Maternal instincts: what will the children think?
There's a reason slave codes made slave literacy a crime. There's a reason Malcolm X said the most dangerous person in America is a black man with a library card.
On the day the galleys for my upcoming novel lump at the Sun arrived, I realized my daughter's newfound literacy also means something else, something potentially less positive: someday soon, my daughter will be reading my work. As I held the first copy of my latest novel in my hands, my daughter read the title and my name and clapped her hands with excitement. Then she asked,
"Mommy, what's it about?"
What could I say?
Jump at the Sun, which will be published July 1 by William Morrow, is a novel of motherhood. It is also a novel of race, of love and sacrifice, of contemporary life and the continuing legacy of slavery, of the costs and responsibilities of living the dream for which our parents and forefathers fought and several other things, but primarily it is a novel of motherhood. And not a sentimental one.
The Struggle Within
My protagonist, Grace, struggles mightily against the sacrifices and restrictions of motherhood, believing she has no options beyond the only two models of mothering she has ever known--complete abandonment, as chosen by her fierce, sharecropping grandmother, or complete and utter sacrifice, as picked by her intelligent but deeply damaged mom. It is a pendulum that has swung through many African American families, and Grace's struggle is to stop the swinging if she can. Yet her fight is not always pretty or sympathetic, and the outcome is not preordained. Nor would most of her thoughts about mothering make it to the inside of a Hallmark greeting card.
When I began the novel, my daughter was four, my son just months old, and the hormones still held me in their thrall. During the long, sometimes painful, sometimes tedious four years it took to complete the book, I worried about what my mother would make of it, my sisters, even my aunts, but it never occurred to me to wonder what my children would make of it. Their favorite book was Goodnight Moon; it didn't occur to me that they would some day advance beyond finding the mouse on the windowsill. But one thing every parent eventually gets, and gets hard, is that children grow up--and fast. So the question becomes: when my daughter reads this book someday, what will she think of it? Will she wonder if, in fact, Grace is just a stand-in for me, and her feelings are my own? And if she does, what will I do then?
For me, one of the joys of writing fiction, as opposed to memoirs or autobiographies, is the freedom to explore, without fear or favor, the rough, raw, truth of what it means to be human. One thing it means--unless you're a sociopath--is to be in relationships, relationships that can be grand and wonderful or harsh and crippling or somewhere in between, but that are always, always complicated. Even the relationships we have with ourselves are complicated. It is the writer's job to render that complication as dearly and as honestly as possible, to, as the great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa said, not avert one's eyes. It's not an easy thing to do. If one tries and succeeds even a fraction, the people in one's life are bound to see themselves in the work, whether the writer intends so or not. Chances are, they won't be pleased.
Writing From Experience
Most writers have struggled with this dilemma, and each resolves it in his or her own way. Some simply never write anything that might remotely be connected to people close to them. Others dive right in and let the chips fall where they may. The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz says, "When a writer is born into a family, that family is finished." Joan Didion famously wrote that, "A writer is always selling somebody out." I spent 10 years as a journalist, and by the end of that career I certainly agreed with her sentiment; perhaps the same is true not only for newspaper reporting, but for all other writing as well. At least in a cynical sense.
Something my hero, the great James Baldwin, wrote is likewise true. "One writes out of one thing only--one's own experience" said Baldwin. "Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art."
Of course, Baldwin, as great as he was, never had children. So I wonder if he knew that it is one thing to risk hurting one's mother or father or Uncle John, and another to risk hurting one's children. I love my family of birth, and I feel a deep responsibility toward my relatives to be loving and supportive whenever possible, to have their back in the world. They are, however, all adults and ultimately responsible for their own interpretations and feelings. If I write from love and empathy and not from childish notions of pettiness or wrongdoing or vengefulness, if I am as rigorous with myself as I am with my characters, if I do all this and someone nonetheless feels hurt, it pains me and I'll apologize, but I won't feel regret.
Kids are different. As a writer, my responsibility may be to wring the truth from my experience, but as a mother isn't my responsibility to protect my children? Even if that means protecting them from myself?
Maybe. Yes. I don't know. My answer depends upon the day the question is asked, whether my child has come home upset about some girl drama in her classroom and made my heart ache, or whether some reader from Chicago has e-mailed me about one of my earlier novels, saying the way I wrote so nakedly about race or love or family opened a door for her.
The good news for my family is that after the four-year struggle to write Jump at the Sun, I'm eager to move away from domestic dramas. For now at least, no more books on marriage or love or motherhood. I think my next novel will be about something completely removed from my own life. Revolutionaries, perhaps. Or maybe an African immigrant at sea.
Jump at the Sun by Kim McLarin William Morrow, July 2006 $24.95, ISBN 0-060-52849-4
Kim McLarin is the author of two previous novels: Meeting of the Waters (October 2001) and Taming It Down (July 1998), both published by William Morrow. She lives, teaches and mothers near Boston.