We don’t talk enough about speculative fiction.
This is not to disparage the real and realistic narratives that dominate the conversation among mother readers and writers. Of all things, the mothering experience is the most real and, as we well know at Literary Mama, unfathomably deep. As a speculative fiction fan, however, I have a particular love of the unreal and its ability to clarify lived parallels. And as a mother reader, I find myself excavating and reinterpreting my own path of parenthood through science fiction and fantasy more with each read.
Perhaps I’m not reading in the right circles, but I wish this intersection was a more natural pairing. Not to imply that the topic of motherhood typically fails to overlap with science fiction—far from it. With stunning portraits, from Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan (The Vorkosigan Saga) to Octavia E. Butler’s Lilith (Xenogenesis/Lilith’s Brood) to N.K. Jemison’s Essun (The Broken Earth trilogy), speculative fiction as a genre is fertile with powerful and complicated views of motherhood. Frequently, however, we discuss motherhood in speculative narrative as simply another device through which we interpret themes that are historically deemed more prominent instead of interpreting motherhood through the speculative lens. How might our reading of Butler’s Lilith, for example, be expanded if we read her participation in creating a human-alien hybrid race as not only a discussion of humanity and personhood but also an uncomfortable exploration of the isolation of motherhood and alienation from our children, our partners, and our communities? Yet outside of our designated mother-relevant stories, even those of us who are mothers often default to approaching the mother experience as a metaphor for more “universal” topics, as if motherhood is not itself a universal topic.
It would be easy to do the same with The Women Could Fly by Megan Giddings, especially as the book presents such a rich thematic range. The Handmaid’s Tale most readily comes to mind when placing The Women Could Fly in the genre. Set in a world where all women are under suspicion of being witches and must be married by 30, The Women Could Fly confronts pressing discussions of women’s bodies, identity and race, social expectations, government interference and overreach—themes that are both cacophonous as they dominate the novel’s world and dim as the protagonist (Josephine “Jo” Thomas) remains resigned to her reality. Instead of fixating on the familiar elements of like social commentaries à la Atwood or Butler by taking an exhaustive dive into the machinations and implications of her patriarchal dystopia, Giddings uses these pieces initially as window dressing and later as tools for Jo and the reader to excavate the heart of the narrative: Jo herself, her mother Tiana, and magic.
Magic, its existence and meaning, slices through the narrative like a knife, bringing Jo’s world into a sharp third dimension. And yet, magic is hopelessly entangled with Tiana who disappeared after Jo’s fourteenth birthday. As a result of her mother’s absence (and presumed death), an incompleteness threatens Jo’s narration as fact dances in the gaps between memories. “I want to be precise because every time I’m precise about her, she returns for a half-second,” Jo says as she sorts through her mother’s abandoned belongings, fourteen years later and approaching the marriage deadline. It turns out that precision, though, is relative: “My mother had become the stories I could only half-remember, the gaps filled in by my father. . . . Because of all that empty space around her, because of time, because of sadness, I had idealized her, too.” When Jo recounts her struggles navigating early adulthood as a Black woman, she comforts herself with a rosy image of what her mother could have been had she stayed:
I would lie awake at night and lie to myself that if she were here, at least then, I would have someone who would make me feel like I truly belonged. All the years of anxiety wriggling inside my veins that came from suddenly waking in a world where my mother was just gone, probably buried in a shallow grave, maybe a witch.
“Maybe a witch” carries a dual weight as Jo says it: the societal denunciation of wayward women and the suspicion that magic may actually be real. Everything Joe believes—and disbelieves—about magic originates from her mother. As readers we are left grasping as Jo flits through memories that leave us reeling with questions (Is this magic? What just happened?) while Jo rarely pauses to interrogate the surreal events surrounding Tiana, a woman who embodies skepticism of witchcraft while simultaneously operating under a burden of witchy narrative signals. Jo is unable to ever untangle herself fully from Tiana the way that none of us can separate ourselves from our parents. Both Jo and Tiana consistently pursue freedom of identity yet remain bound to each other in their projected roles of mother and daughter. Throughout the novel, Jo is haunted by Tiana’s desire that she be the “best possible version” of herself: “Even at fourteen, I wondered how she could know what that was. In the grand scheme of being a person, I had barely started.”
The Women Could Fly is a novel rooted in the inherent messiness of parenthood: a mother cannot be known by her child separate from her mothering. As the mother of a daughter who has only recently grown from a rolling, needy cherub into a wiry and argumentative miniature human, I find that thought terrifying. Of course, however, we are more than our mother roles, even if we cannot escape them. Jo’s memories of Tiana capture a web of competing truths: Jo’s simultaneous idealization and dissatisfaction with her mother as well as Tiana’s clear desire to be known as an individual beyond her status as wife and mother. Jo’s right to certain expectations from her mother must coexist along Tiana’s right to a life beyond her parenting. In a memory of an excursion to the woods with Tiana before her disappearance, Jo recounts:
We were back at the root of most of our disagreements at that time; neither of us could tell what she wanted from me, who she wanted me to be. Now looking back on these fights, I can see her reaction to me being nine was a confusing mixture of rage that I was getting older—there were things about me she no longer knew, things I kept closed in the palm of myself—and frustration that I was not yet old enough so she could be completely herself when she was with me.
The trick of The Women Could Fly is that this mixture endures at the heart of the parent-child relationship, hardly limited to a nine-year-old and her mother. We both know and don’t know our children, as they know and don’t know us. Tiana and Jo are both flawed, but while we might cheer for Jo to fight for her freedom, it is almost impossible to absolve Tiana of allowing her daughter to become collateral damage in pursuit of the same. The question becomes, could Tiana have been both free and a mother? Magic, it turns out, does not solve everything. In a world where the unknown is both dangerous and powerful, we must accept and nurture the spaces where our children overlap and diverge from ourselves.
What Giddings accomplishes is not only a compelling and powerful social commentary on gender and race, but a raw portrait of a mother-daughter relationship made victim by the world around it. The Women Could Fly points out how problematic our relationships become as mothers and daughters in a world where we are forced to fight for our own rights; we cannot always care for ourselves and others at the same time. The novel is not without hope, however; the dissonance between being known and unknown—the joy and despair of being mothered and mothering—is what empowers us to recognize and build a better place and find peace in the balance.