anthology week: kasia james’ the milk of female kindness

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The second motherhood anthology I’m featuring this week is The Milk of Female Kindness: An Anthology of Honest Motherhood, edited by Kasia James. Kasia is the author of many short stories and science fiction novel The Artemis Effect. She lives in Melbourne, Australia, with a hydrologist, an ankle biter and a big black cat called George.

One of the things I really like about this anthology is the fact that it contains pieces from women across the world. I love what Kasia says in the introduction: “Some of the stories will touch you, and some may challenge you, but all will give a greater understanding of what motherhood has meant to ‘ordinary’ women around the world…In diversity, we hope to encourage you to think and feel about motherhood in a deeper and different way.” And her book really does embrace a diversity of voices, which I love.

I’m happy to welcome Kasia to Motherhood & Words today. Thank you for being here, Kasia! (Leave a comment below for a chance to win a copy of The Milk of Female Kindness.)

MOFK

KH: Tell me a little bit about how you conceived of this anthology. Why did you feel there was a need for it? What made you take the leap?

KJ: Anger, primarily! When I had my son, I was at first surprised, and then progressively frustrated and dismayed in the way that society’s attitudes toward me appeared to have changed. Now ‘just a Mum,’ it seemed that the media believed that I should only be interested in nappies (diapers), my post-baby body and shopping. There seems to be a genuine dichotomy between motherhood as a shining and impossibly ideal, and yet also a dismissive attitude to women who are mothers.

Motherhood is such a fundamental change to a woman’s life, and an immensely complicated and challenging role. I wanted to collect women’s writing, artwork and thinking to broaden the conversation about the real experience. For this reason, I was quite deliberate in seeking a diverse range of women: writing as mothers of young children, older children, children with disabilities and also as daughters, in conjunction with historical, feminist, psychological and medical perspectives.

KH: I love the title. Can you tell me a little about that?

KJ: It’s a quote from the screenplay of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, which discusses what it means to be a “real” man and a “real” woman:

“I might choose not to sacrifice my life caring for my children, nor my children’s children, nor drown anonymously in the milk of female kindness, but instead, say to go abroad. Would I still then be…”

“A real woman?”

I’ve always loved the sound of these words.

KH: Can you talk about the way the book is structured? Did the pieces you receive dictate the content of the book, or did you specifically seek out essays to address different topics that come up when women write about motherhood?

KJ: The book did grow somewhat organically. I started with a core of great writers who I had met through blogging. They suggested other terrific women writers and artists who I contacted. At that point, knowing that my aim was to embrace the diversity of motherhood, I started to deliberately seek out people to write on particular topics. I hunted through publications such as Lunar Station Quarterly (which publishes speculative and science fiction by women) to find others. My own mother also wrote a piece for the anthology, which discusses not only her views about motherhood, but recalls her memories of my grandmother, so there is a personal connection there too.

The anthology also features three interviews, and I went to some trouble to find the right people to give a genuinely honest and thoughtful views of their areas of expertise.

In terms of the structure of the book, I took particular pleasure in arranging the pieces to bounce off one another: either to pick up on a theme from the previous work, or to contrast with it. As The Milk of Female Kindness contains quite a body of amazing poetry, there was also a need to balance the pace of poetry against prose and factual information.

KH: What pieces in the anthology particularly resonate with you? Why?

KJ: I think the pieces that particularly chime with me personally will change over time, as my son grows. He is only two and a half now, so ones like “Distance” by Kitty Brody, which really speaks from the heart about the guilt of leaving small children, and the fiction piece “Failure of Heaven” by Christa Forster, a darkly powerful piece about the cost to us of protecting our children, really resonate with me now. I also adore a lot of the poetry and flash fiction in the book. It’s a form of writing, for me, that captures the essence of a feeling or situation, like an ant in amber: a frozen moment or idea. In particular, I’d have to choose “The Changeling” by Laura Evans, “The Maclaren” by Marie Marshall, and “Something Like Survivor’s Guilt” by Angelique Jamail.

That said, if the pieces didn’t resonate with me, they wouldn’t be included in the book! They are all included because they made me think, made me glow, or tore my heart.

KH: Was there anything that was particularly challenging or surprising that you encountered as you compiled and published your anthology?

KJ: To be honest, I think that apart from the grind of proof reading (many times!), the most challenging but also the most rewarding thing was to put aside my personal experiences and beliefs. Just because they are mine doesn’t mean that they are more valid than anyone else’s! Compiling the collection has really helped to sort out my own thinking and perspective on motherhood: I certainly don’t feel I have all the answers, but I’m perhaps more comfortable with that uncertainty!

I was also blown away by the naked honesty the women in my book shared. Motherhood is deeply personal, and some of the emotions it brings out in us are not always acceptable to the world, nor even to ourselves. I can’t express how honoured I am that this fantastic group of women chose to share their real stories and ideas about motherhood: the relentless hard grind and the sacrifices, but also the limitless loyalty, the pride and the love.

KH: What advice would you give to women who are just starting to explore motherhood as a subject matter in their writing?

I suppose like motherhood itself, I’m no expert. However, I would agree with one of our interviewees, Professor Alison Bartlett, who is the Chair of Women’s Studies at the University of Western Australia. She expresses the importance of having more stories about this issue out there as a means to rethinking and broadening our understanding of what it means to be a mother. Without a diversity of views, we are more prone to a media driven, narrow-minded view of the whole experience.

From my perspective, I would also suggest considering separating your experiences from those of your children in your writing, although of course your lives are intimately linked. By this I mean that I might be fascinated by the differences in approach or life experience of another woman who is ostensibly in the same position as I am, but perhaps will not be so enthralled by the intimate details of potty training! What are your thoughts, reflections, fears? What makes you angry, or guilty, or joyful? What is it really like to give birth, or to give up a child? These are experiences that only you can write about. They are not pedestrian, to be brushed aside as “women’s business.” There is daily heroism here – celebrate it!

KH: Thank you so much for being here at Motherhood & Words and chatting about your anthology with me, Kasia!

Readers, please leave a comment below by June 22nd for your change to win a copy!

3 Comments

  1. Oh Kasia, I resonate with all that you say here and in particular, separating our own experiences from those of our children. That is precisely what I mean when I say “writing from inside motherhood.” So often people respond to an invitation to my live event or about the anthology or my blog that they are not interested in kids. The work we are doing is building a body of literature of women’s experiences. I really appreciate your efforts for diversity. That is one of my primary aims of my next collection. I’d love to talk with you about this more. Thank you for your words here and to Kate for hosting this forum! xoxoS

  2. Suzi, you’re the winner!

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