Liza Bakewell – Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun

What is your most recent book? Tell us a bit about it.

Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun

The Economist called my book “a mix of memoir, research, and travelogue,” and I agree. It is focused on the word “madre,” which means mother in Spanish. The story, a non-fiction one, takes place at weddings, dinner parties, neighborhood bars, heart-stopping taxi rides, with angry journalists, corrupt politicians, and Blessed Virgins in Mexico. Along the way, I realize that “madre” plays a large role in Mexican slang (to be used with caution or not at all, which is why my journey with “madre” was at some peril). Ultimately, my book, Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun, is a tale of how culture, religion, sex and politics have an impact—and just how much—on language and vice versa.

Tell us something about yourself.

Well, I am a writer and an anthropologist. I went to Sarah Lawrence College. There were several well-known writers on the faculty whose works I heard often in auditoriums and classrooms on campus. I did not, however, take a course in writing while I was there, because I was shy about having to read out loud to others something I myself had written. My time at college was, instead, spent in performing arts (I danced a lot, if truth be told) and anthropology (with professor Irving Goldman, who had been a colleague of Margaret Mead and was himself so eloquent I wanted to emulate the way he spoke). This led, in some circuitous way, to earning a Ph.D. in anthropology, which did not lead to writing books or articles you would want to read (unless you were an academic or, maybe, my parents). Although I did not realize this initially, learning to master academic prose, a requirement for the doctorate and career, was not good for my creative spirit, which became buried under the exigencies of theory, data and proving a point. That experience may be unique to me, I can’t speak for others.

So, after earning my doctorate and teaching linguistic anthropology for a few years, I turned to research. Since 1995, I have directed The Mesolore Project (, which is on Mesoamerican narration (mostly pictorial). Every now and then I teach, which I love to do and which I’ve done, more recently, at Bowdoin College and Colgate University. Although I have lived in many places in the United States, including Connecticut (where I was born), Ohio (where I lived during my junior and high school years), Colorado, California, and Rhode Island, I have also lived for some time in Mexico (where I always eat too many tacos and tamales).

I now live in Maine with my twin daughters, Avery and Jennie, and there I am surrounded by many wonderful writers I admire and who are my friends. Many members of my family are there, too. It was in Maine where I first started to reawaken my creative spirit and write Madre. I did this by sitting for many hours at a computer, hoping it would surface if I stared at the screen long enough. It did, but it needed some dusting off, waking and shaking up, for it had lay fallow for many years.

What inspired you to write this book?

A large part of it was a deep need to be creative, artistically. But the topic–language and culture or “swearing in Spanish” (as my daughters describe it)–arose out of an experience I had when I was a graduate student, working toward my Ph.D. in a post-Frida-Kahlo Mexico. There I was exposed and became intrigued by the numerous Mexican expressions that include the word “madre.” It was not, however, what I had come to research. So I stowed this curiosity of mine away for a rainy day, while taking notes, just in case. Nevertheless, if confronted with the opportunity, I asked, repeatedly, anyone who was willing to answer: How can me vale madre mean worthless and ¡que padre! mean marvelous? Why does madre mean whore as much as virgin? Why can’t a bien educada woman in Mexico say the word madre without raising eyebrows? Finally, what does it mean (and what does it threaten) to be a female and, dare we say, a madre? I guess it was the feminist in me, along with the outsider-that-I-was, that led me to keep asking questions, accumulating answers, and writing the book.

Eventually, after many years of working and children, I decided that I wanted to write about this funny, yet dangerous, word that I had met almost twenty years earlier. This decision coincided with the desire to break out and write as a writer, to be personally engaged with the topic, much more than academic prose allowed. In the end, I feel that the creative non-fiction genre I chose to tell the story of this word contributed to revealing the truth in a way that third-person, academic prose would have failed. I was able to use it to capture the cadence, the rhythm, the iambic pentameters of madre’s predicament. Also, there exists a great irony in the field of linguistics, and that is this: the texts many linguists produce to explain how language works are often incomprehensible to non-linguists. I tried to overcome this and write to anyone who might listen. I used my mother, an educated woman, as well as my children (who were under 10 at the time) as well as friends (from all walks of life) as my guides. If they understood what I was trying to say, then I was probably on the right track, was my approach.

How did you choose the title?

Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun is a title that explains the book. I never thought it was a sexy title, but it is an honest one. Saying the word madre in the wrong place at the wrong time can—I’m not exaggerating—cause you great harm.

What obstacles did you encounter in getting this book published? How did you overcome them?

My first manuscript was rejected by six presses in New York. However, according to my agent, one of the rejections, which came from W.W. Norton, was a “good one.” I wasn’t sure what that meant. I was of the opinion that all rejections were, in a word, rejections. Rejections are not my cup of tea, either way, so I found myself moping around for a good year before I was able to sit down and rewrite the manuscript, which I did, with the help of friends. My agent resubmitted it to the editor in question, because, as it turned out, this rejecting editor had noted, at the time, how much she liked the way I wrote. She accepted it three years later; she oversaw its revisions; and she helped to bring the book into the world, for which I am enormously grateful.

How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?

I didn’t. I only knew I wanted to write. I used to write poetry when I was in high school, all on my own. I have kept diaries for decades. Many years later, I would fixate on finding the perfect word for an academic article. That’s when I suspected I was a writer.

Do you have any writing rituals?

If I lived alone, had another personality, and had the resources, I might. But as a single mother of twin girls who are only in elementary school, combined with being me, I can only write when my girls are asleep or not home (which means in school). So, in the wee hours of the morning before they wake or after they board the bus, I get to work. Of course, there are months that go by with no writing on my plate at all, because of the needs of my children, my house, my research project at Brown, my extended family, my friends. I would love nothing more than to be able to awake in the morning and just have one task: to write. But that belies my life, although it may describe that of others.

How do you come up with the names for your characters?

I have never written fiction, but I did have to use pseudonyms for two of my characters in Madre. I chose names that felt like their real names. I asked them how they liked them. They gave me their okay.

Did you learn anything from writing and publishing this book?

Oh yes. I learned a lot about writing, language, feminism, humor and sorrow. When I first started, I thought I knew all I needed to know to write the book, as I had been thinking about the topic for decades. But. as it turned out, I didn’t know enough. In fact, I’m not sure I knew much at all. I read like crazy; I researched relentlessly; I returned to live in Mexico for a final stretch of due diligence; I wrote and rewrote galore. In the process, I learned what it means to find a voice, to edit until you can’t edit anymore, to be clear, serious, humorous, to reach out to readers. Perhaps I would have learned that much earlier, if I had studied for an MFA in writing rather than a Ph.D. in anthropology. But, alas, I have the doctorate and not the MFA.

If you were doing it all over again, what would you do differently?

Maybe earn an MFA. Definitely, without a doubt, I would take the courses offered by Grace Paley and E.L. Doctorow and so many other distinguished writers who were at Sarah Lawrence when I was.

What types of books do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors? Why?

So very many authors are my favorites. Virginia Woolf is, perhaps, my most favorite. But Wallace Stegner is right up there, as is Milan Kundera. Tom Stoppard is utterly amazing, same for Barbara Kingsolver. And then there are poets, my favorites being Robert Frost, Mary Oliver, Lawrence Raab, Wallace Stevens, L.R. Berger, and Sharon Olds. Why? I’m not sure. Perhaps their use of the unexpected, their ability to find poetry in the quotidian, the way they employ language. I also love the works of authors in Maine. Because I know many of them, I can imagine them writing their books while I read them.

Are you working on your next book? What can you tell us about it?

I’m not working on my next book. I do have three or four ideas swimming around in my head. I’m hoping that one of them will appear to me in a dream as the one. Will it? Well, okay, then, appear to my pencil in my hand or run across my computer screen. I’m hoping it will appear sooner rather than later. I’m feeling guilty. I’m getting antsy.

What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?

Write to write, not to publish. Everyone says that. And it never feels perfect, because most of us want to publish what we write, that is only natural. Nevertheless, it is true as true can be. Write to write to write. If you are fortunate and you finish and a publishing house wants to publish you, then—here’s the bad news—work like a dog way before the book is launched to bring it as much attention as possible. My book, Madre, was slow out of the starting gate before picking up steam. This was in part because I did not understand the pace of marketing books. Academics are not sprinters by nature. We aren’t even runners.

Who is the perfect reader for your book?

A person interested in language and how it affects our lives as well as the lives of our friends, family and children.

Where can readers learn more about you and your book?

Here is my website: It’s the best place to start. I do have a facebook page, one for my book, another for me. I do teach on occasion, for the student in you.