Review: Bring Down the Little Birds: On mothering, art, work and everything else is by Carmen Giménez Smith. The book is to be published 7 October 2010. You may read an excerpt and/or purchase a copy of the book here.
There are some experiences in life that we will never get to the bottom of no matter how far we search, and I believe motherhood is one of those. You will read ten, no maybe, one hundred ordinary observations of motherhood in a row and think – there, that’s it, motherhood must have been solved by now and nothing more can be said about it. And then finally you will read something fresh and amazing and you will start to understand all over again how truly baffling and profound this thing called motherhood is – and you will also know, at that time, why every mother seems compelled to explore its meaning for herself at some point in her life. A good motherhood memoir is as much an exploration of the author’s story as it is a journey through your own experience of motherhood, and indeed, daughterhood.
Bring Down the Little Birds is the shot in one hundred – the examination of motherhood that stops you in your tracks and makes you see all over again how incredible and eternal and strange the experience of motherhood really is for women.
When The University of Arizona Press, publishers of Bring Down the Little Birds, offered me the opportunity to interview the book’s author, Carmen Giménez Smith I was delighted. Giménez Smith is an American poet and publisher, she is also an assistant professor at New Mexico State University, editor-in-chief of the literary journal Puerto del Sol, and publisher of Noemi Press. Giménez Smith is also a charming interview subject as you will see…
blue milk: Much of this memoir about motherhood is also about being an adult daughter. If it is difficult being frank about ourselves as mothers it is probably even harder to be truly honest about our own mothers, what prompted you to make so much of your story of motherhood about your experiences as a daughter? And have you had a long-held desire to explore this relationship (further) or did it come up for you after becoming a mother yourself?
Carmen Giménez Smith: I’ve always wanted to write about my mother; in fact, much of my (awful and cloying) undergraduate poetry was about her. She’s a really amazing, terribly funny and quirky woman. I have hundreds of pages worth of failed attempts at writing about her. I realize now that I didn’t really have a unique context for approaching her as a subject. That came later when I became a mother.
The impulse to be frank about my role as a daughter is really a response to Luce Irigiray’s call to action, “Let’s free ourselves with our mothers.” To know myself, I need to know my mother, and as I watch her being transformed by age, by time, by illness, I realize that I have to capture her as much as I can in my writing.
Finally, so much of my mothering has been a series of light-bulb moments in which I realize why my mother made certain decisions and why she lived in ways that I found really frustrating when I was young. The institution of motherhood perpetuates unrealistic constraints that everyone, including children, buy into. I had to transform my sense of what a mother does; that involved thinking about my daughterhood.
blue milk: Motherhood is so sanitised and compartmentalised in popular culture, and anyone going against the grain can easily be vilified. It is like we still don’t want to know the truth about mothers. How did you go about selecting what was too intimate to be shared in this book and what wasn’t?
Carmen Giménez Smith: Becoming a mother is a type of relenting, a giving up of self, so I was prepared to reveal. Plus, I’m a pretty TMI person.
I recently had the chance to talk to a class of college students about an excerpt of my book, and I was surprised at how compartmentalized their view of motherhood was, how uneasy some of the revelations about my uneven path as a mother made these students. It’s important to young people that boundless love accompanies the concept of motherhood, and here I am writing about closing the bedroom door on my son. I suppose my priority was attempting to provide as honest a picture of mothering as I could; in some instances, that picture of me may be a bit unflattering.
blue milk: My blog specialises on the intersection of feminism and motherhood, do you have a definition of your own for feminism, or even feminist mothering?
Carmen Giménez Smith: My feminism is an urgent and vital element of my writing. I fancy myself more of a throwback feminist; I’d like to bring back the look-at-your-cervix parties and neighborhood consciousness-raising groups because I think we’ve lost sight of the most basic goal of feminism, equal rights for women. I am constantly trying to find ways to revisit these aspirations in my work. This book became an ideal space to reflect on my own feminism as ruminations on motherhood made me acutely aware of the serious imbalances in power that exist in our culture. The book has served to reaffirm my feminism for me.
In my mothering, I find myself negating gender norms for my kids, reminding them that women can be doctors and police officers and that two men can be married and that pink isn’t just a color for girls. It’s alarming how much work this is.
blue milk: l found it terribly intriguing when you said in this book that children aren’t really as curious about their parents lives as parents like to think they will be, particularly so when I write a blog, and in part my motivation for doing so is to record experiences for my children to read later. Do you imagine your children will one day read this book you have written and what will they make of it?
Carmen Giménez Smith: Absolutely. In a way that’s what the book is about. To me, having had access now to my mother’s experience as a mother would help me a good deal, to be able to look into what I once looked at with indifference as a young girl. I think we want to know our parents differently when we’re adults. When I was in my teens, my parents perplexed me. When I was in my twenties, I was furious with them. In my thirties I began recognizing the pressures that they faced; when I became a parent, I felt deep empathy for them. To be able to revisit some of those moments with my mother has been amazing, a really great part of researching for this book–I got to interview my mother about our past together.
blue milk: Every now and then when one of my children calls me ‘Mama’ I am thrown out of the moment and into what I can only imagine must be back into my identity before motherhood, and I have the strongest and most unnerving sense of unreality – “am I really someone’s mother?” Identity clearly fascinates you, did you feel like you ever truly got a handle on the identity of mother when you were exploring your thoughts for this book?
Carmen Giménez Smith: Sometimes I can’t believe that the person I once was became a mother. I think one of the problems of motherhood is the notion that a mother is some sort of static identity and that there’s some formula for creating a good mothering relationship. It’s simply not true. I am a mother, the person that I was and the person that I am is a mother and, although there were some profound changes in me, I’m still the same mixed-up person I’ve always been. I’ve merely adapted to mothering and my children have adapted and continue to adapt to me.
blue milk: Since reading your book, which I love, I have decided that from now on only poets should write memoirs about motherhood. There seems to be a perfect match between the way a poet, like yourself, writes and the manner in which motherhood is lived: fragmented, spare, lyrical.
So many motherhood memoirs skim along the surface – are all humour and pulling punches – and I am still not sure if this is what readers want or if it is just what is on offer in the genre. (The exceptions until now, in my opinion, have been Anne Enright, Rachel Cusk and Anne Lamott – but I realise they’re all white women so I am missing a good deal of the story of motherhood in that list). Do you believe mothers want to read about motherhood in the deeply contemplative way in which you have written about it or generally speaking are they just too tired for introspection?
Carmen Giménez Smith: Yes, I hope they want to read about it in a deeply contemplative way. This is a terrible analogy, but it’s the one that comes to mind: football players watching videotapes of their games over and over in an attempt to figure out their process. That’s what motherhood feels like to me. Every day I end the day by asking myself, “Why did I do that?” or “Why didn’t I say this?” These questions are ethical, they’re about the person I am choosing paths that greatly affect these small dependent people. And I suspect many mothers would be excited about the possibility of sustained introspection, besides; many of us spend so much of our day outside of ourselves.
blue milk: Carmen, thank you.
In the interests of full disclosure I was approached by the publisher to review this book.
There are two galley copies of Bring Down the Little Birds available for blue milk readers from the publisher. Leave a comment below if you would like the chance to win a copy and I will choose two of you randomly. Please ensure that you make your comment with a valid email address as, if selected, your email details will be sent on to the publisher.