Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Reader Response to “Essential French and Italian for Mamas”

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Last month's prompt invited readers to write a piece (poetry, fiction, or essay) that reflects upon the experience of being a mother in a new culture. In this essay, Farzana L. Walcott gives readers a look into the complex compromises that a mother makes when her religious and cultural practices are not held by the majority.

Ganesh, the Guru, and the Pig: An American Muslim's Tale of Motherhood
by Farzana L. Walcott

I never had any qualms about raising my children in a mixed culture. I had the confidence only youth and naïveté can boast, given I was a first-time mother and had no experience. Yet, I was sure that our family consisting of an American-born Asian-Indian-Muslim mother and Caucasian Catholic father, would be a benefit, not a liability. For the most part, I believe I am right.

But there have been some bumps.

Flashback to my daughter in preschool. My daughter, Jennah, was a toddler in a Montessori school. I loved the fact that the school had several teachers who were Indian and near-purists when it came to teaching Montessori philosophy. The school even had its own meal program. Fresh, wholesome food prepared daily, from unprocessed ingredients. Breakfast, lunch, and two snacks. Heaven.

One day I arrived at the school to pick Jennah up and her lovely South Indian teacher, Revathi, helped Jennah to gather her things. It was a standing joke that Jennah was the slowest eater in the class. How did she eat today? I asked.

"She did great!" said Revathi. "She didn't like the steamed spinach much, but she loved the ham!"

Ham.

Was there ham on the menu?

Muslims don't eat pork. It's similar to a Jewish person not eating pork or a Hindu person not eating beef. It is sacrilege.

Revathi was still talking. "She had three helpings. She just kept asking for more!"

Images of my mother's censorious face assaulted my vision. I explained to Revathi we were Muslim and I didn't realize they served pork at the school. Revathi instantly understood and apologized. They would serve Jennah chicken or beef. I was appeased. I didn't tell my mother.

Two weeks later, I picked Jennah up from school. Revathi was not there, but I asked the aide how Jennah ate at lunch. She said Jennah only ate bread and fruit because she wasn't allowed to eat ham. "What happened to the chicken?" I asked. She looked blank. Then she reassured me.

"She kept asking for the ham, but we didn't give it to her! We just gave her more bread!"

I took Jennah home and tried not to cry about my sweet baby watching everyone eat ham while she ate dry bread. Did she cry? Was she hungry? I hadn't thought to ask.

My husband and I discussed it and came to the conclusion that though the school may be well-intentioned, they probably wouldn't remember to serve different meals to Jennah on those infrequent days they serve pork. I didn't have time to pack lunches and keep track of menus, and I couldn't bear the thought of my daughter yearning after other children's food.

So I let her eat pork.

It was my first foray into unknown territory. Having allowed Jennah to eat pork at school, it seemed hypocritical to say she couldn't eat it when we went to IHOP. When my son Jacob came along it seemed wrong to deny him. Daddy ate pork. Kids at school ate pork. I now had pork-eating-Muslim children.

I finally had to put a stop to it when my children were old enough to go for religious instruction at our community center. I had to explain to them that they shouldn't blab about their pig-eating, infidel ways to the other children. They were perplexed.

"But why, mommy? Bacon is soooo good!"

I realized then I had a much bigger problem on my hands than some archaic dietary rules. I had to answer much bigger questions. How did I want to raise my children? How did I want them to define themselves? Did I really want them to be a part of a community or did I want to emphasize their differences and thereby, ostracize them?

I go to our community center for prayers and special events and I envy the ease with which the other children speak Hindi to their parents. We spoke Gujarati in our house. The languages are similar enough that I am lucky enough to understand both. But I can't speak them fluently.

As a kid, learning language and tradition wasn't important to me. In fact, I thought it was slightly uncool. My parents never forced us to speak the language. My mother remembers how hard I struggled in early elementary.

"They told us to only speak English with you at home." And that was that.

When I started taking my children to community gatherings and events, I was pained by the blank looks in their eyes. They didn't play with the other kids. They didn't understand instructions given by the volunteers. It hurt. I guess I, like my parents, took it for granted that somehow they would magically inherit my culture.

But they were painfully unfamiliar. I was afraid unfamiliarity would become contempt. I was afraid their contempt would expand to include me.

I became obsessed. I wanted my children to learn Gujarati. Hindi is readily available. Rosetta Stone, DVDs, movies. Not so with Gujarati. My mother is fluent, but she is no teacher. I needed real help.

I can only say the Universe took pity on me when She realized how desperate and helpless I was. And so She sent me a Guru.

We sit on the cold tile of my Guru's living room floor, the children and I, on small, woven rugs. She sits in a chair, surveying us through sharp, bespectacled eyes. Shiva and Ganesha murthis watch over us as we learn. I believe they bless our labors.

My Guru insists we learn to write the Gujarati alphabet first. For one year, we practice writing and pronouncing the letters. Then writing words. Then reading words. Every lesson is a miracle. My children and I can now read and write Gujarati.

She refuses to speak English. She scolds me when I speak English.

"I don't care how bad you think your Gujarati is. Speak. Speak with your children. Don't worry about being correct. That is why I am here." I obey.

It works. The children understand me. They understand my mother. I still get an occasional blank stare, but it's okay. My grammar is still poor. It's okay. They use Gujarati words and phrases. They are comfortable when we go to the community center. It's okay.

My Guru is Hindu and she loves to tell the Hindu stories to us. We love to hear them. My children know the gods and goddesses of Hinduism. My daughter asks me if it is "okay" for her to believe in Ganesh, Rama, and Krishna. I've told her yes. I am aware that most Muslims would consider this shirk, the practice of idolatry or associating others with Allah. In my eyes, God is more than the names we ascribe to Him/Her. So, my daughter believes in Abraham, Muhammad, Jesus, Ganesha, and Allah -- it's okay.

We may never be one hundred percent fluent in Gujarati, but I've decided that having children who are fluid in other cultures and languages is a blessing. I started Spanish lessons for my kids. I worried about how it would affect the Gujarati progress. My Guru waves a graceful hand, her gold bangles clinking dismissively.

"It cannot overcome the mother-tongue. Let them learn. It will be okay."

And . . . about the pork? I never told my mother.

Farzana L. Walcott recently finished her medical training in Internal Medicine and Preventive Medicine. After many years of hard work, she is finally beginning to shape her career as a wife, mother, physician, researcher, and writer. She lives in Fairfax, VA with her husband and two children.

~

A Behind-the-Scenes Look from Cassie Premo Steele:

The "Birthing the Mother Writer" column likes to give you a look behind the process of becoming a mother writer -- which is so much more than just about writing. One of the crucial elements to being a published writer is being able to communicate effectively with your editor or publisher. Here's a look at the emails Cassie and Farzana exchanged as Farzana was working on this essay, and at the end, a few key points to keep in mind.

We started out with an email from Cassie to Farzana, who had submitted work before, asking if she would want to write an essay on "Mothering in another culture." There were a few emails back and forth clarifying the logistics of the theme and the deadline, and then Farzana sent an outline of her ideas for the essay.

From: Birthing the Mother Writer
To: Farzana Walcott
Sent: Tuesday at 10:46 AM

You have so many good ideas here! A lifetime of writing!

Here is my suggestion:

Think of the essay as 3 scenes:

Scene 1: The decision to allow your children to eat pork. Use the elements of fiction, such as place description and dialogue. Make the scene come alive for the reader.

Scene 2: Something from your childhood. You, as a mother, reflecting back on your mother's mothering of you.

Scene 3: You, with your children, at the Gujarati teacher's home. Again, give us descriptions and dialogue. Don't tell the reader what to think. Let her feel what you are feeling.

How about starting with this and seeing where it goes?

Feel free to send me snippets along the way for encouragement!

To: Birthing the Mother Writer
From: Farzana Walcott
Sent: Tuesday at 10:55 AM

Thanks Cassie! I love your idea - I had thought as far as Scene 1 like you suggest, using elements of fiction but that is as far as I got! I wasn't sure how to plan the rest of it. But it helps to have a framework.

I am excited about this too! Thanks for the opportunity! I am at work now but will try to get to this this afternoon or evening. Maybe I can send you something late tonight.

From: Birthing the Mother Writer
To: Farzana Walcott
Sent: Tuesday at 11:00 AM

That's great! Let the ideas perk today and send me what you get tonight or tomorrow morning.

To: Birthing the Mother Writer
From: Farzana Walcott
Sent: Wednesday at 1:36 AM

I wasn't sure if I should send an attachment or put this in the body of the email, so I am doing both. It is much longer than your required length and it isn't even finished! I wanted to stop here to get your thoughts. It is a rough, rough draft. Please let me know what you think.

From: Birthing the Mother Writer
To: Farzana Walcott
Sent: Wednesday at 11:47 AM

First, let me say THANK YOU for working so well and so quickly on this essay. I love it.

Here's what I suggest:

I think the scenes with the preschool could be slimmed down, and that would leave you space to have a second scene when you have two children.

The material on the complexity of identity is really good. I would want you to keep it there, but connect it to the children. Remember that your readers are mothers, and they will connect with you through these common experiences.

Does your mother still not know? I love that as an ending.

To: Birthing the Mother Writer
From: Farzana Walcott
Sent: Wednesday at 12:47 PM

Thanks so much for being so generous with your comments and suggestions. I do trust your advice and suggestions. It is a pleasure to work with you. I will try to have more for you tomorrow.

~ We email back and forth seven times over the next day and a half, and then . . .

To: Birthing the Mother Writer
From: Farzana Walcott
Sent: Friday at 2:00 AM

Here is the "finished" essay.

Well, tell me what you think. I hope you like it and I think it is better than the first draft. Thanks so much!

~ We email back and forth five times over the course of the day, and then . . .

From: Birthing the Mother Writer
To: Farzana Walcott
Sent: Saturday at 9:37 AM

You have done such amazing work. You have transformed your experience into something that will move and teach people. You deserve to be proud!

~

Notes:
1. The process moves super fast.
2. Every email is acknowledged in a timely and kind manner.
3. The writer expresses gratitude often.
4. The editor's suggestions for revision are specific.
5. The writer takes the suggestions and acts on them.
6. The editor is enthusiastic and supportive.
7. The writer delivers what she promises.
8. The editor is grateful and gives praise.
9. The whole thing takes place over the course of 5 days in 23 emails.
10. The writer works long and hard to complete the assignment.


Cassie Premo Steele, Ph.D. is the author of 13 books, most recently Earth Joy Writing. The book includes writing prompts for every month of the year, plus audio meditations and video workshops. She teaches an innovative online course combining mindfulness and feminist theory for women academics called The Feminar. Cassie is currently working on a memoir about how coming out returned her to her mother and her faith.


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Farzana, Congratulations on your first published piece! I know how long you have wanted to do this and so here you are. Your story really depicts the struggles and choices moms must make to ensure our children are comfortable, secure and confident in new environments. I could imagine how you must have grappled internally with Jennah at school - letting her eat what she enjoys and do she won't "starve" vs the beliefs and constraints placed on us by the cultural and religious norms. I could imagine you at the home of your guru, learning with your children and sharing that with them. As someone who has heard you converse with your kids in another language, I could say that your time has been well-spent. Great Mom and Writer!! Liz
Farzana, I just spit out my tea reading about the kids' love of bacon. So funny! What a great article! I just hope your mom doesn't read it!
Farzana, this is a beautiful essay that your children will treasure. Your mother too, perhaps, someday. You are an inspiration!
Farzana, thank you for this frank and loving look at the complexity of parenting!
Farzana, Thanks for sharing your story, of course Jennah loves ham, great writing, you are not alone. Working through similar issues on a regular. Good luck with all the challenges to come.
I finally just read your article. I thought it was great! Very interesting, and even comical! I pray mom doesn't read it!! hahahaha Congrats!!!!!
Loved the piece! The story is deep and told lightly and "easily." Also enjoyed reading about the process. Thanks
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