Samia Serageldin and Lee Smith are the editors of a new collection of essays just published by UNC Press, Mothers and Strangers: Essays on Motherhood from the New South.
In this anthology of creative nonfiction, twenty-eight writers set out to discover what they know, and don’t know, about the person they call Mother. Celebrated writers Lee Smith and Samia Serageldin have curated a diverse and insightful collection that challenges stereotypes about mothers and expands our notions of motherhood in the South. The mothers in these essays were shaped, for good and bad, by the economic and political crosswinds of their time. Whether their formative experience was the Great Depression or the upheavals of the 1970s, their lives reflected their era and influenced how they raised their children. The writers in Mothers and Strangers explore the reliability of memory, examine their family dynamics, and come to terms with the past.
Mothers and Strangers is available now in both print and ebook editions.
As we get ready to celebrate Mother’s Day this weekend, Serageldin and Smith sat down recently with UNC Press publicity director Gina Mahalek to discuss their book.
Q: This collection of essays focuses on the New South. Could you define exactly what the “New South” means in this case?
Samia: The New South is a broader, more inclusive, and less stereotypical view of the South that takes into account twentieth century immigration patterns from other parts of the country and from around the world. This diverse population has both integrated into the culture of the South and enriched it to create the mosaic we find today, beyond the binary of black and white.
Lee: The New South is today’s South where the writers of our book live and where most of us grew up and raised—or are raising—our own children. This is not the fabled mythic South of yore, populated by Ladies with Help living in big white columned houses (though some of our mothers grew up there). Nor is this New South populated by Belles or Steel Magnolias or Mammies or Topsys or Scarletts or Hillbilly Hellcats or Good Ol’ Girls or any of the other tropes and stereotypes which our mothers inherited and struggled with and sometimes tried to pass on to us. (My mother even sent me down to my Aunt Gay Gay in Birmingham, Alabama for Lady Lessons.) The term “New South” means who we are now, no matter where or who we came from—though in our essays this South is necessarily viewed through the lens of our mothers’ own cultures, some of them very different from our own—such as Omid Safi’s Iranian mother, Melody Moezzi’s “Persian Mom,” Stephanie Elizondo Griest’s “chingona” mother, or Samia’s own mother, a powerful Egyptian aristocrat. Randall Kenan was raised by three wonderful “aunties” in the coastal community of Chinquapin, N.C. Clyde Edgerton was also raised by three women—his mother Truma and his aunts Lila and Oma, near Durham. So our New South is not a snapshot, it’s a much bigger picture—it’s a quilt, a tapestry, and, like Samia said, a mosaic.
Q: How did you select the contributors?
Samia: Lee and I both had our wish list of contributors, with a view to include the iconic writers associated with Southern literature but also to encompass some more unexpected voices, as well as to achieve a balance between men and women contributors. We not only fulfilled our wish list but, as word of mouth spread, we had an embarrassment of riches to choose from.
Lee: That’s right. I too would say, friends and friends of friends, over lunch, on a walk, at yoga—this is the way women do things.
Q: Did you notice any differences in the way men and women write about mid-century Southern motherhood in this book?
Samia: If there is a difference, it may be that women tended to be more nuanced about their mothers, rarely setting them up as saints or sinners, whereas men could be more extreme, either adoring or highly critical.
Lee: I agree. Our women writers delve deeply into the complexities of the Mother Role—the “Mother knot,” as some have called it—perhaps more naturally than the men, who are often more symbolic in their images of motherhood, though just as emotional about their mothers.
Q: What was the most difficult part about writing the stories, however brief, of your own mothers for this collection?
Samia: Speaking for myself, it was two-fold: firstly, to exert strict self-discipline to resist the urge to write it all down, to describe in detail, to relate all the incidents and quirks; secondly, to guage what my mother would have wanted me to keep private and what to reveal of the journals she left behind. My mother was a private person, and for that reason, for instance, I never mention her name. I needed to respect her privacy while bringing her alive for the reader.
Q: What sorts of preconceptions about mothers are disabused by these essays?
Samia: I think they were different for each writer. Michael Malone for instance realized that his mother was actually a joyful person, in spite of the very real hardships she suffered all her life. Sharon Swanson realized that the mother she had been led to believe was emotionally fragile was no such thing. For myself, I came to appreciate just how much my mother had suffered, and how strong she had been throughout, and how much she’d tried to protect her children.
Lee: America’s traditional Hallmark conception of Motherhood (note the caps) takes a real beating in these essays. The whole idea of motherhood is hampered by the stereotypes and preconceptions associated with it—mothers are selfless, right? Automatically loving and giving and happy with their biological and limited role, making biscuits from scratch and sewing all our clothes, yadayada. Almost nobody had a mother like that…except me, I guess. Actually, my own sweet mother really did all these things, though she suffered terribly from depression when she quit teaching, which she had loved, to “stay home and take care of you.”
Each mother in these remarkable essays is unique, not a type, from Sally Greene’s muck-raking Texan journalist mother; to Jill McCorkle’s mother still alive though lost to Alzheimer’s, the essay itself presented as a beautiful dialogue; to Jaki Shelton Green’s maternal lament “I want to undie you” for her deceased daughter Amani; to Frances Mayes’ portrait of her mother Frankye, a self-absorbed belle; to Alan Shapiro’s chilling portrait of his own mother at her death…don’t forget that our title is Mothers and Strangers, right?
Q: How does the unreliable narrator come into play in this book?
Samia: Daniel Wallace and Philip Lopate, in particular, describe mothers who were unreliable narrators personified. Without giving too much away, let us just say they had to sort fact from fiction in what their mothers told about themselves and about others.
Lee: Certainly Daniel Wallace’s mother was the most unreliable narrator in this book and possibly in history—just wait until you read his essay! But many of our mothers were unreliable narrators in one way or another, weren’t they? They came from a time when certain things were just not talked about. One of the Lady Lessons was, “You don’t have to tell everything you know.” So many events (such as my own grandfather’s suicide)—and even people (such as my mother’s cousin sent to the state mental hospital for being “over-sexed”)—were omitted from the family narrative. This collection is filled with such omissions and revelations.
Q: You mention that Mothers and Strangers is about life itself. What did your work on these essays teach you in this regard?
Lee: Well, we are all writers—the writers of this book—and as writers we have all been deeply influenced by our mothers, the ones who literally gave us life through birth, surely the most intimate of all physical relationships. Hers was the first face we saw, the first voice we heard…surely this is important for a writer, how we first experience language. Who was she to us? Or we to her? There are so many different stories here, of sons and daughters and mothers and mothering, and they are as varied and surprising as life itself… well, they ARE life itself, aren’t they?
Q: After editing this collection, do you have a different view of your mother or your childhood?
Samia: Definitely. Growing up, I had been closer to my father, and there had been considerable friction between me and my mother even when I was an adult. I had not fully appreciated her qualities, the circumstances she had to deal with or the role she had played in keeping our family together during decades of political persecution. I wish I could tell her now that I understand her better, and it was this desire to do her justice, to pay her homage, in a sense, that inspired this anthology. I suspect it was the same impulse that motivated many of our contributors as they wrote their essays.
Lee: Yes, definitely! I had always thought that my father’s big raucous Appalachian family made me a writer, gave me my voice—those wonderful tales and anecdotes I grew up hearing long into the night, the way everything was told and retold endlessly, to everyone’s delight—the way everything became a story. But when I was editing this collection and writing about my own mother as “the outsider” in that tight-knit culture, that remote little Appalachian town—called a “foreigner” at her own funeral even though she had lived there for 60 years—I suddenly realized how very important her outside perspective had always been to me, and later to my own writing. She could see the story because she wasn’t deep inside it like the rest of them were. She could hear the story behind the story, the one they didn’t know they were telling.
Samia Serageldin is the author of several books, including The Cairo House and Love Is Like Water, and is an editor of South Writ Large. She lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Lee Smith is the best-selling author of over a dozen books, including Dimestore: A Writer’s Life and Guests on Earth. She lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina.