Ceridwen Dovey and Eliza Bell on the absurdity of motherhood

Ceridwen Dovey and Eliza Bell collaborated to create a genre-defying work about motherhood.

Ceridwen is a writer based in Sydney. She’s the author of several acclaimed works of fiction (Blood KinOnly the AnimalsIn the Garden of the FugitivesLife After TruthOnce More With Feeling) and non-fiction (On J.M. Coetzee: Writers on Writers and Inner Worlds Outer SpacesThe Working Lives of Others). Her non-fiction essays have been published by newyorker.com, the Smithsonian Magazine, WIREDVogue, the Monthly and Alexander, among many others. She’s the recipient of an Australian Museum Eureka Award, and the 2020 and 2021 UNSW Press Bragg Prize for science writing.

Eliza is a teacher, writer and theatre actor, originally from America and now living permanently in Australia. Her theatre performances include: The Memory of WaterA Midsummer Night’s DreamNew JerusalemThe Accident, Charles Mee’s Snow in JuneDonnie Darko and Three Sisters. She trained at Studio Magenia Ecole de Mime in Paris and the Moscow Art Theatre, UC Berkeley and the ART Institute at Harvard University.

Ceridwen has appeared on The Garret twice before, and you can listen to her interview from 2018 here, and her interview from 2020 here.

Ceridwen Dovey and Eliza Bell on the absurdity of motherhood


ASTRID: Welcome back to The Garret, Ceridwen, and welcome, Eliza.

CERIDWEN: Thank you.

ASTRID: Now, you have both co-written a new book, Mothertongues. It is a work that deliberately defies classification, and it even comes with its own soundtrack, which I think must be a first in Australia. This is clearly part of absurdist literature, but I feel ill-equipped to describe Mothertongues in all its glory. Can you please introduce Mothertongues to our audience?

CERIDWEN: So it's basically impossible to do it, and I mean, Astrid, you know I've written some pretty weird stuff in the past, but yeah, this one probably takes the cake in terms of being one of those things that, generally, as we've been working on the project over many years, every time we've told someone about it, I see a look of kind of panic kind of cross their face, and immediately, I stopped talking. But now that it exists in its final form, I think it was just such a relief to actually... I've never felt that before, like usually, when the book comes, I feel really ill and terrible and sick and I never want to look at it again. There was definitely an element of that, and Eliza felt that herself like when she opened up the box of books, felt this wave of self-disgust and texted me and was like, ‘Is this normal?’ I was like, ‘Yep, it's official. You're a writer’.

But this time, it was just tempered by something else, which was wonderful for me, which was just that this thing that was impossible to describe as we were working on it. Now, it did exist in the world and people could experience it and make of it what they would.

So that hasn't answered your question at all, but I guess we have been trying to fight to have it called bio-autofiction. So, a work of experimental bio-autofiction. That sounds a bit off putting, I realise, but the reason we really wanted to have all of that in that phrase is because we were aware that it was going to get tagged straight away as memoir, because it has themes about motherhood And certainly, talking about the book, there are elements in which we've drawn in our own lives, but the point of the co-writing was that we were going to play with not only our own experiences, but the others and shape self and other together, and that was in that kind of dialogue that we might be able to say something fresh about these things.

So, it's experimental bio-autofiction work that explores early motherhood, and at times, bursts into song as a way of expressing a different way of feeling, and in the audio book version, the songs are interspersed throughout the recorded version, and if you're reading the physical book, there's a QR code at the front of the book that you can scan, and then we kind of just kept the songs in the physical book as poems. They are there on the page as poems, and there's a little musical note next to them, and we really want to just leave it open to people to decide if they want to listen to the song at that particular point in the text, or if they kind of just have the album on in the background, if they were reading and just meet the book wherever they want to meet it.

ASTRID: I think Mothertongues is going to stand out. If a book seller ever tries to put it next to other books about early motherhood in that section of the bookstore, and that is a good thing because sometimes they get very, very generic and a little bit meaningless.

You have deliberately done something different at all levels. It's not only the collaboration, but it's also the structure and the playing with form and the deliberate way of not going in a linear narrative like we are all trained to expect when we pick up a book. Before we kind of dive into the mechanics of that, I wanted to ask about the practicalities of your collaboration. It's hard, right? I'm going to guess. This was made harder by the fact that it is written as you were experiencing and chronicling away motherhood

CERIDWEN: Very much. So I don't know if I would say that the difficulty of it was the main experience for me. When you first asked us that first question and we had that big pause afterwards, that to me is like, ‘That's been the story of making this book’. It's like, ‘Pause. Think about it. Pause. Are you still there?’ That sort of feeling of like a conversation that dips in and out kind of your life, of all the other things, the whole fabric of life. It's just it's woven into all of that. You surface and then there's something happening and then you dive back down into something different.

I think for both of us, we were both at a slightly different phase in the mothering, and I have never wanted to write anything about being a mum because it just seemed really cringey to me and arrogant to think that I would have anything interesting to say, and it was really only in meeting Eliza, and we met at the school gate when our older sons were starting Kindy and Eliza had a newborn. So, she was fresh back in that newborn experience. I had a big gap between the two, and I had a sort of older toddler and then a Kindy kid, and it was in that moment of meeting.

I remember it so well because, actually, the first few minutes of meeting, we established that we'd most likely both had our babies in the same room. We both were at the local public hospital. They've got this amazing midwife group, and we figured out that we'd probably birthed the second babies in the same room. So we've gone from that…

ELIZA: We have the same midwife, I think. Didn't we think we both had Robbie the midwife?

CERIDWEN: Yes. We may even had the same midwife. We did have the same midwife. That's right. Right. Robbie. Yeah. We went from that shared experience of this like the most embodied form of becoming a mother to immediately talking about Eliza's career as a theatre actor in New York, and so then as the relationship evolved and the friendship evolved, we were always kind of doing that. We would discover some strange thing we had in common in a physical sense in terms of the mothering. So not to overshare, but we both had anal fissures after giving birth for the first time, and I mean, like we're in a living hell of that and, but didn't know each other at the time.

So, we would sort of overshare that physical detail, but then in the next breath, we'd be talking about the place of vacation. Eliza would've been with her students at a theatre thing the night before, and I was very interested in her take on those sorts of things. and so it was, I think, rare to find that like, often, when you are making friends with other mums in that intense phase, you're thrown together with people that you have very little in common with other than that you both happen to be mothers, which is not always enough to hold together a friendship.

CERIDWEN: It was this kind of feeling of meeting a friend who could go to any place that we needed to go, body, mind, or soul, and then Eliza one day mentioned that she felt like she was living in Motherhood the Musical. Is that how you first said it? I always get that wrong.

ELIZA: Yeah. Yeah, I think so. You asked me how I was doing and I just like, ‘I don't know. I just feel like I'm in Motherhood the Musical’. I think I remember saying that. It just was this sense of being like... It's just like a bit cringey or cheesy or over the top, or like all this energy and kind of, ‘Here I am, and this is me and I'm doing this thing and like all the lights are on me’. It just felt performative and fake like not... Anyway. So that became this sort of metaphor for the thing about having to show up in your life and play this role as this mother.

ELIZA: I guess, I mean, in your own family sometimes, but really like out in the world as this mother, and the most natural place to have to play that part is the school gate. I felt like it was really special that's where we made this connection. Because that became then a wonderful... Like a safe space or something where it was not actually this thing of like competing with the other moms or kind of having a inauthentic experience of community in that way. It was a real, authentic, beautiful connection and a dropping of the…


ELIZA: Yeah, losing that whole burden and being able to sort of walk on these like unsteady new legs of like mother of two, who is both seeing it in a new way and sort of seeing what was happening with that performance stuff, but also able to inhabit that when I chose to, more freely.

CERIDWEN: When you mentioned the Motherhood the Musical – ‘I feel like I'm living in Motherhood the Musical’ – I also have this memory that Eliza said, and I maybe said, ‘Oh, you should write that’. Then you said, ‘I am actually keeping a scrap list of things that I don't know what to do with’. I just said, ‘Well, you should write it’. Then we began to just kind of, I don't know. I think, first, I hounded you to write it and then…

ELIZA: I thought you were joking, and then I was scared to death because I was like, ‘Oh’. I mean, I love to write. I've always loved to write, but I've never tried to make a thing in writing, if that makes sense, and so I loved the idea, but I didn't have any idea how to do that, how to write a book. I mean, let alone capture anything about this particular topic, but yeah, it was definitely in the like unimaginable task basket.

Buut as soon as you said, ‘Oh, we're doing this together. This is you and me together. It's a conversation that we're having in writing or we're going to play and we're going to see what happens. It will reveal to us what it is’. That made sense to me because I feel like that's more of a theatre approach like collaborating, devising, making something together from nothing. That says something about the experience of being human, but it has a multiplicity of perspective that made a lot of sense to me. I was all in after that.

CERIDWEN: It made sense to me too, because it was the framing, and I think it was that sense of stepping outside of your own life and looking at it from a distance that it made me realise, ‘Oh, okay, there's something we can do here in a formal way that is going to be different, and then from there, I could see how we could do it’. I also loved the fact that then, when we began to play to try to generate content and figure out what was going to be, we quite literally use sort of theatre games.

So we would try and get together on a Sunday and put on a movie for the kids and then we'd play games and do all these weird monologues at each other and like put our birth stories in each other's mouths and then voice it back at each other or we'd do drawings and then try and tell stories, and so it was this playful, very joyful experience of creating, which was so different to how writing often works, where you are alone in a room for a very long time, and so for that reason, it was just wonderful.

ASTRID: As a reader, it felt like the friendship between the two of you and the friendship on all levels, intellectual, emotional, everything feels very strong, and so I'd like to talk to you about point of view. There are sections where it feels like it's probably you, Eliza. There are sections where I think it's you, but there are sections where I couldn't guess, and I wouldn't want to guess, and that's the whole point. How did you decide where your personal boundaries were that you didn't want to share with the world, even though you're talking about such intensely private things sometimes?

CERIDWEN: That's such a good question, and pretty early on, we made a... It wasn't a pact, but we realised for it to work, we had to let go of the notion that, ‘Oh, that's your bit, and this is my bit, or Oh, okay. That's...’ As if there was sort of like some sort of, I don't know, ownership of the words, and so we made a kind of informal rule that then played out over the years that piece had to go back and forth between us many times, and then when we could turn it on its head, we would... So not to purposefully confuse people, but to try and get closer to sort of merging of things.

Also, the other thing we realised very early on was that where that boundary was for each of us in terms of the stuff that we were going to cannibalise in autofiction aspect of things was very different, and in the book, the act one, the mother figures, and then many of them are alone and they're not in conversation really with anyone else, and then gradually, through act two and then interact three, we bring in the relationship between the figures of the two women and they begin to have actual dialogue.

There's a mention of Eliza as this muse and that the muse as a kind of figure of inspiration and then this conversation, that same scene around the different limits that we had and whether she wanted to name her children in the book, and then so yeah, really early on, we sort of established that we were going to be comfortable doing different things there, and what was really great about that is that I knew I couldn't do that stuff. It was just not available to me, or I don't know. I don't know what it was, but Eliza was prepared to process some of the personal stuff.

What was interesting to me was to sort of zoom out more and look more at the historical picture and the idea of what is captured or archived of mothering experiences from the past, and then using that as a justification for why we've bothered to pull together all these ephemera and put it into a book between two covers, and to me, that was really wonderful because it meant that the book can do both without me having to do both, and so in that way, that's how... I really admired and respected that Eliza was prepared to go there. We had many, many conversations about that like, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure? Are you sure?’

You were so brave and always being sure that you needed and wanted to process that stuff, and wonderfully, it's all worked out pretty well.

ELIZA: I mean, my first thought when you asked the question was that there are a couple sections that are drawn from the life of one of us. But I can't remember who it is anymore, genuinely, like there's some mention of a grandparent. I can't remember which one, but I'm like, ‘I don't remember. I think it's yours, but it's also very true of mine, and I can't remember where the idea came from originally’. As you said, nothing is really yours or mine anymore because it's all been quite changed.

Some characters that our daughters in the book are based on, sons in real life or vice versa. There's a lot of blending of the self and the other, which I really like, and I think is, for me, it's not about hiding behind like some, ‘Well, who is it? Which one of us could it be?’ It's not wanting to claim it. It's more about the fact that we create meaning together. We have this collaborative meaning making that we do, I think often among women friends anyway, where we sort of talk and talk over each other and shame yes, and build on one another.

But also, as parents, as people who are conveying culture through generations, there is a real like, ‘We're totally rolling this all up into one big snowball that's just got all kinds of things mushed together’, and that felt more of an authentic expression of motherhood than anything else that I could think of doing.

CERIDWEN: It's the incoherence and the stop-start nature of it too that, very early on, and the fragmentary nature of it, we were worried it would, I don't know, be too much of an ask of readers, and then gradually, I think as we eased into it, we began to realise it represents on the page exactly the experience of mother time in the moment. You hardly ever in any kind of flow and you go from cerebral to body to soul to the most kind of banal stuff, and it doesn't ever feel like it's adding up to anything or making any sense, and the mother that you are in any particular day, let alone in any year changes a gazillion times.

Well, once we found the book, the Mask of Motherhood, which I literally did find in the second-hand street library, that really helped as well because it brought all those themes that we were already using by putting the lens of absurdism and flipping on its head and saying, ‘Oh, none of those absurdist plays were ever designed to speak about this experience in motherhood’. Similarly, none of epic poetry by Homer was ever designed really to think about the experiences in motherhood. But if we inhabit those discourses and put the mother as the main figure, they still somehow weirdly make sense.

So it is both critique and tribute to those forms because it's helping us. It's just giving us another lens into motherhood. We keep coming at it from all these different angles and that first section about the search for form, and I think by the end, you realise that there is no right way or no one lens through which we can actually see it clearly.

ASTRID: As an avid reader and as someone who has potentially spent too much time reading the Classics, I deeply enjoyed the symbolism and the role of Odyssea, one of the mothers in this work, and also, your discussion about... Your exploration and kind of teasing out that, typically, male structure of a beginning, a middle with a great big climax, and then a quick end where nothing much happens afterwards, and every single page of this work, Mothertongues, rejects that and does it in a completely different way, which I found as a reader, liberating and refreshing because I couldn't stay in the way my mind has been trained as a reader. You didn't take me where I had to go. You took me where it felt like you should take me, which sometimes was in circles, but that was immeasurable.

CERIDWEN: Yeah, most of the time in circles or labyrinth, if we want to keep with the epic themes of...

ASTRID: Well, moving from epic, I want to talk about Siri and Alexa. They are two AI programs who exist in our real world, but they are also characters, maybe avatars, in Mothertongues. It was some of my favourite sections. Can you talk to me about Siri and Alexa?

ELIZA: Those sections came from some real text messages that we worked from, and then they took on a life of their own. Ceridwen has written about AI before. That has appeared in some of her other work. She's just got this sort of sense about that whole world, and I totally, at first didn't see it, but then there was this moment of just real appreciation for the ways that we, again, that mask, the neutral, the artificial, and the authenticity kind of clashing against each other and jamming into each other in an interesting way. I don't know. I ended up loving it as well.

CERIDWEN: Yeah, and the idea of all of these AI systems are always given female voices that they can never be embodied, and really, it was just a kind of a way of alienating ourselves from the material. I think, probably, the guiding kind of thing that we kept doing every time we got stuck or we felt like, ‘Oh God, is this just boring? What is this material?’ We would try and find another way or another layer to add to it that would make alienated from its original source material, and so I think that's originally where that came from.

There were all these different conversations we were having with different friends, but that just didn't quite work. I think, originally, we did have it as just ordinary women, unnamed women, and it was only in that turn to making it weird, I suppose, and kind of embracing the weirdness of that and the strangeness… And actually, in the audio book, this wonderful actor who did the voice work for the whole book, she actually does it in the voices, the perfect voices of Siri and-

ELIZA: Oh great, Alexa.

CERIFWEN: She nails it. So I think, particularly, that works well in the audio book because it's deeply strange to hear Siri and Alexa who are familiar to us now from, we live with them, speaking about childbirth and bleeding from every orifice that they have and having terribly sore and bleeding nipples, and it's strange, and it just makes you kind of look at it with new eyes, and I suppose that's what we were constantly trying to do. It's never just sliding back into the... I don't know, not the ordinary, but yeah. Keep making it strange at every turn.

ASTRID: I've read most of your other work, Ceridwen, and it made me think of a discussion we previously had about the letter form in novels, and this kind of felt like you were updating that through text messages, essentially, which is how they kind of sometimes read on the page. What responses are you getting so far from readers?

CERIDWEN: We've had some wonderful comments from early readers, and I've been so touched because it's like starting a conversation with readers that you have some intention about but you don't know what they're going to think, and there's just been some curiosity and some warmth that I'm not sure I counted on because of how strange the book is and how potentially confusing it could be, and yeah, it's been really just incredible. People are interested in hit the process, I think, because of having two authors, that's new. We're sort of from many people.

That's one part of it, but there's also just the, ‘Oh my gosh, this is like... All of it feels true’. As odd as it is, it's like many people who are mothers have said, ‘Yep, get it completely’.

ELIZA: And they've said they feel seen, which no one's ever said to me about anything I've ever written before. So that blew me away that something so experimental could still... It's very moving to just... This is just close friends. So maybe they're just telling us what we want to hear, but that hasn't always been the case in the past. So I trust that people actually do tell you what they really feel, and the other thing that I've realised is that people have no idea.

I thought, ‘Oh, of course, everybody knows that it's tough going and that no one escapes from this process unscathed’. But I hadn't quite realised until some close friends sort of read or listened to the book and then have shared stuff that happened to them that... I'm talking 10 years ago now like our oldest son's a 10, and years and years ago, where I had no idea that they were going through that and I overshared a bit so they probably knew some of the stuff I was going through, but they were kind of going back and processing. But the very nicest comment that I've had is from a friend who said, ‘You're good witches’. I was like, ‘Yeah, thank you. Thanks. That's the highest form of compliment’.

ASTRID: That absolutely works. Now that it is out in the world and... This is a personal creation that you have co-created. It's out there now. What has changed for you, if anything, upon its release into the world?

ELIZA: I don't know. I'm enjoying it. I'm really enjoying having the conversations with people around, I don't know, what their thoughts are. I don't feel like pressing anyone for their opinions, but what has changed for me is I suppose the idea that this could be something that people understand and feel… I don't know, alignment with or something. It says something, captures something of someone's experience. I really did not feel sure that anybody would feel that way about it. Right? But this odd little creature. But has resonance and that's been lovely.

CERIDWEN: I think, for me, it's changed... I always joke with the Eliza that instead of failing alone, we are going to fail together. Sorry, and I know you hate the word fail, but writing literary fiction of any kind these days is the highest form of failure, really, because we are writing in a time where we're saturated with story, and the fact that anybody would read one particular book, or have the time, make the time is a kind of crazy thought. What's wonderful is not having to do this alone.

In a way, that was like the point of the whole project, and we did our first little event last night just at the local bookstore. So sort of at the road from where we live and Keppie came and did a live acoustic performances of three of the songs and we had a chat and we did readings and, oh, it was so nice not doing that alone, and all of the anxieties and bad habits I've developed over many years of doing this, many of them very kind of toxic and maladapted. Yeah. Going through it with Eliza is just really nice because, yeah, you have a kind of way of doing things that's graceful and calm.

CERIDWEN: That just makes it much more fun for me.

ELIZA: Yeah. Thank you. I mean, I think you're... I don't know what's going on under the surface. You're like the duck who's like calm, and then underneath, it's like little working hard maybe, but yeah, you seemed awfully graceful to me as well.

CERIDWEN: Yeah, no, that's…

ELIZA: That was pretend. Okay.

ASTRID: You are both wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing Mothertongues with the world and for talking with me today.

ELIZA: Thank you.

CERIDWEN: Yeah. Thanks, Astrid. Thanks for all your support for the project and for books in general.