What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Michele Filgate on her new anthology

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Washington Square Review is featuring Michele Filgate in time for her anthology reading at the NYU Creative Writing program on Friday, September 20.

In October 2017, Michele Filgate published an essay about her stepfather’s abuse and how her mother’s silence affected their relationship. On April 30, 2019, an anthology based on that essay, What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About (Simon & Schuster, 2019), was released, edited by Filgate.

“For even a brief instant of time, every single human being has a mother. That mother-and-child connection is a complicated one,” Filgate writes in the introduction. In the essays that follow, fifteen writers—among them Filgate, Carmen Maria Machado, Alexander Chee, Leslie Jamison, and Dylan Landis—each in turn explore this most intricate of relationships. Some are close; others are estranged, or deceased. But all are saturated with emotion—and things gone unsaid. This collection shows us that while no two mother-child experiences are the same, they are also universal, even if in absence.

“My hope for this book is that it will serve as a beacon for anyone who has ever felt incapable of speaking their truth or their mother’s truth,” Filgate writes. “The more we face what we can’t or won’t or don’t know, the more we understand one another.”

Here, Washington Square Review’s assistant managing editor Alanna Weissman interviews fellow NYU MFA student Filgate about her new anthology. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: The title essay took you over a decade to write. How did it evolve and take shape over time?

MICHELE FILGATE: When I first started it, I was an undergrad at the University of New Hampshire, and it wasn’t that long after having lived with my mom and stepfather and going through these experiences. I was just coming into my own as a writer and figuring out that I really loved creative nonfiction. I think when I first started my essay, it was really fueled by anger and just trying to tell my story of what I’d been through with my stepdad. It took me many years to realize that, really, the essay was about that longing I had for a relationship with my mom. The ramifications of abuse are long-lasting, so for me it took many years to understand this fracture in my relationship with my mom was because she couldn’t admit my stepfather had abused me. She’s never actually come out and said, Yes, he did this. So at first,the essay was much more of a very flat, ‘Look what happened to me’—not sensationalized by any means. And I don’t even want to use that word, sensational—but it was just one-dimensional, and I think it took years of therapy, years of realizing what had happened with my mother, to come to what this essay was really about, which is the longing for a daughter to connect with a mom.

WS: You write in the introduction that publishing the essay “felt like I had set fire to my own life.” How has the response been?

MF: The response from the public, or from family?

WS: Both, if you’re willing to share.

MF: I’ve felt tremendous support from most of my family, which I feel really grateful for. I heard from a lot of strangers when that essay came out, people who had similar stories. It’s very unexpected when you publish something like this, and you’re like, ‘Wait, they took the time to read my piece and it resonated with them and they’re writing something?’--that’s the best kind of thing that can happen. It makes you feel less alone, and it hopefully makes other people feel less alone. But it has been incredibly painful for my relationship with my mom. I love her a lot and I’m hoping that things can get better, but right now, things are complicated.

WS: You’ve said that, at your panel at AWP, Writing the Mother Wound, people were asking for permission to write their own stories. I’m interested in that aspect of it, and how you navigated giving permission to yourself to write this piece and to publish it.

MF: Absolutely. One of the things I said is that I can’t give permission to anyone to tell their own story. That’s something that has to come from inside. It took many years to give myself permission to finish writing this essay and permission to publish it, because those are two separate things—writing and publishing. Something I often tell my students when they’re writing about anything that involves trauma and people they love is that they should write it imagining no one else ever reading it. Because if you’re thinking about the audience while you’re writing it, you’re going to be paralyzed. 

For me, it was a confluence of things. It was other writers I admire telling their own stories that made me feel like, O.K., maybe this is something I can do. It was also feeling like it would be more painful to stay silent and to keep this hidden than to tell the story. I got to a certain point where I felt like my relationship with my mom was already complicated, and yes, this would make it more complicated, but it was more painful to feel like I was living a lie, almost, like I was acting like our relationship was okay when it wasn’t. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I also believe that we’re in a moment with #MeToo, where we’re realizing the toxicity of silence, and everyone has a right to tell their own story.

WS: You just mentioned that you looked to some other writers while working on your essay. Can I ask who some of them were?

MF: One of my friends, T Kira Madden, who just published an amazing memoir called Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls (Bloomsbury, 2019), we were in a workshop together with Jo Ann Beard at the Tin House Summer Workshop--she was actually workshopping an essay there that ended up being a chapter in the book--and I was workshopping this essay that led to this anthology. She published her incredible essay in Guernica called “The Feels of Love,” and it’s about being sexually abused by some boys when she was young. Her bravery in publishing that story was definitely something that made me feel like I could do this. And my friend (WSR managing editor) Alisson Wood, before the #MeToo movement took off, published this really powerful essay in the New York Times called “‘Get Home Safe,’ My Rapist Said.” Lidia Yuknavitch, who wrote The Chronology of Water (Hawthorne, 2011), one of my favorite memoirs, is another writer who really inspired me.

WS: Do you think this collection could have happened at another time, given everything that’s going on with #MeToo right now?

MF: It’s very much a book that came out of this moment we’re in. I think it could have happened at another time, but I feel like this is the right moment to publish this book. Not all of the essays deal with abuse. It was very important to me that this be a collection that reflects all kinds of silences that can happen in relationships with moms, even when people are close with their moms, or the moms are no longer alive. This is a book of the moment, but it’s also timeless in that mother-child relationships are something that writers have been writing about forever.

WS: In this book, you have a very diverse group of writers, in terms of race, religion, sexual orientation, age. How did you decide who to approach for this book—what drew you to each of them, and what made them the right fit for this collection?

MF: That’s a great question. When my essay came out, so many people were responding to not just the content, but the title: “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About.” I heard over and over again  ‘I have a story,’ so it seemed like this was a natural topic for an anthology. When I was selling the book on proposal, I reached out to several writers I admire, including Leslie Jamison. She was one of the first people I thought of because her book The Empathy Exams (Graywolf, 2014) is one of my favorite essay collections. I knew that to sell the book I needed to have some great writers signed up to be in it, but it was very important to me to make sure it was diverse not just in the writers themselves but in the stories themselves, too, different kinds of relationships. So that was something I thought of when seeking out writers, seeing if they had a story to tell, if this writing prompt resonated with them. There’s only three in the book that had been previously published--mine, Brandon Taylor’s in Literary Hub, and André Aciman’s in The New Yorker. I wanted them to be mostly brand-new essays, but in Brandon and André’s case, I just felt like when I read those pieces, they fit with this collection so well. I really made an attempt to get a wide range of ages, writers at different stages in their careers, writers who have had different experiences with their moms, some who are estranged,like Carmen Maria Machado’s, that’s particularly a painful one, and some who are very close, like Melissa Febos with her mom and Leslie Jamison with her mother. I spent many years as an events coordinator at bookstores and also on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, and I have this conversational literary series called Red Ink, so I’ve spent a long time as both a critic and a curator. It felt like a natural step in my career.

WS: Can you elaborate on that—on how your background as a critic has factored in?

MF: I would say it’s more so my background as an events coordinator at indie bookstores. I spent many years doing that. First at River Run Bookstore in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Then at McNally Jackson here in SoHo. And then at Community Bookstore in Park Slope, in Brooklyn. When I ran events series, I spent a lot of time thinking about who would be good to have in conversation with each other. It was kind of like a mini MFA program for me in that I sat through so many hours of panels and readings and heard about the way that authors would work through the craft side of their stories. I was thinking about that when I was putting this together—how I can showcase a bunch of different voices. So I used the same part of my brain that I used when I curated events. But also the same part of my brain as being a book critic, also. One of the things I really paid attention to when reviewing books or doing author profiles and interviews was trying to cover a wide range of writers, particularly women writers. And it was important to me in this book that I have men as well. I’ve often tried to showcase authors who are at all different stages in their careers, not just focusing on the most famous writers, but writers who are published by small presses, who might not have the marketing dollars behind them that a Big Six publisher would have—that’s something that’s been important to me as a critic. 

WS: Many of the essays deal with abuse and trauma. As an editor, what did your approach look like with regard to these sensitive topics?

MF: I think most importantly it was having patience, because I know for all the writers writing about this topic, no matter how close you are with your mom, there’s going to be something that’s very emotional to begin with. It was my goal to approach the editing process sensitively. This anthology was a team effort  with my editor at Simon & Schuster, Karyn Marcus. We both used our experience and expertise to help shape these essays, and to help the writers in the editorial process. But I think the reason this book resonates with so many people is because our relationship with our moms—it’s often our first relationship, right? I mean, a lot of people go to therapy because of their parents, you know? [Laughs] So in some ways, this book might be therapeutic for some people. Not necessarily for the people writing the essays, but maybe the people reading it might find something that they relate to or that they have been trying to work out in their own therapy sessions. But yeah, I think the job of an editor of an anthology is to try to approach the editing in a sensitive manner. Any good writing has some kind of emotional backbone to it, so I feel like it was important to me to look at the editing process as a collaboration with the writer, and not me talking down to them, like, ‘You will do this.’

WS: You mentioned it was important to have men in the anthology also. But is there something about the mother-daughter relationship that lends itself to this kind of writing?

MF: It definitely could have been a book of just mothers and daughters. But I wanted this book to resonate with everyone, and I really love the men that I have in the book. But the mother-daughter relationship can be more complicated sometimes, I’m not sure why. Maybe there’s more of a connection that a mother and daughter are supposed to have, sharing the same gender. And that might be a false thing, because I know plenty of mothers and sons who are extremely close. But there’s a duality there that’s more complicated between the mother and daughter sometimes, and it can be for many different reasons, as seen in this collection.

WS: What do you hope that readers will take away from the book?

MF: My biggest hope is that this book will lead to conversations between mothers and their kids. And also, because some of us no longer have mothers in our lives, maybe it will offer some solace to people who don’t have a chance to have those conversations with their moms. And I’m hoping that it will help people who are currently moms, too, thinking about the dynamics in their relationships with their children.

WS: So what’s next?

MF: I’m working on short stories and essays right now. I haven’t settled on what my first solo book project will be, but I’ll continue to write and see where that leads me.


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