“Don’t have a kid until you have a book published,” she says. “Your life changes, you stop caring so much. Get a book out before, when you still think art is the most important thing.”
Helen Phillips on Jenny Offill
It’s half-term. The little ones are off school and it’s raining in an endless grey drizzle, a fine mist of water. We’re still having adventures (simple ones), and have had two picnics (coats on). Afternoon readings of Mrs Pepperpot are going down well. T, who had the stories read to her a couple of years ago and has now read them hundreds of times herself, calls out which story I should read next (‘The hospital one!’, ‘The one where she goes ski-ing, it’s right at the back of the book!’). The boys sit one on either side of me, until the Pip-Pop gets bored & wanders off to read his own books, and T sits at the end of the sofa knitting. Yes, really knitting! (It’s a scarf for Dog. There’s sometimes a sigh when she drops another stitch. The yarn is a blue acrylic that I imagine will be etched in her memory for years to come, just as I can still feel the intransigent cream cotton of my first dishcloth rubbing against my fingers.)
When I can, when I’m pretending to cook, I sneak into the kitchen and read the amazing essays on Literary Mothers – short pieces by writers (of all genders) on the female writers who have inspired them. Each time I do, I add another few books to those that I simply must read right now. I loved Helen Phillips on Jenny Offill (as quoted above), and both went straight onto my must-read list (all held in my head – surely not the most advanced tracking method). Nadxieli Nieto, founder of Literary Mothers, describes it as a political response to the lack of an acknowledgement of a female body of work:
There are enough brilliant female writers that no middle school, high school, college, or graduate school should ever want for female writers on their syllabi—the same can be said for writers of color and international writers in translation. I hear the protestations already…But they’re hard to find, but they’re out of print, but my students don’t want to read work by women, but I can’t think of any.
This is my answer—Literary Mothers: an Alexandria, a seed tray, a safe space where our gratitude and where we point it might have some cultural and political power. Let us thank the female writers who made our work possible, who made us who we are as writers and as humans. And let’s leave crumbs, a trail line for those coming up.
It makes me wonder who I would claim as my literary mothers (as a reader, if not a writer). And why do I find it hard to answer that question? Who are yours? If you know, the Literary Mothers project is open for submissions.