Author of the Week: United Kingdom
Notes on mothering, race and poetry
‘That year we danced to green bleeps on screen.’
Roger Robinson, A Portable Paradise
‘Safe as apricots and oatmeal.’
April Yee, ‘First-Trimester Terza Rima’
‘I learn to pour water from one vase into another heirloom.’
Alycia Pirmohamed and Pratyusha, Second Memory
‘Baby daughter, get ready for England!’
Jennifer Wong, Letters Home 回家
Collage using Seated Pregnant Woman, 1935, by Dorothea Lange from the Getty Museum Collection.
Night arrives and I am glad for its midsummer cover. I feel so vulnerable, I say to M as we watch the baby sleep. It is the second night at home from the hospital and I am not able to say to him what exactly I feel vulnerable about. A feeling travels in my bones from a long-ago time, continuing to ache and swell in the present.
I need a guiding story or parable, a sacred text of the contemporary. Something that can account for the psychic disturbance, the bodily sensation of vacillating between life and something else. Early mornings, I search on my phone whilst the baby sleeps, my body huddled in a dark corner of the room. It is the middle of the pandemic and it seems like a particularly lonely time to have a newborn, although motherhood seems to bring its own loneliness regardless of context, in addition to its wild, gorgeous joy.
At six weeks, you take the baby to get their eyes checked. It is a standard procedure for all newborns, a part of a number of such tests. After several attempts, the GP says the baby’s eyes are too dark for the device and needs to be referred to a specialist.
During pregnancy, I have books in my possession on childbirth and new parenthood. They are borrowed from the library or gifted by well-meaning friends and family. Primarily medical and anatomical, they are all amniocentesis, dysplasia and ten centimetres cervical dilation (has there ever been a more terrifying image?). Or so stylised and devoid of a politics of race, class and gender, they seem to exist in a vacuum that has no place for my reality, for my brown body.
From the pre-natal classes, to the advice given by the midwives at the hospital, I notice there is a refusal to acknowledge that race affects maternal outcomes, for reasons that have nothing to do with health and everything to do with systemic racism. Differences of race are only mentioned to me to explain how Black and Brown bodies differ from white bodies.
For example, I am told by a nurse that women from racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to experience gestational diabetes in pregnancy. A diagnosis of gestational diabetes has significant consequences for maternal outcomes and increases the likelihood that a medical intervention will be made, like the induction of birth. Nowhere is it mentioned, however, why such a health disparity exists in the community.
It is an othering which feels rooted in overly simplified categorisation and positioning of white bodies as the invisible standard, a bias which Dr Annabel Sowemimo explores in Divided: Racism, Medicine and Why We Need to Decolonise Healthcare, to the detriment of the individual care that each pregnant person requires.
I think of Sandeep Parmar’s work on the violence of the lyric and the way supposedly neutral language can be encoded with racism and bias, inflicting violence:
Lyric violence occurs when the assumption of a lyric speaker’s universality or neutrality goes unchecked... This violence, a function of an unimplicated observer, removes agency from the addressee by instrumentalising their perceived otherness...
The hormonal shift is dramatic, attuned suddenly to vigilance, threat and need for safety.
I feel like I am experiencing the motherhood of all mothers who have ever existed, human and otherwise, all at once.
of bone-shard, tooth.
Set at your neck
is the muzzle of a cub,
its crooked skull.
The image of the mother bear and her cub in Fiona Benson’s ‘Cave Bear’ from Bright Travellers, is one such image that haunts, able to say something about motherhood, through its language of bone and death, through the fate of the Palaeolithic bear skull.
What’s the word for post-natal depression in Tamil? Where is the literature of brown women’s births in their own words?
Stories of childbirth, sexuality and the grit-work of mothering are told in opaque terms in my family and community, if they are told at all. Tamil women, they were mostly born in Sri Lanka on either side of its independence from the British colonial empire. Stories of birth were spoken of in a way that seemed to me in my childhood as somewhat detached. This person had their first child at fifteen, that person’s third child was stillborn. The twins on 13th lane were born on a night when they weren’t able to travel to the hospital.
Yet, who can account for the ways people narrate the experience of childbirth, and its associated joys and traumas? I am also wary of tropes of how Tamil women, and people of colour generally, express emotion. In the context of colonialism, caste rules, misogyny and the threat of violence, dissociation can be confused for stoicism, a forced agreement interpreted as timidity or a type of dull-wittedness.
I feel so vulnerable. It is right that I am aware of the precariousness of childbirth. The statistics are painful to read, their own kind of violence. Black women in the UK are four times more likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth than white women; Asian and mixed-race women twice as likely. Of those, most died in the postnatal period, six weeks to twelve months after pregnancy. This is not new. It is not enough to say that this is not new information.
All these groups experience systemic oppression differently to each other and cannot be lumped together, yet they are. And these are just statistics relating to mortality. I hear so many stories from women, many women of colour, who speak of indifferent treatment from health staff whilst in unbearable pain, violation of their body, procedures which were imposed on them when they felt they had no other option. The baby is coming, one way or another.
In a 2018 article in The New York Times, on the popularity of a number of non-fiction narratives of motherhood, Parul Sehgal writes: so many of these books (almost all of them are by white, middle-class women) seem wary of, if not outright disinterested in, more deeply engaging with how race and class inflect the experience of motherhood.
And even though there have been important and impactful works in North America which have done exactly that – see Revolutionary Mothering (2016) edited by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, China Marten and Mai’a Williams and So We Can Know (2023), edited by Aracelis Girmay – Sehgal’s article reflects that the zeitgeist is more interested in the experience of white womanhood.
And I wonder, what would a deep engagement with race and class look like in the context of poetry of motherhood in the UK, a country which has a tradition of ignoring its historical and present relationship with both race and class?
Roger Robinson’s ‘Grace’ from the TS Eliot prize-winning A Portable Paradise is one of the most vulnerable and defiant evocations of childbirth and parenthood. A collection that evokes the systemic racism and classism of the UK that led to the Grenfell Tower fire and the Windrush scandal, it is also a call to collective care:
That year we danced to green bleeps on screen.
My son had come early, just the 1kg of him,
all big head, bulging eyes and blue veins.
On the ward I met Grace. A Jamaican senior nurse
who sang pop songs on her shift, like they were hymns.
“Your son feisty. Y’see him just ah pull off the breathing mask.”
When the consultant told my wife and I on morning rounds
that he’s not sure my son will live, and if he lives he might never
leave the hospital.
she pulled us quickly aside: “Him have no right to say that
– just raw so.”
In an interview in The Guardian, Robinson explains that ‘my son is still alive because a West Indian nurse called Grace valued his body and paid him attention when he was born prematurely’. That is the difference a caring West Indian person, with institutional power, made.
When the first midwife can’t find the heartbeat, another arrives.
Number 2 feels her way through the mass of stomach and fibrous tissues in your uterus to find the baby’s heartbeat.
You feel your own breath begin to return to a normal pace.
I am piecing together the fragments of the birthing stories of my family. I have so many questions. Colonialism, forced migration, wars and gender bias against girls caused so much destruction and cut off ancestral knowledge, leaving a legacy of silence and intergenerational trauma.
Who delivered the baby?
How did you manage the pain?
How many girls were too many?
I wonder what choices women in my lineage had about their sexuality and childbearing. All that oral history needs to be remembered, yet it seems inadvisable to write it down, let alone transform it to poetry or prose in English, the coloniser’s tongue.
Light a candle for your dead grandmother, a wise woman tells you when you venture to tell your grandmother’s story.
The violence of mothering and medical care is sometimes by omission. Not once in a year of tests and probing of the uterus are histories of trauma ever inquired about.
In Hiding to Nothing by Anita Pati, the section ‘Bloodfruit’ uses the lived experiences and testimony of women, drawn from interviews, to articulate the experiences of infertility, grief and non-motherhood.
I am struck by how Pati makes space to show how sexual violence, particularly in childhood and early adulthood, drastically affects the reproductive life of people through a series of concrete poems: ‘I kept feeling that maybe because i let it / happen it was my Fault and that was the reason behind the infertility.’
On race and mothering, the work is acerbic and confident, challenging the racist narrative and power structures by making it visible: ‘When you’re a white woman with a brown baby, you’re a slag; when you’re a brown woman with a pale baby, you’re the nanny.’
Fifteen hundred pounds per month for nursery?
On an episode of the Commonplace podcast, M. NourBese Philip speaks of mothering as radical hospitality where the female body makes space for the growth of another, a practice which we can extend to each other beyond the terms of motherhood. This is a philosophy of being, and a philosophy of writing I can get behind.
What I want to remember: that after childbirth there was reliably always the kindness of friends, of books that felt like friends.
What I want to remember: that after childbirth I had a community of poets, critics and writers of colour who wished to speak the many truths of mothering – often awkward and messy, and around which it was difficult to contain language – who sought to develop a more courageous and collective theory of poetic practice, mothering and care.
 Sandeep Parmar: Motherhood, Whiteness and Empathy in Contemporary British Poetry (Royal Society of Literature Lecture, 2023), citing her essay entitled ‘Race’ in Elizabeth Bishop in Context.