I had one year of relentless conflict with my mother, when I was twelve; once I turned thirteen, and, per the laughable claims of my culture, had a Bat Mitzvah and therefore “became a woman,” things seemed to get better. Maybe it was the post-childhood, pre-womanhood part, the liminal space in which I was aware of my “becoming” (becoming what, exactly? What creepy transformation was taking place within me, without my consent?) that caused the friction. Today’s poem and story both recognize something terrifying in a daughter’s connection to her mother, a link that cannot be fully severed, a limitation placed on one’s private selfhood, almost a kind of possession.
Put away those dirty pillows.
A Night in Spring
They told her she came out of a hole in her mother
but really it’s impossible to believe
something so delicate could come out of something
so fat—her mother naked
looks like a pig. She wants to think
the children telling her were making fun of her ignorance;
they think they can tell her anything
because she doesn’t come from the country, where people know these things.
She wants the subject to be finished, dead. It troubles her
to picture this space in her mother’s body,
releasing human beings now and again,
hiding them, then dropping them into the world,
but mostly just empty, like an empty room—
And worse is the idea that she was happy there,
that the way she feels about her bed
once she felt toward her mother; that this sense of solitude,
this calm, this sense of being unique—
that this was once connected to her mother, continuous with her—
Maybe her mother still has these feelings.
This could explain why she never sees
the great differences between the two of them
because if these facts are true
at one point they were the same person—
She sees her face in the mirror, the small nose
sunk in fat, and at the same time she hears
the children’s laughter as they tell her
it doesn’t start in the face, stupid,
it starts in the body—
At night in bed, she pulls the quilt as high as possible,
up to her neck—
She has found this thing, a self,
and come to cherish it,
and now it will be packed away in flesh and lost—
And she feels her mother did this to her, meant this to happen.
That everything she has struggled to be,
how she has tried to be distinctive—
that this is all a doomed effort. And her mother has known this all along
and laughed privately, the same complacent laugh as the girls at school.
Because whatever she may try to do with her mind,
her body will disobey,
that its immensity, its finality, will make her mind invisible—
no one will see—
Very gently, she moves the sheet aside.
And under it, there is her body, still beautiful and new
with no marks anywhere. And it seems to her still
identical to her mind, so consistent with it as to seem
and once again
she falls in love with it and vows to protect it.
Who is this lady?
This year’s Nobel Prize Laureate for Literature, Louise Glück was born in New York City in 1943 and grew up on Long Island (also my ancestral homeland, apparently not a total creative vacuum.) She has written twelve books of poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Wild Iris. Aptly enough, Katy Waldman in the New Yorker calls her “our great October poet” for her “ascetic style” and the moods—of dread, danger, dark humor—that her poems capture. (Check out Glück’s “All Hallows,” for something especially October-y.)
Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters Because They Are Terrifying (Excerpt)
There are so many ways to miss your mother. Your real mother—the one who looks like you, the one who has to love you because she grew you from her own body, the one who hates you so much that she dumped you in the garbage for white people to pick up and dust off. In Mini’s case, it manifested as some weird gothy shit. She had been engaging in a shady flirtation with a clerk at an antiquarian bookshop. We did not approve. We thought this clerk wore thick-rimmed hipster glasses to hide his crow’s feet and hoodies to hide his man boobs so that weird high-school chicks would still want to flirt with him. We hoped that Mini mostly liked him only because he was willing to trade clammy glances with her and go no further. Unlike us, Mini was not a fan of going far. When the manager wasn’t around, this guy let her go into the room with the padlock on it, where all of the really expensive stuff was. That’s where she found the book with the spell. That’s were she took a photo of the spell with her phone. That’s where she immediately texted it to us without any explanation attached, confident that the symbols were so powerful they would tentacle through our screens and into our hearts, and that we would know it for what it was.
Each of us had had that same moment where we saw ourselves in a photo, caught one of those wonky glances in the mirror that tricks you into thinking that you’re seeing someone else, and it’s electric. Kapow boom sizzle, you got slapped upside the head with the Korean wand, and now you feel weird at family gatherings that veer blond, you feel weird when your friends replace their Facebook profile photos with pictures of the celebrities they look like and all you have is, say, Mulan or Jackie Chan, ha-ha-ha, hahahahaha.
You feel like you could do one thing wrong, one stupid thing, and the sight of you would become a terrible taste in your parents’ mouths.
“I’ll tell you this,” Mini had said. “None of us actually knows what happened to our mothers. None of our parents tell us anything. We don’t have the cool parents who’ll tell us about our backgrounds and shit like that.”
For Mini, this extended to everything else. When her parents decided to get a divorce, Mini felt like she had a hive of bees in her head (her brain was both the bees and the brain that the bees were stinging). She searched online for articles about adoptees with divorced parents. The gist of the articles was that she would be going through an awfully hard time, as in, chick already felt kind of weird and dislocated when it came to family and belonging and now it was just going to be worse. Internet, you asshole, thought Mini. I already knew that. The articles for the parents told them to reassure their children. Make them feel secure and safe. She waited for the parents to try so she could flame-throw scorn all over them. They did not try. She waited longer.
And she had given up on them long before Mom finally arrived.
We were hanging out in Mini’s room, not talking about our unsuccessful attempt at magic. Caroline was painting Ronnie’s nails with a color called Balsamic.
“I love this color,” said Caroline. “I wish my parents would let me wear it.”
“Why wouldn’t they?”
“I can’t wear dark nail polish until I’m eighteen.”
“Wait—they really said that?”
“How many things have they promised you when you turn eighteen?”
“You know they’re just going to change the terms of the agreement when you actually turn eighteen, and then you’ll be forty and still wearing clear nail polish and taking ballet and not being able to date.”
“And not being able to have posters up in your room. Although I guess you won’t need posters when you’re forty.”
“Fuck that! No one’s taking away my posters when I get old.”
Caroline didn’t say anything. She shrugged, keeping her eyes on Ronnie’s nails. When we first started hanging out with Caroline, we wondered if we shouldn’t shit-talk Caroline’s parents, because she never joined in, but we realized that she liked it. It helped her, and it helped her to not have to say anything. “You’re all set. Just let it dry.”
“I don’t know,” said Ronnie. “It doesn’t go with anything. It just looks random on me.”
Mini said, “Well.” She squinted and cocked her head back until she had a double chin, taking all of Ronnie in. “You kind of look like you’re in prison and you traded a pack of cigarettes for nail polish because you wanted to feel glamorous again.”
“No, come on. You know what I mean. It’s great. You look tough. You look like a normal girl, but you still look tough. Look at me. I’ll never look tough.” And she so wanted to, we knew. “I’d have to get a face tattoo, like a face tattoo of someone else’s face over my face. Maybe I should get your face.”
“Makeover montage,” said Caroline.
“Koreans do makeovers like pppppbbbbbbth,” we said.
Caroline laughed and the nail polish brush veered and swiped Ronnie’s knuckle. We saw Ronnie get a little pissed. She didn’t like physical insults. Once she wouldn’t speak to us for an hour when Mini flicked her in the face with water in a movie theater bathroom.
“Sorry,” Caroline said. She coughed. Something had gone down wrong. She coughed some more and started to retch, and we were stuck between looking away politely and staring at her with our hands held out in this Jesus-looking way, figuring out how to help. There was a wet burr to her coughing that became a growl, and the growl rose and rose until it became a voice, a fluted voice, like silver flutes, like flutes of bubbly champagne, a beautiful voice full of rich-people’s things.
MY MY MINE MINE
Mom skipped around. When she spoke, she didn’t move our mouths. We felt only the vibration of her voice rumbling through us.
“Did you come to us because we called for you?” asked Mini.
Mom liked to jump into the mouth of the person asking the question. Mini’s mouth popped open. Her eyes darted down, to the side, like she was trying to get a glimpse of herself talking.
I HEARD YOU, MY DAUGHTERS
“You speak really good English,” Caroline said.
I LEARNED IT WHEN I WAS DEAD
—Alice Sola Kim (Read the rest here)
Who is this lady?
A self-described “left-handed anchor baby,” Alice Sola Kim was raised in Seattle and now lives in New York, where she is at work on her first novel. Her short stories have appeared in Tin House, McSweeney’s, Strange Horizons, and more; in 2016 she received a Whiting Award for her fiction.
What does it mean when we talk about “becoming” our parents? Write about a character (or yourself!) reckoning with this becoming—do they fight it or give in? What does that look like?
Alanna Schubach is a fiction writer, freelance journalist, and teacher. Follow her on Twitter @AlannaSchubach and read her work at alannaschubach.com. Send questions, recommendations for future newsletters, and the results of writing prompts (if you’re so inclined) to firstname.lastname@example.org