Each month we speak to an Australian writer about writing, feminism, and the connection between the two. This month we speak to Nicola Redhouse, the author of Unlike the Heart.
What does feminism mean to you?
For me feminism means a constant awareness and push against structures and systems, attitudes, biases (often unconscious) and cultures that deny women the ability to make choices for themselves, or place them in an invidious position of physical, emotional or material deprivation because of their identity. My own understanding of the ways these structures and systems are entwined with other social factors – like race and socio-economic and class status – expands constantly as I reckon with the specificity of experience.
Was there a particular moment you can pinpoint that was crucial to the development of your perspective on feminism, and what it means to be a woman writer?
Maternity brought my feminism into sharp relief. I very quickly became aware of the social structures and unconscious biases in place that set women (even women who aren’t mothers or have no intention of being mothers) on a different track, socially and economically, to their male counterparts. I watched my husband leave for work after two weeks of paternity leave and I felt the singularity of the maternal experience, and the ways I was, as Rachel Cusk once put it, cut off from civic life.
Then, when my (unpaid) maternity leave was over, I saw it in the way my male former boss dealt with my new status as a mother. He reluctantly offered me a long-overdue promotion in a part-time capacity (I had been working below the award rate for my role for years, trying many times to negotiate appropriate pay) and then rescinded the offer and offered me my previous under-paid role full-time. I began to cry, thinking about how I would afford childcare, and how I would leave my son every day, thinking about how badly I wanted to keep working as a book editor. He implored me to stop crying because it was making him feel bad. He makes a living publishing books that are very often by women, often by outspoken feminists. I now understood that my back-foot position in the office was always somehow connected to my female body, and to conscious and unconscious attitudes to what it was capable of, what it deserved, and how it could be treated.
And I saw from that experience that many men do not want to know about maternity. They do not want to know about what women feel or experience having a body that has the potential to house a baby, or a body that represents that capacity, or of actually raising babies. The maternal experience must be kept away from them. I find something similar in my work as a writer. My book brings maternity into contact with a number of fascinating topics: neuroscience, psychoanalysis, genetics. But it is as though the maternity infects it. I am rarely asked to talk about those topics. I am asked to talk about motherhood, and while I want to talk about motherhood, I don’t see motherhood as cordoned off from the big themes of life, such as war and science and technological progress, and I am disappointed that my audience is almost always all women. I sense that maternity is tainted by the domestic and the mundane. Many men struggle to recognise the immense richness and complexity and crossover with science and industry and history and pretty much the whole entire existence of everything that living is bound up with. I hope to continue to bring that complexity to the fore in my work.
In Unlike the Heart, you combine extensive research on neuroscience and psychology with your personal experiences of motherhood and anxiety. How did you approach the writing process, and where did the idea come from?
I approached the writing process like a freefalling coconut, like a terrified porcupine, like a deranged and absolutely wired starved person who has finally found food. On some days. On other days I sat, grave and frozen, with no sense of where to go with the thing. I just wrote. I have some kind of amnesia about the process now, actually. I know there were times I felt really stuck, but mostly I felt like I was running, pushed by the wind, and it was totally thrilling. But my boys are still young, and then even younger, and childcare needed to be paid for. I was only able to write like this, with abandon, when I had the time, and that came when I was able to put aside paid work as a freelance book editor, because I was fortunate enough to receive first a grant from Creative Victoria and then one from the Australia Council.
The kernel of the book came when I had a robust conversation with my sister about the scientific status of psychoanalysis. Our father is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, and I had been very excited by his work and interested in it from a young age, and in analysis myself for years. I felt very defensive about what she was saying. I went looking in to it and discovered the work of a group of people who were looking at the brain science behind Freud’s theories (the neuro-psychoanalysts). I thought I would write a book about my own slow reckoning with scientific parameters, and the science of the mind. But quickly I realised that theoretical matter was bound up with all the questions I had been asking myself about what had happened to me postnatally, which was that I had experienced severe anxiety, a kind of dissolution. I had found myself caught up in the medical and psychological approaches to my anxiety, and that connected directly with this question of whether the talking cure had any scientific validity in the knowledge we have about the brain.
My process then was a mixture of constant reading and research (including a trip to Holland to attend a neuro-psychoanalytic congress and interview the founder, Prof. Mark Solms), and then writing, writing, writing. The real struggle for me was structure. How would I bring these strands together and move the narrative forward? I had some astute readers, and some logical input from my non-writing husband, and eventually it came together.
Writing about motherhood has often been confined by social expectations and perceptions of women, but in recent years the genre has expanded and your book is a great example – where do you see the future of this kind of writing going?
Going back to what I said earlier about motherhood being connected to big themes, I think that the genre of writing in which the maternal experience is central is opening up to those connections; perhaps taking a leap of faith in a readership that will begin to recognise motherhood as a significant human experience bound up to the biggest experiences we can know: death, war, love, survival. Eula Biss’s On Immunity brings motherhood to life in connection to disease and the history of immunisation; Jessie Greengrass’s Sight engages deeply with the capacity to investigate our internal experience in the history of medicine; Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers: essays on love and cruelty brings maternal representations right up against social fear, politics and race.
And then we also have a move toward exploring the banal, the repetitive and the ordinary terrain of motherhood as important, as worth knowing about; acknowledgment that what goes on in the house, and in the mother’s mind, is as formative of human experience as what goes on in the boardroom, so to speak. Sarah Moss’s Night Waking is a great example. Lauren Elkin, in a great piece in the Paris Review, puts it well in saying the new books on motherhood are a ‘countercanon. They read against the literary canon with its lack of interest in the interior lives of mothers.’ And perhaps what they do is what academic Petra Bueskens writes about in her essay ‘From Containing to Creating’ in Dangerous Ideas About Mothers: they subvert the idea of mothers as containers (drawn from the psychoanalytic theory of people like Melanie Klein) and recognise mothers’ ‘material subjectivity’. The messiness, brokenness, interruption of the maternal experience becomes interesting material; material that offers exciting ideas for writing forms, like what we see in the writing of Jenny Offill or Sarah Manguso.
How has your work as an editor impacted your work as a writer, and vice versa? Did it affect the way you wrote the book, knowing how you might edit it yourself if it came across your desk?
I don’t think a writer can ever be their own editor: to be effective, an editor must take the role of the interested outsider. A deliberate misunderstander. But my knowledge of the ecology of publishing affected the approach I took, in that I am implicitly aware of how an acquiring editor thinks (which is not terribly different to how a discerning reader reads): I know that a book needs a point of difference or a serious level of expertise or an unpassable quality of writing. As for how my work as a writer has impacted my work as an editor, writing has sort of ebbed away at my editing energies. I can’t do the two at the same time; not substantive editing, anyway, where I need to think creatively about the structure and story of a work. So my main paid work these days is as a writer, teaching writing, or proofreading.
You’ve written both fiction and nonfiction – how do you approach these two very different kinds of writing? Do they require different skills or mindsets?
Fiction has a certain freedom, but also can be more daunting because I feel less sure that I am writing anything with meaning. Often the meaning of my fiction only comes to me after I have written and reworked it and I begin to understand the symbolism of what I have put down on paper. This comes in to my nonfiction writing too (this desire to be working at a level of narrative and meaning) but at the start I feel less like I am free-falling with nonfiction, because I have research to undertake or real-life events to hang on to. I am in the same mindset for both kinds of writing: trying to loosen my mind, to get down on paper a feeling I have about what I am saying. But I think with fiction a part of my mind is engaged with thinking ‘where can I take the reader now?’, while with nonfiction a part of my mind is thinking ‘how do I bring that material in meaningfully?’
Which women or non-binary writers do you think everyone should read?
I’ll limit it to three but could list thousands:
Sarah Knott’s Mother: an unconventional history has recently been seminal for me. It has reminded me of the richness of interruption, of broken forms, of connections in research; it has reminded me of the incredible silence and absence around the maternal experience and some of the social history to why that is so; it has drilled into me the value of knowing the vast differences of experience between mothers culturally and historically; it has reminded me of the importance of specificity.
Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts was similarly transformative in its form and lyrical quality, and in the transformative boundary-breaking motherhood it offers.
The poet Rita Dove, whose collection Mother Love re-imagines wryly and startlingly the mother-daughter relationship via a modernised version of the myth of Demeter and Persephone.