NOTE: This post is #3 of a series called “Being A Writer and [Insert Other Thing Here]” that I started ages and ages ago, but that I’ve been very slow in writing . . . partly because of this post’s “insert other thing here” – i.e. mothering.)
On the morning The Oddfits was officially released into the world, my infant son woke me up at 5am with loud wails, demanding his breakfast of breastmilk. It was still dark outside and it was not the way I had envisioned my entrance into published authordom.
“You know, my first novel came out today,” I told him.
He had a date with a boob and didn’t seem to care. And at the age of almost-three, even though he’s fully weaned, he still doesn’t – care that I’m a published author, I mean. Maybe he will someday, but to him, I’m first and foremost his mother, who at this stage in his life, he appears to define as, “the larger being whom I like having around as long as she caters to my wants and needs and is pleasant to be around, but who for some reason gets exasperated when I throw fits over not having what I want in exactly the way I want it right when I want it.”
On December 17, a little less than two months ago, my second son was born, a few days after The More Known World was published. Cue exact same pre-dawn scenario with different child.
In my previous post on being a writer and a translator, I reflected on how translating is a humbling process – one that involves the subsumption of self in order to produce good results. Motherhood has been similarly humbling. Little people are no respecters of persons. My two-year-old and two-month-old don’t care whether I’ve written one book, or none, or twenty. They don’t care that some of the reader reviews on Amazon have been comparing me to Douglas Adams. And at this point in their lives, they wouldn’t care if I won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Just this morning, my two-year-old made me hold his hands as he sat on the toilet trying to “put a brown one inside” it. And then I wiped his butt.
Even though it bruises my ego in the moment – these children pulling at my pant leg and bringing me down to sticky-fingered, poopy-diapered earth – I do appreciate the humility imposed by motherhood/parenthood. For those of us who love words and who have made words their career, there’s definitely a tendency to idolize one’s “craft” and the celebrated celebrities of that craft in a potentially unhealthy way. It’s good to be reminded that a bad review isn’t the end of the world, and by the same token, that being a published author doesn’t elevate you above other human beings. And it’s also grounding to think about, say, Kazuo Ishiguro wiping poop off a little person’s butt, or trying to reason his little person out of a tantrum because her favourite t-shirt is in the washing machine and therefore cannot be worn that day.
For me, there is also something about the physicality of mothering (the heaviness and nausea of pregnancy; the excruciating pain of giving birth; the suckling and burping and picking up and rocking) that affects the way I think about writing. It’s old hat, I know, comparing writing to a birthing process, but there really is something to it. Parallels between writing and child-rearing seem apt to me as well: revising one’s writing has not been unlike raising my oldest son and seeing parental efforts bear fruit: a sentence that started out incoherent is now capable of meaningful communication!
When I translate, I definitely find myself melancholically comparing my work to being a surrogate mother. I know that the words and phrases I type onto the page aren’t technically my own – and yet they are. Suddenly, the maternal instinct flares up: Of course these words are mine. I came up with “disgorged” when a lesser translator would have chosen “vomited” or “spewed.” And whose stroke of genius was it to render “kecil seupil” as “small as a snotball” (the other contender being, “as bitsy as a booger”)? When the translation is done, in the eyes of the world the text will belong to the author. Most translators aren’t remembered; often, they’re even faulted if readers are underwhelmed. In the same way, surrogate mothers are meant to disappear into the background. It’s part and parcel of the job. You grow the little being and then you give it back.