This week, we’re sharing stories from Renee Montagne, Nina Martin, Alex Tizon, Mary Mann, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, and Andy Newman.
Electric Literature published an excerpt of Mary Mann’s new book, Yawn: Adventures in Boredom. In this chapter about the origins, tensions, and limitations of tourism, she lays bare what most travelers are loathe to admit: it’s just as easy to be bored in Paris or on Bora Bora as it is at home.
What would I do if I had nowhere to be? Because I’ve been fortunate enough to travel aimlessly for a couple of months, I can tell you: I’d be irritable. Free time is daunting. The world has been shaped by our inability to deal with free time. Cook intended for tourism to pull us out of the mundane ordinary, and people who can’t travel (like Jamaica Kincaid’s tourist-hating locals) desire to do so for that reason. We travel to escape a losing battle with time — the autoworker Ben Hampers “war with that suffocating minute hand” — but we still have to deal with time, by napping it away or filling it with sightseeing or traveling to the brighter past that travel ads promise. For the majority of us, free time has proved too unwieldy to manage without habits, and, from Ruskin’s “white leprosy” of hotels to the Banana Pancake Trail, the habits of travelers have reshaped the world.
There is no grand unified theory of motherhood. Within every paradigm–chosen families, queer families, nuclear families, adoptive and foster families, on and on– mothering may vary a million times over. In this Mother’s Day reading list, I’ve attempted a rough chronology, from pregnancy to mourning, concluding with information about the crucial, joyful National Black Mama’s Bail Out Day.
1. “Dear Daughter, Your Mom.” (Sarah Smarsh, The Morning News, June 2014)
This is an essay about your mom: her Hooters uniform, her Mensa card, her abstinence, and the potency of mother-love:
What would I want for my daughter?
The answer was always correct and its implementation reliably unpleasant. Human intimacy, so she suffered hugs until she became enthusiastic with affection. Honesty, so she said what she meant. Love, so she showed hers.
2. “First I Got Pregnant. Then I Decided to Kill the Mountain Lion.” (Kathleen Hale, Elle, February 2017)
In a haze of maternal-ish instincts, Kathleen Hale hikes obsessively in search of the puma of Griffith Park.
3. “The Price: The Queer Daughter of a Queer Mother.” (Melissa Moorer, Electric Lit, September 2016)
Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, and its film adaptation, Carol, are the rare queer stories with happy endings. Writer Melissa Moorer sees reflections of herself in the story’s cast of characters and analyzes how representation affects the possibilities we see and don’t see for ourselves and our parents.
4. “Mama.” (Jasmine Sanders, Catapult, March 2016)
Is Mama a title to be earned or a biological fact? If it is the latter, does the exaltation, the importance of blood require me to love my mother unquestioningly and unconditionally? Or, if there are conditions, who determines them?
My grandmother, my adoptive mom, raised me. She is the salt and marrow of who I am, and when I hear the word Mama, the hollow, red ache in my chest belongs to her. My mother, between her six children, would have spent almost five years of her life pregnant and swollen. Half a dozen times, she made room in her lovely body to house a person only to have it ripped apart when they left. She split open at the seam and I slid into the world, ribbons of her blood curled under my tongue. I am left wondering, now: Does that mean anything? Should it?
5. “The Perils of Writing About Your Own Family: The Rumpus Interview with George Hodgman.” (Danielle Trussoni, The Rumpus, May 2015)
It’s one thing to cloak your familial angst in the guise of fiction or wait for your relatives to die in order to air your grievances. George Hodgman did neither. Instead, he wrote the New York Times bestselling memoir Bettyville. It’s about his decision to leave New York City and its freedoms for small-town Paris, Missouri, to care for his 90-year-old mother, Betty. Hodgman talks craft, secrecy, and identity in this hilarious and honest interview.
6. “The Day Virginia Woolf Brought Her Mom Back to Life.” (Christopher Frizzelle, Literary Hub, May 2015)
I watched Sally Potter’s Orlando for the first time last week, so I’m giving myself over to the throes of a Virginia Woolf obsession. It’s a long time coming–I’m a queer former English Lit major, for God’s sake. Anyway, Christopher Frizzelle has written a delightful piece of literary criticism, delving into To The Lighthouse’s Big Reveal and the textual variations spearheaded by Woolf herself.
7. “The Unmothered.” (Ruth Margalit, The New Yorker, May 2014)
Mother’s Day after mother-loss:
It’s true that the pain wears off, slightly, around the edge, like a knife in need of whetting. But here’s what they’re missing: It gets harder to explain to myself why I haven’t seen her. A month can make sense. (I took a trip; she was busy with work.) Even six months is excusable. (I moved; she’s on sabbatical.) But how to make sense of more than three years worth of distance?
8. This Mother’s Day, Southerners on New Ground (S.O.N.G.) and other organizations are coordinating National Black Mama’s Bail Out Day.
It’s an initiative to free moms who can’t afford bail in time for this Mother’s Day:
The idea for Mama’s Bail Out Day is about “naming the massive impact cash bail is having on families and on black mamas,” says Mary Hooks, the Atlanta-based co-director of Southerners on New Ground (SONG). The idea came to her out of the haze of the election last November, she says, a way to enact “abolition in the now.”
It is also a campaign that’s deliberately expansive in its definition of motherhood, “queer and trans, old and young,” Hooks says, “all the many ways in which we are mothered, and have chosen family. We want to honor black mothers who have held us down in a myriad of ways, whether that’s SONG elders or the first lesbian you meet at the bar when you come out, who teach us things, mothered us along the way and helped raise us.”
You can read the rest of Melissa Gira Grant’s coverage of the Mama’s Bail Out at Pacific Standard. WUNC interviewed mother-daughter activists Courtney and Serena Sebring about their work with S.O.N.G. Dani McClain covered the Bail Out at The Nation.
The cover was striking: it showed a syringe. On the back cover one character leaned over a table, snorting cocaine. The calls from radio stations began, the advertising spots, the letters, above all the letters. Girls telling me about their first acid trip. Gay guys who’d been thrown out of their houses. Girls in love with gay guys. Girls in love with my characters. Some I answered, others I didn’t. I didn’t know what to say to them. The reviews were what today we would call “mixed,” using the English word. My publisher’s head of PR would tell me that I ought to make thank you calls even to reviewers who had torn the novel apart, and I’d tell him to fuck off. People would ask me about my next novel. I didn’t know whether I wanted to be a writer. They’d say, “But you’re the spokeswoman of a generation,” and I’d want to cry. My mother drove me to some of the interviews. She was proud of me but didn’t comment on the contents of the book. I don’t know whether Bajar es lo peor is a good novel, but it is a sad novel: the boys shoot up with wine, have nightmares, prostitute themselves, talk to dead people, and love is no good for anything. There are no adults in the book.
The months of fame — there must have been six, maybe eight — were exhausting. I’d dress for television in a faux-leather miniskirt and an AC/DC T-shirt: I thought I looked like a rocker, daring, pretty. Seeing myself seated there in the talk show chair, I couldn’t help being horrified by my white, rather chubby legs and my obvious need for better makeup and hairstyling — not to mention my stammering in response to any question whatsoever. I was a terrible interviewee. With cultural journalists I was even worse. The humiliations piled up. They’d ask me about writers I had never heard of, and I’d pretend to know who they were talking about. My answers were muddled and left me looking like a fraud.
As part of Electric Literature’s The Writing Life Around the World series, Argentine novelist Mariana Enriquez tells how hype, honesty, and timing made her a brief media darling in 1995, when she lived on cheap intoxicants and low aspirations through a tumultuous era, before the news cycle delivered her back to where she wanted to be: quietly writing outside the spotlight. This is an homage to the power of youth and one’s influences, and coming out the other side.
I’m in no way immune to the lure of the witchy, and honestly, I don’t want to resist. I bought a small piece of sunstone from my local metaphysical shop, because I read that sunstone encourages mental clarity.
When I arrived at the shop, I awkwardly browsed until I got up the courage to ask the saleswoman how to choose a crystal. She said to hold each stone and see which felt right—felt special. I was skeptical, but I swear the stone I ended up purchasing buzzed with warmth when I held it in my hand. It was inexpensive and pretty, and I think it’s on a bookshelf somewhere, now.
I wore a cheap hematite ring, too, until it cracked in half while I was tapping my glands during doula class, which sent me into a temporary existential tailspin: Should I get a new one? Was it just a cheap piece of jewelry? Was it a sign that doula work would disrupt my stability? Did I not need the ring anymore?
I can’t put it better than Autostraddle’s Trans Editor (and Bruja femme) Mey Rude, who wrote, “We’ve said it before (and so have other people), but we’re definitely living in an age of the Resurgence of the Witch. This feels especially true for queer women. We’re embracing our family traditions and our cultural heritage. We’re learning about herbology and tarot cards and candle magic. We’re dressing like extras from Wicked or The Craft. We’re forming sisterhoods and cultivating auras.”
1. “Why We Are Witches: An A-Camp Roundtable.” (Mey Rude and Autostraddle Staff, Autostraddle, June 2015)
Mey, Laura, Ali, Beth and Cecelia discuss building altars, using Tarot cards, learning their family histories, reclaiming religious rituals and so much more! Read more…
Disappearance takes many forms. It can be self-imposed (going off the grid), a medical metaphor (dementia, amnesia or Alzheimer’s) or an act of violence (kidnapping, murder, conspiracy).
Last week, Longreads brought you Grace Rubenstein’s “The Vanishing: What Happened to the Thousands Still Missing in Mexico?” This week, I wanted to share five more stories about what it means to disappear—either against your will or by your own volition. Read more…
So often, we hear stories of people who get help just in time. They hit rock bottom and manage to climb back up. At Electric Literature, Adam Sturtevant has written “That Thing: A True Story Based on ‘The Exorcist.'” It is a terrifying yet beautiful meditation on the impotence of love in the face of an all-too-real demon—alcoholism:
Before performing an exorcism, it must be determined by a qualified priest whether or not the possession is authentic. There are a few ways to do this. A victim speaking fluently in a language he or she has never studied, for example, serves as proof that an outside spirit is at work, as opposed to a disorder of the mind.
One evening, as my mother and I were serving ourselves dinner, the old man staggered into the kitchen. In a stained, wrinkled T-shirt and sweatpants, his hair plastered to his head with sweat, every part of his body swollen and mottled, he looked about eighty years old, though he was only fifty-eight. Wearing that dazed, content look on his face, he opened the freezer and refilled his glass, then slowly shuffled back to his throne.
I had to do something, but there was a question standing in the way. Was it was a conscious act, destroying himself like this, or was he powerless against the booze? If he was powerless, that meant we could help him. We could call an ambulance, get him to a hospital, check him into rehab. But what if he didn’t want our help? What if he wanted to die?
These four fantastic fiction pieces will take you far away from this perpetual winter.
1. “Lost in Transit.” (Leon, The Swan Children Magazine, March 2014)
This story is a beautiful, haunting example of the work produced by the Swan Children, a collective of artists expressing their experiences under “homeschooled, Quiverfull, and conservative Christian upbringing.” The first issue debuted March 1. It is not to be missed.
2. “Touchdown!” (Jerad W. Alexander, Pithead Chapel)
An afternoon of watching football is disrupted by the implications of a kitchen injury.
3. “Conversion.” (Sara Novic, Guernica, February 2014)
Carter isn’t sure what to make of his mother’s fascination with the local evangelical congregation — until it’s too late.
4. “The Unraveling.” (A.N. Devers, Electric Literature, 2013)
A mysterious real estate agent promises a young Brooklyn couple that his unorthodox methods will find the perfect apartment — if they cooperate, that is.
Photo: Sergey Yakunin
We need your help to get to 5,000 Longreads Members.
Our fiction pick of the week, from Electric Literature: “Hello Everybody,” by A.M. Homes. (Thanks, Elliott Holt.)