Reviewed: Ceridwen Dovey and Eliza Bell, Mothertongues, Hamish Hamilton
Just before I gave birth for the first time, I began reading Jessica Friedmann’s Things that Helped, gifted to me as a talisman against the anxiety and depression that often accompanies the arrival of a newborn. Friedmann’s essays offered just the variety of maternal knowledge and intimacy I had been craving as I stood at the threshold of motherhood. In search of similar nourishment, I taught myself to breastfeed one-handed so I could use my other hand to hold a book open against the armrest of the chair in which I fed my son every two to four hours. In this way, I read Jamila Rizvi’s The Motherhood, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living, Mariana Dimópulos’s Imminence, Shelia Heti’s Motherhood and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts.
My son is three years old now, and although I occasionally venture beyond the theme of motherhood in my reading, the books I choose to spend time with are still predominantly populated by mothers, prospective mothers, parent figures and children ranging from newborn to newly adult. Early on, I read for the company of other mothers. Later I was drawn to books that traced the shape of the systemic structures responsible for the position I now found myself in, as well as those that allowed me to step out of my positionality and brush up against the plurality of experience entailed by parenthood. Yet none of the books I’ve read has tackled the representation of motherhood in literature and the arts quite like Ceridwen Dovey and Eliza Bell’s Mothertongues.
At the beginning of the book’s preface, subtitled ‘Thoughts on Posing and the Search for Form’, the lights go down:
Eliza enters from the wings. Age forty-one, mother of two, drama teacher. She is naked. Under a spotlight, on a sofa at the centre of the stage, she lies down in an artful pose, carefully arranging her limbs.
Eliza: When I first met the man who would be the father of my children, I was posing for an art school in France.
Just what form the authors have settled on is initially difficult to discern. The monologue that follows is exactly the type of first-person account of love burgeoning in rural France one might expect to find in the first pages of a typical motherhood memoir. But the discomfiting appearance of theatrical conventions on the page, and the shock of being addressed so directly, signals that something different is happening here.
The whole book, it turns out, is structured like a play, complete with a preface, prologue and three acts. It is only after the prologue (consisting of fragmented anecdotes, a journal mash-up and a brief discussion of absurdist theatre) and well into Act I (a theatrical rendering of the search for a maternity bra, a pregnancy diary, the transcription of a series of short family histories) that I begin to grasp the joyful abandonment of an overarching narrative in favour of a mixed-media approach. The flurry of anecdotes, letters and sleep schedules captures something of the chaos of early motherhood, but also thwarts any inclination we might have to try to make a story out of the madness (as if there were ever the possibility of achieving any kind of resolution once you become responsible for another human!).
The piecewise structure of Mothertongues seems to situate the text in what by now amounts to a tradition of fragmentation within the genre of motherhood writing. Yet while the fragments that make up Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation all originate from a single, stable ‘I’, and the ‘unit’ of Nelson’s The Argonauts is anecdote, this is a work of collaboration and the literary equivalent of sculptural bricolage in which the artwork is crafted out of whatever materials happen to be readily available. The aggregate is an unfettered celebration of the arts—incorporating memoir, critical theory, dramatic texts and even a complete album of songs written and recorded by singer-songwriter Keppie Coutts—that draws the reader into the creative act, inviting them to participate in the work of meaning-making. Liberated from the confines of syntax, Mothertongues manages to circumvent the clichés of more loquacious first-person memoirs of early motherhood that dull the specificity of the maternal experience into something generic, as if it were just another consumer good off the production line. By contrast, this ‘experimental book of bio-autofiction’ is not only a deeply personal collection of the ephemera of motherhood, but also a representative exploration of the external and internal pressures that shape the act of mothering.
Gradually I notice the song lyrics, birth stories and to-do lists flowing and eddying about the if-not central, then at least recurring character of Odysseia, introduced early on as the book’s ‘mother-heroine’ and communal alter-ego, whose guise is taken up to traverse the murky social norms of mothers’ group and to dissect the never-ending horrors of housework. By arranging the artefacts of early motherhood around Odysseia into a theatre of the absurd, Dovey and Bell allow the theatrical movement’s ‘non sequiturs, fragments, interruptions, stories that go nowhere, gaps, cyclical language’ and ‘repetitive gestures’ to speak to and of the experience of early motherhood. With their framework sorted, the authors get down to the work of composing a heroics of motherhood: recording their own ‘tiny slice of experience’ and imagining new ways of being for mothers and for ‘artists who also happen to be mothers’.
The theatrical nature of the text’s superstructure points to Bell’s work as a theatre actor and drama teacher, and I think I sense the ghost of Dovey’s work as a social anthropologist in the commentary on Renaissance birthing practices. But more often than not, my reflexive attempts to link voice to one or the other author are frustrated by the winking de-identification of message threads titled ‘Texts between AI assistants Siri and Alexa’ and the frequent use of pronouns in lieu of names. Yet attribution, I eventually realise, is the furthest thing from the point. Always more a question than a statement, Mothertongues asks what might happen if we stopped trying to ‘squash ourselves into the proportions demanded by the solo-authored Very Important Book’:
Who else might be able to write if we let go of traditional forms like the masculinist thrust of the novel, building to a climax and then inevitable denouement? This is something the literary critic Jane Alison writes about, questioning why certain narrative types and arcs are still seen as the ur-types. Instead of the linear build-to-a-climax mode of narrative, she suggests that stories by and about women could instead be shaped to showcase connection, collaboration, the communal experience. Might not, she asks, a meander, or a spiral, be a better patterning device?
More than anything, it is these thought experiments that remain lodged in my body; the way they, like the whole ‘beautiful mess’ of the book, do the work of clearing space and opening up. By bringing some of the more liberating lessons of motherhood to their work as artists—the ability to relinquish control, to make do with the materials at hand, to play—Dovey and Bell have managed to create something new. Although they employ some of the tools of absurdist theatre to examine the ‘distortions’ of motherhood, they are far from content to dwell on Beckettian images of ‘man lost in the universe’. Rather, Mothertongues is intrinsically hopeful in the way it challenges the tired framing of maternal and artistic drives as locked in an ‘antagonistic battle, pulling the woman in two different directions so that she ends up having to a choose a side’, by modelling the ‘connection’ and ‘collaboration’ required to transform mothering and creating into a mutually supportive ‘communal experience’. As Dovey reassures Bell (or is it Bell reassuring Dovey?) when she is overwhelmed with work and apologises for failing to make progress on the manuscript, ‘The whole point of doing collaborative writing is that one of us can carry the other whenever it gets to be too much or life gets in the way.’
This is the source of the power of Mothertongues: the way Dovey and Bell reach for each other, their mothers, their mothers’ mothers, literary foremothers, mothers ‘lost to time’, ‘all the women in history who have lost their lives giving birth’, until the book hums with their collective presence. As I read, I have a growing awareness of being surrounded and lifted up—by my partner, who has taken the kids to the park so I can work; by my parents, who clamber to hold the newborn; by the mother-friends who make time to read every little thing I write. All work, I realise, is collaborative. •
Megan Cheong is a teacher, writer and critic living and working on Wurundjeri land. Her writing has appeared in Mascara Literary Review, Kill Your Darlings and Going Down Swinging.