Motherhood is not for the faint of heart-and neither is being a daughter. Thanks to a new collection of essays, “Riding Shotgun: Women Write About Their Mothers,” readers now have the opportunity to explore this in more depth.
The Minnesota Women’s Press talked with “Riding Shotgun” editor Kathryn Kysar about her vision for the book.
Though Kysar has been a feminist since her early college years, she said she “did not set out to create a feminist anthology: This theme evolved simply by the telling of these women’s stories.”
Kysar also considers how region and class issues take a front seat. “Most of the authors in the book are from the Midwest, … many of the mothers in this book work very hard just to get by, and they are often constrained by their gender, race and economic status.”
This is an anthology that reflects a wide diversity of mothers and daughters, Kysar said. “For instance, Ka Vang’s mother immigrated from Laos as the ‘second wife.’ She not only struggled in the U.S. as an impoverished woman of color, but also in her status as a second wife with only girl children in the Hmong culture. Morgan Grayce Willow’s mother was a farm wife with no running water in northern Iowa in the 1950s. Faith Sullivan’s family of women survived the Depression by canning everything they could and using herbal remedies to “make do.”
The real truth
Narratives in “Riding Shotgun” are far from sugarcoated; they recall the real obstacles women faced and still face in the quest to live with a measure of autonomy equal to that of men. Kysar explained that “the reader can feel the constraints these mothers struggled against … lack of acceptance of a working or single woman, cultural pressure to get a Mrs. in lieu of any other degree, the lack of proper women’s medical care for everything from childbirth to depression, the burden of running a house and caring for children without assistance and technology.”
The anthology also considers the title “mother.” Who gets to be called mother, anyway? Faith Sullivan tackles the question in her piece “The Ghosts at the Door.” “My grandmother raised me-there’s not enough I can do in my lifetime to pay tribute to her,” Sullivan said. “I owe her everything. There’s such a different range of ‘mothers’ that I know that a wide range of both men and women will connect to this book.”
Representations of mother-daughter relationships, like most American narratives, have left out and silenced experiences of women who identify as queer or who have gender identities that don’t fit into heteronormative profiles. One of the contributors, local writer and lesbian Barrie Jean Borich, contributed an essay, “When We Were in the Projects,” which takes the reader on a journey through her “mother’s memories of her own childhood in the steel-mill housing projects of old Chicago and my own childhood home in the steel industry suburbs on the Southeast side of Chicago, across the street from an abandoned grain mill and freight rail line.” This anthology may be almost as much about place as it is about mothers. Borich speaks to this reality when she says, “My own writing … is currently about the intersections of American place, longing, identity and migration.”
Kysar embraced class as a central theme of this collection. “This book explores class in the 20th century from the woman’s perspective, from the point of view of a mother who must feed her children somehow and makes the choice-to stay with an abusive man, to risk rejection from the ‘traditional’ mothers, [and] her own children while working hard to feed them.”
As examples, Kysar cites, “In ‘Your Mother,’ Sheila O’Connor’s mother takes on her role of working single mother with gusto, only to be reviled by the other women in the community. Carrie Pomeroy’s mother finds herself widowed unexpectedly, and Tai Coleman’s mother experiences the hardships of ‘being grown’ raising five kids on the south side of Chicago by herself. Some of the mothers triumph and blossom; some just do the best they can as they push the limits and boundaries set for them.”
Death also plays a prominent role here. Kysar chose pieces that examine the influence of loss in a daughter’s life. “In Susan Steger Welsh’s essay, she looks at how the early loss of her mother affects her now in middle age. Alison McGhee’s essay expresses her deep love of her mother and the anticipation of loss in her mother’s inevitable death; Sandra Benitez grieves the death of a twin and the near death of her mother in childbirth. Sun Yung Shin examines the connection between work, production, motherhood, and grieves the loss of her birth mother she may never know,” Kysar said.
While the anthology does not shy away from sorrow, it also, Kysar said, includes “essays [that] celebrate the mother’s love, as Elizabeth Andrew’s mother supports her life choices in her decidedly closed-minded church; Ann Ursu watches a buoyant mother learning how to make a documentary, and Shannon Olson looks at advice-those little clippings so many mothers of a certain generation send to their daughters-and their true meanings.”
The impact of oppression
Ka Vang writes from the Hmong community and acknowledges the impact of oppression on our most intimate family relationships. Vang said, “I think relationships between mothers and daughters are complex and complicated, but when you add the element of race and oppression to the complexity as is the relationship between Hmong mothers and daughters there are so [many] more issues that we have to work through to have healthy relationships with our mothers.”
All the women who contributed to this anthology understand the power of having, or being denied, a voice in the culture, and Vang is no exception. She reminds all of us that it “is very important to be understood and valued as a Hmong female feminist writer because for so long the women in my community did not have a voice. They could not tell their own stories.”
Opening a dialogue
When asked what work she thinks this anthology can do in the world, Borich may have been speaking for all of the contributors when she said, “I hope these writers’ hard gaze and lyric attention to this tumultuous and frequently over-sentimentalized relationship-that between daughters and mothers-lead readers to bring the same hard and gorgeous attention to their own family and community relationships, and the ways those relationships intersect on the maps of a larger world.”