Who were our mothers before they were our mothers? Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them, edited by bestselling author Edan Lepucki, assembles more than 60 essays by women and nonbinary people to answer the question, pairing each with a photograph of a mother before she was defined as such. Lepucki writes in the introduction that these are “images of elegance, gumption, innocence, knowingness, frailty, naivete, willfulness, beauty, strength, resilience, vulnerability, triumph—and more.” She also notes that “thriving nevertheless” became a theme, as these essays describe the hardships and sacrifices of women who fought so their children could have greater opportunities.
“We cannot wrest a person from her circumstances or the facts of her identity,” Lepucki notes, referencing the way that equity or lack of privilege affected the lives of many of these mothers. Discussing author and editor Camille T. Dungy’s contribution, Lepucki writes, “The outside world—for many an inhospitable, cruel place—will make its way into our personal lives.”
Mothers Before is as much a history book as it is a collection of personal essays. Some of them are by daughters in awe: “I thought I knew how amazing she was,” writes screenwriter Eirene Donohue, “but I had no idea.” Others are suffused with warmth—and appreciation for the temporary: “I never forget that I will lose her,” writes author Molly Wizenberg. Yet all of the essays—by artists, midwives, nonprofit fundraisers, spa directors, and writers—illustrate how our identities are never completely knowable to those around us.
Alta caught up with Edan Lepucki via email to discuss Mothers Before.
What central question does your work ask?
It seems, three books in, that my work asks how the past implicates our present and future. I also ask, How can we truly know another person? I’m interested in identity and intimacy and where those meet and diverge.
EXCERPT (FROM THE INTRODUCTION):
As I wrote in the New York Times about the project, “Pluck, sex appeal, power, kindness, persistence: We admire and celebrate these characteristics, and we long for the past versions of our moms to embody them. But if these characteristics are a prerequisite for a properly executed womanhood, does becoming a mother divest a woman of such qualities?” When motherhood is a part of a woman’s narrative, it often becomes a before-and-after dividing line. Looking closely at an old photograph of your own mother and asking yourself who she was then, and who she is now, asks you to blur that line a little. To take in the whole of her life, the whole of her self. This, in turn, allows us to do the same for our own lives and selves.
Do you listen to anything as you write?
Always. I’ve been listening to a lot of Frank Ocean lately, and for two-plus years I’ve been playing the Phoebe Bridgers album Stranger in the Alps and various War on Drugs records nonstop. I tend to listen to slow indie rock as I write, and to the same albums again and again, until the music becomes a background hum and a call to write.
What obsessions, coincidences, or connections made it into this book?
Mothers Before is a collection of photos of mothers before they became mothers, so it’s less about my own obsessions and more about the echoes and conversations the pieces have with one another. Many of the essays end on a question, as if to emphasize how much we cannot know about our own mothers and the lives they led before we came along. Many of the contributors grapple with the lack of opportunities their mothers had, or how much their mothers sacrificed in order to give opportunity to their kids; many writers note a mother’s resilience, and an ability to thrive despite a difficult upbringing or past. What I love, though, is how different the essays are from one another, too—some are a paragraph long, some a few pages; some are cute and funny, while others are deep and heartbreaking. There isn’t one monolithic mother or mother-daughter relationship.
What, in other disciplines, inspires you to create?
I love visual art, especially painting and photography. I love getting a glimpse of another world in just a few moments, as you do looking at visual art—and that’s maybe why I loved putting Mothers Before together! So much terrific imagery to explore. In photography, I can’t get enough of the semi-staged-yet-real-life-ness of work by Elinor Carucci, Sam Contis, and Sally Mann. I want my work to feel like theirs: believable but also, somehow, exceptional, artful, performed. I collect the work of painter Christine Frerichs, a friend and Los Angeles–based artist whose recent work is all still-life interiors from her apartment. They capture a moment in time, and remind you of its passing. For me, fiction’s main preoccupation is the passage of time; Christine’s work nudges that in me.
What’s on your to-be-read list?
I’m about to read the new novel Santa Monica by Cassidy Lucas—the pen name for writing duo Julia Fierro and Caeli Wolfson Widger. It comes out in October and promises to be a juicy thriller about the über-rich of Santa Monica, in the vein of Big Little Lies. I also am excited to read City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles by Jerald Podair. This nonfiction history of L.A. and the Chavez Ravine came out last year, and I finally got my hands on it. I try to read at least one L.A. history book a year.
Give us the elevator pitch for your book.
Mothers Before is a collection of photographs of women’s and nonbinary people’s mothers before they became mothers. Each photo is paired with an essay about that contributor’s mother—about the photo, the woman in it, or their relationship, or all [these elements] at once. This is a book that asks us to see our mothers—and women—as fully as we can, in all their thorny, inexplicable, beautiful, and powerful ways.
Heather Scott Partington is a writer, teacher, and book critic based in Elk Grove, California. She most recently interviewed Matthew Zapruder for Alta Asks.
- By Edan Lepucki
- Abrams, 176 pages, $24.99