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Aliette de Bodard on Motherhood and Erasure

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Back when The House of Binding Thorns came out last year, Aliette de Bodard wrote a guest post for this blog about the treatment of pregnant people and the trope of dead mothers in science fiction. Now that In the Vanishers’ Palace, a brilliant queer retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in a science fictional universe and with mothers playing key roles in the plot, has come out, she’s back here with a follow up…

On motherhood and erasure: people-shaped holes, hollow characters and the illusion of impossible adventures

I’d expected motherhood to impact my life, because of course having young people in the household and being responsible for them will bring about huge changes.

I hadn’t expected it to make me so keenly aware of erasure in media and stories.

To put it bluntly, mothers are just not there [1]. While pregnancy is either monstrous or sacred, either body horror or the delivery of the chosen child, motherhood is defined by its absence. We aren’t characters: we are people-shaped holes. We are empty spaces or hollowed-out characters, whose sole purpose–when the story bothers to give us one–is to erase ourselves for the sake of our children.

By far the most obvious hole is that left by death: our books and media are littered with the death of mothers of main characters. Star-Lord’s mother in Guardians of the Galaxy, Elizabeth Swann’s mother in Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones’s mother in The Last Crusade–the list is endless. The death can be at birth, can be off-stage, can be in the story, but it’s always either a minor inconvenience, something so far ago that it’s never even mentioned, or mined for a main character’s pain (and said character is almost always a cis man). We talk a lot about the fridging of women characters (and rightfully so): whenever a mother walks on stage I brace myself for the slamming of the refrigerator door, for it seems that we belong there permanently, our corpses there to serve, at best, as pleasant memories or motivations for our children. Nothing quite becomes us in life as our leaving it.

But there are other deaths. There are the mothers not mentioned and not named, as if they were utterly trivial (Belle’s mother is never mentioned in the original Beauty and the Beast; Arwen’s mother is similarly not mentioned in the Lord of the Rings movies [2], Killmonger’s father in the otherwise excellent Black Panther gets plenty of screen time, his mother doesn’t even rate one explanation). And then there are mothers who fail to have a story other than caring for their children, whose entire personality and motivations are subsumed in the act of motherhood (Lady Jessica in Dune, Frigga in the Thor franchise, who actually manages to both fail to have a plotline unrelated to her two kids and to be fridged in the second Thor movie).

One of the ways in which is this utterly toxic, in addition to killing off the actual characters, is that this devalues the work done by mothers by making it seem invisible and unnecessary: we seldom see the tremendous amount of work that goes into raising children (because dead mothers are usually replaced with indifferent, absent or abusive authority figures rather than warm adoptive parents [3]). And when works that centre complex, thoughtfully depicted motherhood are written, they are dismissed as of no importance, over-centred on boring relationships and over-concerned with trivial matters.

Whenever I bring dead mothers up, I generally get two explanations: the first is the natural occurrence of death in childbirth, and the second one is that this is a convenience, for how could a hero (especially but not only teenagers) go off on adventures with their mothers alive?

Let’s get the first one out of the way first: yes, death in childbirth was a major cause of death… in the past. But so were the deaths of children (a quick reminder that in 1800 more than 40% of children would die before seeing their fifth year[4]), and popular media has way more dead mothers than dead infants (or people dying from typhus or cholera or a myriad ways lives were cut short, historically speaking). To say it otherwise: we are being awfully selective, as a culture, about which historical truths we’re choosing to perpetuate. Not to mention the fact that in we’re in SFF and that historical accuracy isn’t the best justification when we’re dealing with stories that have dragons and fairies and spaceships in them.

The second one… the second one is part of an underlying fallacy that I’m sympathetic to: the idea that mothers can protect their children against everything. I understand the desire and where it stems from, but the truth is that this is an impossibility. There are things far too large for parents to protect their children from (failure to protect a child against the consequences of war isn’t a parental failure, and it’s victim-blaming of the highest order to pretend that it is); and even if I could materially protect my children from events… the reality is that I cannot keep them forever safe, and nor should I. Part of parenting (and especially motherhood) is the art of gracefully letting go: of accepting that my children will have their own lives and their own challenges to face, and that such challenges, no matter how I may wish otherwise, will be dangerous. And yes, some of this will happen before they are ready, but our children cannot and will not always be ready for everything in spite of every one of our efforts.

The other underlying fallacy is that mothers and adventures are incompatible, which is a terrible thing to assume on two fronts: the first, that mothers themselves cannot have adventures (see above for my objections: obviously motherhood is an important thing in mothers’ lives, but mothers’ lives cannot and should not be reduced to the importance of their children). The second is the fallacy that it is impossible for families to have adventures together: that any children’s adventures (I use “children” here as the opposite of parents rather than as an age category) have to be exclusive of parental presence. It is a very particular perception, coming from a society with socialization greatly stratified by age as well as strong individualism, which makes us see adventures with parents or older people (or, for that matter, parental presence in our lives [5]) as undesirable rather than commonplace occurrences.

There are exceptions to these rules, and I treasure them all: Jackie and Rose Tyler in Doctor Who, the numerous mothers in Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince trilogy, Jess and her mother (and her four sisters) in Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives trilogy, Tralane Huntingore and her daughters in Justina Robson’s Glorious Angels, Essun and her daughter in NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, Consort Jing in Nirvana in Fire, Mme de Morcerf in Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo, Queen Talyien in KS Villoso’s Wolf of Oren-Yaro, Anyanwu in Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed, Cordelia Naismith in Barrayar, Lillian in Victor LaValle’s The Changeling

In my own fiction, I made a deliberate choice to have mothers as characters, and to have them with their own vastly different stories. My latest book, In the Vanishers’ Palace, is a dark retelling of Beauty and the Beast where they are both women, and the Beast is a dragon… except that Yên, my impoverished scholar and Beauty analogue, has a mother who is the village healer, who is very much present and important in Yên’s life; and Vu Côn, the shapeshifting dragon who is Beast analogue, is herself a mother to two teenage children, who are both an important part but not the main thrust of Vu Côn’s own life or story. I wanted to make a not very subtle point that mothers are their own characters: Yên’s own mother is crucial to Yên’s view of the world, but she also very much has her own outlook and her own life: she is the village healer and aims to remain that way, unlike Yên who only dreams of escape. And meanwhile, Vu Côn is certainly struggling with two over-inquisitive dragon children on the cusp of adulthood, but the main thrust of her own story is her relationship with Yên (she takes Yên as payment for a debt, and finds herself attracted to her–knowing that she cannot act on that attraction because she’s Yên’s mistress and there is no consent between master and servant).

I think of this, and of the mothers in my other stories and books, as necessary work: as my own brick in the wall to make sure that mothers aren’t erased, that the holes we have become in the fabric of stories are instead filled with genuine, complex and rich characters instead of faceless, nameless and unimportant cyphers. Some days I worry that my stories are such small stones in a universe full of such holes, but then I remember that every wall is built brick by brick, and that not everything can go up as fast as I’d like. I remember that we have to try–that we all have to try, because how can we do otherwise?

[1] Throughout this blog post, I’ll be making a deliberate gendered distinction, because the set of expectations is vastly different between cis mothers and fathers. People who don’t fall in either of these categories (trans, non-binary people, and other marginalised genders and sexes) are even more at risk of erasure, othering, demonization, etc.
[2] I’m talking about the movies here: in the books Arwen’s mother is Cerebrían, who passes into the West prior to Arwen’s meeting with Aragorn following torture at the hands of Orcs (which is again erasure but of a different kind).
[3] The idea that adoptive parents and adoptive families in general are trumped by blood relations, no matter how much love they might have poured into raising children, is another hugely problematic one.
[4] Source: https://ourworldindata.org/child-mortality
[5] Some parents are terrible, abusive and should be excluded from lives: I’m not saying parental presence should be the norm or that all parents are loving–simply that their absence cannot and should not be the only narration that exists.

~~~~~

Buy In the Vanisher’s Palace from the evil empire Amazon.co.uk here. Buy Aliette’s other books from Waterstones here.


5 Comments

  1. Helmut says:

    Thoughtful. I so very much appreciate reading your perspective, as I had not noticed your valid observations.

  2. […] excellent piece about the missing mothers of SFF, this time by Aliette de Bodard, a writer I like more and more as time goes […]

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  4. Lisa Padol says:

    Some other noteworthy mothers, a few more drops into a bucket: The Holder in Patricia McKillip’s The Sorceress and the Cygnet, the Morgol in her Riddle-Master trilogy, Korre’s mother in Moon Flash — McKillip is one of all too few who has strong mother characters. Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon has her protagonists’ parents decide halfway through the book to go looking for their daughter, and they get their own plot arc. Diane Tremontaine of the Riverside stories of Ellen Kushner and others. Heck, her granddaughter’s brief appearance in The Privilege of the Sword is amazing because it leads to the argument she and her brother probably should have had years ago. It’s easy to forget, but Seanan McGuire’s October Daye is a mother. Cassel’s mother in Holly Black’s Curse Workers trilogy. In C. B. Lee’s Not Your Sidekick, both of our heroine’s parents are part of her life and part of the plot.

  5. […] Aliette de Bodard writes on motherhood and erasure in speculative fiction. […]

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