In Ilana Masad’s novel, All My Mother’s Lovers, Maggie Krause decides to skip shiva after her mother’s untimely death; instead, she sets out on a road trip to deliver letters included with her mother’s will. The trip allows her to learn about her mother and about herself in profound ways.
I recently called Masad to talk about the role of literature in political spaces and the ways in which children understand their parents.
You are an acclaimed nonfiction writer, and All My Mother’s Lovers is quite descriptive in its details. How did you balance your nonfiction powers of observation with your powers of imagination in this book?
I feel like what I write best are feelings, but I know how to describe things if I’m directly looking at them. I used a lot of Google Maps in describing certain areas that I wanted to get right. I did the street view and walked along or clicked down certain roads that I couldn’t drive down. Sometimes I would use other pictures, because my imagination doesn’t always go to the visual. A lot of the routes she was driving were really just doing a lot of mapping which sounds really boring, but I had a lot of fun with it, actually.
Maggie is very political, and she’s thoughtful about her privilege throughout the novel even while dealing with this really personal situation. What do you believe the role of literature is in social justice movements? How were you thinking about that or were you even thinking of that while writing?
I think art always has a place in political spaces. At the same time, there is also a lot more that is necessary in political spaces. I wasn’t thinking of the book in terms of a social justice message, but I was thinking very much about certain aspects of politics in the book. There’s a scene where Lucia and Maggie talk about the Unite The Right rally, and that was written in maybe the summer of 2018. By then I was realizing that Maggie is a millennial queer person, and in my millennial queer conversations, I find a particular kind of discourse and a particular kind of awareness, and Maggie, though she’s not based on me, is informed by people that I know and people I have been around and people I like and admire and people I have complicated feelings about.
There are also white women trying to think about what it means to be a white woman in the contemporary United States and what that looks like and what that means and what kind of responsibility that holds. I wanted to include that because it felt true to Maggie’s experience in a way that is true to a certain subset of millennial experience. Maybe especially to me as a Jewish white person, it is something I think about a lot because I have noticed that my mom and other women of her generation don’t think of themselves in those terms. That’s partially a generational thing, and that’s partially also because of the way they experienced a different kind of discrimination or lack of acceptance when they were young. Their othering was different than it might be for someone who is white and Jewish now.
So I was thinking about these dynamics and trying to not ignore them. I wanted there to be moments in the book where Maggie is aware of her whiteness and moments in the book where Maggie isn’t aware of her whiteness, moments where she takes her privilege for granted and doesn’t see it, so I wrote those in. In terms of her character and in terms of her generation and in terms of the time in which I’m writing, I felt that it would have been disingenuous to not deal with that. Whiteness is not default. That is a white supremacist assumption. White people do have a racial experience. It’s just one that’s always assumed to be the norm, so I just wanted to face that and deal with that and look at what that meant.
Maggie is somewhat judgmental towards her friend who is poly, and she feels quite strongly about her mother’s infidelities. How does this judgment of other people’s sexual behavior fit into her character development?
Just because someone is not straight doesn’t mean that they automatically are 100% accepting of everything. But in terms of Maggie’s character, her judgement of poly people is far more about her own jealousy and inability to relate to that experience. Often if we don’t understand what something feels like, we think it’s wrong. For Maggie, that’s just kind of what it is.
Her judgment regarding her mother is self-judgment as well. It’s a way in which she is very scared about what this means about her. She assumes that her mother is using these infidelities in the same way she used them in the past, which she freely admits is a way of sort of running or as a way of ending things, and since she’s in a relationship that feels really good for the first time, that is very scary to her.
The Publisher’s Weekly review of All My Mother’s Lovers says that the novel “reflects the strangeness and beauty of coming to see one’s parent fully as a human being.” But do you think children are able to see their parents fully?
I don’t know that it’s ever possible to fully know another human being because I don’t know that we ever know ourselves. That sounds like a very writerly answer, but I really mean it. I feel like we spend our whole lives trying to get to know ourselves. We spend so much of our lives trying to get to know or understand the people we love or understand why the people that we love don’t love us back. Some people spend their whole lives trying to figure out why their parents didn’t love them the way that they needed them to love them. I think that that’s part of the human condition. I do think it’s possible to recognize one’s parents as fully human. Maybe we can’t understand what their full humanity is really like, but I think it’s possible to acknowledge their full humanity. Which isn’t easy, but I think it’s possible. It’s difficult, but it’s possible.
You host a podcast called The Other Stories, and in each episode a writer reads their work and you interview them about it. If someone hasn’t heard the podcast, what episodes would you recommend they start with?
Oh gosh, I’ve been doing it for like five years, and choosing one seems like it would be unfair. There are so many good conversations. There’s no narrative through line, though, so anyone can just start with the newest episode and work their way back.
Do you have another project in the works? And if so, what can you tell us about it?
Yes, I’m working on something. It’s a novel, and it’s somewhat historical. I need to eventually get to libraries, because there are records and all sorts of exciting things in libraries that are going to help me. I’ve figured out a way into the project, but I’m still trying to figure out what it’s going to look like.
All My Mother’s Lovers
By Ilana Masad
Published May 26, 2020