The weeks have been flying by and there isn’t enough time to get everything done. I can hardly believe it’s May. But it is May, which means it’s time for the annual Motherhood & Words reading at The Loft.
8th Annual, people. That’s something indeed. And this year it’s another great line-up: Tami Mohamad Brown, Susanne Paola Antonetta, and Marcelle Soviero. Join us on Wednesday, May 7th at 7 p.m. You don’t want to miss it!
I’m honored to have Susanne here at Motherhood & Words today discussing her new memoir, Make Me a Mother, from which she’ll read on Wednesday.
Make Me a Mother is a lovely meditation on adoption, broadening the definition of adoption in our lives and cultures. But it’s a story for anyone who has navigated complex family relationships (who hasn’t?) and has found themselves recommitted to love. It’s a fascinating book. So without further ado, I’d like to welcome Susanne! Thank you for joining me here today!
KH: Jin is now seventeen years old. Talk about when you begin work on this book and how you knew it was the right time for it to be a book.
SA: He’s just about seventeen, yes. The earliest pieces of the book stem from the time we awaited his arrival—he was born in South Korea and we picked him up at SeaTac Airport. Too surreal! While we waited for him to get here—his arrival was delayed—I got into the habit of writing him letters. Parts of those letters made it into the book. The earliest published piece was the section about him changing his name to Penguin at the age of eight—that was in The New York Times.
KH: You write, “I don’t know how to separate my mother’s instincts from my writer’s instincts…” I love the writing thread in the book. I’d love to hear more about your shift from writing poetry to prose in the months after Jin arrived home.
SA: My first bits of prose were actually an attempt to document the history of my mother’s family; they came from Barbados. I had gathered up a lot of old letters and family documents and such. There were wild stories about my grandfather’s siblings—he was one of fourteen children, very colorful people. For instance, my aunt told me one of my great-aunts had been murdered, poisoned, by her mother-in-law on Martinique because she wasn’t a Catholic. There were prophetic visits from ancestors. I had these documents and stories, and at the same time, some questions were unanswered, because the church that held family records was destroyed during a hurricane. I didn’t imagine right away that I was telling the stories for Jin, but I was—I wanted him to understand all of his family history.
KH: You write nonfiction, fiction and poetry. Does your writing process change depending on the genre in which you’re working? If, how so?
SA: I’m not sure there are any hard and fast rules about this, but in the last couple of years my processes have been wildly different! My fiction had its genesis on airplanes—I would just scribble stories in notebooks while flying; I’ve been flying all over the place. Most of my characters are in transit or have to do with being in transit—one is a maid at a hotel. Most of the poetry I’ve written in the past few years I’ve written during bouts of insomnia, between midnight and 4 am. Why these times and places and these genres I am not sure. The insomnia writing certainly has been stark and spare and not at all ironic—irony has no place in the wee hours of the morning.
KH: You have taught writing for many years. How have your students and your teaching affected you and your own writing?
SA: In so many ways! I often write along with my students, so there are those occasional little gifts that come from quick, prompted and timed writing. And their talent and their ideas are so inspiring. I’m currently teaching at Western Washington University in Bellingham and also serving as part of the international faculty at a low residence MFA located at City University of Hong Kong. The students come from China, including mainland China, and all over Asia. Their perspectives continually teach and amaze me. I’ve learned a lot from Chinese fiction—the way writers develop these subtle, veiled ways of talking about their government, because they must.
KH: I love way you create context for adoption in this memoir, through history and references to adoption in other cultures. Did you always know that these pieces would be part of this story? Can you talk a little about the importance of including them alongside your personal story?
SA: Yes, I actually originally envisioned the book as being less memoir and more research than the final book. I’m really happy with the mix it has now, but the research is really important to me. When we first talked to people about adoption, we’d hear comments about how raising another person’s child was “not natural.” In fact, there is nothing more natural—it dates back as far as recorded human history and law (Hammurabi’s code) and many cultures around the world, from ancient Anglo-Saxons to native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islands, have practiced adoption as a matter of course.
KH: I was very interested in the sections about your parents, and how you felt you adopted them, as well. Can you talk a little about that thread and how it worked its way into the larger story?
SA: So much of the last few years of my life have been involved in caring for my parents, it just intruded its way in. And my parents’ needs have become really intense at the same time my son turned teenager. It has been a real overload of intensity, need, pulling away, all at once, from everyone closest to me.
KH: You have such a wonderful essayist’s sensibility. Can you talk about the impact of the essay on your work?
SA: The essay taught me that you can include absolutely anything in what you write; you just have to do it well. Montaigne packs the whole world into his essays: what poetry he loves, his sensuality, how much he loves gravy! The essay taught me never to consider anything too small or too quirky to use, and that’s how I approach my poetry and especially my fiction.
KH: At the end of the book you ask Jin if he wants to read your writing, and he’s hesitant because he thinks it will be full of compliments. Has he read the book? If so, what is his impression?
SA: It’s interesting—there are sections I’ve given him to read because I think they are important, like the section about launching him into the world, when he had just left home for a week on a camping trip. And if any material was potentially embarrassing to him, I cleared it with him. But he has not read the book in its entirety. He asked me to “set aside a book for him” when my box of books arrived, which I thought was funny—as if it’s likely to vanish! So there’s a copy signed with all of my love, for him, on our bookcase in the living room. He can take it whenever he wants.
Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Susanne. Friends, please join us at the 8th Annual Motherhood & Words Reading on Wednesday night, May 7th, 7 p.m. at the Loft Literary Center – 1011 Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55415.
And if you’d like to be entered to win a copy of Make Me a Mother, please comment below by Friday, May 16th!