We spoke to Ilana Masad, author of All My Mother’s Lovers, on May 6th as part of our JBC Authors at the Table series—you can watch the thirty minute chat here. Check out below some questions we didn’t have time for and keep the conversation going. See the whole lineup for JBC Authors at the Table.
Your descriptions of the family’s grief after Iris’s death seems very real and detailed. Did you do research on bereavement?
I didn’t, no. There wasn’t really much need to, as I’ve experienced enough loss and bereavement myself — and started experiencing that from a young age — to be unfortunately more than familiar enough with the way it feels. I’ve also loved enough people going through their own grief processes to know that there are so many ways in which humans experience and express bereavement. Grief is probably one of the things I’m most confident writing about, honestly, because of how intimately I’ve lived with its various facets.
We learn early on that Iris has done some questionable things, both to her daughter and to her husband, and yet we have enough sympathy for her and curiosity about her to continue reading. Was this a difficult balance to achieve?
Absolutely, and I know that there are people who are turned off by the very premise of the book precisely because of this, because of Iris’s “questionable” actions. But that’s actually a wonderful way of putting it: questionable. My hope is that as long as there is something to question, as long as there are questions to be asked and answers to be sought, there can be narrative tension, and as a result, time to capture a reader’s attention and convince them that Iris is worth getting to know, that her answers are worth seeking, regardless of whether or not they’re palatable.
Gender roles—do you think that Maggie’s reaction, or the reader’s reaction, might have been different if her father rather than her mother had had these affairs?
100%. Don’t you? After all, we’re used to seeing narratives of fathers with secret lives, families, affairs. There’s a whole strain of literary fiction that seems to be built on the trope of the cheating husband. Then again, I think that if Maggie found out that her particular father had been having these affairs she would have been just as shocked and dismayed as she is about her mother, because Iris and Peter’s gender roles within their family are already nonnormative — Iris was the one who spent a lot of time away from home for her job while Peter was the work-from-home parent who cleaned and cooked and took care of the kids most often.
Are there layers of Jewish identity and race that reflect on the fact that as a diasporic community Jewish people aren’t a racial monolith?
No, not in the book — this is absolutely true, of course, and Jewish people are definitely not a racial monolith. In the United States, white Jews are the most visible and also the ones that Maggie would be most familiar with, and I was thinking, in writing Maggie, of the particular holes in her self-education as well as her sometimes uncomfortable self-awareness or lack thereof when it comes to her own whiteness. She’s also not entirely familiar with various aspects of her history: as a Jewish woman, as a queer woman, as a white woman. She’s learning — which can be painful and awkward and uncomfortable to look at sometimes, but which I think is a very real experience for folks who identify with any of those identities.
How did Maggie and Lucia’s relationship change over the course of your writing the novel as you rewrote and edited?
In essence it was always the same — that is, I knew where it was and who they were and where they were at. But my editor at Dutton wanted me to bring their relationship more to the fore, bring it more onto the page, and I’m happy she did, because it meant I got to have more of Lucia and of their interactions in the book.
What kind of overlaps, if any, do you see between queerness and non-traditional relationship configurations (i.e. polyamory, open relationships, etc) and how, if at all, are these overlaps complicated by current cultural models of sexuality?
This is a big question, and one that I’m not sure if I’m qualified to answer in a general way! I lived in New York City for a few years before moving to Nebraska for my PhD, and before that I attended Sarah Lawrence College, and both my college and NYC were places where, for whatever reason, I happened to know a lot of queer people who were nonmonogamous in one way or another. I also know straight people who are nonmonogamous. I also know lots of queer and straight people who are monogamous and happy with that relationship model.
I think that queer people, simply because of the nature in which we’ve had to historically build and choose families in sometimes creative ways, might be more open — in a very broad sense — to practicing relationship models and family models that veer away from the normative because we’ve already been told we’re nonnormative for ages and ages in most mainstream patriarchal social structures. But I also think that the normative relationship model — by which I mean, one cis man, one cis woman, until death do them part — has always been somewhat false. People have always had affairs, after all, which seems to prove that there’s always been something wrong with how we’ve forced people into narrow definitions of relationships. This doesn’t mean that monogamy is wrong or that nonmonogamy is right, nor that either model is somehow inherently more queer than the other, but rather, I think, that human beings are fickle creatures whose desires are complex and who cannot all fit into one single box or structure, much as our institutions wish we could.
Ilana Masad is a fiction writer, essayist, and book critic whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Paris Review, NPR, BuzzFeed, Catapult, StoryQuarterly, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, as well as several others. All My Mother’s Lovers is Masad’s debut novel.