Michele Filgate is a contributing editor at Literary Hub and the editor of an anthology based on her Longreads essay, What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About, forthcoming from Simon & Schuster on April 30, 2019. Currently, she is an M.F.A. student at NYU, where she is the recipient of the Stein Fellowship. Her work is widely published and among many other publications has appeared in Longreads, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, Tin House, Gulf Coast, The Rumpus, Salon, Buzzfeed, The Daily Beast, and O, The Oprah Magazine. She teaches creative nonfiction for The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop and Catapult and is the founder of the Red Ink series.
Lisa Factora-Borchers: Can you talk about the process and progress of “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About,” an essay that had a gestation period that took over a decade, and when you knew you had to or could finally write and publish it?
Michele Filgate: I started writing my essay as an undergraduate at the University of New Hampshire. At the time, I thought I was working on a piece about my stepfather abusing me. The reason it took years to figure out that the piece was actually about my mother is because the chasm this caused in our relationship widened over those years until it became so big that it consumed me. I teach my creative nonfiction students to not shy away from being vulnerable on the page. To me, writing about my relationship with my mom meant opening myself up in such a way that I was unprepared to do for a very long time. It took many years of therapy to figure out how to tell my story. I had to approach it from a moment of longing rather than anger.
LFB: Memories of our mothers can oftentimes be some of the most intimate and explosive material we have as writers. The writers in the book you edited, based on that essay, dive deep into places that are fraught and tethered. How did you go about piecing together an anthology about such a wide range of memory and emotion about motherhood? What was that editorial process like?
MF: It was really important to me that it wasn’t just an essay collection about abuse. My personal essay that led to this book is really heavy and deals with dark things. I wanted a balance, and I wanted diversity—not just diversity of who is writing, but diversity of story, background, and relationships between the writers and their mothers. I really wanted to have a wide range of experiences, and having writers of different ages was really important to me as well. I wanted mostly original essays, too.
And, you know, I’ve been in the literary community for so long, I started out as an indie bookseller at RiverRun bookstore in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and then moved to New York and ran events at McNally Jackson and Community Bookstore. I was also on the board for the National Book Critics Circle, so it was really important to make this a collaborative project. And then Karyn Marcus, my editor at Simon and Schuster, bought the book. We had this great conversation and were totally on the same page about wanting each piece to be a gem, and we wanted a variety of stories. Something I really believe in is the power of the literary community. It’s much easier with other people, versusfeeling like you’re alone on that stage, especially with this particular topic.
LFB: How were you able to navigate and collaborate with so many different writers using such intense material? How were you able to draw out such precision and control and balance in each piece?
MF: Part of the editorial process is talking with each writer about what they wanted to write about. I approached most of the writers and asked, and we went back and forth about what that would be. he most difficult material is always about your mother. It was really an honor to work with some of my favorite writers and brainstorm with them. It was a gift to work with them.
LFB: Before I read the book, I assumed from the title that silence would be treated as an output of secrecy and shame, but the function of silence takes on multiple forms in the book: silence as a function of a marriage, such as “My Mother’s (Gate) Keeper” by Cathi Hanauer; or a statement of waiting or patience, like the mother in “Thesmophoria” by Melissa Febos. In “The Same Story about My Mom,” by Lynn Steger Strong, the silence is about acceptance and forgiveness. In your essay, however, the piece ends on the silence of the mother character who does not respond to an invitation to engage. Was that difficult to write, and was it particularly difficult to end your piece that way?
MF: What I hoped to convey in my essay was a sense of longing for the mother that I had when I was a kid. I felt like it was important to end the piece with that moment because it was so heartbreaking for me, when I extended that invitation and she didn’t respond to it. She responded to a different text in that thread but didn’t respond to that one, and that felt really painful.
I’m glad you brought up different silences in the essays in the book. When [the writers] talk about abuse, silence is obviously one of the first things that come up. Because of the #MeToo moment, people are finally feeling—I wouldn’t say more comfortable, but they can articulate, they can speak, they can share their story, they can talk about the unsaid.
It was important to me to also talk about the silence that comes from not being able to effectively communicate with your mother, right? I have this line in my essay about how— there’s this very short line you can almost miss—but I talk about how we don’t talk about it and when we do talk about it, it’s not enough. Things don’t change. So, even sometimes when you do speak to your mother, or anyone really, and tell them something, it’s not heard in the way that you need it to be heard.
And denial has a lot to do with that. Denial of abuse is an ultimate form of silence. So there’s a lot of pain around that. When my piece was published on Longreads and went viral, I heard from so many people who related to it, who had their own stories, and that became the impetus for this book because, also, whenever I talked to anyone about it, the first thing they reacted to was my title. They were like, “Oh my god, I have a story! I could totally write a story about what I don’t talk about.”
LFB: Oh, I’m sure! Of course.
MF: And it’s really interesting because it wasn’t just stories of abuse. Everybody has something. It was all over the place! Everybody has something they don’t talk about.
I subtitled it “15 Writers Break the Silence” because this was the core of the anthology to me: what silence can do to a relationship and what silence means in our relationships too.
LFB: You said that it was your viral essay that turned into this book. I was wondering if you ever considered it being your story, told in a singular voice? What was the impetus to opening it up to a plethora of voices? Why did you choose an anthology?
MF: I’ve been writing creative nonfiction for a long time now and I’m sure I will write a memoir at some point, but I was so inspired by people who reached out to me after the essay came out. And I just felt, “There’s kind of a phenomenon going on here. People are really responding to this title!” It felt fitting to have my first book be a collaborative project, especially for this topic.
LFB: I love that.
MF: So, yeah, I’m sure I’ll write a memoir and it’s quite possible it’ll expand on that essay. I don’t know yet. But for this particular book, having it as an anthology was the right thing to do.
LFB: That really resonates with me, as someone who chose to have an anthology be my first book too. You said it on point: There’s something that just felt right about the first book being done in community.
MF: We’re a part of a special club!
LFB: Yes, we are!
MF: I wanted it to be more than just myself because of what this book does with a variety of voices and experiences. That makes it so much more powerful. We are looking at all kinds of essays that deal with all kinds of different experiences, but they’re are also related in some ways too! There are threads that run throughout, so that is really interesting to me—when essays speak to each other in different ways and answer each other.
LFB: As a mother, one thing that I loved about this book and is also an every day mission of mine is to help people consider the multidimensionality of what a mother can be—as a full human, often with imperfection, dissatisfaction, unresolved or unevolved trauma of their own. What’s even more refreshing is that the book refuses a simple thread. There are tangles and complications that avoid a sense of empty triumph of surviving our families.
MF: You know there are a lot of costs to publishing this kind of work. In Nayomi Munaweera’s essay, “Her Body/My Body,” which is about growing up with mental illness in an immigrant household, she shared the piece with her mother before it was published, and her mother responded with the most gorgeous response. Even if it were just that one person who got something out of it, it’s worth it. We included her mom’s email as a postscript to her essay.
What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About is not about ignoring something, but about the power of what is not addressed and how it takes form and action in other ways and over time. Mothers are the stories that live inside us.
LFB: There are so many different angles the book takes. There is a real admission of grief and longing in your essay, and then there is a real admission of being surprised at the absence of grief and longing in Carmen Maria Machado’s piece and in Brandon Taylor’s piece. He writes about not having any empathy for his mother and needing to stop writing about it, even though he knew it would never be enough. And that is juxtaposed with Leslie Jamison’s piece that describes an endless need and love for her mother. Were you intentionally looking to complicate the narrative of motherhood?
MF: I love that and absolutely, yes, that was an intentional part of this book—to be conscious of all the different kinds of mothers. When people hear the word motherhood, they automatically think of women, or mother-daughter relationships. I think it’s really important to also include mother-son relationships, to have male voices included. I think what makes Brandon Taylor’s piece so complicated is that he talks about abuse but writes so tenderly of his mother at the same time.
LFB: In December, Electric Lit published an essay that explored the whiteness of motherhood memoirs, and called for mindful contributions to expand the imagination of motherhood. Even though this isn’t a memoir, do you see this collection disrupting the stereotype or canon on motherhood?
MF: Absolutely. As the founder of RED INK, I partnered with LitHut to host panels on many topics, including on denial and authenticity. We have writers at all different points in their careers, and in 2019 I think it’s critical—it’s a priority of mine to expand the conversation and include people of all different backgrounds and voices. I read to understand the world. I write to understand how my life intersects with all these other lives. We have to have diversity not only on panels and in books, but also at conferences, bookstore events, etc. We have to represent all kinds of writers and be conscious of who we invite and include. When I see an all-white panel, , I just think it’s lazy and sad! So, it’s not just a book, or one thing—it’s all these things that have to expand the conversation.
LFB: I found the final essay’s conclusion interesting—Leslie Jamison’s piece that ends with trying to transform notions of maternal self-blame and failure, to seeing her mother as a full human, a woman “who did not and could not know the road ahead.” Why end on this note?
MF: There was a lot of intention and care for the placement of each of these essays. The book begins with mine, which is somewhat dark and heavy. butends with longing—longing for a mother that I wish I had. Leslie’s essay is about hope, but it’s also about longing—longing to know who her mother was before she became her mother
MF: hen I approached Leslie about contributing, she said she would contribute as long as she had the freedom to write what she wanted, and then she had this idea of exploring who her mother was before she became her mother through this unpublished novel that her mother’s ex-husband wrote about them. She approached the piece trying to see her mother, trying to more deeply understand who she is, and my hope is that readers experience that same desire to understand.