What to Read When You Love a Feminist Mother

By

As you pick out condoms with your lover this Valentine’s Day, perhaps you’re thinking about the inordinate amount of pressure placed on women to procreate and make meaning of their bodies through caring for a tiny human. I believe the feminine human-beast that should be thriving is instead dying of nurture torture and the inexhaustible well of needs we are expected to fulfill. Where is the (r)evolution to flip the script on why our competence begets more thankless work, meetings, chores, favors to dole out, people to please?

So, for Valentine’s Day this year, why not skip the pesticide-ridden bodega flowers and torch songs and volunteer to babysit for your mom-friend so she can do any of those things people do with something called… what is it again… sorry, mom brain, almost there… oh yeah—spare time! Your mom-friend can read the books listed below in her newly acquired free time. Or you can read them, after you tuck in her kids, while she is, maybe, doing chilled tequila shots with her magically improved ex-boyfriend at what seems like an early hour to most bar-goers.

I don’t think of motherly love in terms of biology. I revere my childless (by choice or by circumstance) dear friends. Children can be raised by a kaleidoscope of influences—from grandparents to generous neighbors to, obviously, books. To me, mother-love is also tough love; it is a straighten-your-back-and-walk-the-line kind of love. But the bitter makes the sweet stand out. Take your medicine with a little bit of sugar, these authors—some mothers, some writing about their mothers, some pondering or rejecting domesticity—will say.

Dedicated to my own lost and fierce mother, whoever and wherever she may be on this cold winter day.

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Strangeland by Tracey Emin
Emin is an artist, a work of art, and a piece of work. Much of her visual art is concerned with the degraded body, the mourning of terminated pregnancies, ambivalent attachments, and the lessons her own mother imparts. Enter Strangeland, her slim, wonderfully impressionistic sketch of a memoir. Emin thinks about her powerful absent father in contrast to her enmeshed and overly direct mom, who convinces Emin that she is not fit for the boredoms of motherhood, not while she has her art career to pursue. While Emin coats her stomach with a dollop of butter and a fish stick sandwich so that she can drink more booze and forget, she also dreams up a vision of a life where a childless woman is an art monster instead. I want to sleep in her tent with my buttered tummy full of vodka while my non-existent studio assistant finishes my upcoming art show.

 

La Bâtarde by Violette Leduc
Leduc is another Western-European writer without a father around—a bastard. She is not wanted by any of her male companions and confidantes, either; one of them so sick of her neediness and lack of focus that he implores her to start writing out her life story. She eventually communes with nature in the French countryside and does just that, but with twists and turns so bloody that your heaviest flow couldn’t match them. Leduc writes with tenderness and abandon about her mother throughout this book; the matriarch seems to be a witch willing her pen. For a secondary mother, she stalks Simone de Beauvoir and forces her to read the manuscript, which the iconic feminist philosopher finds to be unique and moving enough for print. Leduc never got the attention she deserved in her lifetime, and didn’t hide her disappointment about it, citing nepotism and heavy bias against her feminine text. In our After Kathy Acker (by Chris Kraus) world, I think we are finally read for La Bâtarde.

 

Widow Basquiat: A Love Story by Jennifer Clement
This is one the greatest feminist books of all time, partially because it is a shared text. As its official author, Clement chooses to craft the tightly controlled narrative into a split story that reads like two wise women speaking to each other; the protagonist is elevated by her listener with jeweled mirrors to reflect the facts, the fantasies, the memories, and the chaos. Suzanne Mallouk was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s long-term, on-and-off partner. Worse than being a mercurial and in-demand artist’s girlfriend was being his muse and support system while he spiraled through a heroin addiction and dealt with institutional racism. In this book, Suzanne gets to be an artist and a person, which she had always been, yes, but without Clement standing next to and behind her, in these pages, would we have ever known that she existed as such?

 

Living a Feminist Life by Sara Ahmed
This will be brief and to the point: Be a Feminist Killjoy. Please or appease not a single one of those naysayers and derailers of the feminist cause. If you are making people feel comfortable while you are dying inside, you are growing parasites only. Commit to the cause fully and risk what you can afford to risk. Never miss an opportunity to correct a wrong. I am raising my son and daughter this way, too. I harsh mellows. Learn to like it or get on the next bus outta town. Tits up and onward.

 

Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire
I want to be reborn inside this slender book of poems by the Kenyan-born Somali genius. I want to be cheese grated into her scenes until I am just the musky dust in the room when Shire offers an eternal stanza: ”To my daughter I will say ‘when the men come, set yourself on fire.’” Read it often, and read it with your children when they are old enough to hear it.

 

Midwinter Day by Bernadette Mayer
Bernadette Mayer and Grace Paley—the latter of whom I am leaving off this list only because I talk about her so much everywhere else, but rest assured, she is the queen of the feminist mother list, forever—are the paradigm of what a poet can achieve while doing all the work, managing all the people, protesting all the injustices, and being a loving and supportive partner and mother. Mayer’s constraint for this book-length project was to write for an entire day while living out her waking hours as she normally would—shopping, cooking, answering mail, tending to her husband, putting kids down for naps—all while said husband chilled, like a bag of rocks, performing none of the duties necessary to his own basic survival and comfort, divorced from the monumental undertaking his wife chose for this, mercifully, shortest of days. I do not believe much has changed since Mayer wrote Midwinter Day. It is a frantic and frenetic and necessary joy to be inside this book-length epic poem.

 

Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon
Laymon speaks directly to his mother here, and thank the goddess, because this is a political love letter like nothing we have seen. His mother is a woman who doesn’t apologize for her own ambitions, and certainly not for the ones she has for her observant and sensitive son, a boy dying to fit in and seeing that there is no safe space for him unless he is in his granny’s bed. Laymon’s mother understands the daily cost of raising a black boy in America and tries to fortify him against the inevitabilities of our racist culture by making his writing, his speech, and his political and philosophical stance bulletproof, even if she knows his body never will be. Kiese craves her and worries about her and relies on her so desperately, it is as though he isn’t always sure where his body, shamed and whipped, ends and his dear ma’s begins. He wants her to either be tender or be brutal, only, and never blend the two because that is a lethal mixed message for his liquid eyes to compartmentalize. He looks at her, searching for himself, hoping he can tell her how gross and awful he feels, slimed by toxic masculinity. But it is as though he is her caretaker, and she needs him to be a good boy, an articulate boy, a self-reliant boy so that she may eventually have one man on earth with whom a hair out of place or an ideology out of whack won’t get her shunned.

 

The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante
This is a very subtle novel; the one Ferrante book where I feel the author’s body, her smell, her pen, and her mouth in the room with me. I admit that this is problematic and that we never ask the same of, or conceive of, our male authors this way, but forgive me—I am motherless myself, and project this hunger at will in the comfort of my own home. A middle-aged woman, a mother who eventually admits to not being so great at it, goes on a seaside vacation alone and begins to, at first innocently and casually, stalk a family. She befriends the young mother’s daughter and then, well, steals her beloved doll, hides it, and lies about it. And that’s just the plot; the energy of viscerally wishing for another woman’s experience of motherhood, of abducted transitional objects, of jealousies conditioned to destroy feminine bonds, will stick to your plate like pancake syrup after you gorge on this mother stack. Lick it up, baby, lick it up!

 

The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing
A man and a woman who fall in love quickly, get married, and start having kids in rapid-fire succession, are brought to their knees by having a fifth child with special needs. I read a review of this book by a male author, right after Lessing’s passing—almost every bit of her was covered and analyzed—and his suggested thesis was: be careful what you wish for when you wish for abundance; be glad for what you get and don’t go begging for more because you might meet your ruin. Now, the issue, as I see it, isn’t that this couple deserved to be cut down to size because they shot for the reproductive moon and were hungry for more love to give and receive. It is that the male character convinced the female character, through bullying and manipulation, that their special needs child was somehow too dangerous and grotesque for a perfect bohemian family lifestyle, and thus needed to be hidden away, at first, then institutionalized. The latter was common enough up until very recently, and we do not need to shame parents of children with disabilities about getting full-time support in a facility; we need better care and better institutions instead. Nevertheless, the cold and putrid jail this kid was stuck in will forever be dehumanizing to us all. Lessing gave us that sight to better observe our own ableism, and we cannot un-see its reality. We are only as strong and as human as the support we give to our most vulnerable people.

To close out this special list, we just have to include Sophia’s debut memoir, Mother Winter, forthcoming February 12 from Simon & Schuster! And, don’t miss our EIC, Marisa Siegel, in conversation with Sophia Shalmiyev and Eileen Myles at McNally Jackson on February 27! – Ed.

Mother Winter by Sophia Shalmiyev
An arresting memoir equal parts refugee-coming-of-age story, feminist manifesto, and meditation on motherhood, displacement, gender politics, and art that follows award-winning writer Sophia Shalmiyev’s flight from the Soviet Union, where she was forced to abandon her estranged mother, and her subsequent quest to find her.


Sophia Shalmiyev emigrated from Leningrad to America in 1990. She is the author of the lyric memoir Mother Winter (Simon & Schuster, 2019) and is a feminist writer and painter living in Portland, OR. She has been widely published in Electric Literature, Guernica, The Rumpus, Lit Hub, Vela, and many others. Visit her website at www.sophiashalmiyev.com for more. More from this author →