Honor Moore Finally Feels Like Her Mother’s Daughter
The Author of Our Revolution in Conversation With Mackenzie Singh
Honor Moore, author of The Bishop’s Daughter, The White Blackbird, and three poetry collections, is on the graduate writing faculty of The New School. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The American Scholar, The New Republic, and many other publications. I spoke with her about her new memoir, Our Revolution: A Mother and Daughter at Midcentury.
Mackenzie Singh: A couple of times in your memoir, you seem to covet the freedom of a novelist, expressing frustration with not being able to imagine events onto a tidy timeline. Can you explain the psychological dynamic of writing straight into something? For example, at one point you describe—beautifully—a nasty headache that arrived on the heels of transcribing your mother’s diary.
Honor Moore: I’m always looking for the story—that episode you’re referring to happened at the very beginning of my writing the book and in some way I didn’t know what I was doing, what depths I was connecting to. I’ve always thought that my headaches were related to still-unconscious family stuff. So, it comes naturally for me to go deeply into that pain—maybe it’s also a poet’s technique. What it always does for me is to get rid of it. Putting an experience on the page takes it outside of me.
MS: Do you think about making an emotional connection with your readers during these moments?
HM: I do want to connect but you never know if you will or how you will. I think readers are always interested in stories, and in a memoir, you have to find the dramatic content in what is there, what has been lived. I can never know what a particular reader is going to think, but I know that I want to make things clear; I know I want to make clear what a character is going through by any means I can—vulnerability makes it possible to identify.
MS: Do you ever view yourself as a character?
HM: Always! You have to do that as a memoirist. You have to be thinking always about who the “I” is and how she is changing. I always say to students that there’s the “I” that had the experience, the “I” who is telling you in person about the experience, the “I” who is writing the experience, and the “I” the writing creates on the page who is telling you about the experience, re-enacting it. There’s a lot to play with, and what’s really interesting is the interplay between all those “I”s : you have to make decisions about who the character is and bring that character to life on the page.As a memoirist, you have to view yourself as a character. You have to be thinking always about who the “I” is and how she is changing.
When I say in the text, “I was used to waiting for love” I was identifying the character. In early drafts one doesn’t perhaps make those assertions, then, later, you see it; well, how else is the reader supposed to know this or that? People read with their own ideas about families with money, families with lots of children, bishops and perhaps their own idealizations of writers. You have to demonstrate and enact who the person is—that is creating a character.
MS: When your mother began writing her book, she used the first person plural, moving later into the first person singular. Not just a language choice, you wrote, but a decision about who occupies a story…
HM: My mother always used the word “I” in her letters, and I noticed that at least in my memory of it, in her memoir The People on Second Street, she used the first person plural, We. It’s a feminist idea that I’ve picked up as a memoirist and biographer that there is never a problem putting a man at the center of his story, but that when you do that with a woman—move to the center a person who has been someone’s mother daughter sister or grandmother, there’s a big jolt of energy. So, about my mother: once she’s in a family and having children and part of the pastoral team in Jersey City, it’s all “we”—“we’re taking care of this,” “we’re a family,” “we’re this,” “we’re that.”
Preparing to write about her writing her book, for instance, I wanted to discover something about how she went from “we this,” “we that,” “a mother this,” to the authorial I, the “I” capable of writing a book, which is a big assertion. I went back into the text and found the we, we, we, and then I found this little sentence in which she says something like, “I was in that cast a glazed eye phase of pregnancy”—and I realized that for her, pregnancy was a refuge, a space in which to be “I,”—I felt it analogous to the “I” who is half in and half out of the world while writing the “I” of the self who is the perceiving mind at the center of her book.
MS: It seems your relationship with your mother changed as you got older, specifically as you both navigated Second Wave feminism.
HM: What we navigated was being women at that time when finally different options were opening for women. People say, “I can’t wait to read your book about your mother, you and feminism” but in fact, my mother died before the benefits of Second Wave feminism, so really, it’s me, a feminist writing a book about a woman and her daughter from a feminist—that is, woman-centered point of view. So, we’re navigating our lives as women and Second Wave feminism comes along and makes us feel no longer alone, helps articulate what the issues are. Also, we were becoming writers at the same time, which began to change how we felt about each other—we shared something beyond the family.
MS: At one point, you recommended to her The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing in which the author uses the phrase, “free women.” During the time the relationship with your mother was changing, you write that you and she embarked upon new terms of engagement as “free women.” How did this change your relationship in regard to what you felt comfortable disclosing to one another and what you could then offer in return?
HM: Well, I think that’s what the revolution of the book is and I hope that’s clear to readers—that we become friends, women together at a time when those relationships were revolutionary. She becomes another person, and she can say more things; I become older and feminist and I learn about life as a woman, so I can say more things. The Doris Lessing book has these sections, one of them is “Free Women,” which I think Lessing intends to have a gentle irony, because you could still say that women aren’t free—the gentleness is in the idea of intention, you know, the intention to struggle to be free, to learn what freedom is for any woman born into patriarchy.
MS: For your 25th birthday, your mother gave you four scrapbooks of different colors and on the inside cover of one, she pasted a page from The Scarlet Letter. You describe wonder at this passage written a hundred years earlier, and also at how much you then realized your mother implicitly understood. In this moment, you came to view her as someone for whom these ideas had long existed, albeit, somewhat theoretically. Did her choice of that excerpt change the way you looked back on her choices?
HM: Well, you know what’s very interesting about feminism is that Margaret Fuller, who was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s friend and contemporary, was a feminist. She was a contemporary of Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and whose daughter wrote Frankenstein! There was feminism then—you can feel it in Little Women. Also, there had been people in the 18th century who had begun to have ideas of freedom—the Enlightenment—which gave birth to the American Revolution and the French Revolution: ideas about the liberation of women. Hawthorne is expressing an ideal, but it was an ideal that was held by actual people, including himself. What I’ve found in history is there’s never just one person who starts something—it’s that people begin to articulate cultural ideas about whose time is coming.
MS: I love how literature finds and creates value outside of institutions, outside of traditional systems of interpretation. When writing Our Revolution, did you ever feel particularly challenged by imagining your mother outside of your childhood or adolescent perspective?
HM: I didn’t. Because I started at the beginning and I followed her. It’s a memoir of her life and it’s a memoir of the writer, her daughter, tracking her life. That kind of journey has been my subject in nonfiction—a very structured society held together by privilege, stifling—a way of life that creative people, however they’re creative, are compelled to break out of. That’s where revolutionary politics come from, and the effort always begins outside institutions—such people are always breaking out—changing institutions: of motherhood, for instance, or the institution of being a clergy wife. In my book I make use of a correspondence between my mother and a close woman friend—they’re always talking about trying to break those boundaries.
MS: You said that it has taken you all the way into your seventies to feel that you are finally Jenny’s daughter, and that through the act of completing this memoir, you found what you had craved all those years. What was it that you craved, and how did you reach this resolution while owning the responsibility of deploying someone else’s writing into the world?
HM: I finally was able to integrate fragments of her writing she never completed, to bring her actual voice into her life. I mean, she informs us what is happening in her life. Taking her on, I finally completed one of the important tasks that I set myself as a writer, which sounds strange because I’ve written a lot. but it felt like the end of one stage of my writing. Starting to consider what I’ll do next, I feel a different kind of freedom.
MS: Was there a part of you that felt daunted by taking on this project?
HM: Of course! Someone else’s life! Would I have what was required? Also I just didn’t like the way people talked about her in responses to The Bishop’s Daughter. I felt I’d be betraying her if I didn’t take this on!
MS: Can you give a taste of what they said?
HM: That she was unstable, depressed, difficult … nothing of her intelligence. But there were people—chiefly women—who really saw something else in her and encouraged me.Taking her on, I completed one of the important tasks that I set myself as a writer. Starting to consider what I’ll do next, I feel a different kind of freedom.
HM: Friends. People who said, “Oh, I was really so interested in your mother, why don’t you write about your mother?” I said, I have written about my mother all my life, and then I realized that I wrote about her when I was in my twenties and that she had died at fifty. When I started this book I was in my late sixties—in a way, old enough to be her mother. It would be a different dynamic. I wouldn’t be writing about my mother, I would be writing about Jenny, and I was interested in exploring her. Of course it was daunting, but it was also fascinating, exploring her life, which was quite mysterious.
MS: Do you feel you have a different relationship with your mother now that you’ve finished writing the memoir?
HM: Absolutely! She’s another person. The mystery is gone, the intensity is gone. It’s interesting, I now have thirty nieces and nephews, and I was with my twin nieces—they, for instance, didn’t know that Jenny had planned to have nine children. That’s something that I—that all of us knew—but they didn’t. So now when people say, “Why do you think she had so many children?” I can say I don’t think there’s any one answer, and that’s how I approached it in the book.