On this journey, I'm joined by Safiya as we discuss
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Other books mentioned
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Click below for the transcript with time markers.
Amina: [00:00:00] Assalamu alaykum. Welcome to a new episode of Book Nomad. This is Amina, and this is a themed episode, which means we will be discussing a theme rather than a specific book. We will start by exploring a few questions around the theme, and then each of us will highlight books that we enjoyed or suggest for this theme.
Please keep in mind that we speak as readers, not experts, and that there are always nuances that it would be impossible to cover in any one discussion. I've done some research and we try to maintain a considered tone and approach. However, please take this as an opportunity to reflect on the opinions and questions we explore and use this as a starting point to project you into your own research and learning.
Assalamu alaykum. Welcome to a new episode of Book Nomad with my almost co-host, Safiya. Today we're doing another themed episode, and the theme is motherhood in literature. This has proven to be a bit of a challenge to think about, especially in relation to books, right Safiya?
Safiya: [00:01:17] Yeah.
Amina: [00:01:17] I think we both have a lot of ideas, but whether we've seen them in books is a different question, which maybe is a question in itself about, yeah, I dunno. I mean, I was thinking about whether, whether it's that motherhood is not a focus in the future, or if it's something we don't pay specific attention to or something else. I don't know.
Safiya: [00:01:46] I was thinking, well, I think it could be like a mixture of both or something else, I don't know, but yeah, because when I was thinking of what books to choose, I'm like, I couldn't, I was struggling to think of any where motherhood was the main kind of thing that stood out to me. And I'm like, is that just because I'm not choosing books that are- I don't know, but there definitely are books out there that are : this is all about motherhood and it's kind of like, even, , when I became a mother, I just wasn't drawn to those kinds of books that just talk about motherhood advice or that kind of thing, in the non-fiction kind of side of it.
Amina: [00:02:27] Right.
Safiya: [00:02:28] Yeah, I don't know...
Amina: [00:02:31] Yeah. I suppose there is a distinction between fiction and non-fiction in this because obviously there are a lot of nonfiction books on this topic. But I also struggled to think of fiction that centered this.
Safiya: [00:02:48] Hmm.
Amina: [00:02:49] But I mean, in a way maybe that, I don't know, I'm just thinking... what am I thinking? Is it that, is it that people are not interested in talking about it or it's just so- it's... it's in everything in a way.
Safiya: [00:03:09] Yeah. Yeah. The more I had to think about, okay, what book should I choose? The more I'm like, well, yeah, motherhood is in every single story practically, whether it's at the forefront or the background , if you look, you'll find it in some element, but whether it's the focus or not is another topic, but, yeah, I do think it's kind of a reflection of real life where mothers aren't necessarily at the forefront, but they're, they're a part of society. They're part of everyone's life in some way or another, whether it's, , they're a mother or they have a mother or they lost a mother or- which maybe that is how it comes through in fiction where it's just mothers are there . You know? I don't know...
Amina: [00:03:54] Yeah, maybe it's sometimes taken for granted. I think that that must be part of it. I think when we, when we talk about what we've chosen, that will probably we'll probably have more thoughts on that, I guess. We'll see.
So we're going to go straight into the books and obviously it's- I think it's interesting that we have you as a mother and me as not a mother talking about this topic, that's a slightly different perspectives, maybe. Do you want to go first this time?
Safiya: [00:04:33] Okay. So the first book I'll talk about is With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo.
Yeah. And it's about a high school s enior in America called Emoni Santiago. And she's a teen mother, so she's obviously she's in high school, but she'd already had her baby and I think, I can't remember how old the baby was like when the story started, but I think she was maybe around one or two.
She's already had the baby for a little while. And he's back in school after she's had the baby and everything, and kind of like the story kind of focuses on her, kind of how she has to try and balance the pressure of thinking that she needs to start working as soon as she leaves high school to try and provide for her baby, but then alongside that, she's got her own dream of wanting to become a professional chef. And she has a dream of going to college and pursuing that , so she's trying to balance that: she's trying to have her own life and , how she's caring and providing for her daughter and how they both intertwine with each other. And she was, so Emoni was raised by her grandmother because her own mother died I think when she was born or very, very young. She doesn't have any memories of her own mother. Um, so there's kind of like another element where her grandmother was her mother figure and her grandmother also has a big role in helping to care for her daughter as well. She relies on her quite heavily. And one of the themes that comes through is like the grandmother is trying to give her more responsibility with, with the baby. There was a lot of different, slightly unconventional ways of, of motherhood in terms of like the grandmother being a mother and her being a teen mother, and how she balances that . It was a young adult book, so there are other kind of teen things, like thinking about life goals and things like that.
Amina: [00:06:51] I actually wanted to read that book, but I haven't read it yet. I forgot about it, but it was an obvious choice if you'd read it. Yeah. I read her The Poet X. But this is not in verse, right?
Safiya: [00:07:06] No, it's in prose.
Amina: [00:07:08] One of the obvious topics that you have highlighted there is motherhood versus career, I guess, or motherhood versus own goals.
Safiya: [00:07:22] Yeah, yeah.
Amina: [00:07:24] Which , I don't know. I can't commit to an opinion on but I think it's interesting to see how people navigate that in, in a story. I want to know what the outcome of that was.
Safiya: [00:07:39] So I think. Let me remember... she took a culinary class at her school. And it was a bit hard to balance it because it was kind of extra work on top of all the, the school that she already had. But then with that class, they went on like a trip to Spain to have like an intense kind of cooking- professional cooking experience. She did like really well with that. And then, the school kind of puts on a big event and her class do all the cooking for it. I think because I think her grandmother was a bit- she wasn't so sure like that she should pursue it. She was kind of like you need to just focus on your daughter kind of thing.
Not like overbearing in that way, but she was kind of trying to make her be realistic, but then I think after that event. I can't remember it that clearly, but this is how my memory of it is : that her grandmother was like, okay, you should pursue this, I support you. I think that's what happens: it kind of ends before she goes to college, but I think she had applied to college and was going to be that she would do that.
Amina: [00:08:50] Happy ever after then.
I think my first choice also has that- it has an element of that idea of having to choose, I guess, or trying to balance work and motherhood in a slightly different context, because obviously at her age, there is a lot of dependence on others, isn't there? Which highlights, I guess, that need to have support.
Okay. I'll I'll say mine then that was related to that. I didn't really know what order to say these in, but I'll say this one first. This is actually the one I probably have the least to say about, but I read it three days ago.
Safiya: [00:09:38] Yeah.
Amina: [00:09:39] It would be a good idea to talk about when I can actually remember.
Yeah. So my first one is Zikora by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which is a- it's actually a short story that she published last month in October, end of October. But she published it on Amazon exclusively. I think they're publishing a series of short stories or something. So it's about this woman who is pregnant and she's actually- the start of the story is she's at the hospital in labour, but it kind of, again, it's, it's a story that puts the experience of motherhood, I guess, in the centre - in the centre of the story.
And the aspect that related to what you were saying was abou t- she's a lawyer or she works in law anyway, she's specialised in law, which obviously is a high pressure kind of job with a lot of expectation. And there was a part that I found quite, yeah, interesting when she's quite far into her pregnancy, but she's at work and she's kind of competing with this other woman to get ahead, obviously. And she needs, she feels like she needs to prove that she can continue at the same rate and with the same amount of focus, even though she's heavily pregnant.
And she was saying, throwing in comments about staying in the office till after nine at night and stuff like that to kind of casually prove herself. And I thought that was really, I mean, it's so upsetting, I think. I found it upsetting because obviously her role as, as a future mother has no value in that context. And what she's trying to achieve is impossible : to continue to work the way she was while she's pregnant and while she's going through everything that she's going through So, I guess it's a, it's a different angle to what you mentioned, but it was a good representation I think just, just in that one scene of the, not just the physical pressure, but the emotional, the emotional pressure of not being of motherhood, not being taken as a serious I dunno what you'd call it role, not really a role. It's not a job , it's like, yeah, it's this idea that you should be able to have it all, but that shows, I guess, that you can't really.
Safiya: [00:12:25] Yeah. And I think there's certain like work environment, certain fields , that are much less supportive of mothers than others, but I think in any kind of role, you get that. Because well, I also had an experience where I was quite newly married and I was working in nursing, which you think is a pretty- it's got to be one of the most supportive fields of women and mothers. And like my manager said to me, cause he knew I was married, he was like, "Oh, you're not going to have kids soon, are you? You need to focus on your career first, you don't want to be having kids yet.
Amina: [00:13:09] Wow.
Safiya: [00:13:10] Yeah.
Amina: [00:13:10] That says a lot. Yeah. I mean, I guess in a way it's kind of the reflection of- it's a division of different parts of your life, right? You're supposed to be able to what's not what could compartmentalise. But that's not human reality, is it, especially when it comes to something like motherhood, which - well you'd know better than me - it would influence every aspect of your existence.
Safiya: [00:13:45] Yeah. And as all like workplaces, they see probably a young woman or a newly married woman and they're like, "Oh maternity leave soon. Oh, that's annoying."
Amina: [00:13:56] Yeah. Yeah, I suppose it's, in the end, it's the way these it's the way workplaces and organisations are built, I guess it's kind of built into it really, isn't it?
I think that struck me. I mean, she, in this story, she, she was obviously trying to address a lot of different challenges or problems, like social problems that come up around motherhood and around women, I suppose, which is one of her areas that she talks about quite openly. But I think I really like her writing because- have you read any of her books?
Safiya: [00:14:37] I actually haven't. Yeah, I need to.
Amina: [00:14:43] I've read all of her novels, I think, she's written three and I actually did an episode about Purple Hibiscus a while ago. But I think what she does really well is she creates very relatable stories in the way she describes small things.
And she also, I feel like it's empathetic, maybe . You can really connect with the experience like you can really get into their head, but also it's often not- she, she gives different perspectives. So she often, I mean, she's written two nonfiction books about, related to feminism. But even in this story the main character, the father of the baby abandons her as soon as he finds out that she's going to have a baby. But she's still kind of, there is a moment in the book when she actually kind of tries to understand why he did that. So I think that type of trying to add a bit of nuance, I guess is another thing I really like about her writing. So for me, I think the aspect of this story that probably have the most impact was actually the labour scenes, which were the way she described it I think really helped you to understand the emotional experience that she was having and all the different thoughts that were going through her mind while she was going through it about, about obviously him abandoning her , about being a Black woman in hospital and giving birth and her mother, and like all these different things, were going through her mind while she's going through this really difficult experience.
And I thought she really did a good job of bringing that all together. So, yeah, I think for me, that was the strongest aspect of this, and it's not very long story. I think it was 35 pages or something. Yeah. So I read it in one evening. There's actually an audio book version, which was free with the Kindle book and it was narrated by an American actress, but she managed to put the- cause, sorry, the main character's mother is, is Nigerian. And I'm trying to remember- actually she's Nigerian, she's Nigerian, but she lives in America. Yeah. And she managed to switch between accents very well. I don't know. She must've been stopping recording and then starting again because it was going from like a Nigerian accent to really smooth American and then back. And I was like, wow,how is she doing this?
So I really appreciated that as well. It's always nice to come across an audio book that gives the full atmosphere of the book, I guess. Okay. What's your next one?
Safiya: [00:17:52] Okay. My next one is Brick Lane by Monica Ali. Have you read it?
Amina: [00:17:59] I think I've read it. Have I read it? Oh, no, no. I'm thinking of White Teeth. No, no, I haven't.
Safiya: [00:18:07] It is kind of, yeah. It does remind me a bit of that book actually, but yeah, so it follows the story of Nazneen, who is Bangladeshi. She grew up in Bangladesh and then when she's quite young, she gets married off to an older Bangladeshi man who lives in London.
So she goes to live in London with him and we also get like snippets of her sister's life - Hasina - who ran away. She got married to a man, a love marriage. She fell in love with him and she ran away because her father wouldn't have let her marry him . We only see Hasina's perspective through the letters that she writes to her sister.
So we see, like, Nazneen at the beginning of her marriage, she's settling in , she's in a brand new country and that she's kind of got a very limited view of it, she just stays at home. So she gets pregnant with her first child. And one thing that this. novel deals with was like the loss of a child.
So the baby, when he was about, I think, a year and a half or so, I think, it was meningitis I think. He got unwell, he had to go to hospital and it was very hard to read, like for me, because at that time my son was pretty much the same age and I thought, Oh God. And then it was kind of like the writing was becoming more hopeful, like "Oh, okay. He's he's going to be, he's going to get better, that's okay. And then, there was like, you know when you get that sense, when you're reading, like, oh, this isn't good, like something's going to happen. They just kind of plant something. So he was going to be coming home soon and so she had been at the hospital the whole time with him. And then, because he was coming home, like she went back home, to have a shower, clean the flat, everything. And then when she goes back to the hospital- and yeah, so they lost, they lost their son and that was really hard to read. I, I was going to stop reading because it was a bit too much for me at that point. But then just when I was going to stop, like it kind of fast forwarded quite a lot of years, maybe like more than 10 years, because then they have two daughters.
So you kind of, don't get to see the immediate period where they're mourning the loss of their son, but I think it's maybe like 12 years later, they've got two daughters. So you see them with two daughters but you still even then you still feel the loss of their son, that was really powerful. But then, their marriage is kind of plodding along. They kind of, I think it was interesting because like when their son was born, they were kind of, they seemed to be getting a lot stronger, like in their bond ,Nazneen and her husband, and then when he was ill, like the husband really kind of stepped up and Nazneen was really touched by it.
But then I think after that, after they lost their son, the bond kind of broke a little bit. It seemed like that to me. So meanwhile, we also see the perspective of like, her sister, who- her first husband became abusive and she ran away and then she was trying to like work and just survive really, like her story was really hard-hitting, and she's kind of like saying to her sister like, wow, you have an amazing husband, you've got children, you know?
Amina: [00:21:47] Are they both in England?
Safiya: [00:21:50] No, sorry, her sister stayed in Bangladesh. Yeah. So, her sister can't have children. And so you kind of feel that longing from her side. It kind of makes Nazneen think, because she's kind of not really that happy in her marriage. I don't know. It's actually, she has an affair. But then like, she's a bit confused. Her husband wants to go back to Bangladesh. She's kind of, part of her is like, okay. I get to go back and see my sister. Her daughters really don't want to go and part of her is thinking about the man she's having an affair with, but in the end, her husband goes back and she stays with her daughters, but not for the man she's having an affair with. She kind of ends that. But because she, she really thinks about the fact that it would make her daughters really unhappy because they're just they're against it, especially the older one.
Amina: [00:22:48] Hmm
Safiya: [00:22:49] She thinks about what that would do to her relationships with them. And as much as like she wants to see her sister and in the end, it feels like she does want to stay with her husband but it was also kind of like, they just separated, he went to live in Bangladesh, they kind of maintained contact and it was like more like I don't know, for show.
I dunno, but in the end, it just felt like a decision came down to her daughters' happiness and her relationship with them. She felt like she didn't want to sacrifice that. It was in the end. It was almost like she had to choose between her daughters and her husband.
Amina: [00:23:33] Yeah. I guess that's something that- I'm trying to, trying to get my thoughts straight. I feel like it comes up more for mothers than fathers to avew to make choices like that. But maybe, maybe it doesn't. I don't know. So, so do you think the, the death of the son is a kind of a thread that goes through the whole book and the effects of it?
Safiya: [00:24:05] I felt like that.
I think that part of the story had such a massive impact on me and maybe someone else reading it with a bit more, who didn't feel so close to it, it wouldn't be as significant. But to me, it was like, when I think of that book, that's the person that comes to my mind. It's just in the little things. Like she looks at the picture, she still got a picture of her son next to her bed. She looks at it and things like that. And when she thinks of him, she can't kind of think too deeply. Then she kind of pulls herself out and carries on doing something or - and that's many years later, and you just feel that the pain is still too raw for her to ever really go into thinking about too much.
Amina: [00:24:56] Right. I guess, I mean, just thinking about that, I suppose that maybe the thing that's could be most powerful about writing about motherhood in literature is that kind of emotional, the emotional experiences like that. And how they, they have such a strong impact on a person's whole life, I guess . I mean, for a father as well, obviously, but I mean, it must be different for a, for a mother and a father. Maybe that's- so many different branches in my head that I'm trying to connect. I was just thinking maybe part of why motherhood is, seems to be taken for granted is also that it's not something that's necessarily measurable, especially the emotional side of it. Yeah. Both in terms of how it affects the woman, but also the role mothers play in society. I was just thinking , like something like that, you can't really measure it. You can't show how hard it is or how it affects someone for their whole life, yeah.
Do you know when that was written? That book? 2000 something, right?
Safiya: [00:26:30] I think I, yeah, I think it was published in 2003.
Amina: [00:26:35] Wow, quite old then. But it's a very, it's a pretty prominent book; I've seen it loads of times, but I didn't realise it was about a Bangladeshi family.
I'm trying to decide which one to say next. Okay. I'm going to go back in time, then, I'm doing it chronologically backwards. So the next one I chose was an Algerian book that's not available in English, unfortunately, which is La grande maison by Mohammed Dib, and this is part of a trilogy. I'm trying to think how to describe it.
It was published in 1952, but it's set in colonial Algeria in 1939, so just before the second world war breaks out. And obviously that war also had an impact on the colonised countries because , France was in the war, obviously. But I mean, I did two episodes with Assia on another book by Mohammed Dib: Au cafÃ©, which is a collection of short stories.
One of the short stories in that book is, it's just like a, he just wrote another story. But basically this book follows a Omar who is a boy growing up with his mother. His father died when he was pretty young and he has two sisters and it's basically shows the, the way a lot of Algerians were living under French colonial rule in really difficult circumstances. And the whole book basically is about, I think if you had to sum it up in one word, it would be hunger. A prominent theme through the whole book is that they're constantly starving and constantly trying to find ways to, to just survive, find enough food to eat that day.
So although the central character is Omar, I think the mother has a really prominent role and an interesting character. There's very few male characters in this book, actually, it's very much oriented around the women. So they, they live in Dar Sbitar, which is like a shared house, I guess.
So there's different families living in this house. Each of them has like one room and I think they, yeah, it's mainly women and one of the men who appears briefly and it is taken by the French. So you get the idea that the men are absent often because of colonial action. It's also showing a bit the start of the movement towards independence.
So this man is taken cause he's suspected of trying to organise resistance, but the mother is an interesting character because she's very - she's not what you would describe as the stereotypical good mother in that she's very kind of, she's always shouting at the children. She's always, she, , short on patience and I guess she doesn't show her love in a way, in a gentle kind of way.Butt that this isn't, I feel like Mohammed Dib, he's showing this to show just how difficult their circumstances were. That she's basically, she's got no husband to help her, she's got no money and she's also looking after her mother who I think she's- she can't do much, anyway. She just sits there all day, basically. So she's constantly trying to keep up and her frustration comes out on her children.
And in the short story, which is not in this book but it really, I think it's a really powerful story. It's called L'attente, The Wait. And in that story, the mother goes , leaves the children on their own to go and sell, I think, sell some stuff that she'd made in Morocco, which I believe, I believe it was on the black market to try and make money. And this whole story is just like really long days of these children waiting for their mother to come back and they're starving, they have no food and it's really hot and it's a really powerful, emotional - it's really hard to describe because it's very slow, but the slowness just reinforces how, how long the days feel for them.
Safiya: [00:31:45] I can almost kind of get that, just from what you're saying I can feel that.
Amina: [00:31:51] I think that story kind of sums up this book and the series, I guess, I haven't read the other two actually. But in that story Omar becomes really upset with his mother. He's really angry because he feels like she's just abandoned them and she doesn't care about them, obviously as a child looking at it from a child's perspective. And there's also the other women in the house who obviously indirectly their mother is depending on them to keep an eye out on the children.
But there was this one scene in that story, when these, some of the other women are telling these children, basically your mother's abandoned you, she's not going to come back. She doesn't care about you. And I thought that was, it was interesting because on the one hand they, they are watching the children, so they are kind of helping the mother. But at the same time, I wonder if, if that was their way of trying to feel better about themselves by trying to find someone else who's maybe got it even harder than them.
Safiya: [00:32:59] Yeah. She's not handling it the way they are.
Amina: [00:33:03] So I feel like he really, he really showed how these circumstances- what effect they had on the women and on the mothers in particular and what they had to do to just to survive : things that they didn't want to do. Like , like this whole career versus mother thing, and the woman in this book didn't want a career , like she was forced to find a way to feed her children.
And sometimes looked down on for that, like she's, she's treated almost like a bad mother and that she's leaving her children on their own, but she's, in the end, everything she's doing is for them to, to help them deal with it. Yeah. So it's just full of negative emotions, but you feel that kind of empathy or understanding, like it's not a critique of the women's actions, it's a critique of the situation that created that type of environment.
Yeah. And even another element of how that it shows, what she's trying to do is that even when they're starving, she is really determined for them not to ask other people for food. So she could have just let her children ask even if she doesn't want to, but she's really wants them to grow up with their own sense of dignity and keep that intact, which is, I guess, another reflection of what mothers do : they're not just worrying about their physical needs, but they want to help their children to grow up into solid human beings, I guess. Yeah. I just, as I was saying that. I just thought about - I was watching an interview with Elif Shafak. I dunno if you've read her book, Black Milk.
Safiya: [00:35:07] That's one that I actually like thought of because of this episode that I need to read, yeah.
Amina: [00:35:12] Me too, yeah. I haven't read it but I thought I would just- because I knew she'd written it, I thought, let me see if there's like an interview. And she said something interesting about her grandmother's generation. She said that generation had like a clear idea of what, at what points in their life they would automatically need help from other people and they would, it was just expected. And one of these is is becoming a mother and being, being a mother that they just expected that people would support them in that. And she was comparing that with her mother's generation who felt like they had to prove they could do everything on their own. I thought that was a really interesting comparison.
Yeah.That transition to a different way of, of seeing society's role, I guess, in, in motherhood. Yeah, I dunno in Turkey what caused that transition, but it's quite interesting. I mean, I, I want to, it's a huge question that I can't really fully understand, I guess, it seems like , yeah, again, it's like that divide between mothers and society or that compartmentalisation again.
So I was just thinking about it because I was thinking , this mother didn't want to ask people for help in that situation, even though they were desperate. I wonder why.
Safiya: [00:36:53] Maybe that's about who, like, if it was like extended family or close family, but maybe it was just other families that aren't related or close to them. Maybe that's a bit harder to ask for help.
Amina: [00:37:13] Right. Yeah. Yeah. I guess it's yeah, it's about as well maybe they felt like they'd already lost so much of that, of their dignity or agency maybe. And she didn't, she wanted to hold onto that one thing at least. Yeah. Okay. What's your next one?
Safiya: [00:37:35] My next one is- I read it quite recently - The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah about a Palestinian American woman . She's a headmistress of a of a girl's school in Chicago and there's a radicalised shooter comes into school.From there the narrative mostly follows chronologically from her childhood and every now and then there's a scene in the present day in school, but it's like, through seeing her childhood that we really get to know her and like her experiences that made her, who she was and, where she was today.
Like, so in her childhood she's got an older sister and a younger brother and her parents immigrated from Palestine. And her older sister was born there, but she was very young when they went to America. She doesn't remember it. And then her and her younger brother were born in America. And yeah, it's a lot of, it was about the kind of struggle identity growing up in America.
And then there was- they're not really a practicing family. So there's not much religion in the household. When Afaf is quite young, her older sister disappears and they never heard from her. She's basically gone and you see the impact that has on the mother. And she already had like a bit of a, she didn't feel much of a relationship with her mother even before that, because her mom was kind of really focused on the oldest daughter.
So her and her younger brother are growing up quite close together, they just kind of do their own thing. And after the eldest daughter disappears the relationship just gets worse and worse after that, and there's a couple of periods where their mum basically has some kind of mental health breakdown.
She has an episode and it's not really like talked about with the children. Even when they're older, it's never addressed, but it's just something that they kind of deduce themselves. This is what happened. She spends a period in hospital, and they don't go to see her when she's in there.
And then she was about a teenager, I think, and their dad was in like a car crash. Before this, he had been drinking like in the evening, h e was becoming quite a regular drinker because of the impact of the daughter's disappearance and the relationship between him and his wife was already like, it was complicated.
And so after this car crash, he kind of, it makes him reflect and then he becomes practicing and he becomes religious and he's trying to influence his family in the same way. Afaf does pick up on this and she connects with it, and that becomes her spiritual journey. But the mom, she's just really offended by it, in a way she, she just it provokes her and it makes the relationship even more hostile because she's kind of like , she doesn't say it, but Afaf senses it that it's like, well, if there's a God, where's my daughter? Why did He take my daughter?
She was really struggling with her mental health and just being in this role that she didn't necessarily want to be in because it's kind of repeated like throughout the story several times that she never wanted to get married, but their dad kind of just persuaded her and like, because Afaf's aunt is also in America - so her mom's younger sister - and she kind of says it a few times. Yeah. Like "your mum didn't want to get married" and that kind of thing.
And as well she didn't want to leave Palestine and that become quite a big theme. Yeah. I think one of the things that stood out to me about this story in terms of motherhood, the way like Afaf really struggles with , this lack of kind of emotional affection, emotional care from her mother, and , even more so because before there sister went missing, her focus was on her. So it's not only that after her sister went missing she withdrew more, but it's like, she has that comparison. She wasn't necessarily like affectionate in a really physical way of hugs and kisses, all that kind of thing but it's the attention like she was kind of the focus, but yeah, it was the way, like, I mean, I've seen it in various stories, like, but none that I could really pick up on and talk about because I can't remember, but when a mother's attention, affection, love is absent it has quite a massive impact or like long lasting impact.
Because like when she really connects with Islam and she thinks about her mother and she wants to forgive in a way she does, but also she's still so hurt by it. But she also understands, so it's a really complicated kind of issue. Even like in the present day when she has her own children her relationship with them so different.
And I think in my experience when I became a mother, like, it really makes you think about your own childhood and your own experiences and think about what you want to do with your own child. Yeah. But one of the things that I took from the story was mothers are not infallible and there is this idea that mothers should always do what their children need them to do.
But sometimes they can't, sometimes their own trauma is too much, or there's just so many reasons. She wasn't mentally well, that was clear although it was never overtly spoken about, but , mothers are human and being a mother doesn't make them immune to so many things. That was what really stood out to me.
Amina: [00:44:01] Yeah. It's a huge responsibility . I feel like we keep coming back to this kind of division because if someone, especially like in that type of situation, if you don't have a support system of some kind. Not just to help the mother, but, but to help the children, then this type of situation becomes even worse, right?
Safiya: [00:44:32] And they were quite isolated in the sense that the mum's sister was in America, but several hours away, she was in a foreign country, she'd never in the sense that they say like assimilated, she just stayed at home , she cooked. Her meals were kind of like I felt like that was one ofhery main ways of showing her love . No matter what was going on, she was making a really delicious Palestinian home dish, but there was no other support other than that.
Amina: [00:45:04] Yeah, I guess it's interesting that this, the disintegration, if you like of kind of wider family support, I suppose in many, in many societies now, it's, I guess it hits mothers more, because fathers often. I mean in a way they have a different type of responsibility, I guess, but they can often kind of step out of it in a way that mothers can't.
So when that support system's not there, the mother is the one who fills all those other roles that would have been filled by extended family or very close community.
Safiya: [00:45:53] Yeah. And like, in my experience, like I do kind of feel that, that, that was of our own, like mine, my husband's own doing ; we're both far away from our family.
So, when you think of the little things that extended family or close family would just be doing, you do feel that absence, but it, in our case, , that was a decision that we made just like in this story : they moved to America. Maybe that was more the dad's decision than anything, but when it's the decision you make, you kind of feel like you can't, not complain, but you can't really say anything about it because you knew what you were doing when you made that decision. Yeah.
Amina: [00:46:45] Yeah. Yeah, it's really, it's really complicated. I mean, obviously, but I'm just thinking about I'm just trying to, I'm just trying to think out loud, I guess, there's now there's a lot of obviously people having less children in a lot, all parts of the world, generally.
I guess in a way, this is considered a good thing for women, but I'm just thinking then if you, if you look ahead, like the next generation, when they grow up and then they have children, it means they have less support. Yeah. From immediate family because there's less people. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, that's just one element obviously, but I often, I find it really hard to, to really get to grips with the, this balance between women, wanting to have their own l not wanting to have a lot of children or not wanting to have children , which- I fully understand why they feel like that. The balance between that and then some of the implications of it, which is, as we said, like women often are often more affected by not having children to look after them when they get older or siblings to help them or that kind of support network. I'm just thinking out loud . I'm not heading towards a conclusion. Mm. Yeah. I don't know. It feels like often I feel like that discussion is often only looks at certain aspects of the issue and doesn't, it's not comprehensive, I guess.
Safiya: [00:48:48] Yeah.
Amina: [00:48:53] Okay. This episode's definitely not going to have many conclusions in it. Okay. My last one is- I'm going way back now to 1813, with the British classic Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. And I actually, I read this book a very long time ago. So some of my memories of this are gonna be based on films.
Yeah. I really like the films that have been made of this book and I liked the story. I think there's a lot to think about in the story, but in terms of motherhood, I think the mother in this story is quite an interesting character. And maybe not always done justice in the way she's , the impression that you get of her. And I've written down the description that Austin gave of her in the book, which was "she was a woman of mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper." So just a general all round nice kinda lady. Have you read this book?
Safiya: [00:50:11] It was like a very long time ago like you.
Amina: [00:50:15] But I guess you know the story, generally. Yeah. So the mother is kind of in many ways, she's, she's like an inconvenience, she's like a silly kind of annoying presence in, in the book for, for the daughters, especially Elizabeth, the main character. And that's partly because she keeps trying to get Elizabeth and all of the daughters trying to get them married off as quickly as possible.
The way she goes about this is quite direct and explicit. She doesn't, she's not very subtle - hah - in trying to find these preferably rich husbands for her daughters. And she has how many daughters, I think it's five, five daughters and no sons. And the context of this is that the their estate, their house and all their wealth or their father's wealth can't be inherited by any of them.
And it will go to that nearest male relative, who is an indirect cousin, I think, so obviously yeah. It's a desperate situation, even though it's not always, it's not always felt that way, but it, obviously it definitely is. And I feel like the mother is just very keenly aware of this, of how precarious her daughters' situations are: as soon as their father dies, they're going to be left with nothing. They'll be fully dependent on this cousin's generosity. So it feels really unfair to then portray or to consider the mother the way she often is, which is just that she's silly. And she just wants to find any like just wants to find a man with loads of money.
Whereas she is really the one who's taking things in a way most seriously. And I feel like this is something that is often the reality in terms of how people perceive mothers. Especially mothers who may be fully like they fully show that they committing themselves fully to their children. And they don't have a career or whatever it might be.
It feels like there's a certain lack of respect for that. Especially when you compare Mrs. Bennett, the mother, with her husband, who he kind of just like, he's just happy to sit back and do nothing. And even there's a moment in the book- I feel like I don't want to give spoilers, but I mean, I assume people have a general idea of this story, but maybe they haven't, but basically there's a situation comes up where one of the daughters is in really big trouble and the father is not that bothered about it.
I mean, he's bothered when, when she gets in trouble, but he is part of the reason she ends up in that situation. Basically she wants to go on a trip with her aunt I think is, and he says she can go, but Elizabeth tells him that he shouldn't let her go because she's not very mature.
I think she's 15 or something and she's not a very mature personality. So Elizabeth tells him, you really shouldn't let her go because she might get in trouble. And he, his reaction is at least we won't have to deal with her being silly in the house for a few days, a few weeks or whatever.
So he doesn't really, he doesn't put much effort or energy into his role as a father. And then disaster strikes as Elizabeth predicted, and he has to deal with it, but his character as a whole is I wouldn't say he's only positive in the way he's portrayed, but he's not portrayed in nearly as negative a way as the mother is.
Safiya: [00:54:41] She's kind of like overbearing, like that typical overbearing mother, gets too involved.
Amina: [00:54:49] Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I'm not saying she's perfect. Um, definitely not, but I think it's just a really interesting way of thinking about how mothers are portrayed, not just the character herself, but how she's seen by other people because of because she's so open about not having anything else in her life.
Safiya: [00:55:19] Yeah. That's what she thinks about and what she's working towards all the time. Yeah.
Amina: [00:55:25] Another thing was it's sort of, I guess it's related to what we were saying about having support in that Elizabeth and her sister Jane kind of take on part of that mothering role in themselves. Like what I said about Elizabeth trying to intervene when a sister is heading for trouble.
So. Yeah. In a way they, they are also shouldering some of that responsibility. Yeah.
Safiya: [00:55:57] And maybe because they know their father doesn't really think in that way. Hmm.
Amina: [00:56:04] Yeah. I was thinking it's interesting that I don't know if Jane Austen, like had a problem with mothers. In Emma, her mother passed away. And also in Persuasion, her mother also has also passed away and her replacement mother if you like, a friend of her mother is quite a sort of a negative kind of character in the book. So I don't know what she was trying to there, but I actually don't know if Jane Austen's mother was alive for a lot of her life or not.
Safiya: [00:56:46] That's interesting. I was talking about it with a friend one time how in a lot of, I don't know, stories there is either the mother or both of the parents are dead.
Amina: [00:56:58] In which stories?
Safiya: [00:57:00] In a lot of stories.
Amina: [00:57:03] Oh right.
Safiya: [00:57:04] All the big kind of, not necessarily just in literature, but also in like fairytales well I guess that is literature, but a lot of the time they're orphans or their mother's dead. And some of the stories where I was trying to think of a book to choose there were quite a few where the mother- like the book I'm reading at the moment the mother died and, well, With the Fire on High her mother was dead. There is quite a lot actually.
Amina: [00:57:31] Yeah. I was thinking about Roald Dahl as well, I mean, he had like some sort of vendetta against adults, but often yeah, there's no, the parents are often not in it, so it's not the parents that are bad, but they're not there in, in several of his stories. So, yeah, it's interesting. I guess maybe it creates some tension for the writer to explore.
Safiya: [00:58:04] Yeah,
if you haven't had a mother or you haven't had a parent, that's a difficulty in life.
Amina: [00:58:12] Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. It's funny. Maybe that's why we were struggling to find stories that centre mothers. Although we did although I mean, only one of mine really put the mother and motherhood at the center.
Safiya: [00:58:30] Yeah. I, I struggled to find them where the mother was a bit more central, but maybe that's down to the books I choose to read. Maybe reading is an escape for me.
Amina: [00:58:47] I mean, I feel like that would only be part of it because yeah, I really, I don't know. Maybe it's an escape for the writer as well. Also I mean, it's- it is in books it's just, yeah, it's not like the central theme.
Safiya: [00:59:06] Yeah. It's not like talking about all the daily ins and outs.
Amina: [00:59:10] Maybe that reflects on the readers then, that writers don't think they want to know about that stuff.
Safiya: [00:59:15] Yeah. Yeah. Maybe it all gets cut out, maybe it's all there at the start and the editor cuts it out.
Amina: [00:59:23] imagine! So many possibilities, that all end in the same place:
Safiya: [00:59:32] lack of mothers.
Amina: [00:59:35] Did You have anything else that you thought was relevant?
Safiya: [00:59:41] I read something recently. I can't remember where it was. It was like an interview or something. From Leila Aboulela about one of her books, Minaret. And she kind of talked about the fact that, because in that story, the main character, she doesn't get married and she doesn't have children.
And she said she wanted to write a story in which - this is me paraphrasing, I can't remember exactly what she said - it's something along the lines of she wants to do a story where a woman's spirituality matters just in herself, like her own relationship with Allah just as a woman, as herself, not as a mother, as a wife, and all that comes with that.
But that her own spirituality has importance without those things, and I thought that was pretty nice. And it's related to motherhood in the sense that it just not happening for whatever reason for any woman, but yeah,
Amina: [01:00:48] Yeah. That's a really good point actually . I think it's kind of related to Mrs. Bennett actually. What I was thinking after what I said is that there is, especially in terms of how people value someone in a religious way. Or how women value themselves. Spiritual value is often linked to her role. And sometimes, maybe once a woman is a mother, for example, she kind of I guess she feels - I don't know, I'm speculating here - feels like that motherhood role kind of not replaces her individual connection with Allah, but it's kind of like an intercessor in a way. Do you know what I mean?
Safiya: [01:01:46] Yeah, I do know what you mean.
Amina: [01:01:49] Like being a mother is the worship and it replaces other yeah. Which is obviously a problematic way of framing things because it's dependent on relationships with other people.
Safiya: [01:02:03] Yeah, that's true. Because I think, like there's a lot of importance placed on being a wife, on being a mother, like in Islam and it is given a lot of value, but then that doesn't mean, if a woman doesn't have those things then they don't have spiritual value in themselves.
Amina: [01:02:26] Yeah. Yeah.
Safiya: [01:02:28] As a mother, knowing all that kind of importance and value place, like from an Islamic perspective, like it does give you a comfort, like when, you know, you're having a hard day and you don't get a minute or you're just- it's hard but you know that, especially with the young, with a young child, you, you don't get a thank you and that's perfectly normal , but you know that it is valued by Allah and that does give you comfort.
But then, you also want to just have value in yourself.
Amina: [01:03:08] Yeah. Yeah. And it's not just that it's not just the way the mother sees it, but also the way other people see it in that like, if it's like, I mean, I'm thinking of Ramadan, because I feel like Ramadan really is a time when this becomes particularly apparent in the, in the expectations of what women are often expected to do in Ramadan.
And it's framed like if a woman spends four hours in the kitchen cooking iftar, that's worship, you know? And obviously like for sure if she has the right intention, she's going to get rewarded for that, but it's not like it's not the same type of worship and, and it shouldn't be used as a justification to expect women to do that and then not be able to do , like to pray Tarawih, to read Qur'an, just like to make du'a. These things are things that men and women should do and should be able to do and cooking doesn't replace them. Yeah. Oh yes. I get so annoyed, it really annoys me. Right.
And I feel like it's not, it's a whole it's a societal view. It's not only men's fault or only women's fault. But even women, like sometimes , like you have dinner, people have dinner parties, or iftar parties, and then after iftar, the men go and pray Tarawih and the women sit and drink tea. It's like, why, why are we not praying Tarawih? That kind of thing.
Cause it's like, it's an understanding that men go to the mosque and pray and women don't have to do that. Which comes from both sides. It comes from men and women. So yeah, that's a really good point actually about how those roles are in a way eclipse the individual, just one to one connection between a woman and Allah , yeah.
That was a solid, probably the strongest point of the episode.
Yeah, and I think maybe that's, that's one of the issues with Mrs Bennett is she should be committed to her children, but maybe because she doesn't feel like she has any other value that is, in a way, causes her to go a bit, to become a bit extreme in the way she approaches it maybe. But again, that, I guess that was her context as well of what women were and were not allowed or expected to do in society.
And in ways that's present today, just manifesting in different, different ways. Yeah, I think one, one last thing a moment I had that I often remember is I was listening to the series by Abdulnasir Jangda, the Seerah series that he did which is really long. I think each episode is like an hour long and it's about, I can't even remember, like over 50 episodes. So it's really detailed, but there was this one point when he's talking about, when the Prophet, salla Allahu aalayhi wa sallam, I was how old was he? Gosh, I can't remember when he was very young anyway, his mother sent him to live in the desert, to live outside Makkah with a like a nanny and apparently a lot of people did that in that time because Makkah was a place where a lot of different people came and they were worried about disease affecting young children. So they often sent children out of the city where they thought it was cleaner for like a couple of years, I think.
And when I read that, it really made me think about, I mean, I, I guess in a way I often I feel like when, if a woman is a mother, she needs to be like fully committed to it. Like it's a huge responsibility that can't be taken lightly. But when I heard that, I thought, okay, this was like, it was acceptable for her to not be looking after her son for two or three years.
And it really just, I don't know, it really reframed for me like that, it was, yeah, like she, she was allowed socially allowed to exist outside of her motherhood, if you like, and it wasn't considered that she was doing something bad.
Safiya: [01:08:05] Yeah, yeah. Or leaving her responsibilities, yeah. That's pretty interesting.
Amina: [01:08:15] It made me think about the expectations again. Like what, how much, how a mother shows that she cares or that she's fulfilling her responsibilities.
It's a gigantic topic that will never end.
Safiya: [01:08:38] Yeah.
Amina: [01:08:40] Yeah.
This was a challenging one to kind of put into any structure. Yeah. Yeah.
Okay. Thank you, Safiya.
Safiya: [01:09:01] Thank you for having me again.
Amina: [01:09:05] Yeah, no, it's a pleasure. And it was always as always, it was a really good discussion. Hopefully the listeners will have some thoughts to add. That would be nice.
Safiya: [01:09:18] Or recommendations of books that have mothers at the centre.
Amina: [01:09:22] Yeah. That would be good. Yeah. Okay. Where can listeners find you?
Safiya: [01:09:28] So on Instagram @safiyareads and my blog safiyareads.wordpress.com.
Amina: [01:09:37] I've been following your blog now, since I'm not going on Instagram much, it's much nicer actually to read it on a website.
Safiya: [01:09:45] It is, I know. I feel the same. It's quite hard to read a review in a caption.
Amina: [01:09:52] Yeah. Yeah. Especially when it's too long. I mean posting on Instagram is also a nightmae. When it's too long: "please see comments".
Okay, thanks, Safiya. Yeah. And I'm sure we'll hear from you again soon, in sha Allah.
Safiya: [01:10:14] In sha Allah!
Amina: [01:10:15] Assalamu alaykum.
Safiya: [01:10:17] Wa alaykum assalam.
Amina: [01:10:18] Thank you for listening to Book Nomad podcast. I hope you found it beneficial in sha Allah. If you'd like to get in touch, and it's always a pleasure to hear from you, you can contact me on Instagram at @booknomadpodcast or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can visit the website booknomadpodcast.com, where you can find the details of my guests, related reading to the episode, written reviews, all of the past episodes, and a list of books organised by world region, among other things. I hope you'll be back soon. For now, assalamu alaykum.
Reader. Occasional writer. Muslim.
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