Our Mothers Ourselves

Question: What happens when creative writing students, scattered across the globe, discover a common interest and want to carry on with it after the completion of their course?

Answer: they write a book together, naturally.

Our Mothers Ourselves’, written in 2019, followed the completion of the Advanced Writing Lives online course where students Cathy Hull, Vayu Naidu, Caryn Solomon and Kumi Konno discovered a shared interest in writing about their mothers’ lives. 

‘As a mother, I have wondered what my mother passed on to me which I, in turn might pass on to my own children,’ said Cathy Hull. ‘Vayu and I were discussing this question, which is of universal interest.’

The idea took hold and the foursome invited two other writers, Veena Siddharth and Rupal Shah, to join the project. Their book tells the stories of six ordinary women who undertook extraordinary journeys.

The extraordinary histories of ‘ordinary’ women

The stories in ‘Our Mothers, Ourselves’ are set against a turbulent backdrop of the first half of the 20th century.

The Second World War offered Cathy’s mother the chance to escape her restricted family background in northern England. Kumi’s mother moved to the southernmost part of mainland Japan to live with adoptive parents in her childhood. Vayu’s mother was among the first generation of Indian women to have access to higher education and ended up mobilising the supply of milk to soldiers and refugee wives and children to give them much-needed calcium in their diet. Caryn’s mother was deeply involved in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, putting her own life at risk as well as the lives of her family. The colonial ties between India and the UK enabled Rupal’s mother to take the unprecedented step of migrating to London to marry a man she hadn’t seen for five years. Veena’s mother left India as a single woman, hoping that her medical qualifications would allow her to live an independent life in America.

To convey their mother’s story, each author had to immerse herself in the social history of her mother’s time and place.

‘My mother had choices which would have been unimaginable for her mother,’ said Rupal. ‘Times were changing rapidly, but moving to London was a huge risk. She was effectively at the mercy of my father with no agency or way of returning. What is striking is the bravery that all our mothers showed and the risks that they took – which we have not had to. Agency and identity are important. Moving to a country where she was effectively a second-class citizen shaped her identity and mine.’

Kumi said, ‘From the surface, it seems my mother did not change her life intentionally, although her life was forced to change in various ways due to the loss of family, the war, etc. In a way, my mother survived and shaped her life, adapting to an unwilling situation in her own way like many women of her generation in Japan.’

Four of the mothers were alive to be interviewed for the book; two mothers had passed away, one of them more than half a century earlier, leaving nothing more than a handful of photographs.

‘Because my mother died when I was so young,’ said Cathy, ‘this forced me back into my own memory. The first years of our lives are the most profound in terms of learning – and it is our earliest memories which are stronger, most real and less filtered. What I have written might not hold up in a court of law for accuracy – but it is the essence of what my mother was, and how she lived her life.’

Cathy’s father approved of her effort. ‘You have brought your mother alive for me again,’ he told her.

‘That is the important thing for me,’ Cathy said.

Writing about the past often requires a degree of interpretation.

‘Photos were beneficial for my mother to recall her memory and for me to understand the feel of the time,’ said Kumi. ‘However, I made her understand it was written from my perspective. When I asked her if she didn't mind sharing her life story with others, she said she wanted to know about other women who lived in the same period. And I believe many people do while living their everyday life.’

Caryn worked through memories, photographs, family stories and interviews with her then-92-year-old mother– ‘alive, sparkling and terribly keen to take part in hours of video interviews’

Writing across continents and during a global pandemic

At the time of writing, the six authors were resident in Britain, Costa Rica and Japan. Meeting face-to-face wasn’t an option – so the group collaborated via Zoom, email and WhatsApp.

Having a book project to work on during the pandemic turned out to be a lifeline.

‘I am geographically apart with a huge time difference from the rest of the group members,’ said Kumi, who lives in Japan, ‘so writing alone with regular Zoom discussions was the only way. Because of Covid, we all felt very insecure and having this group was helpful in many ways. Given the nature of the theme, we began to understand each other quickly and felt trust.’

Cathy said, ‘In many ways these online meetings became as intimate and real as any we might have had face to face. I found writing about my mother deeply intimate and at times difficult. I got upset and cried at times.’

Rupal said, ‘It was surprising how close we became even though some of us still haven't met in person. I think this was through the sharing of such intimate memories and the vulnerability of self-revelation.’

The universal appeal of life writing

Advanced Writing Lives tutor Jeremy Hughes said, ‘Many people think, '’Oh, there's nothing interesting about my life'’ or ‘'I'm not famous'’.  But each of us has a unique life story and there are so many ways to present it.  Whether course participants write about the lives of others or their own, it is very rewarding for me to witness their first tentative steps develop into skilful, engaging texts.’ 

Some of the authors had written before taking the course. Cathy and Rupal had produced academic and educational texts; Caryn had written children’s stories. Vayu is a successful writer of fiction, plays and poems. But none of them had experience of life-writing.

Caryn said, ‘Having spent most of my life listening to other people’s stories as well as using storytelling methodologies throughout years of teaching, consulting and working with groups in various settings and contexts, I came on the course wanting to learn whatever I could about writing stories from my own life, mainly to pass down to my four children and grandchildren. I had no specific intention of writing about my mother per se – coming on the course opened a wealth of new possibilities.

‘Telling stories changes the ordinary to the extraordinary,’ said Rupal. ‘The act of interpreting experience through storytelling uncovers meaning for our own lives as well as for those we write about. It gives us a different, longer perspective. I believe this is relatable to anyone. It also demonstrates what can emerge through collaboration – not only stories but also deep friendships. Anybody can do what we did.’

When the book was published, Caryn and her husband Allen surprised tutor Jeremy Hughes.

‘When she put a copy of ‘Our Mothers Ourselves’ into my hands, I was deeply moved,’ he said. ‘Here was the exact thing I encouraged students to do – tell their stories – and it was even more wonderful to discover that the book included several of the participants from the course.’ 

Cathy said, ‘Jeremy Hughes was a great tutor. The course itself is great in allowing you to share your ideas and learn with people from across the world. I have learned a lot, written a book and made friends for life. What more is there?’

A book by women, about women, in support of women

Proceeds from all sales of ‘Our Mothers Ourselves’ are donated in support of the charity ‘Women for Refugee Women’.

Caryn said, ‘The whole world right now is talking about “refugees”. Reducing the life experiences and identities of people to one classification makes it easy to stop feeling for them…to forget we are dealing with families, mothers, fathers, children, brothers and sisters.’

‘For us, supporting this cause was the only choice,’ said Cathy. ‘Watching ordinary refugee women cross the world with their children, often without knowing what will happen at the end of a long and arduous journey is extraordinary. What refugee mothers achieve and do for their children is extraordinary. The more money this book earns in support of refugee women, the happier we will be.’

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Published 26 August 2022