Mother & Daughter Reunion
September 15th, 2012
During the past year, I’ve often brooded on the following paragraph from the jacket of one of my own books:
“These stories are about women, about daughters relating to mothers, mothers to daughters. In Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich observes that .the loss of the daughter to the mother, the mother to the daughter is the essential female tragedy. We acknowledge Lear and Hamlet and Oedipus as the embodiments of the human tragedy, but there is no enduring recognition of mother-daughter passion and rapture.”
Those words, besides providing a striking example of art’s tendency to prefigure life, describe the focus of much of my work.
In several essays, I took issue with Rich’s statement. I argued that women have written endlessly about mother-daughter passion and rapture (rupture?), but their preoccupation has not always been discerned by readers. In my fiction, I wrote obsessively about mothers who lost their daughters in various ways.
Emily touched on the same subject often enough to describe our overlapping stories as “this bizarre conversation,” and always from the daughter’s point of view. In Private Eye, she wrote about the mother of a runaway daughter.
Before I left, she was working on a collection of short stories. Mishaps it was called. I found myself in several of the stories, transparently veiled by a different name. I bet she was spinning a story this very minute, and I would get caught in the mishap like a black fly.
It is a not-so-veiled reference to my Unfortunate Incidents. For years, Emily felt bitter about the resemblance she discerned between herself and my fictional characters. That changed when she became a writer herself, and our mother/daughter relationship evolved into one of writing colleagues.
Then she understood the imperatives that govern a writer’s choice of material. She acknowledged the undeniable authenticity of writing grounded in autobiographical experience, and she learned to maneuver a creative distance so that characters become autonomous and lead their own lives.
There were greater changes than the personal ones, however, in the quarter century between my first book of fiction and hers. One is evident in the photograph of Emily’s desk that I keep on my own desk. She took a computer for granted, where I began with minimal typing skills. Cutting and pasting was a scissors-and-Scotch tape-job, and I ironed out rejected manuscripts literally with an iron set for delicate fabrics over a piece of a brown grocery bag.
That difference is not so trivial as it might seem, for it is emblematic of the huge technological advances in the production and dissemination of our writing. I’m ambivalent about the computer I now use, feeling that what is gained in efficiency in lost in some indefinable way. I don’t altogether trust the slick, mechanical process.
I have no ambivalence, however, about another aspect of those early days – that is the excitement in the air. The women’s movement, Feminist Criticism, and the emergence of Women’s Studies gave a huge impetus to women’s writing. Women’s lives had always been the “stuff of fiction” written by men, but we changed the landscape. We were engorged with new stories to tell, or new points of view from which to tell the old stories. Feminist Criticism evolved into Literary Theory, Gender Studies and Identity Politics, each wave renewed the original impetus.
Many of us are still writing, and the autobiographies and memoirs are pouring out thick and fast.
But the sheen is off them, and the hunger for them has dried up. More shocks are needed to make an impact – the sure sign of an exhausted genre. As a septuagenarian, who has been writing for forty years, I have the sense of being at the end of an era.
There’s plenty of ink spilled these days on establishing the guilt for the indifference to literary fiction. Favourite culprits are reviewers, review editors, the critical establishment, the academy, the corporate world, and a celebrity culture that values human interest stories over good writing. It is as if literature is in its death throes, and we have to find out who killed it.
I do not believe that literary fiction is dying. For, as I consider the above changes.in technology and women’s writing.in the context of literary history, I’m struck not by their singularity but by their predictability and their cyclical nature. The industrial revolution happened when women were emerging as prominent writers for the first time; the twentieth century leap into the machine age saw women achieving the status of artists. So it seems to me that we are in a lull before another surge forward.
Naturally I wonder how Emily would have navigated the transition to the next stage. Already, she was turning in a new direction. Whereas my literary territory was limited to North America and Western Europe, her work in Asia and Eastern Europe had given her a wider global perspective. I suppose she was a creature of a time characterized by globalization, cosmopolitanism, and cultural identity in the context of ever-expanding transnationalism – all those isms and entities in which Pico Iyer saw the new promise of Canadian fiction, and others denounced as a fatally ahistorical North Americanism.
Between writers of different generations, a delicate tug-of-war takes place between resistance and affirmation. Emily was not entranced by my brand of literary feminism – after all she grew up with it and took it for granted. In this, too, we were probably emblematic of our times. But she found her own compulsion to write about women’s lives through her sojourns in Korea and Poland, where an unattached female and a free spirit was regarded with suspicion.
Another subject on which we differed was the need to publish. I’ve always believed in getting work ritualized in print, and learning from the feedback. She, on the other hand, quoted my own literary foremother, Katherine Anne Porter, back at me – “I think it is the most curious lack of judgment to publish before you are ready.” I worried that by the time she published, I might not be around. Perhaps that fear prompted me one day to write to her (in an excess of maternal pride):
“I can’t tell you how much it means to me to know that you have turned into such an accomplished intelligent writer, full – it seems to me – of maturity about your work and full of wisdom about writing. And with your own distinctive vision and sort of inner centre to it. The getting published part compared with that is insignificant (to me of course but understandably not to you).”
When I walked into Emily’s room a few days after her death, I found that fragment, torn from the letter I wrote and set aside. It pleased me to think that she had got my vote of confidence.
Essay Date: 2007