Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

The Basics:
About Emdashes | Email us

Before it moved to The New Yorker:
Ask the Librarians

Best of Emdashes: Hit Parade
A Web Comic: The Wavy Rule


"She Was His DNA": Donald Antrim and Colm Toibin

Filed under: The Catbird Seat: Friends & Guests   Tagged: , , ,

Continuous reports from the 2007 New Yorker Festival, by the Emdashes staff and special guest correspondents.

The remarkable thing about New Yorker Festival events is their unique ability to bring together seeming diverse writers, only to find out they have a similar approach to the same issue. Two writers, both brought into the venue to discuss mothers; two men who saw their mothers in a different light.

The first, Donald Antrim, is the author of The Afterlife, a memoir about his mother. He openly admits he hated her at a number of points in his life, and it took therapy and this book to bring him to a point where he could deal with his feelings. He likened her to a resistance fighter—a woman who was forced into a mold she didn’t want by a woman she didn’t like. His mother was an alcoholic who got sober in the last part of her life, a woman who always insisted they were both artists. She created clothing of unusual design, shape, color, form, the subject of one of his New Yorker essays that’s also in The Afterlife.

Until this book, he said, he’d never written about “mother” in any of his novels. When he first started the book, he had no plans on publishing it, he told himself. He ran it past his family before it was published, and everyone was okay with how it turned out. He now misses her at times. And this is good.

Colm Toibin grew up with four siblings and a mother who would say, “Oh, if I’d have known about birth control, there’d have been none of you.” She was, as he put it, an absent mother. He never felt she knew anything about him, nor paid any attention to what he said or who he was. It was when he was driving her one day, and she said, “You drive like you are—you are constant,” that he realized she’d ever noticed him at all. He was quite pleased with this kind of non-attention, which allowed him to go about his business as a teen in a household where the older siblings were gone, his father had died when Toibin was 12, and he and his younger brother were still there with their mother. He puts her in most of his work, and never plans on writing directly about her. He’s killed her off, married her, put her away—done everything to her on the page. She always pretended that she was not the source of the mothers in his fiction, and he helped her maintain that fiction about the fiction. He spoke of the ebb of grief that still will sweep over him, of how he misses her still. There was no love or hate, their relationship was limbo; still, she was his DNA, his pulse, and he wishes her back.

The two approaches to mothers was unique, yet both men held their mothers in regard in different ways. One, Antrim, was fascinated that his mother had turned out to be the artist she’d claimed to be, even if he cannot keep her art on display, since the pain associated with its creation is too intense. The other, Toibin, laughs at the fact that the only coming out he ever did was out the front door. Both seem at ease, in their own way, with their relationships with their mothers, who happened to die a few months apart from each other. Mothers and sons. Intense, deep, complex relationships. Books are written, plays, films. And we sit in a small venue and listen to two men give their up their memories of their lives with their mothers. Some funny, some heartbreakingly sad. Women who shaped how they write simply by bearing the name “Mother.”

—Quin Browne


I enjoyed this enough to want to read these two accounts of motherhood. And to read more of your work here as well.

What a fascinating perspective … I never really made the connection of how many writers’ works (Lewis Grizzard, Dave Barry, JK Rowling) have been shaped by their experiences with their maternal connections.

So, Quin …
Does the ‘process in reverse’ ever come up in discussion? Any fear or expectation of your own progeny immortalizing YOU in their own artistic endeavors?

they did mention one writer who had written a memoir about her children, and what a strange concept it was.

i don’t use my children, nor anyone i know, in my writing, to be honest.

wait, i’m lying. i do use my mother.

will my children use me? hmmm, if they do, it will be under my real name, and no one will know… i hope.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, it may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Thanks for waiting.)

2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree