“Our mothers are our first homes, and that’s why we’re always trying to return to them,” writes Michele Filgate in her essay, What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About. In the piece, first published in 2017 in Longreads, she grapples with loving a mother who stayed silent as Filgate endured abuse from her stepfather as a teenager. The essay resonated widely, not just because of its powerful exploration of trauma, but because of its universality: we all have things we can’t talk about with our mothers.
Thus, Filgate was inspired to conceptualize an anthology of the same name—What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence—chronicling the rich and varied silences between mothers and children. Released in April 2019 to widespread acclaim, the book features the work of fifteen writers, including André Aciman reflecting on his relationship with his mother’s deafness; Kiese Laymon imploring his mother to love better; and Leslie Jamison, who writes: “Trying to write about my mother is like staring at the sun. It feels like language could only tarnish this thing she has given me, my whole life—this love.”
I spoke with Filgate, along with two other contributors to the anthology: Longreads editor Sari Botton and novelist Nayomi Munaweera. Botton’s piece reckons with self-worth and the role of money in her mother’s marriages, and Munaweera’s essay delicately probes mental illness in her family. Our interviews touched on the origins of their essays as well as their connections with each other, with their readers, and with their mothers. What follows is an edited amalgam of these conversations.
–Madhushree Ghosh for Guernica
Guernica: What led you to What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About?
Sari Botton: I knew Michele Filgate as this amazing literary citizen much before she sent me her essay to consider for Longreads. She was so helpful to other writers and students. She’d mentioned an essay she was working on. I had no idea it was going to be such a powerful, important, and identifiable piece. When I finally got to read it, I was immediately blown away. Michele’s piece lays bare some things I’d been wrestling with myself, as a daughter and an “adult child” and a writer. From the time I was fifteen until I was twenty-two, my mother was with an abusive man. She ultimately ended the marriage, but not before she, my sister, and I endured emotional and physical abuse. She often felt caught between her husband and us, and frequently prioritized keeping the peace with him over protecting us. There was a moment somewhere along the way where I almost backed out of the book. I emailed Michele with an essay pitch another writer had sent me. I wrote, “Maybe you’d want this essay instead of mine?” She wrote back, “No. I want your essay.”
Nayomi Munaweera: Michele and I were friends on social media, and she was in San Francisco when her essay came out. We met in person and connected as writers and through the essay. When she planned the anthology, she reached out to me. The idea of collectively doing this, telling my story with my peers addressing this particular topic, made it a very powerful anthology.
Michele Filgate: When I had the idea of the anthology, I spoke with Sari—she was crucial in getting this book into the world. I’m a true believer in being a good literary citizen, and she’s one of the best ones I know. [After my essay came out], the anthology seemed like a natural step—so many people were responding to the title and so many people had their own opinions and experiences on this. I wanted to call it The Lacuna, and Sari said, “No one will click on this.” And when I came up with “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About,” it made sense. Everyone has something that they cannot talk to their mothers about.
Guernica: What was your reaction to the positive response to the anthology?
Michele Filgate: I wasn’t sure what to expect, to be honest! I’ve heard from lots of strangers who have told me that this is exactly the book that they need to read in order to understand their own complicated relationships with their mothers or children.
It makes sense, given that the #MeToo movement took off around the same time [as my essay was published]. The subtitle of the anthology is Fifteen Writers Break the Silence. There are so many different kinds of silences that need to be broken, so I’m happy that people are coming forward and sharing their stories.
Nayomi Munaweera: As a South Asian author, even in my 40s, I get interrupted by men a lot when I speak in South Asia. Silence is pervasive there. I have women asking me (obliquely) if they have the permission to write about their mothers (or aunties) when they’re still alive. Talking about my story starts the conversation, especially among South Asian immigrant families.
Sari Botton: This is a perfect anthology topic. Most people can relate to it, even those who are close to their mothers. There are generational differences, as well as information we want to guard from our mothers. Which leads to different kinds of essays, making for a nicely blended anthology.
I teach an anthology class and it helps to have different perspectives on different topics. If the essayist is compelling, readers will read pieces even if those experiences are very different from their own in that anthology.
Guernica: Michele, your essay is about examining childhood abuse by your stepfather, but it is also a love letter to your mother. You write: “My mother sees ghosts. She always has…My stepfather makes me a box, and my mother teaches me how to keep my secrets inside.” Tell me about the challenge of articulating this silence between you and your mother?
Michele Filgate: I’m really glad that you see it as a love letter, because it was important to me that this essay was written from a place of longing instead of anger or resentment. It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life: immortalizing my pain and sadness on the page. I love my mother and I always will. This essay was the only way I could attempt to have her really listen to me.
Guernica: Nayomi, your essay, “Her Body/My Body”, starts with your admission that your mother made you wait on the toilet so she could clean you up, because your body belonged to her. As you say, “I was both her best, beloved precious child and a useless piece of shit.” It’s a warts-and-all admission, and a way into reflecting on an array of childhood traumas and a South Asian/Sri Lankan family where shame is the norm.
Nayomi Munaweera: Yes, this is an experience within a Sri Lankan family. It is colored by that identity, but it is also so much more, a human experience that could have happened to anyone. For most of my life, that particular incident and the behaviors around it were the most shameful secrets I carried out of my childhood. Sharing that with readers lessens my shame, reducing the power. It makes others feel that their own secret shames are not that bad. Breaking enforced habits of silence and shaming, some of which we don’t even know we carry, are how we all heal, individually and collectively.
Guernica: Sari, in your essay, “Brother, Can You Spare Some Change?” you write: “Five years earlier, the summer after my first year at college, I became a thief.” I love how you pull us directly into the most uncomfortable parts of the narrator’s world.
Sari Botton: To me, this story felt really emblematic of something a mother and daughter can’t manage to talk about. I won’t ever forget my mother’s speechlessness when she came into my room after learning I had stolen my stepbrother’s change. It was a moment in which so much could have been said, but neither of us knew where to begin. We were afraid to make things worse. We both seemed to want the situation—and everything that had led up to it—to just disappear. From my mother’s speechlessness, I have also always assumed she knew her choices had influenced what happened and felt somewhat responsible.
I’ve been working on versions of this essay for the past 32 years. My whole life, I have harbored this feeling that I am bad because I pilfered change when I was 18. But so many people have reached out to tell me that they felt for me, that they wanted to give 18-year-old me a hug. This piece has been among the hardest I’ve ever written. It takes place at one of the most painful times in my life, and I think my mother’s life, too.
What I found out was that my grandmother was fifty-four when she died, and my mother was thirty-one, and I was about six. And my grandmother’s mother died during the Great Influenza epidemic when she was three. There was a daisy-chain of partial mothering which convinced me that I cannot mother or nurture. But I’ve realized, we’re all children and we all have to take care of each other, regardless of the order in which we arrived.
Guernica: Michele, food comes up in your contributions to the anthology: the beef bourguignon you’re making to connect with your mother, and perhaps giving your mother the book at dinner, presenting it as your heart. It seems to tie in with this dangerous yet mesmerizing connection we have to mothers.
Michele Filgate: I always knew that there would be food in my essay when I wrote about my mom. Those are the best memories of my mother—of her being in the kitchen. It’s something she’s very good at. Food is part of being nurtured. I felt nurtured till my stepfather came in the picture. Food connects me to my mother, even though it’s a fraught relationship.
Guernica: Nayomi, your essay talks about Borderline Personality Disorder. You take a clinical approach to describing the trauma you and your sister were subjected to throughout childhood. Was that a way to make sense of what happened?
Nayomi Munaweera: Yes, it was a way to make sense of what was happening in our childhood home. I’ve never been sure whether the actual explanation was mental illness, immigration, a bad arranged marriage, racism, sexism, or some combination of all these. I’m still not sure. It’s been impossible to tease out these threads. Yet, thinking of my mother’s behavior as possibly BPD was instrumental in that it gave me a framework for what I experienced. I felt much less alone. As I researched BPD, I realized it’s a form of PTSD, a response to extreme trauma. I don’t know the nature of my mom’s specific trauma, but this realization gave me greater compassion for her and what she has endured and survived herself.
Guernica: Sari and Michele, as editors, how did you approach your own essay in this anthology?
Sari Botton: When I edit essays, I push writers to examine the very human ways they behaved as a result of difficult things they went through, even if the stories are unflattering. If we’re going to write about people in our lives—there’s really no way to write without including your interactions with others—we have a responsibility to examine our own less-than-honorable behavior. That’s how I approached my work in this anthology.
Michele Filgate: My struggle was more with the introduction, and how this tied the entire anthology together. To talk about food made the most sense, as that’s how I connected with my mother. But this, in turn, connected the rest of the essays to the central topic of silences and mothers. I worked closely with the authors (and had editorial guidance from many). Only two of the essays were previously published: Brandon Taylor’s in Literary Hub and André Aciman’s in the New Yorker. All the authors worked with me to focus on the central theme of what we don’t talk about.
Guernica: Sari, you grew up as the “good daughter.” When did you realize you couldn’t keep up with that?
Sari Botton: There are genuine, positive ways to be a good daughter, and I am learning them all the time. But there are also false, constraining, damaging ways in which, as girls and women, we are pressured to be “good” and “nice.” I was the firstborn in my family, and absorbed so much positive feedback for constantly reaching for gold stars. The pressure to behave a certain way led me in a lot of wrong directions, including marrying too young the first time. I feel like I’m still struggling to overcome my conditioning and become the real me.
Guernica: Nayomi, your essay is a universal South Asian story of the “good daughter” syndrome. When you realize the dysfunction of your family, you still return to “rescue” the parents.
Nayomi Munaweera: South Asians have done so well in America. Yet this perfection is a mask for so much grief, trauma, pain. We hide our pain because not doing so can be life-threatening. You dig a little bit and you start to see the rot that we have all been conditioned to hide. The primary complicated relationship has been with my mother. As a child I was very confused about what was wrong, since we lived the perfect South Asian immigrant life. My mother was my headmistress—she ruled the house and the school. She would dress me up, write my speeches, and make me stand in front of the school to read her words. The veneer of “good daughterhood” was made by my mother. And now, I’m on stage a lot, so it strikes me that she was tapping into something that was her dream.
Guernica: Nayomi, in a postscript to your essay, your mother says she’s proud of you for writing about the trauma. Does that help bridge the silence for you as a daughter and for you as a writer?
Nayomi Munaweera: I sent her the essay and when I got no reply, I very seriously considered pulling out of the collection. I felt that having this essay out would hurt my mother too much, and I wasn’t sure I could do it. The morning I needed to decide, I got her email. It opened the door for us to talk frankly about what had happened in our lives. Actually, we are slowly building some kind of a relationship. I don’t expect it to be very close, but the fact that there is any opening is miraculous. There is something so powerful in her few lines: the taking of responsibility, the acknowledgment of guilt, and the fact that she’s proud of me. These are things I’ve waited a lifetime to hear. This essay is the hardest thing I’ve ever written, but that’s made a huge difference in my life.
Guernica: Sari, you write, “In receiving, I give to her the satisfaction of having given.” And now the roles have reversed. What was the surprising part of this change in the relationship?
Sari Botton: It took me a long time to really get what was motivating my mother’s obsessive giving, because, well, it’s all stuff we don’t talk about. Now that she’s older and recently widowed, and she needs more from me than I need from her, there’s a whole new learning curve for me. Especially as someone who has not had children myself, I don’t think of myself as nurturing by nature, and in my 50s now, I am having to learn to be with her. It’s good, even though sometimes it takes me off guard.
I haven’t shared this [essay] with her. I think it would hurt her too much. What my mother and I don’t talk about: This essay. This book. My writing. I think articulating it has helped me make more sense of it, though, and that helps me to be a better, more giving daughter. I hope it does.
Guernica: Michele, how are you handling the anthology with your mother?
Michele Filgate: I do love my mother, and it’s painful to keep talking about this experience over and over again. As of now, this is complicated, and I hope over time it will change. When I cook, I still feel connected to my mom. It’s really hard to write about people you love for people to read. What made the book worth it was Nayomi’s email from her mother in the postscript, where she accepted her daughter fully.
On a broader note, I’m so proud of the writers in this anthology, since it’s so hard to write about mothers. Each gave a tremendous amount to the craft and detail of their essays. I feel each of the essays talk to each other and am grateful for the love readers have shown this book.
Guernica: Do you think writing about the silence between a mother and child gives meaning to that silence?
Michele Filgate: Absolutely. Writers often tend to say the unsayable: what other people find extremely difficult to articulate, for whatever reason. I’m a big believer in finding words for all of the experiences in life that are challenging to comprehend or translate into a story.