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7 Powerful Books By Women That Deal With Death And Grieving

Culture

“Writing is how I attempt to repair myself, stitching back former selves, sentences.”

The Fraenkel Gallery recently closed an exhibit by French visual artist Sophie Calle called My mother, my cat, my father, in that order,” a title that glibly sums up a sequence of deaths in her given and made families. Within the exhibit the artist threads connections to her mother by pulling from her diary. Calle writes:

On December 27, 1986, my mother wrote in 

Her diary: ‘My mother died today.’

On March 15, 2006, in turn, I wrote in mine:

‘My mother died today.’

No one will say this about me.

The end.

Just like that intergenerational trauma is collapsed into six sentences whose single repeated phrase echoes the famous opening line of Albert Camus’s L'Étranger: “Aujourd'hui, maman est morte,” spoken by a son who has just learned of his mother’s passing. To this day translators still debate the proper translation of Camus’s sentence. They try to puzzle out meaning from its inflection and syntax in futile attempts to bridge the chasm of meaning that gets lost in the translation of language and thought. A conclusion to that decades-old debate seems unlikely, chiefly because grief has a certain ineffability; it remains both elusive and pervasive within the human experience. 

It is often said grief has seven stages: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, guilt, depression, acceptance. But anyone who has ever lost someone, who has experienced a presence becoming an absence, will tell you that these stages are not emotional silos but rather constantly overlapping layers. On this reading list, a collection of very talented women writers attempt to piece together their thoughts about the way death bisected their lives into the moments their loved ones were alive, and the moment they weren’t. Their accounts of reckoning with loss share similarities, like the always-painful confrontation of their own mortality, and the messiness of their recovery timelines, which are dotted with attempts to move through grief which is a fog of time and of feeling.

Photo courtesy of Semiotext(e).

Book of Mutter by Kate Zambreno 
The cover of this book is a photograph of sculptor Louise Bourgeois’s "Cell," an installation where a replica of the artist’s childhood home is enclosed in a wire cage with a guillotine hovering overhead. For Zambreno this image represents the book’s primary objective, severing past from present. Book of Mutter is a project 13 years in the making. The subject is Zambreno’s mother whose death from cancer left her daughter wracked with guilt and grief. 

As a writer, Zambreno is hard to pin down, she’s as quick to cite Beckett and Barthes as she is to relay a story about her mother’s gardening journal and the minutiae of suburbia. Her writing, like the act of remembering, is at once collected and feverish, dream-like. It’s free narrative structure is modeled after Bourgeois’s "Cell" project and the ancient Greek method of loci, a technique to enhance one’s memory recall that involves imagining memory as a large house whose rooms we rummage through. Zambreno’s methodical scrapbooking of her memories results in an autobiographical text that elegantly unites the structures of the prose poem and the memoir. Time is fluid. We witness her childhood but are also present in the moment when the very words we are reading are typed. On any given page trenchant critical observations sit next to sentence fragments that end in em dashes which feel like self-conscious hesitation marks, doors to rooms in her mind she isn’t ready to open. “Writing,” Zambreno explains, “is how I attempt to repair myself, stitching back former selves, sentences.” Book of Mutter is an intimate introduction to those selves and a sharp and moving inspection of grief.

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

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