Mothertongues: A book for mothers, by mothers | HerCanberra

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Mothertongues: A book for mothers, by mothers

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After sharing their artistic frustrations at the school gate, two women decide to take a risk: to co-write a book about early motherhood.

The result: a genre-defying, collaborative marvel that brings the absurdity of motherhood to the page.

We took five minutes with co-author Ceridwen Dovey (who wrote the book with Eliza Bell) about what they wanted to explore with Mothertongues as well as the process of co-authoring and mothering.

Mothering sometimes feels like another language. How did you find your common language — first as friends then as collaborators? 

Daily, monthly, yearly mothering is made up of so much that is hard to put into words—and Eliza and I found ourselves slightly ashamed too, at the beginning, at having the gall to think we had anything new or interesting to say about such a universal, common experience.

We sometimes wondered if the best thing to do was to silence that initial spark of an idea (shall we co-write an experimental book about mothering??). But the key to finding the right language for the project was exactly as you say: the collaboration and the dialogue that we established first as friends and then as co-authors is what gave us both the freedom to play around with language and expression.

By doing it together, it wasn’t as terrifying, and it was through literal play-acting and playing around (speaking monologues at each other; putting our birth stories into the other person’s voice; playing theatre games together) that we realised that we could use the language of ‘good enough’—the fragments and scraps we could salvage—to actually represent on the page the nature of mother-time: a kind of stop-start thing that hardly ever feels like flow.

The language matches the mothering: imperfect, messy, often incoherent and occasionally sublime.

Co-author Eliza Bell.

Co-writing a book, while sharing the work, must be no easy task. Was it fluid, were there rules, did you take it in turns like a call and response? How on earth did you do it?!

Good question. I wrote an essay on collaborative writing a few years ago, and one of the things that struck me when I was doing research was something one of the co-writers said, about how wonderful it was to go to sleep and wake up and see that your manuscript had magically grown without you lifting a finger, like it had been worked on by little elves.

There is something so magical about co-writing, especially for someone like me, who has been a solitary writer for so many years. I’m now mixing up my metaphors (!) but writing with Eliza felt to me like rolling butter—as if we started with nothing but a glass jar of milk, and by rolling it back and forth between each other many, many times, we ended up with a pat of creamy butter.

We really just made up the rules as we went along, though I think what really did keep the project evolving and moving is that we both realised early on that the other person was also serious about doing it, and we both kept turning up to do the work, no matter how tricky that was to fit in around all our other work/family responsibilities.

Once we had that trust established we each kept writing and adding little bits in a shared GoogleDoc at first, and it kept growing and growing, and it was always so exciting for me to see what Eliza had written, and then bounce off that in my own fragment.

Eventually, once we realised we really were going to do this, we had a more formal process of meeting fairly regularly, discussing how to structure it, setting ourselves mini-deadlines and goals that we could each meet in our own time. We also developed a way of working on each other’s fragments/pieces so that each piece became ours (not hers/mine) at a really intimate word/sentence/style level.

That was key to the coherence of the project: it was never about ‘oh, this bit is mine and that’s yours’ but how do we co-create a consciousness, and really blur the lines between two experiences of motherhood? There are so many parts in the book now where I honestly can’t say who wrote the initial fragment that then developed into that final piece.

And why did you want to show up the power and possibilities of (artistic) collaboration?

We process this in the book in parts, but a big part of it is that so many of the writing art forms we have inherited—the novel, for instance—require massive amounts of writing time, solitude and focused attention. Many of these things are impossible for mothers (of young children especially) to ever have—and so the mother-artist’s dreams die an agonising, lonely death.

We were really interested in what might happen if we re-invent the literary forms in which we are expected to write—throw out the novel, and replace it with something that is more like a patchwork quilt made of old fabric scraps, and you can’t really tell where the quilt’s beginning, middle or end are. To us, this is a quiet but radical feminist act: because it means asking questions about the history of literary value and taste and form that are often left unasked.

If we let go of this ‘heroic solitary artist’ worship, who else might be able to write? If we write in pairs or groups; if we invent new forms that have just as much literary merit but don’t fit into any canon; if we set aside our individual egos and instead decide to share the fruits of our mind’s labours, I think literature would be much more representative of the full range of human experience.

There are some classics held up and interrogated in Mothertongues—what were the first texts you turned to—and why?

The Odyssey was one we started with—both because Homer is now believed to be a group-name (it wasn’t just one super amazing poet dude but probably many people co-creating over time), but also because the hero’s journey narrative is so embedded in Western culture.

We set ourselves a task of looking at some of these classics upside down, or askance as if they had been written not about men on their difficult journeys, but about women on their mothering journeys, and this was both hilarious and unsettling. So much of what is written in the Odyssey applies directly to mothering!

The same goes for some of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist theatre and other writings—and yet these were never texts intended to capture the dissociative experience of becoming a mother. We play with these classic texts to critique them but also to pay tribute to them: and to show that if you flip something and replace ‘the mother’ as the main character in so many of these great works of literature, they still make sense, and are useful as a way of giving us these different lenses on what mothering can feel like (heroic/epic/absurd/existentialist despair).

Top book recommendation for a mum-to-be?

Mothertongues, obviously! Only because we have had some really lovely responses from friends who have young babies who say that they feel seen when they read/listen to it. We would also recommend Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder; everything Rachel Cusk has ever written; and The Group by Mary McCarthy.

What’s on your TBR pile?

A Shirley Hazzard binge (The Transit of Venus has never made sense to me, but I’ve been told that it only makes sense to the reader when you are worthy of understanding…so I’m giving it another go); and Sarah Ruhl’s Smile: The Story of a Face.

Mothertongues is available now.

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