On the Map: Constructing Feminist Motherhood
Balancing Act is a newly published work of fiction by architect and author Meera Godbole Krishnamurthy that demonstrates the challenge many stay-at-home-mothers – particularly ones with feminist sensibilities – face when reconciling their identities with the conflicting demands and desires of motherhood and working outside of the home. Although the topic being explored is not a new one, Meera uses her professional training to craft a work that offers a distinct vantage point through which to view this particular struggle. Building the self isn't so different than building a literal, physical structure, and everything constructed needs a solid foundation from which to grow.
Given that your own background is in architecture, not literature, how did you come to writing this book?
Architecture, painting, sculpture, making quilts, writing--all creative arts have a common language. I often feel that I got through architecture school only because I spent an obscene amount of time in the library reading fiction! Over the years, I found myself interested more in the theory and critique of architecture than the practice of it. That being said, though there are many overlaps; there is a specific vocabulary and craft to every medium, and skills to be learned before you can practice in any field. I don't think you can become a writer overnight, to paraphrase one of Louis Kahn's architectural teachings.
You paraphrase several of his teachings in the book. What influence did Kahn have on its creation?
I started writing this book as a series of vignettes about nine years ago. During these years I participated in several writing programs and workshops at UCSD, Stanford, and the University of Iowa, and there were innumerable drafts and many formats that I discarded, adapted, and re-worked. The book took this form only when the idea of using the Salk Institute and the life and work of Louis Kahn as the structure for the novel came to me a few years down the road. And when the Yakshi showed up from the netherworld to question Tara's every move, I knew we were in for a good ride!
You and Tara, the narrator of the story, have several similarities, and at times, the book feels like a process of self-reflection. Are Tara's experiences in Balancing Act based on your own?
Tara and I have many similarities. We're both architects, have two children, and are married to a traveling husband – but so do many women out there. The details may differ, but in spirit, our stories would be the same.
I think one always starts with what one knows, but the beauty of fiction is that it can transcend the personal to become universal. Fiction is most convincing when it could be real, even though it is not. You begin with a form and then mold it into something different, but identifiable. So whether you identify with Tara or Nina, Janet or Maya, Sophie or even Roshan, you will feel your story has been told. It was my intention to be non-judgmental and empathetic to every voice.
Architecture provides the book with a nice metaphor for the ark of Tara's story of rebuilding her own identity. What gave you the idea to have her make bricks and leave them in public spaces?
Kahn's seminal question: "What do you want be, brick?" He was suggesting that in order to respect the true nature of a material, you must use it so that it retains its individuality and expresses its essence. For example, you would not use bricks in the same way as you would use concrete. Similarly, Tara is trying to define her true nature, separate from what society or feminism or her friends tell her, and I thought it would be interesting to take that literally, but also to an extreme level by giving her a darker side and having her engage in a social experiment where she challenges the politically acceptable and speaks for the unspoken through a medium, the vocabulary of architecture.
Bricks are such potent symbols. They build, they can destroy, and bricks, if they are Legos, almost define childhood, don't they? So the metaphor of the brick was the perfect vehicle for building, rebuilding, and addressing the question of Tara defining herself. Just as architecture needs to be in the public realm, motherhood too is a part of the social fabric. So Tara had to make her statements, to practice her personal architecture, so to speak, in the public realm.
One of Tara's major challenges is to reconcile motherhood with feminism, which is an all-too-common situation for women these days.
I believe that motherhood is and always has been a joyful act, a creative and large journey, which is not to say that it is without frustrations, of course, but we seem afraid these days to speak of the joys. This is because motherhood – and by extension, the "housewife" – has acquired such negative connotations, been devalued and degraded as the lesser choice. We feminist-mothers, what I call the "femimoms," need to reclaim the unabashed and unapologetic nature of motherhood.
In the book these elements of social criticism – from motherhood being devalued because it is unpaid labor to the ignorance of feminists who ignore the needs of stay-at-home mothers to the misunderstanding and exoticism of the Other – are somewhat subdued. What do you want the reader to bring from her or his reading?
I did not want to write a treatise on feminism or the state of motherhood, but the book is certainly a social commentary on many levels. I hope the reader finds empathy with the characters and recognizes themselves, their best friend, a neighbor, a sister, or even their husband or wife portrayed with gentleness through Tara's story. I hope husbands and fathers will feel they too have been portrayed with sensitivity, and that the reader will put the book away with a smile realizing that when you've made a well-informed choice, it is best to enjoy the journey that follows. Respecting a choice that is different from your own, to me, is true feminism.
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