By: Felicity Landa
Shortly after Michele Filgate’s deeply personal essay about her relationship with her mother was published on Longreads, it went viral. “Our mothers are our first homes, and that’s why we’re always trying to return to them,” she begins in her poignant and moving piece. In her essay, Filgate breaks her silence to tell the story of why her relationship with her mother is so painful.
“I wrote this essay because I felt like we couldn’t have this conversation in real life,” she tells me during our interview. In doing so, Filgate unearthed a community of people who also had stories about all the things they couldn’t talk about with their mothers. “Knowing that something can speak to a stranger and make them feel less alone, and really resonate with them—that’s the power of words,” she says. The overwhelming response to Filgate’s words gave her the idea to compile an anthology named for her original essay: What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About.
What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About is a composition of real motherhood, from the hilarious moments to the painful. It is an exploration into the imperfect women who make up this unique part of humanity. André Aciman writes of his relationship with his deaf mother in “Are You Listening.” Lynn Steger Strong reflects on the impossible expectations we put on our mothers, the ones they can never live up to, in “The Same Story About My Mother.” Alexander Chee attempts to shield his mother from the sexual abuse he suffered as a child in “Xanadu.”
The essays in this collection are compiled from a star-studded group of writers. They weave together a story of what it means to be a mother and to have a mother. Every essay resonates, giving life to the idea that breaking our silence brings us closer. “There’s something so deeply lonely about confessing your truth,” Filgate says in her introduction. “The thing was, I wasn’t truly alone. For even a brief instant of time, every single human being has a mother.”
THE COACHELLA REVIEW: How long after your essay went viral did you make the decision to go from individual personal essay to an anthology that further explored the mother-child relationship?
MICHELE FILGATE: My essay came out in October of 2017, and I sold the book as a proposal in February. I immediately had the idea for the anthology as soon as so many people started responding—not just to the essay, but to the title—and saying they had a story about their mom,hat they can’t, or never could talk about with their mother. So the wheels were already turning that first week that the article came out.
TCR: You have such a beautifully diverse group of writers contributing to the book, and a lot of big names. I’m curious about the logistics of that. How did you gather people to be a part of the project?
MF: I was in California the week my essay came out for the LitQuake Festival and I ended up on a panel with Nayomi Munaweera. We were talking about the topic of my essay and she had something to share. Right away, I knew I wanted her in the book. So I started gathering writers almost immediately. I think it also comes from years of experience as an events coordinator at bookstores, and a former board member of the National Book Critics Circle where I do interviews with authors. I also run a series called Red Ink that is Brooklyn based. I host it at Books Are Magic: it’s a quarterly series where I pair together five different women of all different genres, backgrounds, experience, and age range, and put together a salon-type atmosphere where we have a discussion surrounding a certain topic. So already for my work I’ve done a lot of thinking about pairing different voices together, and putting this book together seemed like a natural extension of that.
TCR: Did you know which writers you wanted, or did you put feelers out?
MF: You have to reach out to a bunch of people, especially for a topic as sensitive as this one, because a lot of writers are busy, or they think they’re ready to write about their mother but they’re not. Some want to do it, but they end up backing out for whatever reason. I reached out to a bunch of people at first. The goal was to find pieces that were different enough, and could really stand on their own as part of the anthology.
TCR: Most of the essays are original, but some, like Brandon Taylor’s “All About My Mother,” were previously published. Why did you pick those particular pieces to include?
MF: I remember when Brandon’s piece was published on Lit Hub, and I was just blown away by that essay. I wanted most of the pieces in the book to be original, but we did have room for a few pieces that had been previously published. I knew I definitely wanted that particular piece in there. Brandon is extraordinary—I feel really fortunate that I got to put his words into this book. The way he writes about his mother, despite the fact that she was abusive toward him, is filled with such tenderness and generosity. I found that essay to be so incredibly moving.
TCR: In Melissa Febos’s essay, she discusses the idea that memoir writing is very therapeutic. She says, “When I sent my second book to my mother, we had an hours-long conversation. I explained how my writing created a place where I could look at and talk to parts of myself that I otherwise couldn’t. She explained to me that this was exactly what her mode of therapy allowed her patients to do.” You do touch on this in your introduction, that it’s freeing because you can take control of your own story. I’m curious about how that process was for you. Did you find it to be therapeutic to write your story about your relationship with your mother?
MF: I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I’ve done a few events with my friend T Kira Madden. She wrote an incredible piece for Lit Hub called “Against Catharsis.” She argues that writing can be therapeutic for people, but the point of the essay goes beyond that. For me, yes, there’s a therapeutic component in writing about your trauma, but at the same time, I need more therapy than ever. I’ve written and published my experience, and now I have to talk about and relive it over and over again.
It’s actually more therapeutic for other people to read my work. I’ve heard from others who have been in similar situations that my essay was something they felt they needed to read. For myself, there’s power in putting your story down on the page, but at the same time it’s been incredibly difficult. You do choose what you’re going to say from your own story when you’re writing it. So there’s stuff that’s left off the page that you think about all the time, but the casual reader doesn’t see. There’s a duality in it—it’s painful, but also rewarding. The subtitle of the book is “Fifteen Writers Break the Silence,” and I do think it’s really important to break silences. There’s power in that. But therapy is a separate thing from writing. I thank my therapist in the back of the book—she’s been instrumental to this process. So therapy paired with writing is therapeutic in my opinion. You need both. Writing can’t be a substitute for therapy.
TCR: I love that hearing your readers’ responses to your story is therapeutic in its own way. Now that you’re settling into the idea that your words are even further reaching than when your essay was originally published, how are you feeling after having so much contact with so many people who were affected and touched by your words and your story?
MF: That’s one of the best parts of writing a book: knowing that a stranger can pick it up and get something out of it, and in this case, not just from my own words, but from any of the authors in the book. There’s something that can speak to so many different people. It’s one of the most rewarding things about an anthology, the many different voices you can compile. I’ve been hearing from strangers not just about my own essay, but about all of them. It’s the power of personal essay writing—reading the stories that come from other people’s lives, and seeing how they resonate in strangers’ lives. I’ve had several mother-and-daughter pairs come to my events who’ve bought copies of the book, and plan on having a book club to work through their own difficult conversations. I wanted the book to be published to allow for healing and communication between people.
TCR: We recently had a review of the book on our blog, by Nathania Seales Oh, and she talks about the overwhelming presence of men in every essay, and how men affect and change women’s relationships. I thought that was such an interesting perspective.
MF: That’s just one way that these essays speak to each other. It wasn’t necessarily intentional, but when you pair them all together you see the threads that run through, and I think that thread is very apparent—whether it’s Cathi Hanauer’s essay about having a domineering but loveable father who never lets her mother have a one-on-one conversation with her, or my piece where my stepfather is the dominating one in the household, while my mother was in denial and allowing his behavior to continue. Leslie Jamison as well. She writes about trying to understand who her mother was before she was born by reading the unpublished manuscript from her mother’s first husband. There are many ways that men are important in this book, not just the mothers. I think it’s hard to write about moms without writing about their partners, because parenting, traditionally speaking, is considered a thing that you do with your partner, although obviously that’s not always what happens. The men are going to be a part of these essays because sometimes the issue stems from the male presence in the household.
TCR: As a mother myself, I love that you say in your introduction how mothers are set up to fail. I don’t think I realized that myself until I became a mom. I’m curious about your own realization of that, and how that affected the way you relate to your own mother.
MF: One of my favorite reviews of this book is Ilana Masad’s in the L.A. Times. She writes about how the book celebrates imperfect mothers, and I like that description. As I say in my introduction, we want our mothers to check all of these boxes and be everything. Mothers are humans, and we have to get rid of the mythologies that we attach to them and remember that. Thinking about that as I put this collection together gave me a lot more empathy toward my mom, what she’s been through, and the choices she’s made. It didn’t make things right between us, but it helped me understand who she is a little bit more. I also think that women in general are set up to fail. You can’t please everyone in society. For instance, childfree women are asked constantly why they don’t want kids.
TCR: No matter what we choose to do as women, someone is asking us why we aren’t doing the opposite.
MF: Right. If you have one child, people ask when you’re going to have your second child. Or they’re judging a choice you make in parenting that child. On and on, no matter what you do. But especially for mothers, who are already making the ultimate sacrifice in devoting their time to this other human being, nothing they do can please everyone. We, as a society, put impossible expectations on moms, and one of the things I really wanted this book to explore is how we can look at mothers as human beings, because that’s what they are.
TCR: In her essay, “Mother Tongue,” Carmen Maria Machado talks about how she didn’t realize her feelings about having her own kids until she explored her relationship with her mother. How has this whole process changed your own perspective on motherhood?
MF: It’s given me a newfound appreciation for all the moms I know in my life. Good friends, and my sister who’s an amazing mom. It’s made me appreciate the moms who communicate and listen to their children. I’ve known since I was little that I don’t want to have kids, so I don’t think that editing this book has changed that for me, but it has deepened my understanding of my own mother.
There’s a line in my essay: “I say nothing. Nothing until I say everything. But articulating what happened isn’t enough. She’s still married to him. The gap widens.” That’s the whole point of my piece. Sometimes you can break silences and it doesn’t matter, because there’s so much denial you can’t break through and listen. This essay is for my mother to hear me, although I don’t think it worked, sadly. This piece was written out of a longing to have a mother in my life, because I haven’t had her in my life in a real way for a long time. Our relationship had been strained for many years, and when she read this essay, it made things even more painful and complicated. It was written from a daughter longing to have her mom in her life more.
TCR: What comes next for you in this whole process of understanding motherhood, and healing though writing?
MF: I’ve been working on an essay about learning how to mother myself. I’ve been thinking about it while editing this book. You need to be good to yourself, to nurture yourself, if you can’t get that from your own mom. Even if you can, you can’t put all those pressures on one person. So I’ve really been learning how important it is to be your own mother in a lot of ways.
Felicity Landa is an MFA candidate at UC Riverside Palm Desert. She serves as fiction editor for the online literary magazine Literary Mama and nonfiction editor for The Coachella Review. She lives on the Central Coast with her family.