It’s a rare book that stays with me throughout the day, and keeps me looking for windows of time in my day when I can read another installment. Shout Her Lovely Name, by Natalie Serber, was one such book. It’s a collection of short stories, most of them centered on two characters: the flamboyant Ruby Hargrove and later her daughter Nora.
When we first meet Ruby, she’s a young woman returning to her hometown in Florida after a first year at college. She’s eager to bring home the new sense of freedom and possibility she has experienced, eager for her parents to see her as the new woman she knows herself to be. Instead, she finds herself drawn back into familial patterns—peacemaker between a philandering, alcoholic father and a defeated, defeatist mother. Her disappointment in her mother drives her toward a different kind of future, in which financial independence and sexual power reign supreme.
This is a book about mothers and daughters, and specifically about what we inherit from our own mothers and pass on to our daughters. A series of linked short stories is exactly the right form for this exploration: each story stands on its own, and yet builds on the stories that came before it. We watch a pattern develop, as Ruby becomes a single mother raising a rebellious daughter of her own, and Nora in turn sets off to begin her life. It’s not a simple question of history repeating itself, but a braiding of character within each woman as she responds to her own life, and the models she’s been given.
While I loved these characters, and found their stories riveting, it was the title story that I found most gripping. “Shout her Lovely Name” is the story of a family rocked by a thirteen-year-old daughter’s sudden plunge into anorexia. Told in the second person, it reads like a hand-written instruction manual: the inner voice of a mother desperate to save her daughter. Realize an expert is needed and take your daughter to a dietitian. In the elevator on the way up, she stands as far away from you as she possibly can. Her hair, the color of dead grass, hands over her fierce eyes. ‘In case you’re wondering, I hate you.’ Remember your daughter is in there somewhere.
These instructions are far from foolproof. Instead, they are simply the things this particular human narrator did, because there was no instruction manual for her to read. Serber’s prose articulates the confusion wrought by the disease as it infiltrates the family and finally stakes out a complete occupation: Don’t talk to your daughter about food, though this is all she will want to talk to you about. The narrative technique is effective, juxtaposing the mother’s efforts against the daughter’s slow struggle toward health. Anyone who has suffered anorexia, whether firsthand or as a helpless loved one, will find comfort in this honest and compassionate portrayal of a family in the grips of an eating disorder. Ultimately, this is a hopeful story, from a strong collection that will leave you wanting more.
I talked with Natalie Serber about her experience raising children as a writer. Her children are now grown, and Natalie says she and her husband are looking forward to traveling. I asked her to share some of her ideas about work-life balance, writing, and parenting.
Q & A with Natalie Serber
When my children were 2 and 6 mos. old, I went to hear the wonderful writer Grace Paley speak at our library. I was late. I was flustered. I’d grabbed the diaper bag instead of my purse and I had no notebook or pen. When Ms. Paley took my question, I asked, “How did you do it? How did you blend caring for young children with writing?” She told me that she bought a playpen and set it up in the center of her apartment. She put her typewriter in the playpen and climbed in, giving her children the run of the apartment. It sounds like a myth, but I took the message to heart. I figured out that I would have to be able to stop and start writing on a dime or else I wouldn’t get anything done.
When my children were school age I would rise early, around 5:30, before they woke and the morning rituals of teeth brushing, gathering homework, making sack lunches took over. I would write for an hour or so. With the children tucked into their classrooms, I would head to a café to write some more, then run the necessary household errands. I always tried to arrive early to school for pickup and would write in the car while I waited. I also tried to have afternoons free, both for the overbooked experience of the modern child, i.e., dance lessons, piano lessons, art class, soccer, etc… and for a romp at the park or the beach.
There was something lovely and satisfying about dashing off a few pages in between feeling essential to my kids. Life was full and chaotic and I was squeezing in something that was entirely for me. Pretty much that’s how I made it through the demands of my MFA program and wrote the stories for my collection, Shout Her Lovely Name.
I know, I know, I haven’t said anything about a real job, the day-to-day grind/joy of working with adults and bringing home a paycheck. I made a very clear choice to stay home. I was an only child with a single mom. My childhood was lonely. It was by no means bleak, but my afterschool company, while I did my homework and ate Kraft macaroni and cheese, was the television. I always dreamed of a different family make up. So, my husband and I assumed traditional roles and I felt very lucky. I will say that, in hindsight, it might not have been the best decision.
I definitely feel I gave up some power. No matter how much we say that being a stay-at-home mother is valued, it was ingrained in me to defer to the mortgage payer. I deferred to him because he was the breadwinner, and his time was more strictly defined, less malleable than the children’s and mine. no matter how much we say that being a stay-at-home mother is valued, it was ingrained in me to defer to the mortgage payer. I deferred to him because he was the breadwinner, and his time was more strictly defined, less malleable than the children’s and mineWhen we made big family decisions, like moving to another state, I deferred to his preference because he was the one who needed to be happy at a job. That isn’t to suggest that he was beastly. He is a kind and loving man who often defers to us, but if my daughter came to me and asked if she should work while raising her children, I would say absolutely, yes. It is important to feel autonomous, to know what you are capable of outside the home.
Now, for the most part, the chaos is missing from my life. I could easily set up a routine for writing, but I haven’t. I start my day with a list. The first three items: write, meditate, and exercise. I try to allow for three hours of fiction writing everyday and then I also plan on three hours of reading, preparing classes, writing book reviews and essays. A problem with this life I’ve created is that there are few other pressures on me that make me worship the writing time in the way I used to when the children were small. I eked out that time from my day and I valued it. Now, if I don’t write in the morning, than I know I can write in the afternoon. Consequently I fritter my time away. Since a large part of my day is spent alone, I use social networking…texting and facebook, as my virtual break room. Talk about a time suck! Writing requires discipline that is a little hard to muster with my current long project which sometimes goes well and often feels Sisyphean. It is always easier to empty the dishwasher, to see who ‘liked’ a comment than to write another chapter. Thank goodness for my students, whose fresh ideas, conversations and fearless risk-taking are a huge boon to my writing life.
Overall, I’m so grateful. I love what I do and I love the freedom I have. I just have to become a better taskmaster!