Each August is Women in Translation Month, a time set aside to promote women writers from around the world who write in languages other than English and, of course, encourage increased translation of these authors into other languages so that they may be more widely read. This initiative, started by blogger Meytal Radzinski, is now in its sixth year.
My best ever effort to participate was during 2015, my first year as a blogger. Not only was this before writing critical reviews and editing commitments started to creep into my reading time, but I was also recovering from a cardiac arrest and could stretch out on the sofa and read without guilt. Doing much else was painful! Since then, each year I have made public or private commitments to toss a few extra appropriate titles on the TBR pile and, if lucky, read one or two. I console myself by remembering that reading women in translation is something that naturally seems to occur throughout the year in the course of my normal reading. As so it should.
This year I have a few books earmarked for the month (fingers crossed), but I thought I would take a little time to suggest some titles that might not be so well known. They’re all taken from my own bookcases and most are (as of yet) unread.
I’ll start with those that I have in fact read and reviewed. First up, poetry:
From the bottom up:
Korean poet Kim Hyesoon won the 2019 International Griffin Poetry Prize for this book Autobiography of Death, a cycle of 49 poems and one longer piece inspired by national tragedies and personal experience. Her daughter’s distinctive illustrations accompany this powerful collection translated by Don Mee Choi.
Thick of It by German poet Ulrike Almut Sandig, translated by Karen Leeder, is a wonderful blend of the magical and the everyday. Fresh and alive.
Finally, Italian poet Franca Mancinelli’s The Little Book of Passage, translated by John Taylor, is a spare and delicate collection that invites rereading. Earlier this year she and I were able to meet and spend a few days together in Calcutta when my visit happened to overlap with a residency she was doing in the city—evidence that reading the world makes the world smaller in unimaginable ways!
Second, I wanted to highlight a book I recently reviewed that I am afraid has not had the attention it deserves:
Croatian writer Olja Savičevič’s Singer in the Nightfeatures a wildly eccentric narrator and a highly inventive style to tell a story that paints a serious portrait of the world that her generation inherited after the break up of the former Yugoslavia. Translated by Celia Hawkesworth, this book is already available in the UK and well worth watching for when it comes out on October 1 in North America.
Third, I have an impressive stack of Seagull Books by female authors that I am ashamed to say I have not read yet (save for the poetry title tucked in here). The interesting thing for me about this selection is that although I did purchase many of these books, other titles arrived as unexpected—but very welcome—review copies by writers previously unknown to me.
Most of the above are German language writers; two, Michele Lesbre and Suzanne Dracius are French, the latter from Martinique. The review copy at the bottom of the stack is East German writer Brigitte Reimann’s diary I Have No Regrets.
Finally, I wanted to include a couple of translated titles by Indian women writers. Two vastly different offerings.
Translated by Kalpana Bardhan and published by feminist press Zubaan, Mahuldiha Days is a novel by Anita Agnihotri, one of West Bengal’s best known writers. She draws on the decades she spent in the Indian Administrative Service in this story of a young civil servant caught between her obligations to the tribal community she is working with and the state. By sharp contrast, I Lalla, gives a fresh voice the poems of fourteenth century Kashmiri mystic poet, Lal Děd. A detailed introduction by translator Ranjit Hoskote provides a fascinating background to her life and the tradition to which she belonged, opening a world little known to most Western readers.
So, what are my best laid plans for this month? I would like to read one or two titles from my Seagull stack—not sure which—and I have a new Istros title Wild Woman by Marina Sur Puhlovski on my iPad in PDF format, but the following three books have been patiently waiting for August:
The Snow Sleeper by Marlene van Niekerk, translated from the Afrikaans by Marius Swart, is a recently released collection of short pieces, including “The Swan Whisperer” which was published as part of the Cahier Series. I ordered it as soon as I heard of it—new van Niekerk is a rare and special treat. Aviaries by Czech writer Zuzana Brabcova caught my attention when fellow readers and reviewers started talking about it so it’s another title I sought out when it was released here this spring. And last but not least, Marguerite Duras’ The Lover is a book I’ve been meaning to read for years now. Will I fit it in this August? Time will tell. And, of course, I reserve the right to change my plans altogether…
The nice thing about books is that, at least with the old fashioned solid form variety, they don’t vanish at month’s end if you don’t get to them. They will still be there on the shelf waiting no matter how much time I do or do not have to read amid all my other projects on my plate this August!
I have published very little work outside my blog over the past year. For a long time I struggling with a serious writer’s block, something I have addressed here before. That had started to ease considerably while I was in India earlier this year, but when I came back, a period of editorial upheaval at 3:AMMagazine left me with increased editing responsibilities that have consumed much of my time and creative energies and, well, here we are.
Lately I have made an effort to claw some of that time back. I have contributed an essay for a book, pitched a critical piece I’m very excited about and even published a poem—my third piece to appear at Burning House Press.
This poem, “No (New) Man’s Land,” actually had its genesis in an earlier imperfect form, perhaps two years ago. I recently pulled it out again and worried over it until I was happy with the results and sent it in for consideration for this month’s theme: “Secrets&Lies.” It always thrills me to publish a poem or poem-like piece because I am an accidental poet. Occasionally I will go through a fit of scribbling down bits of random verse which then take years to ferment and maybe grow into a poem.
Here I am, once again, writing the body—a subject that is never far from my personal essay writing. “Your Body Will Betray You,” my first published piece, continues to attract a lot of attention three years after it was first published, and even if I would now use somewhat different language, I am proud of that odd little essay. But writing the body, especially when one is as dysmorphic as I am, is a vulnerable process. Catharsis is transitory. I’m finding that poetry offers a way to step back, pare the language, distort the imagery and grant a little distance to a story that is still entirely and inevitably mine. Employing third person (something that was a disastrous misstep in early stages of writing “Your Body Will Betray You”) can also make all the difference for me. That is what I chose to do with this new piece.
In the last years, like a bird. Delicate, frail, angel wings slowly folding in embrace. Each time I saw her, after time away, the gentle shaking, the pale whitened hair startled me anew.
So tired. But still sharp.
Wise, but weary. Fragile, breakable, skin like frosted glass. Always able to ease, with a word, every worry I laid on her.
Three years ago today, my mother left us. Slipped away, ready to move on. Calm. Welcoming peaceful release from the simple struggle to breathe.
Gathered round her bed, we asked: Are you afraid?
A thousand times, whispered: I love you.
With a kiss to the forehead
I don’t know, for myself, the faith she held. Can’t quite imagine what it must have been like to feel assured she was leaving to join her parents, her sister, my sister, her God.
As she passed into to the night in one ICU, across town my father slept unknowing on another hospital ward. Eleven days later he would join her. Once he learned that she was gone, he no longer had the need to fight.
Perhaps he was afraid to be left behind.
Mourning aside, these past few days have been difficult.
My son confessed what I’d already suspected. After three months sober, he was drinking. Again.
Truth is the periods of sobriety have been but islands in a decade-long battle. Six or seven months total over the past nineteen.
His grandmother lived to see none of these passages of hope. She would have been heartened with every dry spell, distressed with every setback.
June lengthens, rising toward the longest day of the year. This is my most painful, impossible month and this year my awareness of the layering of repeated circles around the sun is taking on a new intensity.
Like a film flickering at the edge of my field of view, Junes of the past keep rolling in and out of focus. This week. Convergence.
Twenty-two years ago today, I was released from a period of involuntary hospitalization. The psychiatric ward was a strange place, with strange characters from the requisite Jesus dispensing wisdom in the dining room, to the young orthopaedic surgeon on suicide watch. I recall my time on the unit as the first opportunity I’d had in years to worry about no one but myself—and plenty of medication to ensure that I didn’t do too much of that either.
I was a manic patient in the process of coming back down to earth.
Eighteen years ago this week I had my first shot of testosterone. My partner of twenty-one years moved out the next morning. I cried for fifteen minutes, dusted myself off and moved on into a new reality. A single parent. A shape-shifter, slowly masculinizing.
Out of madness and into manhood. Or something.
Five years ago this week—summer solstice, 2014—I summited the heights of mania, once more, after a long steady climb over the crumbling rocks of my own sanity. I can only imagine the spectacle I’d become over the final months at the office. I remember trying to hold together an agency that seemed to be coming apart at the seams, everyone looking to me to fix things and ultimately taking the fall when I lost my grip. Nobody intervenes with a madman if that madman is doing a job no one else wants.
Nobody catches him when he falls or helps pick up the pieces. No one sends flowers.
The undignified end of my career forever unresolved. June 20, 2014, a day I can barely remember. A day I will never forget.
Exactly one year later I sought my own closure. Booked a trip to South Africa—the first and sadly only chance I would ever have to spend time with a close friend, queer and bipolar like me, but down a much deeper darker road, one with no escape, as it would turn out.
I timed my arrival so I would be in Cape Town on June 20, 2015. Imagining that I would invert my fortunes by marking winter solstice in the southern hemisphere. That I would stand and face the sun going down and bring to a close a difficult twelve months. Put it all behind me and move forward into a renewed life.
Reinvent myself again.
But of course, closure is a myth and life writes its own lessons. I would have to come to terms with death first. Very nearly my own within a month of returning home. Then my mother’s, my father’s, my friend’s.
I was torn open. Again. I’m still pulling myself together.
This June, for all the added hours of daylight, it’s darkness I am fighting. The malaise, the murky waters of the bipolar cycle were never my habitat until these past few years. To feel my spirit and energy ebb as the seasonal shift ushers colour into this dead brown world is difficult to bear. With the added rainbow intensity of Pride Month, ever reminding me of everything I cannot find within my own queered reality, I keep falling further into the dark corners of my own imagination.
All month I’ve been pushing against this current of discontent.
I can’t stop thinking ahead. This October brings my 59th birthday. Next year I turn 60. I don’t even know how I got here. No other milestone has pressed down on me like this one. I have a number of friends who are over 60, but not one of them is facing their seventh decade alone.
Alone. That is what I didn’t expect at this age. Or if I suspected it, I didn’t think it would hurt like hell. Alone is not a lack of people in your life. It is a lack of something you know is missing, that you cannot even fully define so it’s hard to know how to fill it. A close friend? A lover? Something to give your life meaning?
For me feeling alone is something pervasive. Embodied. Written into the physical and gendered trajectory of my existence. Here. In June. Once again.
June lengthens, rising toward the longest day of the year.
Passing rain. An image that stirs, the shifting light, sun, darkening skies and sun again, on a wet and glittering world. This is summer. Not quite but almost.
An odd thing happened when I was reading Kate Zambreno’s remarkable Book of Mutter, her fragmented meditation on grief and loss—a mix of memoir and literary and artistic criticism—that took her more than a decade to write. I sensed a strain in her relationship with her mother, reading it against my own circumstances. Of course there were huge differences between our lives and the ages at which we lost our mothers, but it seemed that even after such a long gestation period, her effort to work through her complicated emotions was still uncertain and unresolved. And, why not? Is grief ever really resolved?
Appendix Project, the unintentional follow up or companion piece to Book of Mutter, is a collection of lectures and essays composed during the year following the original book’s publication. It offers Zambreno a unique opportunity to continue a process that, to her surprise, was not put to rest with the final edits and release of a text she had already dedicated so much of her writing energy to. What more could be said? A lot it turns out. And the result is a more intimate, thoroughly engaging meditation on the impossibility of ever fully writing through grief, the limits of language, and the intensified emotional connection to her mother that she discovers through her own experience of motherhood. The entries gathered into Appendix Project trace the first year of Zambreno’s daughter’s life, and as such, her mother’s absence is filtered, re-imagined and given greater dimension through the presence of her child. In becoming a parent herself, her understanding of her mother as a mother has been altered.
What I never anticipated is how much being pregnant, and having a baby, would change the nature of time for me, and how that would interfere with the mourning of my mother, which I thought was finished, since the book I wrote about her was finished… My baby is almost four months old, but I feel she was just born, and that she’s been alive forever. I am 39 years old, but I have never felt more the past year like I was a child, have never felt more strongly the absence of being a daughter, of having a mother.
More haphazard, natural and organic than the book that proceeds it, this series of talks and reflections is not simply an addendum to Book of Mutter, or an alternative to reading from the book at public events, rather it grows over the course of its evolution into an intimate investigation into the act of remembering and attempting to put into words that which cannot be readily defined, confined, contained and released. There are many spaces where language is inadequate, where writing to process experience is not only irresistible but often impossible. Drawing on—that is, thinking and writing through—the work of artists and writers like Barthes, W.G. Sebald, On Kawara, Anne Carson, Bhanu Kapil, Marguerite Duras, Louise Bourgeois, Peter Handke and many more, Zambreno is not just continuing to think and re-think her own work, she is opening up avenues of inquiry and contemplation for any intuitive reader or writer to follow to their own ends. To read Appendix Project is akin to listening to its author thinking aloud as she reads the works others, reflects on motherhood, and returns to reconsider the elements of Book of Mutter that, over its long journey to a finished form, were either abandoned or edited out.
During the course of preparing the pieces that come to comprise Appendix Project, Zambreno resists the idea that they will be published as a book, knowing at the same time that she is engaged in a project. Others suggest that she should just repeat her these lectures, considering the time it takes to put them together, but there is an important temporal element at play, an ongoingness that is essential:
It feels like a necessary act, at this point where I am as a writer, and also as a published author, to re-engage in a passionate way in the ephemeral and daily practice of the writer, a way of returning back to the semi-privacy of writing—the different forms this might take—the letter, the notebook, and the talk. A talk however, Barthes notes, is not quite a performance. A talk is an outline for writing and speaking, a means to prepare and vocalize one’s thoughts.
Herein lies the key, at least for me, to the success of this project. As Zambreno sorts her thoughts out in the course of these lectures and essays, an attentive reader/writer can find their own launching points to questions that they may be dealing with. Reading Book of Mutter set me off on long stretches of writing in my notebook as passages I encountered facilitated unlikely connections I might not have made otherwise. It was often less what was said than the way something was said that caused me to think: how is that different for me? The fruits of my very idiosyncratic reading led to an understanding of my own queered relationship with my mother that I had never appreciated. I have since written about that in an essay posted here on my blog on Mother’s Day. My reading of Appendix Project, which I had little desire to rush, has likewise opened up further channels of exploration for my own writing—this time broader because the scope is broader—and some of this meandering has become key to another piece I have recently written for publication next year.
My point in bringing in my own reactions here, without fleshing out any of the details of the connections I made because they are relevant only to me, is by way of saying that this is not a book I can stand back from and review with the critical displacement required. Well I could, but that is not what excites me about this work. What makes this form of intelligent, personalized critical essay writing so powerful when it works (and it does not always work, especially when it slides into the overly self-indulgent and solipsistic) is that it can send readers (or listeners when presented as a lecture) to consider their own intersection with the topics discussed. Certainly grief and addressing the loss of a mother are central themes, but other losses—childhood, language, land, even sanity—can be subject to the same challenges of understanding and expression. My copy of Appendix Project is decorated in marginalia spinning off in a multitude of directions. And I have a stack of books Zambreno dips into—some old favourites, others yet unread—now sitting close at hand, not to mention a few more titles added to my wish list.
Finally, it’s worth asking whether familiarity with Book of Mutter will provide context for this collection of lectures and essays, and of course it won’t hurt, but this really more a book about everything that book (or perhaps any book) does not contain—what was removed, what was never there, what may never adequately be captured in any written text. They are really very different works, in form and intention. Book of Mutter, if unconventional, is still a highly structured work of mourning that, in the end, left me feeling a little disconnected. Appendix Project fills in those gaps and much more. And as such it is an exceptionally original, intelligent, and generous work in its own right.
Appendix Project by Kate Zambreno is published by Semiotext(e).
This Mother’s Day marks the third that I have faced alone since my mother’s passing in 2016. Last year was painful; this year, the passage between her birthday on May 2nd and today has been even more difficult. I have been angry, frustrated, agitated, depressed. Beset with a loneliness that is bone-deep, existential, wordless. I debated whether I should even attempt to express it because my specific pain is coloured not only by my loss of a beloved parent, my own mother, but because, although I face the world as a male person, understood as a man even to those who know otherwise, I am also a mother. Mother’s Day opens itself to women who have longed for motherhood (including those born male) or taken on motherlike roles in a wide variety of contexts, but holds no space for a mother like me. Even my own children tend to overlook my desire for just a moment’s recognition.
The only person who fully understood, honoured and respected this incongruous aspect of my being in the world was my own mother. And she is gone.
Up until the week she died, my mother called me, like clockwork, every Saturday night at 7:00 pm. I’m not sure when this pattern was established, but it extended back for decades. We were so very close. I listened to her joys and trials; she listened to mine. But there was never a exchange more difficult than my call, almost twenty years ago, to tell her that, after nearly forty years of trying to make myself into the woman she naturally assumed I was, I could no longer fight a persistent agonizing sense that I was not really female. My thirties had been, she was well aware, a decade of peculiar turmoil; that behind the birth of two children and a dutiful effort to craft a home that resembled the one I’d grown up in, something darker was brewing. I was increasingly, obviously miserable. I had experienced a serious manic psychosis and spent the better part of a month on the psychiatric ward. But nothing could have prepared her for my revelation. I had never shown the slightest masculine tendencies or interests and “transgender” was only just beginning to become a topic of conversation. However if gender roles and experiences—including pregnancy and childbirth— could a woman make, I could have managed to quell the dysphoria. I could not.
My mother, bless her, responded to the news that I was planning to divorce and transition to a life as male, with the promise that she would always love me unconditionally. She asked for no more than a few weeks to adjust to the idea. She became my advocate, quietly, faithfully, unstintingly. If she had her own doubts and grief over the loss of her daughter, she never let me know. And I never got the chance to ask. It was a subject left unaddressed in death.
My mother died from complications of osteoporosis and, as we learned in the final days of her life, post-polio syndrome. In eighty-two years the markers of exposure to that disease had never been detected, but together these conditions had gradually reduced her body to a hunched, frail, crippled cage. Until the very last month, when the lack of adequate oxygen exchange began to impair her thinking processes, she remained alert, intelligent and fresh. When I spoke to her, her age was ambiguous, eternal. Every time I saw her in person, I would be shocked anew. She spent her final years trapped in a delicate, fragile frame that constrained the spirit of a woman who had been so active and physically vital most of her life.
Her body betrayed her.
My mother’s death, followed eleven days later by my father’s death from the complications of a head-on collision, unravelled my reality in ways I am only beginning to fully appreciate. My parents spent their final years in a cottage in the woods outside a small village about two hours northwest of the city I live in. It was the final destination of lives that had started in large urban centres—New York and Toronto—and ended in a place in which they had few, if any connections. To everyone who knew them in this ultimate location, I was the oldest son. To most of the distant and scattered friends and relations I was tasked with notifying of their passing, I was their only daughter. For my brothers, never entirely at ease navigating the decade and a half between my two opposed public identities, I will always be a sister.
For my own two children, I am the parent who transcends and defies gender, who struggled to raise them alone from the ages of eight and eleven, with little financial and emotional support, with one identity at home, but hidden, vague and uncertainly defined to the outside world. I referred to myself as their parent, only explicitly defining the biological reality when medical or educational situations commanded more specific terms. To do so was to invite the question of how much my issues were or were not impacting my son or daughter who each had their own challenges. No one ever asked how the practical emotional distance of their father played a role. I looked like a father and it is difficult for others, even if they are fully aware of my past to hold mother as a reality in the existence and life of someone who looks like a man. I was, more often than not, reduced to that oddity that, even today, is poorly appreciated—a single male parent.
I would be asked: Where is their real parent? Who? Their mother? What could I say? She’s dead? And yet, I resisted revealing my identity unnecessarily. I have long known single fathers, not widowed but left with the care and responsibility while mothers moved on, and I felt it was important to call attention to the fact that not all single parents are women. I also feared negative fallout. As a closeted transgender person I stood in isolation.
Yet raising children through their difficult adolescent years gave my life meaning, value. My own parents stood by me, pitched in, built strong and vital relationships with their grandchildren while the other side of their family, maintained a distance. Only their stepmother, their father’s new wife, made an effort. As I built a new identity and a new history as a man in the world, my children and my parents provided essential continuity. They allowed me to feel whole, to carry motherhood and manhood as part of who I was.
Who I was.
The last few years have not been so easy. The artificiality of this assumed completeness was shattered when I became ill and lost my job. The scaffolding provided by my short-lived career, the years I spent working in social services fully and completely accepted as male, was stripped away leaving me defenseless. By this time, my children were in their twenties, both dealing with their own serious issues, and I had no friends, community or support to fall back on.
In retrospect, the sharp jolt into recognition of the limitations of transition to address the longstanding dislocation of gender dysphoria, has been a blessing. I could have continued to imagine that my artificial existence was sufficient for some time, but in truth, cracks in my carefully tended armour were showing long before the tentacles of mania pried them open. Career success was only a passing indication of achievement. My failure to make friends or forge a sexual identity spoke much more acutely to the truth that I could live as a man, but would never really be a man. Yet, as transgender, my own experience—past and present—is never echoed in the endless stream of gender different narratives that have become so ubiquitous in queer and public discourse. My personal efforts to find comfort, community or safety in LGBTQ space have been a dismal tribute to the heartache of finding oneself doubly alienated among the alienated. I sometimes feel like I have never fit in anywhere.
So I sought to find myself where I had no reason or expectation of fitting in. Where I once sought to ensure protection by building walls between myself and the world, I now seek escape. Through reading, writing , and travel. South Africa. Australia. India.
And again, India.
My mother only lived to know of the first of these journeys, one that in my complete ignorance about the risks of long haul sedentary travel, very nearly cost me my life—blood clot to pulmonary embolism to cardiac arrest—saved against incredible odds, by my son who found me and started CPR. But I know she would never have discouraged my continued travel. In her lifetime she managed to visit Cairo with a friend and Russia and New Zealand with my father, but had she not been constrained by an increasingly brittle body and an increasingly eccentric and intransigent husband, she would have travelled longer and farther. Perhaps I have inherited some of my restlessness from her.
That restlessness is growing. I have never felt “at home” in the city where I have lived for most of my life. I was not born here. I have no roots or connections here. Both of my brothers are married to women with deep histories in this part of the country. But my ex was of the first generation born to migrants, refugees. My own mother was a migrant and, back only two generations of a family of refugees herself. I feel this eternal disconnect enhanced by the embodied dislocation I feel as someone who has navigated womanhood and manhood, but belonged to neither. In this present #MeToo era I am even more adrift. I am torn between a genuine empathy for men—informed by living as a male person in society keenly aware of the ways testosterone has altered my mental and emotional engagement with the world—and the feeling that my own experiences as a girl and woman have lost their currency. I look like a middle-aged white man and that is all that I am allowed to speak to. There isn’t even a language which can adequately address my dual life and my role as a parent. Transgender men who opt to have a child at the beginning of the transitional process engage a queer parenthood that is unlikely to ever be labelled “motherhood” as language now tends to be gender neutralized, distorted. Which is fine for them, but it silences and disowns the reality of my, admittedly less common, hybridized experience.
I want to speak for no one but myself. I do not regret the decision to transition, I am entirely comfortable with the face I see in the mirror. I am male and enjoy a hormonal rightness that grants me a certain completeness. The body, well that is another possibly unsolvable matter. However, of late I find myself wanting to claw back some sense of dignity for my early, pre-transition life. It isn’t easy. It is unsettling, even with my most generous and supportive friends— those who fully accept me but have only known me with this present name, this current appearance. And very often it angers transgender activists because it defies the accepted discourse. I can’t help but fear that the only person who might have ever come close to truly understanding, who might have been able to walk with me through this unending, evolving, shifting, and ever ill-defined journey is no longer here. My mother contained all that I am—all that I have ever been, and all that I ever will be. My absolute alpha and omega. Her love was whole, at times skeptical perhaps, but expansive and complete.
And for that reason, on this Mother’s Day, I miss her with all my heart and soul.
To read Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter, is akin to making your way through a strangely familiar space that resembles a gallery, a diary, and a hall of mirrors all at once. It is, in its shifting fragmented form, unlike any conventional grief memoir. But then, as anyone who has lost a close family member—parent, child, partner—knows, there is nothing conventional about grief. The dynamics of shared histories, hopes and fears are complex. This colours, troubles and blurs the edges of the mourning process. Grieving is as much about our own lives, past and present, as it about honouring or making peace with our relationship with the person who is gone. We are the ones who need to be able integrate a complex of emotions and continue living.
Spanning thirteen years, from 2003 to 2016, Book of Mutter is Zambreno’s thoughtful, pained, uncertain attempt to come to terms with her mother’s death. Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary and Camera Lucida, works that attempt to articulate—initially in the immediate moment and later in the context of the photograph—the deep sense of grief he felt after the loss of his beloved mother, form a sort of natural undercurrent that arises regularly throughout the text. They are the only two books on grief that I read in the months following my own parents’ closely timed deaths in July 2016. I had already read, and thought often of Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams which also appears here, but as for this book which came out in early 2017, I was not ready, at the time, to approach it. My own losses were too fresh.
As it happens, waiting was wise. Not only have I been open to reading grief in recent months, I am actively working to write about the loss of my own mother and how that is bound to the grief, anger and guilt that haunts my own sense of self. Although the circumstances, stories, and intentions guiding my own project could not be more different, Kate Zambreno’s book is filled with kindling—thoughts, ideas and reflections that sparked some sharp insights into my own achingly conflicted emotions and I have pages of scribbled notes to show for it. But that’s for another writing project yet to come. The point is, that reading and writing about grief, is not about finding exact images of yourself and resolving loss on anyone else’s terms, it is about being open to inspiration to guide your own mourning process, whatever that may ultimately look like.
Zambreno’s relationship with her mother is rife with contradictions, frequent tensions and conflicts. Her mother’s independent existence apart from her, prior to her own existence and as she grows up, is an enigma that death calls her to try to give sense to. The only access is through memory—a “house of memories”—and it is the fear of facing what this may unearth that holds her back:
My mother is the text. I cannot enter her.
Your mother was not herself in those last few months…
But who was she?
This resonates with me as someone whose own memory project was interrupted by my mother’s death, closing the door to a house of memories I was suddenly afraid to open. And yet writing is, for many people, the only access to understanding and release. Barthes and Handke both embarked on early missions to write grief, private or public, and both, I would suggest, found release elusive in these immediate efforts.
But thirteen years?
The process takes the time it demands, and then some. But the desire for closure, as impossible as that may be, is a natural instinct—one that holds a curious allure for writers who work toward that line, sentence, thought where a poem, story or essay naturally ends. But, of course, the strongest endings are those that hang in the air unaltered. Allowing for that in the act of literary creation is one thing—living it is quite another. The desire to be able to gather up all the loose ends of a life so as to let them go looms large. Zambreno describes her own intention clearly as an attempt:
To put these memories in a book, so as to be released from it. These thirteen years of it. Like a sacrificial offering. To bury it in the ground. Writing as a way not to remember but to forget. Or if not to forget, to attempt to leave it behind.
All the offerings for the dead
so they remain buried.
Book of Mutter can be read as a daughter’s incantation, an attempt to grant meaning to her mother’s life, illness, and the curious spaces she leaves behind. It resembles a literary scrapbook or a passage in and out of the rooms in a large house where mnemonic images drawn from life, literature, art, and history provoke reflections. It is a fitful journey. Zambreno’s guides are idiosyncratic, their very strangeness allowing for the unique tone of this remarkable work. Key among them are Henry Darger and Louise Bourgeois. Darger is the famous “outsider artist” who was orphaned at an early age and spent his childhood institutionalized. As an adult he maintained a solitary existence, attending Mass daily and supporting himself as a hospital custodian. It was not until he was forced to leave his Chicago apartment at the end of his life that a trove of illustrations and extensive typed manuscripts was uncovered. His stories and drawings depict detailed, elaborate fantasies—alternately whimsical and horrific—featuring children. Bourgeois was a French-American sculptor and installation artist. Works from her Cells projects, each a series of large scale installations featuring scenes and vignettes created with found objects and enclosed in wire mesh cages, provide recurring counterpoints for Zambreno as she assembles her own memory project. Disturbing insights into the creation of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film, The Passion of Saint Joan, reflections on post-mortem photography, and the fate of Mary Todd Lincoln are also woven into the text along with input from a variety of literary voices.
The resulting oddly eclectic assemblage reflects, perhaps, the extended passage of time that marks the realization of this book. Zambreno is writing in fits and starts, as she seeks to articulate so many unresolved emotions and observations. By placing her not uncommon experiences against a backdrop that is unusual (as in, not the standard grief and loss tapestry), the surreal strangeness and absolute uniqueness of the grieving experience is captured. This is a book that is at once measured and raw. In her account she moves back and forth between memories of her own often difficult relationship with her mother and the profound absence and guilt she feels, her widowed father’s attempts to fill the vacated space in his life, and an often brutal portrayal of her mother’s illness, decline and madness.
The fractured quality of the text echoes the way loss refuses to conform, refuses to work itself out neatly. How can it? Although my own relationship with my mother was quite different than the one Zambreno describes, it was not and is not free of tangled sentiments that I have often wished we could have talked about. We were close. We spoke on the phone every week and she died in her eighties, weary yet peacefully ready to leave, however there are many moments in Book of Mutter, especially in the first half, that have illuminated, by contrast, questions I’ve been struggling with. Turned them around. And that is why we read grief. And why many of us feel a need to attempt to write it. Not to find answers. But to be moved to ask questions and follow where they lead. In recent months I have read some very good books about grief and loss, accounts that blend personal experience with time-honoured, accepted understanding of the grieving process. Which is fine, but this book with its uneven, awkward genesis across more than a decade is one that I skirted so widely when it appeared (and to be honest every time I saw it staring at me from the bookstore shelf with its peculiar cover that I now know to be one of Louise Bourgeois’ Cells), has unintentionally offered a clue I needed to move forward in my own writing at exactly the right time.
And yet it remains an unfinished text. I am now reading the newly released Appendix Project, a collection of essays and talks that Zambreno wrote in the year following the release of Book of Mutter—coincidentally the first year of her own daughter’s life. It is a rich and valuable continuation of her meditation on writing grief and living with the ghosts and reverberations of an evolving and ongoing process that does not end with a final edit and the publication of a book. What she once hoped to box up and bury is anything but.
Book of Mutter and Appendix Project by Kate Zambreno are published by Semiotext(e).