It’s no exaggeration to claim that motherhood has taken Spanish-language literature by storm in these first decades of the twenty-first century. From relatively marginal characters—when not overshadowed or simply invisible—mothers have come to occupy a place in Spanish American literature without moral, psychological, social, or even aesthetic limits. Be it in poetry or essays, chronicles or memoirs, plays or especially in narrative, writers from every genre are unrelenting in making their experiences of motherhood into a dominant literary theme that, with studied disdain, rejects the placid shelves of child-rearing and self-help books to demand their rightful places within the chaotic catalogue of contemporary literature. Free from any didactic or edifying purpose, from any pretense of tenderness, from the merest hint of theoretical or empirical usefulness, these texts, written by authors from Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Spain (Catalonia and the Basque Country), Mexico, Peru and Venezuela invite the meticulous exploration of one of literature’s long-standing terras incognitas while refusing to omit even the most visceral details of this physically and emotionally fraught experience.
Critics have yet to undertake a comprehensive study of the diverse aspects of motherhood represented in the numerous texts mothers have published in the last decade, or how these aspects relate to relevant changes that have occurred in these authors’ respective societies—the legalization of abortion, marriage equality, new feminisms. Yet we can hazard a first approach to the literary construction of the motherhoods that populate this new and growing subgenre. An initial survey, while perhaps simple and rudimentary, locates two major tendencies in the ever-expanding map of mothers of fiction or fiction of mothers. On one side we find the more familiar, idealized face of motherhood: celebratory, ecstatic, driven by the impulse of the “miracle of life.” This idyllic motherhood depicts a generally enjoyable or at least manageable experience, without dark corners or indelible stains; its edges are blunted (or perhaps, baby-proofed) by a contemplative willingness that always finds some emotional, moral, or aesthetic compensation for any difficulty of motherhood. We can counter this romanticized tendency in the literature of motherhood with the realist version, which relentlessly acknowledges the bitter aspects of motherhood without added sweeteners—writing that has come out from under the tyranny of sweetness (joy, exaltation, completeness, pastel colors). The realist side of this literature exhibits more complicated motherhoods, with dirty, smelly nooks and crannies, dark circles, messy hair, and nerves on edge. Physical and mental fatigue is a vital ingredient for these stories, as is the eternal recurrence of the routine, of one’s own and others’ bodily demands, of the days of nighttime, the monotony and repetition, the endless struggle against the universal tendency toward chaos. We find it all in essays and stories, creative nonfiction and memoir. Written with the well-merited purpose of shifting the focus from what have until recently been the glossy images of motherhood, of showing its cracks and wrinkles—even if only for a moment—these stories, as grimly naturalist as they appear, still land on the side of positivity.
While this kind of yin and yang of literary motherhood, waxing between idealization and realism seems to encompass all one could write about the matter, there is yet a third tendency in this subgenre, one that seeks to explore motherhood’s darkest fantasies. Perhaps unsurprisingly, removed from any claims to personal experience, it is the most openly fictional of the three. In a way, this literature uses the freedom fiction provides to play with laws that motherhood itself proposes or imposes. If one of the most radical changes motherhood implies is the advent of new forms of terror—of one’s own death, of life itself, of new life, of the death of that new life—this fiction of maternity takes that terror to its final ends. Disobeying both the optimism demanded by the idealist tendency and the descriptive sincerity prescribed by the realist one, this third tendency in the literature of motherhood—which we could call “panic”—deliberately steps away from the coulds and shoulds of motherly mandates, from “pros” and “cons,” from the clean and the dirty. It plunges into the dark side of motherhood, its most ambiguous and disquieting quarters, with stubborn audacity, fumbling without compass or map, willing to accept uncertainty as the only requirement for creating literature.
Angst over the possible misfortunes of childrearing is, in a way, a mother’s greatest vulnerability. But the terror doesn’t end there. Motherhood implies multiplication and this increase also includes new fears, fears that are ever renewed, fears one may have never imagined having. To this are added the fears one has about herself, about her own condition of being a mother, her own body and her own being, but also about those parts of herself each has had to kill in order to be a mother, of the life she misses and fears she can never have back. Yet narrating these fears as they are does not necessarily imply letting them take the story over, such that they protagonize, organize or form the basis of the plot—as does occur in two recent novels. Argentine Samanta Schweblin (born 1978) and Mexican Brenda Navarro (born 1982) submerge themselves in those days that are flooded with uncontrollable terror and tremors to create their maternal fictions, rather than creating characters who, to some degree or another, seek to conquer that universe of constant changes that is motherhood. Far from confessional catharsis, these novels focus on maternal terror with malice aforethought, making both magnetic, suspenseful, and compelling reads, full of sustained tension.
In Schweblin’s Distancia de rescate (2014) (Fever Dream, trans. Megan McDowell ), maternal panic compels the dialogue between Amanda (mother to Nina) and David (son of Carla), which is the frame for the entire novel. At its heart beats a danger as imminent as it is tragic, a danger that is never completely revealed but that has to do with the use of fertilizers and an incident David and Carla experienced in the countryside where they live before Amanda and Nina arrive there for vacation. The title of the novel refers to “that variable distance separating me from my daughter, and I spend half the day calculating it, though I always risk more than I should” (19). It is a spatial, physical distance, but it is also a constant mental preoccupation that eats into the experience of motherhood with a voraciousness the narrator is unable to control.
The terror that unfolds throughout Schweblin’s novel is nightmarish, but unnamed: an effect that perversely obscures its cause. Possible solutions could be called paranormal, were they ever revealed as such. But everything in the novel—from the dialogue with the ghostly boy, David, to the alleged transmigration of his soul—akin to some Henry James stories, maintains a deliberate ambiguity. Yet the foreboding comes not so much from an external circumstance, whose revelation would unlock the novel’s mystery, but rather from the irreducible fact of motherhood itself; the narrator-mother, Amanda, lives with the certainty that an ominous but indeterminate danger stalks her daughter. And that fear is atavistic: “It’s something I inherited from my mother. ‘I want you close,’ she’d say to me. ‘Let’s stay within rescue distance’” (55). She has inherited the weight of this omen and, in turn, must pass it on: “sooner or later something terrible will happen. My grandmother used to tell my mother that, all throughout her childhood, and my mother would tell me, throughout mine. And now I have to take care of Nina” (127). It now falls to Amanda to create within Nina that fear that she, in turn, will instill in her own daughter (should she have one). This matrilineal transmission of fear is something the novel reveals little by little, without the need for corollaries or spectacular revelations, because in this novel, maternal terror is, to paraphrase Borges, the imminence of a misfortune that never occurs.
In Navarro’s Casas vacías (2019, Empty Houses trans. Sophie Hughes ), the form of maternal horror is, if anything, more intricate and less conventionally acceptable. It emanates from the narrator’s loss of her son, as is made clear from the opening lines: “Daniel disappeared three months, two days, and eight hours after his birthday. He was three years old. He was my son” (15). To this point, Amanda and the anonymous narrator of Casas vacías coincide; a daughter who is about to be lost and a missing son are like two versions of the same nightmare. However, the starkness of the opening lines augurs a dread that will unfold throughout the novel: if the anonymous narrator’s horror at losing her son is expectable, understandable, assimilable, it gradually becomes clear that her horror at having given birth to him at all is the true heart of darkness that propels the story.
Daniel’s sudden disappearance allows the narrator to unpack her infinite guilt for having neglected her son, while at the same time exploring other, previous regrets, born alongside her son: “In the end it was Daniel who turned out to be the scavenger, eating up our time—until we started emitting that putrid stench people give off when all the qualities that make them human evaporate through sheer exhaustion—and then returning to devour us” (41, Kindle Edition). Cannibalism (figurative), carrion-eaters, rot: in this way, maternity is transmuted into images that are repugnant, dismal, degrading. The narrator keeps the socially mandated guilt at having lost her son at bay with the physical and even ontological rejection of the “fruit of her womb,” thereby avoiding the inevitable dose of saccharine that even realist versions of motherhood demand. Even the memory of her pregnancy refuses the glossy, idealizing sheen: “All pregnancies are high-risk, I’d reply, as if to justify the negatives that everyone else kept playing down: the risk of killing yourself because you can’t take any more, the risk of killing Fran for trying to play down my physical complaints with empty promises of a better future; the risk of ripping it out myself with my hands or a knife or a hook, and then dying of sadness and guilt (44, Kindle Edition).
The fear of having permanently lost her son—a son who was unwanted, but whose loss is even more so—divides the novel into two parts, half belonging to the mother who loses Daniel in a city plaza because she’s constantly looking at her phone, waiting for a message from her lover, and the other half to the mother who kidnaps him, because he is the most beautiful child she has ever seen, and renames him Leonel. But the mother who kidnaps Daniel-Leonel is unhappy as well, living in constant terror of being discovered in addition to enduring the difficulties all mothers go through, not to mention with a child who, at least at first, doesn’t understand.
The narrator-mothers of both novels solve the equation of guilt with the only solution available to them: from the novel’s first pages, Navarro’s anonymous narrator calls herself a “con of a mother” (7, Kindle Edition) and, later on “a maternal joke” (21, Kindle Edition); Schweblin’s Amanda, for her part, asks herself, “Is it because I did something wrong? Was I a bad mother? Is it something I caused?” (169). This self-referentiality is not simply narcissism: in their conception of the maternal universe, they and their small children are the only inhabitants. It is a universe that contracts to its smallest point, to that vital unit they create with their children and where all guilt, all accidents, all fear hold them as both victims and victimizers. Distraction is the key to the enigma: motherhood isn’t a race; it’s an all-or-nothing game. The punishments are disproportionate: children become fatally ill or they are kidnapped forever. Both novels delve into palpable fears and highlight that most fearsome hell: the daughter living under a permanent, unknowable threat, and the son who disappears. They are the realization of the worst possible outcomes of every mother’s fear; a sinister fantasy followed to its final ends. And in Casas vacías, from amongst reasonable worries there emerges a visceral fear that refuses to fully show itself, arising from the upheaval of having reproduced a human life: “I was always afraid of Daniel,” the narrator says. “You’ve got to be truly naïve not to be afraid of new life” (54, Kindle Edition).
The constellation of novels about mothers keeps expanding, multiplying fears and horrors, but also multiplying voices, literary forms, and themes as diverse as motherhoods themselves. Queer motherhood in Boulder, by Spanish writer Eva Baltasar. Killer mothers as found in Peruvian writer Julia Wong’s Mongolia, as well as Las madres no by Katixa Agirre and Mi amor desgraciado by Lola López Mondéjar, both from Spain. Precarious mothers as in Fugaz by Leila Sucari and especially in Acá todavía by Romina Paula, both of Argentina. Commonplace mothers like those in Madre soltera by Argentine Marina Yuszczuk and Partida de nacimiento by Venezuelan author Virginia Cosin. Wishful motherhoods as in In vitro by Mexican Isabel Zapata and Quién quiere ser madre by Spain’s Silvia Nanclares. Oblique forms of motherhood as in Chilean writer Josefina González’s Cómo cuidar de un pato, and those that are opaque and untouchable as in “La madre protectora” by Argentine Guillermo Martínez. Resisted motherhoods as in Contra los hijos by Chilean Lina Meruane and the upcoming Antimaternity by Argentine Robertita. Critical motherhoods as in La mejor madre del mundo by Spaniard Nuria Labari and Linea nigra by Mexican writer Jazmina Barrera. Motherhoods altered by the world’s hostility as in Una herida llena de peces by Colombian Lorena Salazar Masso, Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (translated as Desierto sonoro), and Roza tumba quema by Salvadoran writer Claudia Hernández. These works reveal diverse approaches to conceiving, living through, or even questioning the maternal condition. Beyond their similarities and differences, these new voices demand, for the narration of motherhood, that freedom only literature can provide.