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From the Publisher:
“A woman unexpectedly finds her best self through a sleepy bundle handed over at the airport in this heartfelt and surprising memoir.
In Make Me a Mother, acclaimed memoirist Susanne Antonetta adopts an infant from Seoul, South Korea. After meeting their six-month-old son, Jin, at the airport – an incident made memorable when Susanne, so eager to meet her son, is chased down by security – Susanne and her husband learn lessons common to all parents, such as the lack of sleep and the worry and joy of loving a child. They also learn lessons particular to their own family: not just how another being can take over your life but how to let an entire culture in, how to discuss birth parents who gave up a child, and the tricky steps required to navigate race in America.
In the end, her relationship with her son teaches Susanne to understand her own troubled childhood and to forgive and care for her own aging parents. Susanne comes to realize how, time and time again, all families have to learn to adopt one another.”
My recording experience:
I love narrating memoir. Oftentimes, publishers choose to have the author narrate their own work, somewhat naturally I guess, as one gets the story from the horse’s mouth, as it were. But the other side of the coin is that my training as an actor allows me to express an author’s words and thought/feelings more fully and engage the listener, taking them on a well-crafted journey. Luckily, author Susanne Antonetta had the same idea, so I got to read her story for her. We had a great conversation and it turned into the following interview.
KW: So, I have to ask first: Suzanne Paola/ Susanne Antonetta – why the alter ego?
SA: You know, when I lived in Atlanta and worked as a freelance writer, I had something like five pseudonyms! I get asked this question a lot and I’m not sure I can fully explain it. Maybe it works for me as a person who is bipolar, who is aware of what you could call almost the edges of my different selves. Antonetta is a family name, the name of a kind of a “lost” woman in my father’s family. I tell her story in Body Toxic. And my legal name was shortened by my father—it was originally Pietropaolo—so somehow it has never felt quite as mine as other people seem to feel their family names to be. All I know is that each of my identities has her own way of approaching writing—sometimes I call Susanne Antonetta my “evil twin.” She’s the honest one!
KW: Just reading this book, it is obvious that you also write poetry because your prose is so beautifully imagistic. But in looking at your bio, I see that you have a huge range of interests: “My work encompasses the environment, mental health and diversity, spirituality, the sciences, parenting and other subjects.” How do these fit together or feed each other in your writing and/or your parenting?
SA: Emily Dickinson wrote, “my business is circumference”—meaning, my business as a writer is including as much as possible, spreading the net wide. I tend to be interested in a lot of things, and to have little desire to repeat myself in my books. Right now, for example, my interest in the environment is no less than when I wrote Body Toxic, but it is far more engaged in community activism and less in writing.
KW: You are very forthright in your discussions of being bi-polar and how it affected your decision not to have children. Was it difficult to make the decision to include this in your book?
SA: Honestly, no, not at this point. I have been writing about being bipolar or manic-depressive since my earliest books of poetry, and I cover this a great deal in my first book of nonfiction, Body Toxic.
Revealing this about myself left me vulnerable in many ways, and I can’t say it’s not complicated. As a poet, I would sometimes hide behind the idea of “poetic persona.” And after I started writing nonfiction I learned my then-department chair—long gone now, thank goodness—used what he knew about me from my books in a negative way, telling my colleagues I was “unbalanced” if I disagreed with him. But the upside is that people who had felt this was a deep dark secret for them started contacting me, not just students but faculty and employees at my university, and folks who’d read the book all over the country, saying thank you, I could never talk about this. That was so so valuable for me, to realize I’d given other people permission to accept themselves as they are. I’ve never wanted to hide again.
KW: I loved this quote: “Psychiatrist E. James Lieberman writes: “In talking with prospective parents, I suggest—provocatively—that couples are ready for parenthood only when they can imagine adopting. Indeed, we all have to adopt our children psychologically.” Though I myself made a conscious choice to try to have a child, with ambivalence, I’d never quite thought of it on Lieberman’s terms and it is provocative – it feels as though I might not have thought things through to the extent that I might have. What was your response when you first read it?
SA: Oh, it was kind of a shudder of realization of the deep truth of it! I am so wildly different from my parents in every way. Biology creates in some ways more the illusion of likeness than the real thing—genes are not this simple roadmap many folks want them to be. Any child, birthed, step, or adopted, is his or her own unique being. Accepting the autonomy and difference of our children is the ultimate love—until you do that, you’re caught somewhere in your own ego. And I think with the many people in our country parenting children who are the product of remarriages, assisted reproductive technologies, adoption or simply their own maddeningly different selves—this love of difference is perhaps the book’s most resonant message.
KW: You say, “When I was my son’s age, I would never have imagined I’d help my parents through the last years of their lives, and my parents would have imagined it even less.” (p. 15) Is this something that you still struggle with?
SA: You know, it’s so interesting that you asked me this question. Until I read it, actually, I’m not sure what I would have said in response (so thank you for perceptive questions!). I realized that truly, I don’t struggle with it anymore. Even a few years ago the irony of my present life would have struck more deeply than it does now. I’ve accepted this situation: I’m in it with my parents until they don’t need me any longer. And that fact would have really shocked me when I was younger. I think my story is evidence that we all grow and stretch in life in ways that don’t seem possible.
KW: “I don’t know how to separate my mother’s instincts from my writer’s instincts—the two were inextricably connected, and still are—but I do recall how much this new person in my life, who held my eyes with such naked curiosity, filled me with the drive to record my stories. I wanted to leave him a record, a guide to my life that was now his, and get down on paper some of what it meant, as far as I could give it meaning, to have this strange gift of life.” (p. 45) Here you share the impulse to write the stories that eventually became this book. Can you share a bit of what got these pieces from stories that you simply wanted to get down to a whole journey that you wanted to share with the rest of the world?
SA: That is hard to say! I will just put in here that an editor and many of my friends, informal readers of my work, would tell me that when Jin came into my books—which he always has, to some degree, since he appeared in my life—the prose really seemed to come alive. Which makes sense: nothing has ever made me feel more alive than being a mother. The story of my relationship with my son has been part of everything I’ve written, whether he appeared in the story on the surface of it or not, since he came into my life. He changed me; he reworked my universe. It made sense to finally tell stories through the lens of the person who has meant the most to me in the world.
Listen to a sample here: