UW News

August 8, 2022

Q&A: Story collection from UW professor tackles messy emotions of domestic relationships

Black and white photo of child's hand holding an adult's hand by the finger

Maya Sonenberg, professor of English at the University of Washington, tackles the complexity of women’s domestic relationships in her new short story collection, “Bad Mothers, Bad Daughters.”Pixabay

Maya Sonenberg doesn’t shy away from messy emotions in her short story collection “Bad Mothers, Bad Daughters.”

Sonenberg, professor of English at the University of Washington, instead highlights common feelings that are often silenced due to shame and societal expectations. Each story — from a daughter stealing her mother’s favorite teacup to a mother struggling to balance family and career — tackles the complexity of domestic relationships by offering a direct look into the family lives of women.

Winner of the Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction, awarded by the Creative Writing Program at the University of Notre Dame in conjunction with University of Notre Dame Press, the book draws inspiration from fairy tales, verse, letters and newspaper clippings as it navigates social constraints placed on women.

UW News recently sat down with Sonenberg to discuss “Bad Mothers, Bad Daughters,” published Aug. 1 by University of Notre Dame Press.

A book release event for “Bad Mothers, Bad Daughters” will be held at Phinney Books on Aug. 19 from 7-8:30 p.m. Maya Sonenberg will be reading, discussing the book, taking questions and signing copies. If you can’t make it to the event, signed copies will stillbe available through Phinney Books.

Q: Where did the inspiration for this book come from?

MS: After I had my first child, I stopped writing creatively for about 10 years. Not completely, but I did very little creative work. When our son was about 10 years old and our daughter was about 6, I began to have ideas for stories, but I just could never actually write them. Because of how I’d worked in the past, I assumed I would need a huge amount of uninterrupted time. I just kept putting it off because when you have two little kids, that’s just not going to happen. But then I went away for one night and in that one night, I started to write again. I’m like, “Oh, I don’t need to be somewhere for six months. Maybe a week would be good.” I went up to the Whiteley Center in Friday Harbor and that week, I wrote three stories.

I was having a hard time figuring out what I wanted to focus on, and everyone kept saying, “You should write about your children.” At the same time, my mother had passed away and my father had had a stroke. Even though he lived in New York, long-distance caretaking was taking up a lot of my mental and emotional space. I started writing about the huge, messy emotions associated with having children and taking care of aging parents.

Being in that position is never as clear-cut as you think it will be. You imagine that you’re going to be caring and loving and giving when your parent needs you in old age. You imagine you’re always going to be thrilled spending time with your children. Those things are true, but at the same time, sometimes taking care of little kids can be incredibly boring.  And they know how to push your buttons! It can be the same thing with caring for an aging parent. I’d go 3,000 miles to see my dad, wanting to take care of him and take him out for a nice meal. Then as soon as I found myself in my dad’s apartment, I just wanted to leave. How do you write about such a messy thing?

These stories were also inspired by writing in different forms, something I’m always drawn to as a fiction writer. I don’t write stories that come with a traditional plot. Here, I began to play around with adapting traditional verse forms. Having that structure helped me explore those difficult emotions and keep them enough in check to get something on the page. I also love dealing with fairy tales. One of the things I love about them is they don’t explain. Things just are, and sometimes you cannot explain them. People behave badly and people behave wonderfully. That felt very true to the sorts of feelings I was having, as well.

Maya Sonenberg

Q: These stories address emotions that people might not believe they can talk about. Why did you want to write about them?

MS: From the moment I went into the hospital to have my son, I began to sense expectations about what a “good” birth was going to be — and I was not having that. I thought — and still think — that a good birth is any that results in a healthy baby and a healthy mom. I began to become aware of expectations placed on parents, and especially on mothers, right then. Those expectations only increase and become more complex when you leave the hospital.

There were just so many moments when I was interacting with my kids, who I love dearly, where I recognized behavior in myself that I felt terrible about, not because I was doing anything reprehensible but because I’d internalized some completely unrealistic ideas about what it means to be a “good” mother. But then taking a step back, I was like: You know what? Feeling bored when you’re being asked to draw a stoplight for the 100th time at 6 a.m. is not that bad. That’s just a human reaction. I think that’s how I became interested in exploring these situations and emotions and wanting to acknowledge them on the page.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from this collection?

MS: I hope caregivers can recognize themselves in these characters and say, “Oh, it’s OK to feel bored and then to feel guilty and then to figure out how to move forward from that.” I hope adults who aren’t caregivers might be inspired to give their parents some slack. I hope people can sink into the world of these stories.

But as a fiction writer, I also feel a personal moral responsibility to make people aware that they’re reading a story. These are creations, not neutral windows onto the world. This is my view of things. When I use methods that come from fairy tales or when I’m playing with a form that includes more than one speaker or narrative thread or when I include quotes from academic journals and newspapers and footnotes, I want you to have the pleasure of sinking into the story, but I want you to be aware that you’re reading at the same time.

I also hope people also have fun with this book. There are moments of humor in it. You should have a little chuckle at some point. It’s not all heavy. It’s not all super dark.

For more information, contact Sonenberg at mayas@uw.edu.