An interview with Alison Bechdel and her work “Are You My Mother?” (English version below)
專訪《我和母親之間》、《歡樂之家》艾莉森‧貝克德爾：「他們給了我禮物，以彌補那些失去。」 Published in Okapi
United States and Taiwan
讀《歡樂之家（Fun Home）》與《我和母親之間（Are You My Mother）》兩本厚重的漫畫文學，是在整座島嶼迎接傳統新年、家族團聚的氣氛之中。據聞去年川普當選美國總統後，作者艾莉森感覺到美國社會對LGBTQ的態度漸趨不友善，重啟了她在2008年停刊的「小心拉子！（Dykes to Watch Out For）」短篇漫畫。
有一天，我和編輯在腦力激盪，想著這本書要叫什麼名字，我開玩笑取名叫「Are You My Mother」好了。這是一本美國暢銷童書的名字，1960年出版，講的是一隻幼鳥在媽媽不在的時候，從自己的蛋孵了出來。我不知道這本書有沒有在臺灣發行，不過那隻幼鳥出發去找媽媽，問每隻牠遇到的動物「你是我母親嗎？」這跟我在書中的做的事有點像，所以拿來當書名似乎頗貼切──可是我那時只是開玩笑！我從沒想過可以偷另一本書的名字來用，但顯然可以，因為我的編輯大叫「好！」就那麼決定了。
Please share with us about the naming process for the title “Are You My Mother?”
I was brainstorming with my editor one day about what to call the book, and I said “Are You My Mother,” as a joke. It’s the name of a popular US children’s book, published in 1960, about a baby bird who hatches from his egg while the mother is away from the nest. I don’t know if this book ever made it to Taiwan, but the baby bird sets out to find his mother, asking all the animals he meets, “Are you my mother?” That’s kind of what I do in my book, so it seemed like an apt title—but I was only joking! It never occurred to me that you could steal the title of another book. But apparently you can. My editor shouted “Yes!” and that was that.
Were there specific habits you had while working on “Fun Home” or “Are You My Mother?” (For example, what kind of music did you listen to? What brand of coffee or tea did you drink? What time in a day did you prefer to work?)
I don’t usually listen to music while I’m writing—it’s too distracting. I’m not very much of a morning person, but since my mind is only clear enough to write until about noon, I have to force myself to get up early. When I was writing Fun Home, I drank green tea every morning. Somehow, when writing Are You My Mother, I had graduated to English Breakfast tea with lots of cream and sugar. No one ever asked me that question before!
As above, were there differences between working on “Fun Home” and “Are You My Mother?”
The biggest difference was the fact that my father had died twenty years before I started writing about him in “Fun Home.” Writing about someone who would never see the book gave me a lot of freedom. But my mother was very much alive as I was writing “Are You My Mother.” I knew she would read this book, and so would her friends and other family members. I wanted to be honest as I wrote about her, but of course I also wanted to avoid hurting or angering her if at all possible. So it was a tricky business. Although there are certainly ways that I was critical of my mother in the book, the main impetus behind writing it was to express my love for her. Because of our odd, distanced relationship, the only way I could manage to do that was through the pages of a book.
How do you view the definition of any sexual orientation? How do you view the definition of any psychology/ mentality status?
It’s been interesting to watch the way the idea of sexual orientation has changed in recent decades. When I was young, it was pretty simple—either you were homosexual or heterosexual, or possibly bisexual. But those categories are starting to seem a little archaic as more people are identifying as transgender and gender fluid, and even as asexual. It’s hard to keep up with it all, honestly, but I support more freedom for everyone and fewer strict categories or labels.
And how do you define yourself?
All that being said, I define myself as pretty much an old-fashioned lesbian.
The stories between you and Jocelyn are very impressive. She seemed to try make you truly believe that you deserve love. (I would also love to hear what you think about this.) Plus, in latter part of the book, you seem to tell us that you finally realized that if what you’d asked for hadn’t ever exist, it was neither the person’s nor your fault. It is beautiful. I would love to ask- Did you believe in love? And do you?
Yes, there’s a scene toward the end of “Are You My Mother?” where I realize, as a young person, that the distance I’ve always felt with my mother was not her fault—she’s just not capable of the kind of closeness I long for, due to her own psychic damage. It was a powerful experience to realize that. I felt freed up from my own expectations, and that made me able to love my mother more on her own terms. I do very much believe in love. But I also believe it’s a challenging practice. It’s much easier to fall into patterns of domination and submission with other people than to meet them as equals and engage in the constant negotiation that entails.
Can you tell us more about your saying “I want him to be my mother” when you mentioned Donald Winnicott with Carol? Do you still believe in what you thought then?
Yes, I still feel that way. I was drawn to Winnicott’s ideas because they offered such a profound understanding and acceptance of our deepest inner selves, and I guess that’s my fantasy of what my mother would have provided. In learning about Winnicott’s theories, I got to spend a lot of time learning about the ways that my own developmental processes got rushed along too quickly. And that was a way of getting to experience them again, to do some healing and rebuilding, and ultimately developing a more intact self. That happened in my experience with psychotherapy, too, but learning a little bit about the theory behind it all reinforced what I was doing on the couch.
Are there stories or ideas that you would love to include in this book, but didn’t?
I wrote a lot of scenes that eventually got edited out because they just didn’t fit. As it is, there are almost too many strands and timelines for readers to keep track of. I tend to get lost in the book myself! If I need to find a scene for some reason, I have to flip through all the pages to find it—I can’t remember what chapter it’s in. Freud talked about how the unconscious is “timeless.” Time doesn’t exist because all the events of our lives are jumbled up together, simultaneously. I was intentionally trying to replicate that in my book, but it doesn’t always make for the most coherent reading experience.
What was the feeling of letting your mom review your storylines before they were published? What was the difference of that feeling from that of facing an editor?
Well, my mother was kind of like an editor! I had internalized her critical eye so deeply that it was like she was inside my head as I wrote, editing things before I could even type them out. But I still had to show her my drafts as I progressed, and that was always a nerve-wracking experience for both of us. She would have her boyfriend, Bob, read through the material first, so he could tell her if there was anything that might upset her. But in the end, she made hardly any requests for me to change anything.
Has your mother ever said no to what you planned to publish?
I can think of only one thing she asked me to delete, but I talked her into an edited version that she felt okay about. A few other requests were related to other people whose privacy she was concerned about, and I happily made those changes.
What does storytelling mean for you?
I love the challenge of turning the real, given facts of my life into a story. Life doesn’t present us with a coherent narrative at all. The events that occur are chaotic, repetitive, and sometimes even seem meaningless. But by looking very carefully and with emotional attention to this mass of material, I find that I can usually excavate a story complete with all the plots, themes, and characters of satisfying fiction.
You read a lot. Do you also write? When choosing forms of storytelling, what makes graphics/comics different from writings for you?
Well, I write in comics. What I love about using a combination of written language and pictures is the way I can sometimes take my story in two, or even three directions at once. I like how the tension between the images and the words can create a whole separate layer of meaning. It’s a rich, dense way of storytelling that engages the reader on multiple levels of cognition.
What was the outcome after the publishing of “Are You My Mother?,” for you, your mom, your family, and anyone around you, during all these years?
Personally, I felt sort of bad about the book for a long time. Even though I felt my mom and I had worked through the problematic aspects of my writing about her, I continued to feel guilty about the whole thing for some time. And then there was the fact that Fun Home met with more popular success than Are You My Mother. That made me a little angry, as if people were preferring my father to my mother! “Are You My Mother” is a more challenging book, less straightforward than “Fun Home.” But over time, it’s found a following of extremely devoted readers.
Last but not least, what do you think “Fun Home”and “Are You My Mother?” mean for you? Are they the same as your very original motivations?
In an unintentional way, both books ended up having a similar meaning. They’re about the way my parents used me as extensions of themselves, denying me my own agency and feelings. But then they both gave me gifts to make up for that lack. My mother taught me how to write. My father taught me how to be an artist. And with those skills I was able to rebuild the sense of an intact self that they were not able to give me. Someone once asked me, which would you rather have–your memoirs about your parents, or a happy childhood. I didn’t hesitate—the books! The act of creating those stories out of the chaos of my childhood was so gratifying, I wouldn’t give it up for anything.