Mama’s Writing is Raising Mothers’ monthly interview series, curated by Deesha Philyaw.
What fictional mother gets on your nerves?
In Vikram Seth’s novel A Suitable Boy, Mrs. Rupa Mehra is an insufferable mother. She is a widow, the mother of Arun, Savita, Varun, and the dear young, romantic, yet single college girl Lata. Rupa Mehra is consumed with Lata’s marriage, an all-encompassing obsession (spoiler…) that encourages her daughter to choose suitability over a sweeping love. Rupa Mehra shows us that gender has nothing to do with who is an agent of the patriarchy and how matrimony may be the thing that actually kills love.
What real-life mother do you admire in your community? What attributes do they have that inspire you?
My dear friend Racheal is such an inspiration to me. She has been a professor of and thinker on social psychology. She’s so generous! She mentored me as a new parent in my daughter’s school community and always has an ear to help me problem-solve and talk through social situations. She is really justice-oriented, as she engages in tough conversations, does anti-racism solidarity work, and talks openly about sexism. She recently was diagnosed with glioblastoma, and she has been sharing the most detailed and brutally honest writing with her friends and supporters — a memoir she is writing. Through her grace, she has created a community of care with us. She inspires me to be braver as a parent, to be more engaged in conversations, and she’s also really fun to hang out with, and has an incredible sense of style and great musical taste! She truly encourages me to find joy and beauty everyday in a world that is broken, but also beautiful.
What are three words your kid(s) would use to describe you?
I asked her, and she said: intelligent, funny, “mom-like.”
What’s the best motherhood advice you’ve ever gotten?
My daughter was born a month before Mother’s Day, and my dear friend Chaumtoli Huq (mother of two) sent me a card to remind me to celebrate myself. Pumping and struggling with breastfeeding, I was feeling myself slowly disappear, and this letter was a profound gift. As hard as it is, I try to create an opportunity on my birthday and sometime near Mother’s Day (I work on Sundays!) to celebrate myself.
Knowing that your child will read your work at some point, how does that impact your candor when writing?
A piece I published on my 12-year journey with vaginismus was published online under my “married name” — a name I don’t officially use as I kept my birth name (BTW, Can we retire “maiden name?”) Another very intimate piece where I talked about mental illness was published only in print. My goal is to have revealing conversations with my child that set the stage before she finds out things from Googling. Most of my writing is online, but I hold a few pieces on some topics closer to the chest.
How does engaging with your child creatively influence your own creative process?
There are moments when I see a through-line when I feel myself becoming more playful. Even at the age of two, my daughter was the most prolific writer I know. She asks me: “Can we walk and walk, and I can tell you about my game?” That “game” is an elaborate story, a novel outline, character traits, a few scenes, with dialogue. Even during the pandemic, during her few Facetime playdates, she has writers’ rooms with her friends, one where they started a novel through a character spreadsheet; another is a TV series. When I see her play, I am reminded how fun writing can be.
Was there a noticeable shift in your writing before and after parenthood? If yes, how so?
Before I was a parent, I hardly wrote. I was a visual artist in a shared studio, and when I discovered I was pregnant, I had to leave the studio because of the chemicals used by my studiomates. I also had an ethical crisis with the art market and the collector model which propelled my departure from the art world. I began writing during my pregnancy and kept on writing after, slowly taking it more seriously.
I was exhausted, back to work after 2 months of maternity leave with a family of four to support, and I felt like I was making all the wrong choices. Why couldn’t I wait until my kid was in kindergarten to have a creative life again? I remember this one moment, when my kid was just a toddler, I was managing the last few exhibitions and some writing deadlines, and I wished I could be “normal” by not having the appetite to create like an art monster. I fantasized about a “normal” working mom who goes to things like happy hours, maybe even a leisure book club, not a book to read for homework or an author interview or book review. Someone who goes on girls’ trips, and isn’t trying to finagle everything she can to go to a writers’ conference for 36 hours. What would it be like to be a mom like that, to be a mom with mom friends who were not art monsters? Would it be really fun and relaxing?
And then I reacquainted myself with a painter-mom who has a teen son and saw how curious, motivated, self-possessed, and confident he was. We talked about his childhood and he watched his mom work and talk to artists. I realized that artist moms who are also working moms, raise wonderful children. I thought I was doing a disservice to my child to be consumed by creating. Instead, I am a better mom when I am happy, purpose-filled, and curious.
Now, after over a year during the global pandemic, being well into middle age, with a stronger writing practice that I incorporated into parenting and my other responsibilities, I am trying to figure out how to take real breaks, even from our art monstering. Time became more seamless with the pandemic, and for a while I mustered intensely and relentlessly using the time I wasn’t commuting — until I realized that I needed breaks and to breathe, to really enjoy the wonder that my child is, and that there actually is so much time to create, that there needs to be time to just be.
Swati Khurana is a New York-based writer, artist, arts organizer, and Tarot reader. She is AAWW The Margins’ flash fiction editor, and is currently writing a scripted audio series set in 1990s NYC and 1940s Lahore, and developing her podcast “Tarot For Us” which uses Tarot readings to have conversations, centering BIPOC women and non-binary artists, writers, and activists. Swati’s writing has been featured in The New York Times, Guernica, Apogee, Chicago Quarterly Review, The Offing, The Rumpus, the anthology Good Girls Marry Doctors, the Asian American Literary Review’s Book of Curses, and as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2019. You can follow Swati on Instagram at @tarotbooksradio or at www.swatikhurana.com
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