Lesléa Newman is the author of 63 books, including the novel The Reluctant Daughter and the oft-protested children’s classic Heather Has Two Mommies. A faculty member of Spalding University’s brief-residency MFA in Writing program, Newman, whose latest poetry collection, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, comes out next month, spoke to Sally Bellerose, the author The Girls Club and an NEA Fellow in Prose, about young queer writers, the problems with mothers, and being childless by choice.
Bellarose: I remember when I first read your novel The Reluctant Daughter being struck by the dedication: For my mother / and her mother / and her mother / and her mother, followed by the beautiful quote.
Newman: That’s actually my favorite part of the book: “If you want to understand any woman you must first ask her about her mother and then listen carefully.” It’s from The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. I love the second part of quote especially: “then listen carefully.”
Bellarose: Beautiful because this is what the book is about, right, listening? Especially listening to your mother and letting your mother be a mother.
Newman: And in this case, the mother, who is ill, is literally silent through much of the book.
Bellarose: Right, but even in the silence there is communication happening. Those mother-daughter conflicts are so well done. As a parent I remember all the advice about listening to your children.
Newman: My mother always told me to listen to her. [Laughs]
Bellarose: Yes, mine did too. Still does.
Newman: Well, you could apply the same quote to The Girls Club: “If you want to understand any woman you must first ask her about her sisters and then listen carefully.” The Girls Club made me pine for sisters. The first chapter is such a knockout. It left me literally breathless. The loyalty and protection of the sisters. They’ve got major issues, but they’re there for each other through thick and thin. And they don’t let each other get away with anything. This is one of the most honest books I’ve ever read.
Newman: Your characters are out there, warts and all, which makes them flawed and therefore lovable.
Bellarose: It’s the same with The Reluctant Daughter. The characters are flawed but they are trying. Lydia, the daughter, and Doris, the mother, are fighting not only with each other but with themselves, trying to come to terms with their own history and the relationship they have with each other.
Newman: Yes, lots of baggage.
Bellarose: But specific to these characters. And also familiar. I don’t have a particularly fraught relationship with my mother, but boy, I could relate.
Newman: A lot of people wrote to me and said, “Wow, how did you know my story?” Not all of them were lesbian, not all of them were Jewish, but they felt they could relate to these two.
Bellarose:Another interesting twist is that the partner, Allie is orphaned. So when Lydia reunites with her parents, she and Allie have to renegotiate their own relationship. I’ve never seen that phenomena expressed in a novel before.
Newman: One of the themes of the book is chosen family. Another theme is Lydia grappling with whether or not she wants to become a mother. Every book I’ve ever read that has a character grappling with this ends up having a child. Not only does Lydia not have a child, but that’s OK, which is true of me as well. As a lesbian nonparent, there’s not even a word for what I am. I don’t like to be called a “non” anything. I feel that not having children makes me more different from society at large than being a lesbian does.