Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

AustinMama's Marrit Ingman talks with
Robin Bradford and Dianne King Akers about
the new fiction anthology, Mother Knows.

Austin scribes Dianne King Akers and Robin Bradford are featured in Mother Knows: 24 Tales of Motherhood, a collection of short stories from Glimmer Train, the Portland, Oregon-based literary quarterly published by sisters Susan Burmeister-Brown and Linda B. Swanson-Davies since 1990. Nestled alongside selections by Joyce Carroll Oates, Ann Beattie and twenty other fiction writers, their two selectionsóAkersís "Small Speaking Parts" and Bradfordís "Bob Marley is Dead"óglimpse womenís journeys along the path of motherhood, womanhood and selfhood in concise, quietly resonant narratives.

In both stories the daily minutiae of motherhood play out against a larger backdrop of family tumult. Motherhood, they suggest, does not exist in isolation from the vagaries of life. Rather it is a demanding role to be juggled alongside our othersóas grown daughters who tend aging and potentially infirm parents but retain traces of the child within, as neighbors, as partners, as beings who are constantly reminded of our mortality, our fragility, the tenuous threads that bind our lives to those of our loved ones.

"Bob Marley is Dead" depicts a new motherís adjustment to (and wonderment of) her maternal role. A brief error in postpartum judgment causes a household tragedy, and the narrator faces a dark shadow on her own personal horizon. In "Small Speaking Parts" the narrator hosts her father, debilitated by a stroke, at home, trying to reconcile her memory of a domineering, self-determined man with the weakened figure now struggling to play Scrabble.

Akers and Bradford took a break from their schedule of local promotional eventsóincluding appearances at BookWoman, Moxie & the Compound, and BookPeople (see schedule below for times and dates)óto discuss their stories over coffee.

AM: What struck me about the book, with its Motherís Day tie-in and focused marketing, is that it is not "mommy lit" at all. These are stories about war and suicide, immigration, frustration, class oppression and all the other millions of things that intersect with the bearing and raising of children. Do you worry about your work being ghettoized because your characters are mothers?

DA: This book was...not an anomaly, really, but Iíve never actually done "mama lit," so I donít feel in a pigeonhole at all. And the mother thing, of course, is in this book, but like you say, itís much broader than that. And I think we have to kind of push past the Motherís Day thing because it goes beyond that.

RB: Iím happy to be pigeonholed anywhere anyone wants to stick me as long as they publish me and send me a check someday [laughs]. But itís true, all these stories appeared in Glimmer Train, which is a wonderful literary journal publishing for more than ten years, and the editors, who are sisters, put a really personal face on it. They dedicate issues of it to family members when they die. It has a real sweetness to it, a community feeling. I think the sisters noticed that a lot of the really wonderful stories happened to have mothers in them. Because theyíre very deeply interested in mothering and they are mothers, and they have the same mother, I think itís just all a coincidence that they pulled them together under that. And then it comes out this time of year because of the powers that be at Simon & Schuster.

AM: In addition to her mothering role, each of your characters comes to a more graceful acceptance of frailty. What do you think motherhood teaches usóas readers, as writers and as peopleóabout frailty?

RB: I was driving over here and there was something on the radio about SafePlaceís walk. A dad was speaking about how he walks with a hundred people in memory of his daughter, and I was on the verge of tears just thinking, "How can my child be in this world without me?" My heart is walking around right now on a field trip in downtown Austin where a thousand things could happen to him, and thatís going to be true every day of his life. How do you make that okay? You just keep driving.

DA: As my sonís gotten olderóhe just turned twelveóI kind of got the assurance, I think, that comes with teenagers that nothingís ever going to happen to him. Heís going to be fine. But yeah, I do have a sense of having to keep myself safe so that Iíll be there for him. And in my story, I guess the frailty is with older parents.

AM: Your story is particularly interesting because you see the roles reversing--more of the mothering of the parent than the parenting of the mother.

DA: Right. Itís definitely the classic "Baby Boomer stuck in the middle" thing between the generations.

AM: My mother is going through that as well. Itís interesting to watch from my perspective as the grandchild.

RB: You should write about that.

AM: Perhaps I will. If I can remember to.

RB: Write it down now, because your memoryís just going to get worse.

AM: Worse? I was counting on it to get better once lactation is over.

[RB and DA laugh].

RB: No, no!

DA: We have this sort of ongoing joke in our house, which isnít very funny, that Iíve got dementia. And my husband used to say it was just aging, but now itís, "Honey, you shouldnít be losing words like that." It starts with lactation but it doesnít end. Iíll say, "Put your bicycle in the refrigerator," which is not appropriate for my age!

AM: Well, that was not at all reassuring.

DA: Sorry.

RB: If youíd rather us tell you lies, we can do that.

AM: Oh, no. Thatís okay. Your stories both interlace small moments, like cutting a childís hair, shopping for groceries, with big ones, specifically dealing with death. What can you tell me about this narrative rhythmóinstead of something more linear? Is that an aesthetic choice?

DA: My husband was talking about the book last night, how heís found it to be one of the stronger anthologies heís read. He noticed that a lot of the stories in the book had the same thingónot fragments, exactly, but small pieces coming together to make a larger whole. Thatís the way Iíve always written. Itís a really intuitive thing. You know, with my "dementia," it feels like my writing bypasses all of that brain part and is just an intuitive thing and the pieces come together. Itís nothing that Iím consciously choosing. It just kind of happens.

RB: Itís the same for me. In fact when I taught fiction writing, until now Iíve taught it using the standard books and building the climax and "the little battles leading up to the big war." I finally realized it was so arduous for me because I donít write that way. I always rebelled against that as a student. But I thought thatís how you need to teach writing. I decided that in the future Iím going to teach the way I write. Anyone can pick up a book and learn the "A, B, C" way. When I discovered Virginia Woolf, I fell in love with her...she just messes around all over the place! Motherhood is about all these tiny, tiny moments. At the end of the day, if youíre lucky enough to be awake for it, you can have this realization or just a feeling of tremendous satisfaction. And all thatís by accrued tiny moments. If youíre lucky nothing dramatic happens in your childís life. Their birthday parties are the most dramatic things. I think life is lived in those [little] moments.

DA: At my sonís school they have authors come in and teach about writing. I often thought what I would do if I went there was talk to them about just being in the moment that theyíre in, using all their senses, and writing at the moment. I think thatís the way we do it.

Read an excerpt from "Bob Marley is Dead" from Mother Knows.


Dianne King Akers and Robin Bradford will be reading and signing books:
Thursday, May 6
7:00 pm
12th and Lamar

May 20
6:00 pm
Moxie & the Compound
2120 Oxford St.

May 21
6th and Lamar
as part of Spike Gillespie's "Use Your Words" event.