Motherhood by Sheila Heti
Read an excerpt from Motherhood by Canadian author Sheila Heti. She is part of the 2018 Giller shortlist and is known for her previous novel, How Should A Person Be?
My mother cried for forty days and forty nights. As long as I have known her, I have known her to cry. I used to think that I would grow up to be a different sort of woman, that I would not cry, and that I would solve the problem of her crying. She could never tell me what was wrong except to say, I’m tired. Could it be that she was always tired? I wondered, when I was little, Doesn’t she know she’s unhappy? I thought the worst thing in the world would be to be unhappy, but not to know it. As I grew older, I compulsively checked myself for signs that I was unhappy. Then I grew unhappy, too. I grew filled up with tears.
All through my childhood, I felt I had done something wrong. I searched my every gesture, my words, the way I sat upon a chair. What was I doing to make her cry? A child thinks she is the cause of even the stars in the sky, so of course my mother’s crying was all about me. Why had I been born to cause her pain? Since I had caused it, I wanted to take it away. But I was too little. I didn’t even know how to spell my own name. Knowing so little, how could I have understood a single thing about her suffering? I still don’t understand. No child, through her own will, can pull a mother out of her suffering, and as an adult, I have been very busy. I have been busy writing. My mother often says, You are free. Perhaps I am. I can do what I like. So I will stop her from crying. Once I am finished writing this book, neither one of us will ever cry again. This will be a book to prevent future tears—to prevent me and my mother from crying. It can be called a success if, after reading it, my mother stops crying for good. I know it’s not the job of a child to stop her mother from crying, but I’m not a child anymore. I’m a writer. The change I have undergone, from child to writer, gives me powers—I mean that magical powers are not far from my hand. If I am a good enough writer, perhaps I can stop her from crying. Perhaps I can figure out why she is crying, and why I cry, too, and I can heal us both with my words.
Is attention soul? If I pay attention to my mother’s sorrow, does that give it soul? If I pay attention to her unhappiness—if I put it into words, transform it, and make it into something new— can I be like the alchemists, turning lead into gold? If I sell this book, I will get back gold in return. That’s a kind of alchemy. The philosophers wanted to turn dark matter into gold, and I want to turn my mother’s sadness into gold. When the gold comes in, I will go to my mother’s doorstep, and I will hand it to her and say: Here is your sadness, turned into gold.
Excerpted from Motherhood. Copyright © 2018 Sheila Heti.