In our April Web Exclusive story, “The Mother’s Portion,”  a woman with a husband and six children goes to extreme measures to reclaim herself. It’s a surprising story; it makes triumphant that which we think of as affliction. We talked with author Suzanne Morrison about liberation, our mutual love of Maggie Nelson, and the importance of telling our survival stories.
Erin McReynolds: We’re used to seeing overeating as a disorder, and we’re familiar with the trope that some anorexics (usually women) are trying to disappear, but this is the first time I’ve seen both ideas in the inverse: the mother’s eating is deliberate, not a disease, and she is trying to take up more space in the world. There’s something so punk rock and grotesquely feminist about that—who or what inspired this?
Suzanne Morrison: I get so tired of the way we are trained to look at everything in just one way, and the more negative, the better. We love to wring our hands, you know? Everybody needs fixing. So I was pretty happy when this character emerged who loved her growing body. That wasn’t by design, it just sort of happened. I’ve had the first line of this story for about fourteen years. I originally thought it would be the first line of an essay about my paternal grandmother, a bright, intelligent woman who graduated from college in the forties and then became a wife and mother of four. She could still recite Chaucer by heart in her eighties. I spend a lot of time thinking about what it would be like to be a woman during an era when things are changing, but not fast enough for you. I suppose we’re all in that position in one way or another, but the physical bondage of motherhood being one’s only option is something I find terrifying, frankly, even if I’ve wanted kids. I think this mother character emerged out of that fear; how would such a woman find her space in the world?
EM: Right, and what a fertile ground for fiction! There are all sorts of ways, from the plausible to the fantastical, a woman could find and hold that space. Does this theme come up in other work for you?
SM: It does, now that you mention it! I don’t set out to write about it, but it’s one of those themes that creeps in– how women sneakily take space, or how they overtly claim it. I often find myself writing about women who feel trapped in their roles, or in their bodies. (Another reason I was happy that this mother character found an unexpected liberation in her body; this doesn’t often happen for my characters.) I often write about women who don’t feel strong or liberated or seen. I often write about what I’m afraid of, and those are some of the big ones.
EM: How did you choose to tell this woman’s story through the eyes of her adult daughter, as a representative of all the children? Did you have to experiment with different POVs?
SM: I didn’t do much experimentation, no. That came about pretty naturally, I think. I liked the idea of the children being her witness, like a chorus. They saw her, and then they speak through this one voice to tell her story.
EM: What are you reading lately?
SM: I’ve been reading Paul Bowles’ stories, so dark and atmospheric. I just started Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, and I’m taking it very slowly, absorbing all of these awesome ideas. I’ve been alternating that with Chimananda Ngozie Adichie’s Americanah. I love her writing. I recently reread Justin Hocking’s The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld, which is one of my favorite memoirs ever, maybe. And I’m staring at Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane as I type this—I’m saving it for a trip to the coast in a couple of weeks, but it’s very hard to wait.
EM: I loved Argonauts—underlined every page of it. There’s this part where she she’s talking about the space a baby makes inside the mother by moving organs around, spreading ribs. I feel like Maggie Nelson would love your story for its radical reversal of this.
SM: I love that! I’m underlining the bejeezus out of it, too. That’s why it’s taking me such a long time to read.
EM: What else are you working on?
SM: SO many things! I’ve got one memoir completed but sitting, for the moment, while I work out what to do with it. It’s title du jour is THINKING LIKE A GIRL, and it’s a sort of sexual/intellectual coming of age story. Another memoir project is in the works, but I can’t even begin to describe it yet. And then stories. Some of them are part of a sort of novel-in-stories that’s growing at the rate of a couple stories a year. I like to work on a lot of projects at once, till one takes over and becomes my sole focus. And when I’m teaching I work on stories, but the book-length projects are often too much for my teaching-addled brain to manage.
EM: At AWP this year you were on a panel having to do with empowering women veterans, war witnesses, and survivors of violence to write their experiences. How do you (or would you) approach getting people in these positions to let their guards down and tell their stories?
SM: It has a lot to do with modeling. What the women veterans I work with have is the original artistic impulse: they have something they are burning to say. And with that urge comes a lot of fear, a lot of vulnerability. The same fear any writer feels: how will my words impact my life? If I tell the truth as I know it, will I be rejected? Will I make people mad, or hurt someone I love? These questions come up in most writing classes I teach, but with the veterans, it’s important to share my own fears and vulnerabilities and talk about the ways in which I try to overcome them as I work. I share a lot more of my private life in these classes as a way of building trust. Vanessa Veselka was a guest writer at one of our workshops recently and she talked about how women often feel “inherently unbelievable.” So it’s also crucial for the women to be in a space where they are with other women veterans, with people who relate to what they’ve been through, who won’t dismiss them or challenge their believability. We create a space in which every woman’s voice is believed. Being believed is crucial to one’s sense of authority, and we must have authority to tell our own stories.
Suzanne Morrison is the author of Yoga Bitch (Random House/Three Rivers Press), which was an Indiebound bestseller, a Crosscut Best Northwest Book of 2011, and has been translated into six languages. A recipient of 4Culture and Artist Trust grants, Suzanne is at work on a new memoir and a collection of short fiction. Her fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Litro, Salt Hill, Washington Square, Printers Row, and elsewhere.