Conference concludes with women's literature

by Jennifer Skoda | 5/16/93 10:00pm

The Redefining Motherhood Conference that brought noted women activists and intellectuals from around the world to the College this weekend ended on a moving literary note. Grace Paley and Mary Gordon, two authors, activists and mothers, read from their fictional works concerning poignant and troubling issues of motherhood and womanhood.

Paley, whose small size is no indication of her brilliant presence, is a world renowned short story writer. Marianne Hirsch, professor of French, Italian and comparative literature, introduced Paley as--among other things--a poet, teacher and activist in most of the important issues she could think of.

Behind the podium, Paley removed her spunky red glasses from their resting position in her crop of white curly hair and placed them on her face. She began reading from "Used Boy Raisers," a short story about the difficulties Faith, a single mother, faces raising two boys while their fathers, which Paley cleverly names Livid and Pallid, bicker about eggs and then go off to take on the world. She said she chose the story in order to continue some of the themes of the conference. "It is common subject matter. It seems relevant--I think--because life is too short," the writer said.

This and two other short stories that Paley read, "Mother" and "Subject of Childhood," demonstrated her incomparable ability to omit all extraneous words and put together quick, sharp phrases that cut directly to the essence of humorous and often, at the same time, painful situations.

"Subject of Childhood" deals with the same characters of Faith and her two young sons Richard and Tonto. Like the other two stories, this one is also told in the first person. After instigating "boyish" rough housing and then suffering the painful repercussions, a male friend of Faith's comments that she is doing a lousy job of raising her boys. With stinging sarcasm in her voice and writing, Paley exclaimed Faith's response, "You mean it is my fault you all got hurt!"

At the end of the story, her younger son refuses to go out and play despite Faith's constant pleas for a few minutes alone. Instead he climbs in her lap, pretends to be a baby and tells her he loves her. While keeping the audience in hysterics with her saucy wit, Paley conveyed an unidealized view of the beauties and troubles of motherhood.

Mary Gordon, an English professor at Barnard College and noted essayist, poet and activist, was the last speaker of the night and the conference. She has written four novels and "Good Boys and Dead Girls," an analysis and deconstruction of American literature in which the author bravely takes on various "great" writers. She recently received a Guggenheim fellowship to write her next book. "The Rest of Life," a collection of three new novellas, is expected out this summer.

Before reading from selected works she told the story of having once heard Paley yell at someone for not writing as a woman. "If you were a horse, you would write like a horse," she quoted the other guest speaker.

Gordon said she often writes as a mother because she is in the "thick of motherhood" at the moment.

Her first reading was from "Immaculate Man." In this story Gordon intended to explore the issue of men's virginity by writing about a forty-three year old priest's affair with a single mother. The part she read had nothing to do with this, but rather was the account of a mother's feelings of guilt for not being the one to save her drowning daughter.

"It was the moment we all fear. The extreme moment. I failed her," Gordon read.

Similar to Paley's work, Gordon's was also completely in a first person narrative by a woman and mother. She convincingly spoke of being pulled as a woman and mother in two directions: the need for personal satisfaction and the responsibility for other people.

Gordon ended with a lengthy reading from "Living at Home," the second novella from "The Rest of Life." A moved audience shed many tears listening to the author read her character's depiction of dealing with her mother's increasing dependence as she aged.

Gordon pointed out the fact, which was introduced earlier in the conference, that mothers are also daughters, and the reverse. She addressed the difficult emotions that come from the role reversal daughters and elderly mothers often face. The mother's smell that came with an inability to bath and care for herself was too much for a daughter, who was accustomed to her mother's strength, to bear.

"You think knowledge would have made me less terrified. It never did...The smell made me panic. It was the smell of death," Gordon's character, a psychiatrist, said.

The woman lamented her mother's physical and mental deterioration and the outrage she felt for having to deal with the woman who gave birth to and raised her as if she were a helpless child.

Gordon's final reading was a perfect--and extremely emotional-- conclusion to the conference being that it was about what place roles as mothers and daughters play in shaping who we are and what we do as professionals, friends, activists, women--as people.