On the Bookshelf: Red Dust Road and Using the Right Words

As those who read this blog know, I think a lot about language.   It’s been the subject of posts from time to time and even has its own tag.    It’s always been fascinating to me that we use the language of family all the time even though we don’t always have agreed upon meanings to the terms.   (I’m thinking of things phrases like “She’s like a sister to me.”)

Anyway, my ears always perk right up when I hear discussions of the language of family.  (And if I’m reading it, my eyes do whatever the equivalent is of perking up….what would that be?)

Yesterday I was listening to a podcast I subscribe to–it’s from the Guardian (UK) and is about books.  Someone (maybe Sarah Crown?) interviewed Jackie Kay, a poet and author who recently wrote a book called Red Dust Road  Kay was born to a Scottish Highlands mother and a Nigerian father and then adopted by a Highlands couple.   The book is about her search for her birth parents and the meaning her search had for her identity.   It really sounds terrific.  She’s a poet and is great with language.

In the course of her interview she mentioned her mother.  And then, sort of as an aside, she said something about how she always referred to the woman who gave birth to her as her “birth mother.”  The idea, I think, was that the modifier “birth”  cabined the otherwise broad sweep of the word “mother.”   The term “birth mother” was (for Kay) a descriptor.   (I’m inclined to want to write it as “birthmother” in order to convey what I think she meant.)

At the same time, Kay referred to the woman who raised her as “her mother.”  Simple, unmodified “mother” with all the scope and implicit weight of the term.   (I think she also referred to her as her “real mother”–but I’m doing this from memory and perhaps I added that.)   The unmodified “mother” is intended to invoke all of the images we carry about what it means to be a mother.

I’ve written in the past about mother and all its modifiers–birth mother, adoptive mother, lesbian mother, single mother and so on.   And I’ve been leery of using terms like “birth mother” because it seemed to me that implicit in that term is the statement that the woman is a sort of mother and, if I’m trying to figure out what a “mother” is in the first place, then this seems to only make things more clouded.

Kay’s way of using the terms really struck me–it opened up a new possibility to think about.   I’m not sure I can articulate this well, but I think Kay thinks of “birth mother” as a unified term–not as a modified sort of mother, but as a thing one can be that stands on its own.

I think I’d better stop.  I’m not sure I’m making sense.  But I do want to commend the podcast to you and you can bet I’ll be getting that book from the library.

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