Julie Myerson & Guadalupe Nettel: The Insescapable Question of Motherhood, Review

Julie Myerson and Guadalupe Nettel with their novels, nonfiction and Still Born
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Edinburgh International Book Festival
Julie Myerson, Guadalupe Nettel with Lennie Goodings (chair)
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The desire to inspire and educate and entertain all women, and men too; to bring women’s issues and stories into the mainstream; to demonstrate a female literary tradition; these passions and beliefs were the bedrock of Virago.’  Lennie Goodings

First joining the feminist publishing house in 1978 as a publicist, Lennie Goodings is now chair of Virago Press and therefore the ideal presenter for this inspiring and ‘timeless conversation on motherhood’. 

This is certainly true.  In 1995, I took part in a discussion on this subject at the Book Festival having written an oral history, ‘Motherhood 1920 to the Present Day’ which documented the diverse, changing experiences of a wide range of women across seventy years.

The Mexican writer, Guadalupe Nettel’s latest novel Still Born explores the decision, whether or not to have children and the maternal ambivalence for independent, career women. Julie Myerson's latest novel, nonfiction by Julie Myerson is inspired by her own son’s drug addiction to explore feelings of grief, regret and family love.

Goodings began by commenting on Myerson’s controversial memoir, The Lost Child, (2009), an account of her 17 year old son Jake’s heavy use of skunk marijuana.Taking six years to write, nonfiction has a first person narrator which draws the reader into a similar traumatic, powerless scenario as a daughter is intent on destroying herself. The mother also has a difficult relationship with her own mother, reflecting on the experience of childhood, past and present.

When you are two days old, my mother drives over to see us. .. She says that perhaps we should have thought twice before giving you such a difficult name. ….My mother tells us that she thinks we both look very tired. No one ever taught her to expect a moment when her own daughter would enter that mysterious world of motherhood and compete with her for a place in it. Not that I meant to compete, but I know she’ll see it that way’.  nonfiction, Julie Myerson.

Guadalupe explains that the title Still Born is purposely two words, as it’s not about the death of a newborn but about a baby who was not expected to live: the dark dramatic story is in fact based on the true experience of a close friend, Amelia, to whom the book is dedicated.

Watching a baby as it sleeps is to contemplate the fragility of all life. Listening to its soft breath generates a mixture of calm and awe. .. milk trickling from one corner of its mouth, its perfect eyelids.  ‘Nothing will happen to you while I’m here,’ I promise, knowing even as I say it, that I am lying, for deep down I am as helpless and as vulnerable as this baby.”  Still Born, Guadalupe Nettel

Alina and Laura are independent, career-driven women in their mid-thirties, neither of whom have built their future around the prospect of a family. Laura has taken the drastic decision to be sterilized, but Alina becomes drawn to the idea of becoming a mother leading to the two friends dealing with conflicting views and feelings.

‘When I stayed in Paris, I spent many hours reading in libraries, going to the theatre, and hanging out in bars and nightclubs. None of this is compatible with motherhood. Unlike my mother’s generation, for whom it was abnormal not to have children, many women in my own age group chose to abstain  ...which included Alina.

We met in our twenties. I was studying for a PhD in literature. Alina had a demanding but well-paid job at an arts centre. Although her income was double mine, she sent a large part of it back home to her family: how would she have been able to take care of a child on top of that?’  Still Born, Guadalupe Nettel

Lennie Goodings picks up on the fact that both novels deal with the ambiguous feelings of coping with the complex role as a mother when dealing with health issues and disability.   For Nettel, she wanted to describe the sense of anxiety and fear when you cannot protect your child and explained how she would go over every sentence several times to experiment with the structure to capture the voice and mind of the narrator.  

The narrative of nonfiction observes the ebb and flow of tense relationships between mothers and daughters, husband and wife struggling to make sense of a broken family life:

Time blurs when you are dealing with chaos. So many things which pass as normal in our house: the visits to A&E, the police being called. The times when one of us will, without a second thought, rush to hide the block of kitchen knives in the cupboard under the stairs, or take the house keys from their hook by the door and fling them under a cushion on the sofa. The anger and the anguish and the shouting, the things I no longer dare to do or say.

The dreams and plans I’ve ceased to find in me to care about, the pleasure we’ve forgotten to take.  The moments when we have no idea what’s coming next, what violence or drama or deceit, when we can’t imagine what new bad thing might lie around the corner.” nonfiction, Julie Myerson

Julie Myerson explains that in writing this novel, she was searching inside herself - it is fiction but could not have been written without what she has personally been through, dealing with a child suffering a drug addiction.  ‘I had to put it on the page.  It’s about sharing her emotion’.

Guadalupe explains how she took an unsentimental, feminist approach to motherhood, focussing on the freedom of a career to seek a different purpose in life.  In comparing and contrasting motherhood across two generations, Julie questions social, cultural and historical changes about what it means to be a mother. 

For both nonfiction and Still Born, it’s about expressing a hidden sense of guilt, trying to feel parental love despite lack of empathy and bitter disappointment. Two contrasting but authentic heartbreaking yet heartwarming tales written with such hard hitting honesty and soulful compassion.

nonfiction by Julie Myerson - Corsair (an imprint of Little Brown)

Still Born, Guadalupe Nettel, translated by Rosalind Harvey - Fitzcarraldo Editions