Like many, most, who contribute to this blog, I read professionally, which is to say, I read a lot of emails. Things I’m not reading: political coverage (just for a bit longer, please, a bit longer). Twitter, when I can possibly avoid it (I could certainly avoid it more). Traffic signs (I cross where I please). My open tabs (to be closed en masse, unread, in a cleansing end-of-year ritual). Downloaded early-childhood-development PDFs (kids grow quick; who can keep up?). Not as many books as you might think. More, things on the way to being books: manuscripts, proposals, inchoate musings. For years I’ve kept a list of the books and manuscripts I’ve read to the end at the back of my week-to-week diary, with an asterisk next to those read outside the auspices of work. In 2018 they numbered a pitiful three.
It’s standard industry small talk to ask colleagues what, or if, they’re reading for ‘fun’—which isn’t to say that what we’re reading in the course of our work is not good or pleasurable (it is!), but that the experience of reading is inevitably coloured by the work: the vulgar-but-necessary assessment for the market pre-acquisition; the hunt for repeated words and infelicities; the simple truth of capitalism that being paid to do something takes it out of the realm of enjoyment and into the world of obligation and debt.
Why would you work in books if not for a love of reading? Not for the glamour (I’m at my desk at work now in three pairs of socks). Not for the remuneration, certainly. The boozy lunches, if they ever existed, haven’t for a very long time. So it’s books, then, and the question of how to keep the love alive when you’ve lived together so long.
I’ve taken to reserving new releases at the library, which necessitate a two-week turnaround. Deadlines are useful (I am conditioned to find fulfilment in maximising the productivity of my leisure time). Many books are reserved and not collected, or returned unread. One that wasn’t, one that I read and savoured and loved: Yūko Tsushima’s Territory of Light, recently published in English in a translation by Geraldine Harcourt. First published in the 1970s as a series of stories in a literary magazine in Japan, then collected as a novel, Territory of Light is about a woman who has just separated from her husband, and who is trying to build a new life for herself and for her toddler daughter. Tsushima’s prose (as rendered in the frictionless translation) is crystal clear, the light vivid, all the better to see our unnamed narrator’s stark reality: her feckless and abusive husband, the confrontations with angry neighbours, the constraints placed on her as a (single) woman and mother in a society that treats such a condition with suspicion and hostility (which is all societies).
Tender, also brutal, it’s an acute portrait of motherhood that embodies its difficulties and contradictions, its extremes and its intimacies. It’s intensely personal—Tsushima’s early work tends to be categorised as autofiction, and biographical details from her life recur in her books—with something bigger to say about the culturally inflicted degradations of motherhood and womanhood.
‘Why were children the only ones who ever got to melt down?’ the unnamed narrator asks. Tsushima is honest about the woman’s struggles and failings: she shouts abuse at her daughter when the child wakes crying in the night; she fantasises about having her old life back; she sleeps with the married father of a child at her daughter’s daycare. It’s hard to know what can be put down to differences of time and place—was it normal for Japanese women in the 1970s to leave their small children home alone to go out drinking, in which case I should read the actions of the narrator at face value, or should such a thing inspire even more recrimination and judgement than it would among my middle-class Western peers now? How shocked am I supposed to be (I am shocked but I feel also, bodily, a thrill)?
I am drawn to books about complex, flawed mothers. Mothers who express ambivalence about their maternal identity; who show dissatisfaction about the largely unrecognised, undervalued, unrepresented work of motherhood; who acknowledge the mundane, mindless monotony of so much of childrearing, especially in infancy. Mothers who have good intentions, but who fail in some quantifiable way. Mothers who do not entirely sublimate their needs to the needs of their child, or to the idea of motherhood itself. Mothers who love their children mightily and vigilantly, exhaustively and imperfectly. Mothers I can relate to, but also, sometimes, and I am not proud of this, mothers I can compare myself with and come out ahead. ‘Sure, I watched old episodes of House on an iPad instead of staring lovingly into my child’s eyes as I breastfed,’ I think, ‘but I have not lost her in a park after slapping her across the face.’ If you cannot live up to the platonic ideal of motherhood—who can? she’d be insufferable—you need a new model.
In these books, as in life, the line between maternal ambivalence and mental illness is hazy (the headline of an article I have put off reading: ‘Parents: Are You Depressed or Just Tired?’). The mothers in these books are not often given diagnoses; they tend to resist diagnosis, or it’s not considered. They might self-flagellate, but their skilful creators often subtly direct the blame externally: to useless or absent partners; to social and economic conditions that leave women isolated and desperate. These books are social critiques as much as they are exquisite representations of the experience of motherhood.
What can be overlooked in the growing understanding, acceptance and treatment of post-partum depression and associated conditions—which is necessary and long overdue! this is not in any way to invalidate any woman’s honest-to-goodness psychic pain and adversity—is the way that this understanding and acceptance normalises the post-partum experience and draws a veil over the social and cultural conditions that make growing, bearing and raising a child so fucking hard. As though the only way it’s acceptable to be an unhappy mother, to be struggling, is to have something wrong with you (preferably something wrong with you that can be medicated away). In the early days of new motherhood, days of sleep deprivation, constant bewilderment, physical pain, being at the beck and call of a tiny tyrant, I remember thinking: isn’t the correct response to this situation unhappiness and anxiety? Shouldn’t a response of unalloyed joy be the thing pathologised? We remove social structures, chip away at economic supports, make maternity a consecrated ideal impossible to live up to, then conclude the way forward is individual diagnosis and not burning the whole goddam edifice to the ground.
I have read fourteen books so far this year that have been for me alone. I have read Bedtime for Frances—by Russell Hoban, the author of Riddley Walker—some fifty-six times (not included in my diary list). I have not read the parts of Bedtime for Frances where Frances is threatened with a spanking (‘“I will get a…time out?” says Frances.’). I have read a lot of New Yorker fiction (always with a sense of duty, even when I’ve enjoyed it, and I usually enjoy it). I have read the weather forecast multiple times a day (for all the good it’s done me). I have not read any music (I fear I’ve forgotten how). I have read recipes (double the garlic, always). I have read for pleasure (I have read for pain). I have not read anything after 10 p.m. (for the love of books I need some sleep).
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