Friday, 3 May 2013

Report on Workshop 4: Motherhood, Migration and Exile, by Marie-Noëlle Huet

On April 26th, the fourth workshop of the series organized by the Motherhood in post-1968 European Literature Network took place. The aims of the workshop were, “on the one hand, to identify specific problem areas relating to the analysis of motherhood and migration in Europe, asking what kinds of insights literature may offer to the issues raised” and, on the other hand, “to explore positive strategies on the part of migrant or exiled mothers and of researchers who wish to understand and improve their situations.” Considering the different presentations and the many discussions that followed each session, I think we can say we succeeded in achieving the objectives of the event.

Since the videos of the event will soon be available on the website, I will not summarize the presentations. Rather, I will try to highlight the questions raised by the papers and the discussions that ensued, as well as put forth some of the impressions that lingered in my mind after the event.

Migration vs. Exile. The situation of migrant mothers and mothers in exile is a complex one. As it was shown by the papers from diverse disciplines (communications and media, social anthropology, literature, demography, sociolinguistics and sociology), the concept includes (but is not limited to) mothers leaving their child behind for working abroad (cf. Mirca Madianou’s presentation), mothers fleeing with their children (cf. Andrea Hammel’s paper), as well as mothers raising their children in a foreign country and language, sometimes not speaking the adopted language their children are growing up with (cf. Egle Kackute and Ana Souza’s papers). How do we define migration and exile? Is one phenomenon more permanent or more difficult to cope with than the other? Do both situations have the same implications for and impacts on the mothers and their family? Why do mothers migrate? Some women decide to leave their home country for work, others to study abroad where employment prospects are more promising, or to escape from political instability. However, reasons for migrating are often not only external. As Mirca Madianou’s paper on the case of Filipino migrant mothers exemplified, women are not only leaving the home for financial purposes, they also leave for personal reasons such as gaining more liberty and self-empowerment, fleeing from a dysfunctional couple or family, etc. Who migrates? Letizia Mencarini’s demographical input underlined that women are migrating more than ever before. While it is important to measure the phenomena of migration and fertility to get the larger picture, it is hard (with numbers and graphs) to draw a portrait of the migrants and get to know their stories.

Identity. The concept of identity is central to the questions of motherhood, migration and exile. What defines identity? Ana Souza’s paper showed that for the Brazilian women living in the UK she interviewed, to be Brazilian means being born in Brazil and speaking Brazilian Portuguese. So what becomes of their identity when they move to another country? I particularly liked the idea of the “replanted tree” she referred to. When transplanted in new soil (the metaphor for the adoptive country), the tree, whose roots grew in the native country, continues thriving, absorbing the sun and nutrients of the new environment. It becomes a different tree that might even be stronger since it will have proven to be adaptable. What happens to the identity when in a transitory space? Andrea Hammel’s paper on Julia Franck’s novel Lagerfeuer shows that performing the “mothering role” can be challenging in the state of “inbetweenness” that represents the transit camp.

Ambivalence. The good mother/bad mother dichotomy is still very (too) present in the social discourse as the discussions around the papers showed. For instance, the Brazilian mothers from Ana Souza’s study see transmission of Portuguese language to their children as an inherent element of being a “good” mother. The Filipino migrant mothers from Mirca Madianou’s study are in turn considered both heroes (of the Philippines’ economy) and “bad” mothers (because they leave their children behind). Even though the new technologies the Filipino migrant mothers rely on (Skype, text messages, social media, etc.) sometimes increase conflicts and cannot make up for the physical absence, they allow them to practice intensive mothering at a distance (by being virtually present on Skype during the family breakfast for example) while being the breadwinner. Are the characteristics of a good mother in the Philippines the same as the ones of a good/proper mother in Lithuania or the UK? According to Mirca Madianou, they aren’t since she believes motherhood is culturally specific.
Furthermore, the reference to Nancy Huston’s “dilemme de la romamancière” [dilemma of the novelist mom – or to play on words, the “dilemma of the momvelist”] according to which a “good” mother needs to be selfless since she wants to protect her children so they live and grow, whilst a “good” novelist needs to be selfish because she sometimes has to kill her characters, generated some discussions. As it was said, motherhood doesn’t necessarily imply self-sacrifice. Can we then say that the concept of good mothering or bad mothering is shaped by society’s expectations and normative discourses?

The voice of the daughter. During the discussion following the summaries of the breakout sessions, someone observed that the extracts from literature mainly depicted characters speaking as daughters (and hardly as mothers). It was mentioned that it is still hard to find fiction (and non-fiction) in which the main character (or author) speaks as a mother. While it is true of the texts we were presented with, I don’t think that statement is still completely accurate. I believe that more and more writers (in France at least) write about their experience of motherhood from the mother’s perspective. Karine Reysset, who was invited to the last workshop, is a very good example of that growing “trend”. She came to writing with L’innatendue (2003), a journal-like novel (written from notebooks) which focuses on a mother-to-be and on the relationship developing with the baby in utero. All of her subsequent novels deal with maternity and motherhood. I am also thinking of Eliette Abécassis’ Un heureux événement (2005) and Marie Darrieussecq’s Le mal de mer (2001), Le bébé (2005) and Le pays (2007) among others. Moreover, a lot of Nancy Huston’s fiction focuses on giving a voice to the mother. Some of the richness of her writing, I find, is actually to give a voice to the daughter, the mother, the lover; all of which roles are played by the same person. Since, as Marianne Hirsch puts it in The Mother-Daughter Plot: “Inasmuch as a mother is simultaneously a daughter and a mother, a woman and a mother, in the house and in the world, powerful and powerless, nurturing and nurtured, dependent and depended upon, maternal discourse is necessarily plural[1].”

And the father? This was the second workshop of the series I participated in and I realized (to my surprise) that, besides Katarina Carlshamre’s paper “New Father, New Mother?” (from Workshop 3), there has been no mention of the father in the presentations. I am well aware that since mothers have been silenced for too long a time, it is now essential to hear their voice and let them take the place they deserve in the social discourse. However, we cannot put aside the fact that fathers also play an important role in the family and since they now get more involved in the care and education of the children (in Occidental families at least), it seems unfair that we silence them in return. And like Ana Souza has recognized, not having involved fathers in her study interfered since they played a role in the amount of Portuguese spoken at home and influenced the children’s perception of the foreign language.

Thanks to new communication technologies, the relative ease with which (some of us) can cross borders, the government policies that encourage migration, the social programs that integrate incoming migrants, there is an increasing number of choices and solutions made available to migrant mothers or mothers in exile. It seems to me though (it is one aspect that stands out from all the presentations) that there is a lack of “models” to turn to. The very fact of leaving one’s home country to start a life somewhere else affects identity. Living abroad thus means having to redefine one’s identity, which can be a painful (yet potentially enriching) process. Can literature, by allowing identification to singular characters and by depicting life’s complexities, offer such models or, more modestly, offer valuable insights that would allow migrant mothers to create their own story away from guilt, vulnerability and ambivalence?

Please feel free to comment, endorse or criticize my input.

[1] Marianne Hirsch, The Mother/Daughter Plot. Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism, Bloomington/Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 1989, p. 196.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for a very interesting post, it made me wish even more that I could have attended.

    It made me think about the question of class in relation to migration and motherhood; how some mothers may experience they new culture in which they mother as an important way of striving for being a "better" mother or to offer even better opportunities for their children. Maybe that is a coping mechanism to deal with being away from home and being faced internally as well as externally with the difficult feelings of motherhood that have a root in the mother's upbringing and identity development from her home country.

    I also thought about the voice of the mother in literature, that you mention you believe we do see more of. I recently read a novel by Danish novelist Ida Jessen called "Børnene" ("The Kids"), it is actually the last of a triology I believe. She portrays something as a rare as a mother, who is essentially not a very good mother, some might even call her a bad mother. But she is portrayed so well that I got a nuanced and empathic view on her - that's amazing writing!