NAFANUA PURCELL KERSEL
‘Sā Nafanua: Reconstituting Nafanua as Female Empowerment in Samoan Diasporic Literature’ by Caryn Lesuma
The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood and the Mind-Baby Problem by Julie Phillips
I wrote a list of things I had to do. I found sixty-three. Then I wrote another list of things I wanted to do and I found two – the first was mother my children, the second was write books.
– Toni Morrison
This is the book I needed to read this year. I’m so glad it is in my life! Julie Phillips is a biographer who, notably, is working on Ursula K Le Guin’s biography. In this book she brings her skill of observation and research to discuss motherhood and creativity. She does this by profiling the mothering stories of several artists and authors including Doris Lessing, Alice Neel, Ursula K Le Guin, Susan Sontag, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich and Angela Carter through a series of biographical vignettes.
What I enjoy about this book is obvious – the reflection of mothering and writing and the stories of how these artists managed beyond the practicalities, expectations and pressures of their roles. Of course I enjoyed the validation of my own complexes around being a mother and trying to be a writer. What really kept me reading on though was my admiration, sometimes sorrow and outrage for the artists/writers, as well as the building momentum of the full socio-cultural picture.
One of the most important messages for me in this book is that the splitting of oneself and unequal load and labour is an external, systemic, societal and cultural issue. As I read, I strengthened my position – that creativity is not necessarily thwarted by being a mother, but that the messaging that a woman’s value and skill lies in her level of sacrifice to mothering above ALL else, is ingrained and insidious. The books vs babies dilemma is therefore not a personal, private dilemma but one that happens to greatly affect mother writers and artists personally, psychologically and practically.
The thread of reproductive rights was treated so poignantly; not gently, not harshly, but with empathy. Each of the mothers portrayed here experienced barriers to accessing what we now see as basic care and contraception. Many had unplanned pregnancies and some had to have illegal abortions, some without anaesthetic. What I liked about the way that this issue was treated is that it wasn’t didactic, it was factual, and as a reader I could clearly discern what those choices/lack of choices meant and how they would have unnecessarily complicated and put at risk the lives of these brilliant artists. This shows me that as a writer, Phillips trusts her audience and writes from a place that doesn’t assume authority or superiority. I felt so moved by the poignancy of reading this book at this time when these choices are being stripped away in parts of the USA. I see both the fortune of living with access to contraception, and the tenuousness of rights to body autonomy, as long as our bodies are policed and politicised.
My wish as a mother is not dissimilar to my wish as a writer. Why would they be different and, in any case, how could I possibly split myself in that sense? I absolutely feel the unequal power and division of labour in parenting, even though my partner is supportive and confident in parenting, he cannot always see what he has not had to experience himself in terms of societal expectations and the work/home, parent/professional, self/‘aiga smoosh – especially as he is a pālagi man.
I also know that creation/procreation both require an in-between place, not always, but as a phase. I feel clear about the distance I need to reach to be able to think, let alone interrogate my thoughts and to be able to write, but these happen in a spiral, one that can speed or slow down time as we know it. It is time and space but all that is still within the singular me – mother me, writer me, daughter me, all, still me. The idea that the writer/mother, two of my many roles and realities, should not be interlinked or serve to support each other is simplistic and obviously, as portrayed in this book, dangerous.
As a daughter of a brilliant woman, I watched my mother (when she was the age I am now) receive her post-grad qualification as one of the first Pasifika, almost certainly the first Pasifika woman graduate in her field. I, a staunch and stroppy 20-year-old, bawled my eyes out! I was so proud, and I felt the years of support and chores and cups of coffee and cheering her on and demanding her attention all bursting in my body at once, as pride. That day gave me a jolt of perspective: of who my mother is in her work, as the writer of her thesis, the co-author of a book and much more. I saw, and continue to see today, that she is who she is to me and who she is to the world; that she is all these things at once. Here, Phillips shares a similar moment for Beth Lorde, Audre Lorde’s daughter:
She began to realise why her mother had never packed her lunches, like other moms did … she had bigger fish to fry. Talent does what it can; genius what it must.
A few years ago, I had the jaw-dropping pleasure of meeting Serie Barford, Tusiata Avia and Selina Tusitala Marsh all in one go, at a poetry event. I was there with two other mother/writer friends. Between us, we were raising 8 kids between the ages of 10 months and 12 years. All of the poets were very encouraging about us writing. ‘Just keep writing,’ they said. Serie Barford shared that ‘Patricia Grace says, all you need is a corner of the kitchen table.’ I thought yes, sure, I could do that, but I’m no Patricia Grace! I was completely sidelining the lesson to keep myself bound in my doldrum with the logic that Patricia Grace’s genius somehow made writing more accessible for her – despite the fact that she had the same, if not more, complexity as I, in her mothering. These wonderful poets were saying, ‘I see you, I know this place. It’s hard but you must keep writing.’ I soon realised my blind spot, and the next day after breakfast I cleared a corner of the table, put a movie on for the kids, and wrote my first poem in a decade.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nafanua Purcell Kersel has been grafted from the villages of Faleālupo-tai, Mosula, Malaelā, Satufia and Tuaefu in Samoa. Raised in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, she is now based in Te Matau-a-Māui where she raises three children, many animals and her voice. She recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at Te Pūtahi Tuhi Auaha o Te Ao, IIML, and was the recipient of the 2022 Biggs Family Prize in Poetry with her collection, Black Sugarcane.