S T E P H A N I E L I M B
i n t e r v i e w
COMP: Thanks so much for allowing us to publish “The Force of the Imagination.” It’s a gutsy, unforgettable essay. How did this project develop? Is it an extension of your extraordinary prose pamphlet, My Coleridge (Broken Sleep Books, 2019)?
Stephanie Limb: This essay comes from a book I’m working on. I’m aiming for a novel, told through essays, about motherhood and monstrosity. I’m interested in uncovering narratives of motherhood that challenge the ideal of the symbiotic mother-child couple, which is something I began to do in My Coleridge. When I began this project, I thought I’d be using Medea to explore the ambivalence of motherhood, but I’ve found that Pasiphaë (and the Minotaur) have recurred throughout. The project is definitely an extension of my pamphlet; looking back at My Coleridge, Pasiphae is there, in Sara Coleridge’s heavy use of laudanum during pregnancy, which potentially led to miscarriages and baby deaths. What interests me most in the story of Pasiphae is the question of who the ‘monster’ is. The mother’s monstrous desires lead to the birth of a ‘monster’. Is the mother, or the child, the monster? Who decides? Pasiphae didn’t choose to have sex with a bull; she was cursed and sent mad with desire. Sara Coleridge didn’t choose to keep taking laudanum; she became addicted to a drug that was prescribed to treat her postpartum anxiety and insomnia. The only ‘monster’ that I can see in the story of Pasiphae (if we’re taking the term ‘monster’ as a criticism) is the labyrinth: the structures and systems that trap mother and child. I’m also looking at the term ‘monster’ from all angles and what monstrous births meant throughout history. Monster derives from the same root word as demonstrate and before the birth of embryology, monstrous births were seen as portents. In my book ‘monstrous’ mothers demonstrate: they speak about their ambivalence. I’ve tried to use the idea of monstrosity, as a form of demonstration, in my approach. This means there is no getting away from being ‘gutsy’: I’ve got to embrace truth telling.
COMP: We love how you move between the personal and the critical, the past and the present, fiction and nonfiction. How do you decide where and when an essay might make such radical moves?
Stephanie Limb: Someone read an essay of mine recently and commented that when I’ve been very candid, I quickly retreat to theory, facts or quotes by other writers. Their point was that I hide behind these other writers and cling to them for cover. I think it was a fair point and in my first drafts, I probably do use quotations and references to give myself respite. But as I redraft my work, I’m thinking less about giving me a break from this relentless baring of myself; I’m thinking more about the reader. I think the reader sometimes needs a break from the frank, candid and personal reflections. The reader also sometimes needs a break from dense critical material. The pandemic has altered the way I write. I write in a much more fragmented way, since all of the pressures and distractions that came with writing through a pandemic. But I’ve tried to embrace this fragmentary style, rather than seeing it as a weakness. I’ve started to chop my essays up with scissors and move the fragments around on the kitchen table. Sometimes this helps me to see what I’m actually writing about; sometimes it makes me see where the critical is best illuminated by the personal (or the other way around). It’s quite good fun and there’s something satisfying about physically moving the pieces around – it feels like actual graft. When I’m done, I stick it it together and then rewrite it. I also run drafts by other writers, but there is no exact science to the decisions; it’s more on what feels right.