One of my friends is in the process of adopting a child. Looking for a quote to sum up the powerful experience, she settled on one from Paulo Coelho: “I love you because the entire universe conspired to help me find you.” It’s true that there is something magical about adoption—not only the way that love grows, but also how the universe conspires to bring this particular child to new parent(s).
In Rumaan Alam’s That Kind of Mother, the universe brings a black child to a white family, when a poet and her husband adopt the son of their late nanny. The novel opens in 1985 as Rebecca Stone is in labor with her first child. After struggling with breastfeeding and getting help from a hospital volunteer named Priscilla, Rebecca convinces her to become the family’s nanny. Priscilla becomes pregnant herself and dies in childbirth, and Rebecca steps forward to care for the infant.
Rebecca has good intentions, but is blind to her privilege and the implications of raising a black child. The novel deftly explores the creation of a family and its dynamics within the context of race and class.
I recently chatted with Rumaan Alam via email about his new novel, fatherhood, and adoption.
How did your own experience with adoption influence how you told this story?
People love that canned wisdom “write what you know,” but to me it doesn’t feel like advice so much as statement of fact. You may as well advise people to “write using words” or “bake using flour” or “do math using numbers.” But the relationship between fact and fiction is so convoluted I can’t even think of the right metaphor. Kissing cousins? Does that make sense?
I doubt that I would have felt compelled to write a novel with an adoption at its center if I were not a parent by adoption myself. But I hope the book cracks open for a reader, no matter their relationship to adoption. The act of adoption depicted in this book is not outside the realm of possibility, but it’s very far from own personal experience. It’s just the device at the center of the book through which I get to explore a whole host of things.
There is much in this book that I recognize as the truth of my own life, but only me and maybe my husband would spot those things: the fact that I like to make spaghetti carbonara and always guiltily throw in some green vegetable, the way I sprinkle sugar on the unbaked banana bread so it’s crusted with the stuff, the way my son plays, putting his face on the floor and studying his toy closely. Does it matter that those are facts mixed into the fiction? I have no idea.
This is your second novel written by the perspective of women. Why do you gravitate towards narrating through a female point of view?
My education as a writer was just my reading. And so many of my favorite books, or the texts I think of as most dear to me, are by women. That might have something to do with it. But with this particular book, I wanted to really look at parenting, and, rightly or wrongly, in the cultural imagination, we accord primacy to maternity. I’m a father, not a mother, but I wanted to write about parenting with some authority. Hence, a mother. But there’s more than that in here, in particular the tensions between artistic ambition and parental responsibility. This is definitely something men can know—I know it!—but it feels more salient to use a mother than a father to examine this. I also rather like writing through or via the lens of womanhood because it helps me sidestep questions like your first question. The simple act of saying “this is a woman’s account of things” gets me off the hook, as though it couldn’t possibly also be my account of things.
That Kind of Mother opens in 1985. Why did you choose to set the novel in the eighties and nineties?
Writing about the past is incredibly liberating because we (meaning me and the reader) know how the story ends, even if the people inside the book cannot. As an example, I thought about 9/11 a great deal when I was writing this book, and I think you can see some of that thinking in the pages — there are many aviation disasters mentioned, and at one point the family visits Windows on the World, the restaurant atop Tower One of the old World Trade Center. I know that Bill Cosby isn’t a role model, I know that Al Gore won’t be the President, I know that Princess Diana will die in a car crash. But most of what I’m writing about in this book is still relevant. So I guess that’s the answer; it’s set in the past because it’s easier to write a book about the present that way.
Your novel explores both race and privilege. Do you think the two are inseparable or simply intertwined?
I’m far too feeble minded to have a great answer to this question. But I try to pay attention to what’s happening in the culture, and many writers and thinkers have explored at length the ways in which issues we once considered discrete are in fact intimately interconnected. You can’t talk about feminism without talking about race, you can’t talk about race without talking about class; you must, in short, accept that complex issues are, in fact, complex. We frame discussions of race as black and white, often literally as well as figuratively. The reality is significantly more complicated.
Rebecca is a poet and struggles with figuring out how to be both a parent and a writer. How much of a struggle has balancing fatherhood and writing been for you? Has it gotten any easier with time?
I cannot help but notice that I never published a book in those many years of my life that I was not a parent. I’m not sure that Rebecca’s struggles mirror my own; certainly my own career pales in comparison to her great success as a poet. Again, that funny thing about fact and fiction, right? Is it hard to be a writer as well as a parent? Absolutely. But it’s hard to be a writer, full stop, at least for me, and it’s hard to be a parent and an accountant, or a parent and a cardiologist. And it’s hard to be a person, generally. Regardless of whether you have children, you are tethered to other human beings, through biology, through choice, and their lives affect your own. And laundry must be done, bills must be paid, the business of being a person must be attended to. This can make it tough to write a book or paint a picture or make jewelry or whatever it is you most want to do. But isn’t that life?
Are there any books you’re excited about this year?
To be honest, I read very few contemporary books. But thus far in 2018, I have read many books published in 2018: Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion, Joseph Cassara’s The House of Impossible Beauties, Chelsey Johnson’s Stray City, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affair, Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry, and Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room. I suspect I’ll spend the balance of my year reading old books; there is no shortage of those, and I have so many gaps in my education to fill. Last winter I bought as many of the books in Emile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series as I could find in English and I’ve read only one. I’ve got a lot to catch up on.
That Kind of Mother
By Rumaan Alam
Published May 8, 2018
Rumaan Alam is the author of Rich and Pretty. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Elle, New York Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Wall Street Journal, The Rumpus, Buzzfeed, and elsewhere. He studied at Oberlin College, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Rachel León is a writer, editor, and social worker. She serves as Daily Editor for Chicago Review of Books and Fiction Editor for Arcturus. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, the Ploughshares blog, Fiction Writers Review, The Rupture, Necessary Fiction, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere.