Literary Mothers: An Interview with Carolyne Van Der Meer and Shira Nayman

by Carolyne Van Der Meer and Shira Nayman

Carolyne Van Der Meer is a journalist, public relations professional, and university lecturer who has published articles, essays, short stories, and poems internationally. Her first book, Motherlode: A Mosaic of Dutch Wartime Experience, was published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press in 2014. Her second book, a collection of poetry entitled Journeywoman, was published in 2017 by Toronto-based Inanna Publications. Another collection of poetry, Sensorial, is forthcoming from Inanna in 2021. She lives in Montreal, Quebec.

Shira Nayman is the author of Awake in the Dark, The Listener, A Mind of Winter, and River. Her work has appeared in magazines and journals, including The Atlantic Monthly. Born in South Africa and raised in Australia, Shira lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Shira Nayman: Sometimes when we write, concepts we always took for granted are reconsidered. In that vein, do you think we have literary mothers—in other words, mothers we choose for ourselves vs. our real mothers? How do they influence us? How are they different and how are they the same?

Carolyne Van Der Meer: This is an interesting question for me because one of my literary mothers was my real mother—so a literary mother I chose. In fact, writing about my mom’s experience as a warchild in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands in my first book is central to a greater understanding of mothering and motherhood and the role these play in writing. In some ways, I feel like my mother—in addition to all the things she gave me—gifted me with my first book. She agreed to talk to me about the most painful and difficult part of her life in order to push me down the writing path. I think my mother knew what she was doing. I suppose I can call her a true literary mother! But we also choose mothers as we read and write. The ones we relate to and recognize when we read novels and poems; the ones we resurrect, pay tribute to, and create when we write. And I would even say this intersects with our own motherhood if we have children of our own: we end up writing about the beauty, the sensuality, the cost of motherhood—and about our children and the influence they have on us. It comes full circle—for me anyways.

I think my mother knew what she was doing. I suppose I can call her a true literary mother! But we also choose mothers as we read and write. The ones we relate to and recognize when we read novels and poems; the ones we resurrect, pay tribute to, and create when we write.

Shira Nayman: It’s interesting what you say about how we choose our literary mothers. But perhaps the characters we bring to life on the page also in some ways choose us. In your new book, Heart of Goodness, you have channeled the voice of Marguerite Bourgeoys, who lived from 1620 to 1700. Reading your book, it felt clear to me that there was some kind of mutuality, here—that in some ways, as you birthed her story in your own voice, you were also mothering her. How did it feel to be expressing her life experience in your own voice? And what drew you to her in the first place? How did her voice come to you?

Carolyne Van Der Meer: Yes, I think you are right: I was mothering her. I felt a deep connection with her story. It was as though, all these years later, she needed to channel her voice through someone—and I was the vessel. As for how it felt to express her life experience in my voice, oddly, it felt completely natural. That was strange to me—but all the poems came in a tumble, like the words were aching to get out. I didn’t really argue with them. It was like a flow. I was drawn to her years ago, when I reviewed a book about her for a literary magazine. In fact, the preface to my book is written by the author of that book, Patricia Simpson. I think Bourgeoys’ voice came to me because I held her in no judgment. After all, she chose her calling some 380 years ago—what could I know about a religious life in the 1600s? I wanted to discover how our thoughts and choices might share commonalities. I think it made me able to “hear” her.

Do you believe there is a generational legacy of traits, traumas and teachings that travel through women? How do you think this plays out in your work?

SN: Talking to other women my age, we’re all flabbergasted by the courage and fortitude our mothers and grandmothers showed in the course of their lives—the obstacles they had to overcome, from childhood on throughout their lives, to manifest and actualize themselves. For many (most?) women of past eras, being a woman involved a certain amount of trauma, in and of itself. Add to that particularly toxic or difficult circumstances, often including emotional (and also physical) abuse from the men in their lives, and it’s no surprise that these traumatic experiences travel on down through the generations. In my literary explorations of intergenerational trauma, I always find myself coming to focus on the compassion and resiliency that emerges in my characters, women who are sometimes based on people I’ve known. Their courage and determination shines through; it is inspiring and meaningful to explore these characters’ experience and try to understand, and shed light on, their often difficult journeys, highlighting the many ways in which they do manage to take command of themselves, to build meaningful and rewarding lives, including for their families—though often at tremendous cost.

CV: Your latest book, River, focuses strongly on the fortitude shown by generational connections. We meet Emily, the 14-year-old main character, who travels through time and establishes deep connections with the women she meets on her many journeys. But she does this with the distinct guidance of the female generations before her—her mother, Talia, and her grandmother, Darlene, show her how to “see.” Do you think previous generations guide us, both overtly and indirectly? How? Can you share a little about how the family connections in your own life have impacted the creation of this story?

SN: Since my own mother died five years ago, I’ve become very aware of just how much I carry her being and voice within me—from the small, mundane daily things she would say, to the more all-encompassing aspects of who she was and how she lived. I’m not sure she guides me so much as accompanies me—and it’s a complicated picture, since families are complicated. In River, I use the word chiaroscuro to describe what life is like and to try to capture the nature of the self. I suppose I believe that life is lived in the kind of ambiguity conveyed by this word—the combination of light and shadow.

I never really knew my grandparents; I come from a long line of wanderers, which is not uncommon for people of Jewish descent. But I think I also carry them within, as well as their parents and grandparents and on through the ages, since it all seems codified within the self, which is itself part of the river of generations. Your question really made me think about all of this in a new way; I was moved but also a bit puzzled by the presupposition within your question—that the generations are there to guide. I suppose that is true in my book, River, though I also think that I raise some other issues about transgenerational influence; past generations also come to us—and deeply influence us as trauma, as dislocation, as a fragmenting impact on the self. At the same time, our forebears are part of what make us who we are—physically, psychologically, spiritually. And also in a more abstract existential sense; we are the latest incarnation of the family line, the most recent point on the continuum (until we have our own children, of course); our family history locates us in both time and space, denotes who we are in terms of where we come from and who came before us. Our names carry that history, our beings are encoded with it—and it can all be resonant and grounding or fracturing and destructive, or both, as well as a myriad of other constellations. I think this is why I chose “River” as the title of the book. Rivers can be sweet and calm and scenic, turbulent and dangerous, a source of sustenance or of a dangerous undertow, with waters that are life-giving or that can drown.

But to come back from the heady, the cosmic and the dire to answer your question more directly and simply … I wrote River to explore the legacy of my own family history on my mother’s side. I imagined my maternal forebears as 14-year-old girls and in doing so, was able, I think, to bring some compassion to my understanding of what their lives must have been like. In a way, I was tracing some of the trauma I know they experienced to better understand them, to replace anger and judgement with compassion, and as a way of bringing a greater calm and peace to the parts of my own being and soul that perhaps glow with the filaments of their long-ago struggles and pain. While also shining a light onto their tremendous resilience, courage, and forcefulness of character—part of their legacy which I hope has in some ways come down, through the generations, to me. Mostly, though, I wrote the book for my own children—so that one day, they might also recognize the power, fortitude, and honour of these women’s struggles, their own progenitors, along with the hope that the intergenerational trauma will be attenuated, or even, altogether dissolved, as the river continues to flow along into the new generation.

I wrote River to explore the legacy of my own family history on my mother’s side. I imagined my maternal forebears as 14-year-old girls and in doing so, was able, I think, to bring some compassion to my understanding of what their lives must have been like. In a way, I was tracing some of the trauma I know they experienced to better understand them …

SN: Do you believe we imagine our ancestors, our predecessors as we write? Do we give them new life?

CV: Absolutely, there is an imagining of our predecessors through writing—in a familial way but also on a human scale. I did it overtly in Motherlode, where I imagined my mother’s responses to wartime propaganda and to work done by Dutch Resistance fighters, which her parents both embodied. And I imagined how my grandmother dealt with searches by the SS, and the visceral instincts she relied upon to protect her brood of children and the Jewish fugitives she hid. But I think that writing in general provides a way of processing how others lived before us, how they faced issues, how they evolved into aging and how they met death. Contemplating the lives of others often provides a window into who we are and what makes us tick.

I can’t help but ask you the same question, Shira. Do you believe we imagine our ancestors, our predecessors as we write? Do we give them new life?

SN: The process for me is really pretty much the same, no matter who or what I’m writing about. I try to home in on emotional truths, to explore the ways in which different people—often people who find themselves in complex and challenging historical circumstances—grapple with the challenges in their lives, with what it is to be a human being, faced with all kinds of difficult forces that are beyond their control, but within and through which they must survive.



CV: Knowing you are a psychologist—how does this impact or influence your work as a novelist and short story writer? You offer deep insights into your characters’ states of mind—and clearly have an in-depth understanding of how the human mind works, how it can play tricks on us—or get us through the most damaging traumatic events.

SN: I guess I see it as all of a piece; I think the literary and psychology both called to me because I am interested in the nature and texture of human experience. Writing and training/working as a psychologist both involve delving into life in similar ways and this is what I’ve always been drawn to. I suppose it’s a natural inclination like any other—such as musicality, or artistic or mathematical ability and interest.

Do you believe it’s important to have women to look up to? These can be teachers, politicians, other writers?

CV: Having women to look up to is like having a compass. Those mentors and icons can give us strength. I’m talking about real mentors and guides here—the ones we know and have in our lives—but also about the metaphysical ones. There are many characters in literature, authors and poets who are like beacons for me. I think it’s important to give them space in our lives. They can spur us on to the best versions of ourselves—and they can give us purpose in our writing.

From reading your work, I notice recurring themes in your writing. What has stayed the same throughout your four books? What has shifted?

SN: I think I’m most interested in the ways in which individual identity is shaped by circumstance. We are all embedded in history—our family, national, cultural histories—and these forces shape who we are. When that history centrally includes war, no one seems to be left untouched. All my work takes up this theme. And I suppose I’m particularly interested in the extremes of human experience—both under extreme conditions, but also associated with intense psychological anguish that might come partly (or even largely) from within, that can leave the individual stranded on terrifying shores. Such conditions are of course tragically approximated also by human actions like warfare and other socio-cultural-political realities. All of this imbues pretty much everything I write.

Tell me, Carolyne, as someone who’s written poetry, nonfiction, and fiction, how do they stand up to one another? Do you have a preference?

CV: I think that storytelling transcends genre for me. I’m interested in telling the story above all—the genre choice just sort of happens. In other words, I don’t give it much thought. It so happens that I often lean towards poetry, but I feel that shifting these days. Sometimes other genres lend themselves better to a particular story. Why is poetry often the natural choice? I like its starkness and its brevity; I like the challenge of telling a story in few words. And amping up the power of those words to create a jolt in the reader’s senses. I am after that jolt—the “oh yes!” that sometimes happens to us when we discover something, recognize something new or heretofore undetected in ourselves.

I think that storytelling transcends genre for me. I’m interested in telling the story above all—the genre choice just sort of happens. […] It so happens that I often lean towards poetry, but I feel that shifting these days.

SN: Carolyne, what you say about genre being in a way secondary to you is intriguing. How do you see the four books you have now written coming together (even your forthcoming book counts here!)—since of course they do come together as one writer’s tapestry—or perhaps, quilt! Four quite different books—different time periods and genres—and yet, all of them imbued with your own distinctive literary voice and preoccupations. 

CV: I feel the psychologist in you at work here! I like your image of a quilt—in fact, a patchwork of women’s stories—that’s how the books come together. My deepest preoccupations are clearly with telling stories of the female experience. All of my books look carefully into women’s lives and consider the female journey in its many guises—and the bonds and connections that women create, familial or otherwise. I didn’t start out with this intention but it’s what keeps happening, so I feel as though it’s what I was meant to do.

Shira, do you think that motherhood has a role to play as we write our stories?—I mean a kind of literary motherhood here. In other words, do we need to “mother” our work? How can we do this?

… we need to mother our stories the way we mother our children; with kindness, compassion, and a certain amount of distance.

SN: I think we need to mother our stories the way we mother our children; with kindness, compassion, and a certain amount of distance. We don’t have all that much control over worldly events (though we seem to operate often with the delusion that we do); we need to detach to some extent from how the world reacts to us, to our children, to our stories. All we can do is our best, and after that, it’s not in our hands. I try to teach my own children this lesson as well—that they need to strive to build a life that will allow them to find and express themselves, take responsibility for their lives and well-being, and avoid buying into the wrong values. I’ve always said—try to make sure you’re not chasing the wrong thing. One can do one’s best to instill one’s own sense of values, but then they must cull their own version of values and live according to those. I apply that approach and those values to the launching of my own work.



Carolyne Van Der Meer is a journalist, public relations professional, and university lecturer who has published articles, essays, short stories, and poems internationally. Her first book, Motherlode: A Mosaic of Dutch Wartime Experience, was published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press in 2014. Her second book, a collection of poetry entitled Journeywoman, was published in 2017 by Toronto-based Inanna Publications. Another collection of poetry, Sensorial, is forthcoming from Inanna in 2021. She lives in Montreal, Quebec.

Shira Nayman is the author of Awake in the Dark, The Listener, A Mind of Winter, and River. Her work has appeared in magazines and journals, including The Atlantic Monthly. Born in South Africa and raised in Australia, Shira lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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