Intersecting and Diverging Narratives: Talking with Michele Filgate

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When the title “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About” came across my radar I immediately requested a galley. The title tugged at a deep place within my chest—a haunted place, a place that nodded, eyes downtrodden, “me too.”

Michele Filgate is the editor of the forthcoming collection of essays, What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence, out April 30 from Simon & Schuster. Writers featured in the anthology include Cathi Hanauer, Melissa Febos, Alexander Chee, Dylan Landis, Bernice L. McFadden, Julianna Baggott, Lynn Steger Strong, Kiese Laymon, Carmen Maria Machado, André Aciman, Sari Botton, Nayomi Munaweera, Brandon Taylor, and Leslie Jamison.

The collection is at turns heartbreaking, at turns heartwarming, makes the reader feel a sudden tug—a not-aloneness often felt in the very best of books. This collection is for every single person who has ever felt that their relationship with their mother is unusual, which is to say all of us.

Michele and I spoke recently via email. I found it fascinating to hear about her process, her current relationship with her mother, and why she chose to take on this project.

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The Rumpus: When I think about mothers, it’s hard for me not to immediately think about mine—how she mothered, who she mothered, and where we stand now. I found your essay “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About” heartbreaking, worthwhile, and relatable. How did writing that essay, the act of putting pen to paper, help you process your past? Has your past been processed in similar ways before? Does your writing impact your understanding of how/who your mother was/is?

Michele Filgate: I had to process my past in order to write about it in the first place. I started working on the essay over a decade ago, while I was an undergraduate and very depressed. But when I first began, I thought I was writing about my stepfather abusing me and all of the anger and pain I felt. It took me many years of therapy to realize what the real essay was about: the fracture this caused in my relationship with my mother. I didn’t want to write from a place of fury. Instead, I wrote from a place of longing.

I do feel like I have a deeper understanding of my mother since finishing this piece, but there are parts of her I’ll never have access to or know, which is why I write about her in the first place. I’m writing to communicate with her because we haven’t been able to communicate effectively in real life. It’s not just my mother I’m writing toward, though. I’m writing for my younger self, the self that felt so misunderstood and alone.

Rumpus: Where did the idea for your forthcoming collection of essays—What My Mother And I Don’t Talk About—bloom from? Did the book feel inevitable? Was it a piecemeal project? Were you shocked by the similarities in the essays?

Filgate: I published my essay on Longreads in October of 2017, right after the Weinstein story broke. My editor originally scheduled the pub date for around Thanksgiving, but once that story was published everything changed. The #MeToo movement was all anyone talked about. I immediately noticed that so many people (friends and strangers) responded to the title of my essay. A common response was “Oh, I have a story to tell!” I knew I wanted to edit an anthology, and this felt like the natural choice. I really believe in the power of community. For many years I was as an indie bookseller and also on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, and the literary world feels like a second home to me. I wanted this book to be a chorus of voices—but not just about abuse. It was immediately apparent that there are so many stories about things people can’t talk about with their moms, regardless of how close they are with their mothers. I reached out to some writers I admire and had a few of them sign on to the project before I sold the book.

I don’t think I was shocked by any common threads that connected the essays, because that’s what happens when you put different stories next to each other. You see where narratives intersect and diverge.

Rumpus: The way the mother-and-daughter relationship “should be” is a trope that plays over and over again in my head, my relationships with other women, and my writing. I’ve found that writing helps me coax out the truth, but inevitably I feel like the retelling destroys the original copy—the first memory. How has the retelling of your story changed your relationship to the facts, even if minimally? For better? For worse?

Filgate: That’s an excellent question! I do think that whatever you write about becomes a stronger memory in your mind and kind of takes over as the narrative you find yourself returning to again and again. Which is why it’s so important to me to get it right, whatever I’m writing about. But writing is incredibly subjective, so what I’m most interested in is why I remember what I remember, and how to use that to tell a story.

Rumpus: Does your mother know this book is coming out? Are you nervous about her reaction?

Filgate: She does, and she’s not happy about it. Things are very complicated at the moment. It’s hard for me to talk about this, to be honest. There’s a cost to telling your truth. But in this particular case, I felt like it was more important to tell this story than to keep it to myself. We need to break silences in order to heal—and this book is already helping other people, so that makes it worth it to me. Nayomi Munaweera wrote a gorgeous essay for this book about growing up with a mentally ill mother. She shared it with her mom and her mom wrote such a supportive email to her that still makes me cry. We published it as a postscript at the end of her essay:

Duwa, I am so proud of you for having the strength to publish this essay! It is going to help a lot of people. I am very sorry for what took place in our life. I take full responsibility. I cannot change the past!!! I love you very much and hope we can move forward to build a better relationship in the future. I am proud of all your awesome achievements. Love you, Ammi

Isn’t that beautiful? That’s the best possible response you can hope for.

Rumpus: How do you deal with the pain of your past—especially the pain inflicted on you by your stepfather?

Filgate: Therapy! I absolutely love my therapist. She doesn’t let me off the hook and she makes me recognize certain patterns in my life. Teaching is another way that I’ve healed. My grandmother is almost ninety-two and still teaches piano, so it’s in my blood. She thinks of teaching as a sacred profession. I agree with her!

Books are the other way I make sense of my pain. My boyfriend says that I’m most myself when I’m reading. I think he’s right. That’s when I feel at home in the world.

But I’m not going to lie—my past still haunts me. Writing is a way of grappling with it, but it doesn’t release you from the past.

Rumpus: In reading this collection of essays, I felt a common theme: moving on. Though I could see so much of the pain was still up close for many of the authors, by the ending of each essay, I felt so much flight, so much willingness to push forward despite fissures in the foundation. Melissa Febos writes, “a daughter is wedded to her mother first.” How do contextualize your relationship with yours from the distance and perspective of time and age? How do you finally shake yourself free?

Filgate: I love how you phrased this question—particularly the “willingness to push forward despite fissures in the foundation.” I think a certain sense of freedom comes from realizing that maybe your mother can’t be everything you need her to be, and that’s okay. Sometimes that means finding other mother figures in your life. In my case, I’m lucky enough to have both of my grandmothers. (I dedicated the book to them.)

I love what Leslie Jamison says in “I Met Fear on the Hill,” an essay where she tries to understand who her mother was before she became her mother by reading an unpublished manuscript her ex-husband wrote based on their marriage: “Trying to write about my mother is like staring at the sun. It feels like language could only tarnish this thing she has given me, my whole life—this love.” No matter how close you are with your mother, it can take many years until you feel ready to write about them.

Rumpus: Not all of the essays were about negative and/or broken relationships between mother and child, but most were, I felt. My friends tend to tell me that my relationship with my mother isn’t “normal,” that what I called dinner they would call verbal abuse. Do these stories make it okay for my younger self to feel safe in knowing there’s a light at the end? Or sometimes, do stories like these risk perpetrating the idea that “every family is miserable in its own way”?

Filgate: I hope these essays would make your younger self feel better! That’s certainly a goal with this book: to speak to anyone who is experiencing any kind of difficulty with their mom, and let them know that they will make it through the pain. Every family has unpleasant things to deal with because that’s how life works. Yet where there’s sadness, there’s often joy, too.

Rumpus: What is your writing process like? How do you carve out time, tune out noise, and plug inwards?

Filgate: I’m a big fan of a trick my friend Dylan Landis (who wrote a stunning essay for this book!) taught me: The Pomodoro Technique. You set an alarm for twenty-five minutes and don’t check your phone or email while you’re writing. There’s something about that small chunk of time that allows me to really focus. Then you take a break for five minutes and work for another twenty-five minutes. I also like something that Angela Flournoy said during my very first Red Ink panel: “I think the solitude I like is the kind that’s really abundant in the city, which is that you are alone, but you are around a lot of people. That’s kind of my sweet spot of solitude, when nobody’s asking anything of me, but I can still be nosy.” I feel the same way. That’s why I’ve always enjoyed writing in cafes. I like my peace and quiet, though. If I’m working in public, I often listen to white noise while I write. Sometimes I meet friends for writing dates. My favorite place to work is on my couch. I love being surrounded by my personal library!

Rumpus: Elizabeth Gilbert writes of your book, “These are the hardest stories in the world to tell, but they are told with absolute grace.” Did you ever consider not telling yours? What was the spark that led to the flame (i.e. the idea for your book) and here and now, the fire (your book in tangible form)?

Filgate: Absolutely. Writing and publishing this essay is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But I felt a sense of urgency to get this story out there, and I’m so glad I did.

Rumpus: What was the process like for you when selecting contributors to What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About?

Filgate: The first thing I did was get some writers to commit to contributing something, and then I included their names in the book proposal. Once I had a book deal, I reached out to a bunch of writers to see if they had a story they were dying to tell, and some writers approached me to see if they could submit something. It was really important to me to make sure that this book represented different experiences and backgrounds.

Rumpus: Did you worry at any time that there wouldn’t be enough diversity within the stories told or from the get-go did you have a feeling that you’d find a wide range of human beings who all have stories to tell when it comes to their relationships with their mothers?

Filgate: It isn’t difficult to make sure that an anthology is diverse. That’s one of the most important parts of the job when you’re curating and editing a book by multiple people.

Rumpus: As both an editor and writer, as well as many other things, what is the key to your success? What feeling/thing/promise continues to drive you forward? What obstacles have you encountered?

Filgate: A willingness to keep going even when I feel like a failure. That includes working on multiple drafts of a single essay or short story before feeling like it’s ready to submit, and sometimes taking a break and working on something else. I want to write because I want to learn. Curiosity is one of the main reasons I don’t give up. That, and stubbornness. It’s really easy to get in the way of your own work, though. I hate playing the compare and despair game, which is all too easy to do on social media. At a certain point, you have to figure out what feeds your soul and what depletes it. I’m nourished by my favorite books and the endless possibilities I’m presented with when I see a blank page.

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Photograph of Michele Filgate © Sylvie Rosokoff.


Haley Sherif is a nonfiction writer living in Boston, MA with her partner and dog. Currently her writing can be found on The Rumpus. She writes for her personal blog, Living Inside the Grey, assists at Hobart Pulp, and reads poetry and prose for Muse/A. You can find her on Twitter @HaleySherif. More from this author →