02 Jun Diasporic Mothers and Daughters by Larissa Zhong
Diasporic identity is scarcely singular, yet Gianna Patriarca’s poetry collection Italian Women and Other Tragedies and Souvankham Thammavongsa’s short story collection How to Pronounce Knife share particularly striking similarities in their portrayals of diasporic mothers and daughters. The domestic space of home shapes the shared psychological space between mother and daughter. In these spaces, the mother is emblematic of home and home culture, the mother tongue is used to denote intimacy, and storytelling is a mechanism that strives to transcend the aperture between generations of women. The tie of women to the domestic space thus defines the feminine diasporic experience in Patriarca’s “Mother Tells Me Stories” and “For Grandma in Bed, Waiting,” and Thammavongsa’s “Edge of the World” and “You Are So Embarrassing,” using mother-daughter relationships as a vehicle for reconciling the physical and psychological dimensions of diasporic space. While Patriarca’s poetry reaches for intergenerational and diasporic connections between women, Thammavongsa’s short stories ultimately mar these connections.
Patriarca and Thammavongsa each align mothers with the domestic space, portraying them as emblems of home and home culture. James Clifford writes in his extended essay, minimalistically titled “Diasporas,”
When diasporic experience is viewed in terms of … disarticulation rather than rearticulation, then the experiences of men will tend to predominate … Women’s experiences are particularly revealing. Do diaspora experiences reinforce or loosen gender subordination? On the one hand, maintaining connections with homelands, with kinship networks, and with religious and cultural traditions may renew patriarchal structures. (Clifford 313–314)
For example, the parties in Thammavongsa’s “Edge of the World” are microcosms of the Lao diaspora in Canada, one that the principal character’s parents attend to connect to their diasporic community, stressing Clifford’s notion of the androcentric diasporic experience. While the father is “at the centre of these parties” (Thammavongsa 97), both figuratively as the center of attention and physically located in the living room, the mother bears mere witness from the kitchen. She tells her daughter about “what each dish was and how it was supposed to be cooked” (97). The physical space of the living room represents the public sphere. It sharply juxtaposes the kitchen, which brims with pots and pans and represents the domestic sphere to which the mother is relegated, thus renewing the patriarchal structures Clifford broaches in his essay. As the father connects with other Lao refugees and builds diasporic community ties based on their shared experiences in Canada, their host country, the mother expresses her diasporic identity through a longing for cultural food: “She pointed out that some of the key ingredients were missing and said that none of the dishes could live up to her memory of the real thing. She said the food in Laos just tasted better and that maybe someday when I was older we could go back and visit. She said all this to me in Lao” (97). In the mother’s gendered diasporic space, she is only intimately connected to her daughter, with whom she shares her desire to return to their homeland and her attachment to Lao food. This suggests that, for the principal character of “Edge of the World,” her mother, rather than her father, embodies her sense of home and attachment to home culture. When her mother leaves the home, the speaker is thrown into disequilibrium, and the text grows rife with underpinnings of loneliness and isolation, revealing that the mother had been the very embodiment of home and belonging for the speaker and, when she leaves, she takes this sense of belonging with her.
The mother in Patriarca’s “Mother Tells Me Stories” and the grandmother in “For Grandma in Bed, Waiting” are similarly emblematic of home for the speaker. In “Mother Tells Me Stories,” the mother contains the speaker’s childhood memories in “Ceprano … Via Alfieri” and retells them “by a fire place” (Patriarca 35). Much like the mother in Thammavongsa’s “Edge of the World,” the mother here is simultaneously aligned with both home as a physical, domestic space—denoted by the fireplace—and home as the root of their diasporic identity. The poem, then, is a microcosm of the psychological and physical space of home the mother creates for the speaker. However, he central difference between “Mother Tells Me Stories” and “Edge of the World” lies in the mother’s ultimate choice to continue or cease furnishing the speaker’s psychological space with a sense of home. Patriarca’s speaker in “Mother Tells Me Stories” “want[s] to scream ‘I don’t [remember]’” (35), but the mother continues to reach for a connection with her daughter, which predicates their mother-daughter relationship as well as the speaker’s connection to her Italian heritage and diasporic identity. In “For Grandma in Bed, Waiting,” the speaker uses the metaphor of self-seeding flowers to describe her grandmother’s anchoring role in the family: “[you] gave eight children to this world / and scattered thirty grandchildren / like wild flowers in foreign cities” (36). Motherhood and childbearing are often related, and, in this passage, Patriarca entwines them to rearticulate the diasporic experience from a feminine perspective. The speaker places emphasis on the physical space of the room—“this suburban bungalow … room with one window” (36)—in a way that draws attention to the grandmother’s relegation to the domestic home. The specification of a suburban bungalow is interesting: in metropolises like Greater Toronto, suburbs often exist as distinct residential communities within commuting distance to the locus of bustling business and recreation. This physical geography mimics the figurative structure of diasporic communities in relation to their homelands and home cultures, also imitating the self-seeding flower and its scattered seeds. Thus, “For Grandma in Bed, Waiting” poses a particularly stark contrast to “Edge of the World” through the use of space and mobility: while the granddaughter enters her grandmother’s domestic space to connect more intimately with her, the mother in “Edge of the World” leaves the domestic space she shares with her daughter behind.
Patriarca and Thammavongsa depict intimacy in relation to home language as well, playing on the idea of mothers and mother tongues to make an argument for the psychological spaces created by language. The mother tongue is inherently intimate because it is the language we are raised in and the first language we learn to express ourselves in, and the vocabulary, grammar, and sentence structures unique to each language profoundly shape our synaptic pathways and define the underpinnings of our thought (Macfarlane; Klein et al.). The mothers in Patriarca’s “Mother Tells Me Stories” and Thammavongsa’s “You Are So Embarrassing” and “Edge of the World” use their home language intimately when speaking to their daughters. For example, the last line of “Mother Tells Me Stories” is simply “bimba” (Patriarca 35), meaning ‘little girl’ in Italian. ‘Bimba’ is in italics while the rest of the poem is not, suggesting that the word is whispered, echoed, or otherwise significant. Leah Williams Veazey, a sociology research associate at the University of Sydney, wrote her doctoral dissertation, “Navigating the Intersections of Migration and Motherhood in Online Communities: Digital Community Mothering and Migrant Maternal Imaginaries,” on diasporic mothers. She argues that, in the context of national and ethnic identities, language is capable of creating boundaries to entry and participation in certain spaces (Williams Veazey 118). Veazey’s notion of language as defining physical and psychological spaces is meaningful. For example, “Mother Tells Me Stories” is written in English and reads as if the speaker is addressing the reader, but the italicized ‘bimba’ is spoken by the mother and addressed to the speaker, creating a unique psychological space that the mother dedicates to her daughter and that excludes the reader. The mothers in Thammavongsa’s “You Are So Embarrassing” and “Edge of the World” speak their home language to their daughters as well, but unlike Patriarca’s use of Italian language to mend wounds in mother-daughter relationships, Lao is ultimately rejected by or stripped from the daughter.
Names given in Lao, their home language, versus names anglicized for convenience or conformity to colonial Canadian culture is a significant thematic concern for characters across How to Pronounce Knife. The mother and daughter in “You Are So Embarrassing” are not exempt from grappling with the implications of name, language, and identity:
[The mother] stopped the first student she saw. ‘I’m looking for Chantakad?’ The student said, ‘Oh, you mean Celine?’
‘And will you stop calling me that name!’ her daughter went on. ‘Everyone calls me Celine now.’ Her seat belt clicked in the back seat.
‘Celine? How do you get Celine out of Chantakad?’
‘That’s who I am now. I’m Celine.’ (Thammavongsa 123–134)
In this passage, the Lao name ‘Chantakad’ embodies attachment to their Lao heritage, cultural identity, and home language, and the French-Canadian name ‘Celine’ represents conformation to colonial Canada. The daughter insists ‘I’m Celine’ instead of ‘my name is Celine,’ revealing that her name is not merely an identifier but a representation of all that she identifies with—an embrace of her new life in colonial Canada and a rejection of her Lao heritage. The text further suggests that Chantakad’s decision to rename herself ‘Celine’ was made independent of her mother, and unlike the subtler difference between ‘Jai’ and ‘Jay’ in “The School Bus Driver,” ‘Chantakad’ and ‘Celine’ share no similarities but the first letter; even then, the ch and s sounds the names start with set them quite distinctly apart. This gestures toward the boundary Chantakad imposes between the space associated with her English name—her school, where “everyone calls [her] Celine” (124)—and the space associated with her Lao name, which, in the text, is her mother’s car. Chantakad physically “usher[s] her [mother] out the door” of the school upon seeing her (124), which shows that she strongly desires a marked separation or mutual exclusivity between the two spaces; in the shared physical space of the car, Chantakad sits in the backseat instead of the passenger seat. This physical distance between mother and daughter points to the drifting apart of the psychological spaces they each occupy, one defined by the attachment to the Lao language and one defined by the rejection of it.
Yet another thematic concern Patriarca and Thammavongsa share is storytelling between generations of women. Neal Mcleod’s article “Coming Home Through Stories,” initially published in the International Journal of Canadian Studies, eloquently deciphers the significance of storytelling to forging relationships amidst diaspora:
To tell a story is to link, in the moments of telling, the past to the present, and the present to the past … An ideological home is a layering of generations of stories, and the culmination of storyteller after storyteller, in a long chain of transmission. To be home, in an ideological sense, means to dwell in the landscape of the familiar, collective memories, as opposed to being in exile … An ideological home needs to have a spatial, temporal home as well. (McLeod 170–172)
Thus, between the storyteller and the listener, the mother and the daughter, stories create a psychological space in which they may share an ideological and temporal constant that bridges their generational aperture amidst an ever-shifting diaspora. In Patriarca’s “Mother Tells Me Stories,” the mother tells stories of the speaker’s “white cotton dresses … long black curls” (35), reconstructing memories for her daughter to create a shared psychological space and, as McLeod proposes, an ideological home of the speaker’s childhood in Italy. In an attempt to “link the past to the present” (McLeod 170), the mother’s “fingers mak[e] ringlets in [her daughter’s] hair,” recreating the speaker’s childhood ‘curls’ (Patriarca 35). In this way, the mother seeks to halt her daughter’s ideological displacement from their Italian heritage and create a space in which she and her daughter may connect emotionally with each other through this shared memory. According to Patriarca, this autobiographical poem illustrates a moment she had shared with her elderly grandmother, who would tell stories of herself as a young woman and “take [her] to [her] century” (Patriarca; 36). Therefore, storytelling creates a psychological space in which the speaker’s youth in contemporary Canada and the grandmother’s youth in twentieth-century Italy coexist, transcending temporal and spatial dimensions and connecting the diasporic individual—the speaker—to her homeland and home culture.
In contrast, Thammavongsa’s mothers and daughters do not connect through storytelling in quite the same way. For example, the only story Chantakad’s mother tells her is of the pains of childbirth and motherhood:
You don’t know what it’s like to give birth, to have your body bust open like that. And then to have to clean and bathe and feed that life—just a bunch of cries and burps and shit to attend to. And I did it on my own! You just don’t know! … No one really wants to be a mother. But you can’t know this for sure until you are one. (Thammavongsa 125)
The harshest difference between this story and those told in Patriarca’s texts is the glaring absence of common ground between the storyteller and the listener. Chantakad has never given birth or mothered, but her mother recounts her experiences with childbirth and motherhood from her own perspective, reducing Chantakad to near inanimacy by calling her ‘that life’ and describing her as ‘just a bunch of cries and burps and shit.’ The absence of common ground is driven home by the mother’s repetition of the phrase ‘you don’t know,’ which blatantly excludes Chantakad from the psychological space she creates with the story and mars their relationship.
The storytelling in “Edge of the World” is gentler and more nuanced, though bittersweet. The speaker and her mother watch soap operas together at first, establishing a shared space; when the speaker begins attending school, her mother “watched the soaps alone and told [her] about them when [she] came home [from school]” (99). This shows the speaker leaving their shared space and her mother seeking to continue connecting with her by recounting the soap operas as a form of storytelling, but “[a]fter a while, [she] didn’t want to hear about them anymore” (99):
I started reading books, and my mother would come sit with me and have me read them to her. She would ask questions about the drawings inside … At night, she would bring a book to my bed and insist I read it to her. There were not too many words inside. Sometimes she’d fall asleep right away, but when she didn’t, I would make up stories for her. (99–100)
This passage foregrounds the triviality of the words themselves and suggests that the significance of storytelling between generations of women lies in the sense of connection it fosters. When the speaker learns to read in English and rejects partaking in the shared psychological space defined by soap operas, her mother brings books to her and asks to join her in a new space. However, unlike the stories told by Patriarca’s mothers and daughters, the children’s picture books and made-up stories are not founded on shared experience or collective memory. The speaker’s schooling eventually reveals that the psychological spaces she and her mother chiefly occupy no longer overlap: “We were different people, and we understood that then” (102). This results in McLeod’s notion of ideological exile, in which the stories told do not belong to a “spatial, temporal home,” and neither the mother nor the daughter are ideologically home (McLeod 172).
Ultimately, the diasporic generations of women in Patriarca’s Italian Women and Other Tragedies and Thammavongsa’s How to Pronounce Knife embody essential aspects of feminine diasporic identity. Defined by mother-daughter relationships, “Mother Tells Me Stories,” “For Grandma in Bed, Waiting,” “Edge of the World,” and “You Are So Embarrassing” explore the way mothers and daughters inform each other’s diasporic experiences through the domestic space, their mother tongue, and storytelling, albeit to different ends. Patriarca’s women ultimately reconcile, and Thammavongsa’s women come apart.
Klein, Denise et al. “Age of language learning shapes brain structure: a cortical thickness study of bilingual and monolingual individuals.” Brain and Language, vol. 131, 2014, pp. 20–24.
Macfarlane, Heather. “Postwar Diasporas.” ENGL466 Topics in Modern/Contemporary Canadian Literature I: Diaspora Writing in Toronto, October 2021, Queen’s University, Kingston Hall. Seminar.
Macfarlane, Heather. “Souvankham Thammavongsa.” ENGL466 Topics in Modern/Contemporary Canadian Literature I: Diaspora Writing in Toronto, November 2021, Queen’s University, Kingston Hall. Seminar.
McLeod, Neal. “Coming Home Through Stories.” Introduction to Indigenous Literary Criticism in Canada, ed. Heather Macfarlane and Armand Garnet Ruffo, pp. 169–186 Broadview Press, 2015.
Patriarca, Gianna. Italian Women and Other Tragedies. Guernica Editions, 1994.
Patriarca, Gianna. Personal interview. 14 October 2021.
Thammavongsa, Souvankham. How to Pronounce Knife. Little, Brown and Company, 2020.
Williams Veazey, Leah. Navigating the Intersections of Migration and Motherhood in Online Communities: Digital Community Mothering and Migrant Maternal Imaginaries. Routledge, 2021.