Anne Brewster reviews The Mother Wound by Amani Haydar
Amani Haydar’s powerful memoir takes its title from Dr Oscar Serrallach’s term ‘the mother wound’, which describes how ‘the relationship between mothers and daughters is affected by unhealed traumatic experiences passed down matriarchal lines’ (333). In her family, Haydar says, the wounds have been inflicted by male aggression, war and migration (329).
If memoirists produce memoirs in order to make their lives count in the public record, Haydar’s memoir is motivated by the strong imperative to make her mother’s life count – for it to be recorded and commemorated publically – as her mother, Salwa Haydar, was the victim of lethal violence at the hands of her husband, Haydar’s father. Amani Haydar has a high profile as a writer, artist, lawyer, community activist, media commentator and advocate for women’s rights, and has talked a lot in the media about her mother’s death so I expect it’s not a spoiler for me to identify this as the event that galvanises Haydar as a memoirist. She herself refers to her mother’s passing proleptically early in the book, before the narrative has even touched much upon her mother.
Haydar spends the first section of the memoir establishing the close and mutually respectful (67) relationship she had with her father as a child and the way he had inspired and dominated her sense of herself and her future. This is a deftly written memoir which skilfully records the changing narrative point of view of the protagonist/memoirist. Haydar describes how as a child she internalised her father’s view of the world, and saw the world in effect through his eyes. This included being inadvertently complicit from the sidelines as a child in his disparagement of her mother. Haydar recognises all too late that her father’s pattern of coercive, controlling, belittling and intimidating behaviour comprises the gendered domestic abuse that would prove fatal to her mother (91). The memoir thus traces Amani Haydar’s rites of passage as she comes to understand the functions of patriarchy as they intersect with gender and race. It describes her dissatisfactions with mainstream feminism and her efforts to ‘carve out’ (58) a feminism that would account for these intersectional complexities.
The feminism that The Mother Wound articulates is informed by scholarship (in particular the history of Muslim women’s writing and feminists working in Islamic frameworks), grass-roots and local activism, and debates on social media. This repurposed feminism allows Haydar to address issues such as the pernicious stereotyping of Arab and Muslim people in the media (for example, the correlations of Muslims with violence), and to challenge the entrenched binaries that promulgate these stereotypes (such as the binary of ‘traditional’ versus ‘modern’ which besets representations of CaLD communities and individuals, a binary mobilised by both the mainstream media and her father’s family alike, to the detriment of Muslim and Arab women).
Haydar identifies the ‘double bind’ that Muslim woman activists and survivors of gendered abuse often find themselves in of having to fend off Islamphobia on the one hand and to challenge patriarchy in their own communities on the other (304). This can result in self-censorship and a reluctance on the part of Muslim and Arab women to ‘share their truth freely’ (304). Haydar’s memoir makes an important contribution to Australian public life in countering this silence and I urge all Australians to buy and read this important book. Beautifully-written, intelligent and passionate, The Mother Wound is profoundly moving in its bravery and breathtakingly astute in its analysis of the operations of race, gender and class. It makes a paradigm-shifting contribution to the genre of life-writing and memoir in Australia.
In the course of reading this book I enthusiastically recommended it to a number of white friends and colleagues. It elicited virtually the same response: ‘oh, that sounds a bit grim’. Why are some things just too unpalatable for white readers? Haydar talks a lot about the lack – in the period following her mother’s death – of the recognition of and adequate ethical responses to her and her sisters’ grief: from her father’s family, the community, the mainstream media and other actors. The book forcefully draws my attention to a significant component of toxic whiteness – its refusal to acknowledge and commemorate the griefs of minoritised peoples and respectfully accord them mainstream space in public culture.
If Amani Haydar’s memoir is a commemoration of her mother and her untimely passing before she had time to realise the many different goals and ambitions of her public and private life, it is also a gesture to her grandmother and her shocking death in the South Lebanon conflict some years earlier. Haydar’s Teta was in a civilian convoy of three vehicles travelling through the countryside to escape shelling when they are killed in an apparently inexplicable Israeli drone attack. As one of her relatives stated: ‘there was nothing around the area where we were attacked, only fruit orchards – no people and no fighters. It was an empty area… we were clearly civilians, we had white flags’ (69).
Haydar meditates on the fact that the mortalities occasioned by war can leave people with a feeling of helplessness, and the sense that there is no recourse to justice. In her work as a lawyer she had attended a workshop on the investigation of war crimes with lawyers and investigators who had worked at the Hague Convention. She found the statistics of civilian mortalities particularly disturbing; ‘In modern warfare it is estimated that eighty per cent of casualties are civilians and seventy per cent of those civilians are estimated to be women and children’ (54). The rationale of ‘acceptable collateral in military operation[s]’ (55) was equally disturbing for her, given her family history. As the only Arab in the room at the workshop she was acutely aware that her own proximity to the Israeli-Lebanese war made her uncomfortable and distressed with the approach of the workshop to this material on civilian deaths which was on occasion cheerful and even jocular (55).
Haydar’s memoir demonstrates the many ways that war intrudes into diasporic peoples’ lives, not just in professional settings like the workshop but also their private living rooms: her family received news of Haydar’s Teta’s death in a tv news report. Hearing of her mother’s violent death with no warning in this way was deeply traumatic for Haydar’s mother and other family members (61). Haydar’s memoir raises the question for me: how can space be made in the national social imaginary (beyond the significant memorials in local communities) for the commemoration of those wars from which diasporic Australians have fled? The memory of these wars already exist within the memories of individuals and collectives; how can they be recognised at the national level?
In its dual homily to her mother’s and grandmother’s untimely deaths, The Mother’s Wound forensically analyses the intertwining of gender and violence in both the settings of the private home and in warfare. It aims to record truths that often remain unrecognised and unacknowledged. This analytical and memorial work comes at a cost. Haydar describes her acute sensitivity to war and violence; even watching the normalised stream of violence on mainstream tv provokes anxiety in her. The imagery is overwhelmingly immediate, real and ‘fleshy’ (129), reminding her inescapably of ‘a heightened sense of [her] own mortality, and the mortality of those around [her]’ (129). She describes numerous occasions when journalists and other people seeking to report on and commodify the grief of Haydar’s family (on the occasions of both her mother’s and her grandmother’s egregious deaths), showed little ethical awareness of and response to Haydar’s and her sisters’ grief. These anecdotes about normalised invisibility of minoritised people’s suffering make me as a middle-class white woman very much aware of the risk Haydar exposes herself to in offering her story to a variety of readers and audiences; and of my own responsibility to try to avoid contributing to this violence and harm.
Haydar insists that in spite of their violent deaths her mother and grandmother were strong women. Although she was indisputably the victim of wrong doing her mother was not only a victim but also a courageous and loving woman, an activist who ‘fought misogyny’ (93) and who left a legacy of resilience, intelligence and helping others (254). In bearing witness to the stories of her mother and grandmother Haydar herself celebrates the spiritual resources of gratitude, faith and joy (307) which sustained her during her writing of the memoir as well as her art practice, her family, community and her activism as a survivor-advocate.
ANNE BREWSTER is Honorary Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales. Her books include Giving This Country a Memory: Contemporary Aboriginal Voices of Australia, (2015), Literary Formations: Postcoloniality, Nationalism, Globalism (1996) and Reading Aboriginal Women’s Autobiography (1995, 2015). She is series editor for Australian Studies: Interdisciplinary Perspectives