracked for me a little bit. This must be the fifth time I’ve read it, and it was the first time I had that experience where I was like, Oh, suddenly the narrative has cracked, and I’m not in that magical place anymore. Because I could picture the paintings too specifically, and they felt like they were too related to a particular idea of style that was also too closely related to a time period we’re no longer in. It’s very hard to thread that particular needle.
There’s this sense in the book that Rebecca is this collage artist who is interested in the Classics, which is true of literally hundreds of poets. Somebody asked me, “Oh, is it Anne Carson you’re thinking of?” And I was like, Oh, that’s interesting, because it had not even occurred to me, because Anne Carson is one of hundreds of poets who are interested in Classics, and ancient poetry. Poetry becomes this weird catch-all category, where I can say that she’s writing poems about Princess Diana or about plane crashes, and it all seems plausible.
It’s also great to insist upon her excellence, which is something I took from Cat’s Eye as well. In Cat’s Eye, the protagonist is traveling somewhere in Canada for a retrospective of her work, and we’re accustomed to this kind of let’s-look-at-this-great-male-artist kind of book, and I wanted to do that with this woman.
Rumpus: I found as I was reading the book that I really knew very little about a woman’s body, and even less about pregnancy.
Alam: Mm-hmm. Aren’t you married to a physician, Elon? [Laughter]
Rumpus: Yeah, I know, I know. Did you do research?
Alam: I did. There is a huge existing body of work about pregnancy and maternal health that anyone can kind of get into. And so I kind of looked at some of that to give myself a ground-level education. And I interviewed a woman who gave birth twice. Once in 1982, and once in 1985. And it was really interesting because of course medical technology changes very quickly. It was very interesting to hear about how the first time she gave birth she did it in the operating room, which is I think what happened in my book. And she went back and she gave birth in a birthing suite, and how different that experience was.
The truth is, if you’re gonna write fiction, you’re going to be confronted with having to write about something you don’t intimately know. And even if you just write the preposterous thing that we call autofiction, and you just literally document your every step, and transpose that onto the page, you’re still not really telling the truth. You’re still not really getting it right. So you’re always kind of picking and choosing to construct a story, and I wanted the sheen of credibility because of course most readers in this country are women. That’s one thing you’ve got to get it right. If you’re gonna write across the lines of gender, or across the lines of race—it’s not that that practice is impossible, or that it should be forbidden—it should be done thoughtfully. And the judgment is in the hands of the reader, whether it’s a woman or a man, who says “I believe this scene about birth,” or “No, I don’t believe this scene about birth.” And that judgment is out of my hands.
But you can do a lot as a writer to prepare for that. You can write around what you don’t know towards what you do know. You can do your research. You can talk to people. You can watch videos. I mean, I took my shirt off and I held a stuffed animal in my hand up to my nipple, and I was like, Okay, if I was holding a baby right now, and the baby was feeding at my breast, what would I be capable of doing with my free hand? Would I be able to manipulate a pencil? Would I be able to drink a cup of coffee? Is this actually possible? You do your homework.
Rumpus: Did you have a female sensitivity reader?
Alam: Well, American publishing is run by women, so every reader is a—like, my agent is a woman who is a mother. My editor is a woman who is not a mother. My publicist is a woman who is not a mother. One of my publishers is a woman who is not a mother. There are many, many layers of reader, and there are many, many layers of reader who are mothers, and who are women and who are not mothers. It’s subjected to a pretty rigorous test.
Rumpus: Which character did you conceive of first?
Alam: This book and my first book are much more of an exercise in collage than a kind of line drawing from start to finish. Things sort of pile up on top of each other, so there are all these distinct concerns.
I mentioned Humboldt’s Gift before—I wanted to write a novel about, like, the outsized figure of a poet. Like, what the poet contains. Because poets are oracular, right? At the end of the book, that is kind of what we’re getting from the protagonist. We’re getting a kind of monologue in the poet’s voice, which lends it an authority. So I wanted to do that. But then, do you know this artist, Fred Wilson?
Alam: Oh, he’s such an interesting artist. But he’s also something of a curator, and he does these works which will go into cultural institutions and highlight invisible stories within the collection. Mostly around race, he will use lighting, and signage, and other things to create an exhibition that explores how a fine arts institution in this country, which we think of as telling a story of Western and European art, also contains the story of black faces, and iconography. It’s a fascinating practice. And I thought a lot about him, and the ways in which a seemingly conventional domestic novel of white middle class people also contains a story of the black people who are somewhat tangential to their lives. Although, of course in this book that’s really dialed up to eleven, because they are not tangential at all.
This may or may not seem crazy to you, but I think of this book as being about 9/11. And so there’s a reason the book is working towards 2001. There’s a reason she talks about the millennium. There’s a reason they go to Windows on the World. There’s a reason that planes crash like every fifty pages.
Those are three very distinct ideas, and I don’t want to say I braided them together, but I sort of mashed them all up.
Rumpus: I’d like to hear more about the 9/11 thread.
Alam: When I said 9/11 was really present in my mind, I guess what I’m indicating is that we’re seventeen years removed from 9/11, so in a sense we are writing texts that are really informed by having digested that particular moment. Rather than what Jonathan Safran Foer did in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which was literally to write a book about 9/11 two years later, we’re now working at some remove.
I mean, it’s not well understood, because it never will be, but it’s a part of our cultural DNA. When I was a kid, I was absolutely terrified of being hijacked. Terrified, because there was a picture of a hijacker on the cover of Newsweek, and I’ve never forgotten it. And that’s not the fear anymore, right? That fear has been replaced by this fear of 9/11. The fear I have associated with flying is tied up in 9/11, which is itself an interesting change in cultural perspective, or cultural reference points.
Rumpus: You’re only a year older than I am, but I remember the fear of getting AIDS from a toilet seat. Or, like Ryan White, from a blood transfusion.
Alam: Yes, exactly. That’s so interesting that you bring up Ryan White, because he was in the book at one point, and I took him out. But yeah, isn’t that funny, how the cultural context has changed since then?
In this book I’m sort of artfully stacking these things up. Well, let’s hope it’s artful. But I’m stacking these things up and then playing games. Actually, I interviewed Samantha Hunt for you last summer. Oh my god, and she is just such a fucking brilliant genius. I mean, the level of her talent and the level of her mind is just astonishing to me. And she had talked about the sort of writerly game of assembling these contraptions, using the same pieces over and over again. You’re always building with what you’re interested in, and those little things are meaningful maybe only to you, or only to a couple of readers who know you. But they hopefully mean something in the text that’s bigger. When I mention in the book about somebody wearing a Tony Duquette necklace, that’s a meaningful joke to me. Or when I mention Hannah and Her Sisters, that’s a meaningful joke to me. And it doesn’t mean anything to anyone else, but hopefully it accrues and develops a meaning in the system that I’m building.
Rumpus: Well, that’s it. I hope I didn’t already ask you a bunch of questions you’d already been asked, because that would suck.
Alam: No, you didn’t. And you know, I’m so grateful that you didn’t ask if any of this is true. Because I think you’re smart enough to know that actually none of it is true. [Laughter]
Rumpus: Well, I thought—
Alam: I’ll tell you what’s true. What’s true is that I make banana bread, and when I make banana bread, I sprinkle sugar into the pan and on top of the dough before it’s set. It makes it really crusty. That is true. That’s the most autobiographical thing in the book.
Author photograph © David A. Land.