Recognizing an overlooked literature: motherhood

June 06, 1999|By SUSAN REIMER

TITLE YOUR book "Mothers Who Think," and you are likely to start the same kind of fight that starts every time somebody refers to "mothers who work."

"All mothers work," is the rebuff you face when you make that gaffe. And then you scurry to correct yourself by saying, "I mean, mothers who work outside the home."

Camille Peri and Kate Moses could have bent to that kind of PC pressure in selecting the title to their book, and called it "Mothers Who Think Outside the Box." They would not only have been more correct -- because all mothers think -- but also more right.

Their new book is a collection of essays on motherhood including, but not limited to, those they edit for Salon, the online magazine, in a daily column by the same title.

The essays on this Web site, and in the book, "are not by or about normal mothers because we've finally stopped falling for the great palace lie that such a person exists," they write in their introduction. "Normal is a setting on the dryer. There is only us -- mothers who think, feel and love."

The title of the Salon magazine feature, and the book, comes not from some divisive, elitist notion, but from an essay by author Jane Smiley titled, "Can Mothers Think?"

In that essay, Smiley proposed that mothers who write are suspended in the tension between two opposing instincts: the hope and optimism that the birth of a child inspires and the "vision of disintegration, disorientation, anxiety, anomie" that is the lot of the modernist writer.

Smiley also makes the point that the mother characters in literature are invariably created by husbands or children and there isn't much of a place for mother characters who are written by mothers.

"Mothers ... do think, and they are very realistic and practical about mothering, but theirs is a literature, like the literature of Russia before the 19th century or of American blacks before the 1920s, that had not ... inserted itself very deeply into the print culture," Smiley wrote.

"To write about our own experiences could lead us into, God forbid, analyzing our children and husbands, to belying the idea of maternal love that they depend upon."

Peri and Moses, both mothers and writers, dare to do just that. The essays they publish daily at Salon and the ones included in their new book take some of the shine off the apple of motherhood.

"We know, as mothers, that we are all devoted to our children," Moses said during a recent visit to Baltimore. "But there isn't always a hug at the end of every story."

Moses and Peri barely knew each other when their column for Salon began, but their husbands were friends and the founding editors of this new, sophisticated online magazine.

Now, two years into this kind of information-age Mom and Pop store, the two women have achieved a kind of Vulcan mind meld.

They finish each other's sentences and share each other's sitters. They do each other's errands and each brings a full-time passion to what is supposed to be a pair of part-time jobs.

"We have achieved the 50-50 relationship that you go into marriage looking for," says Peri.

Together they are collecting and publishing the literature of motherhood that Jane Smiley lamented: very fine writing that reveals the ambiguities and contradictions of nature's most powerful love.

They could just as easily have named the book: "Mothers Are Not What You Think."

Pub Date: 06/06/99

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