Gender Roles and Other Baggage You Get from Your Mom
Sara Taylor’s ‘The Lauras’ follows an agender teen and their mother on a road trip across the U.S.
What ties together the friendships that we mythologize with memory? In the case of the mother of the protagonist in Sara Taylor’s new novel, The Lauras, there’s something concrete: in a series of meaningful friendships from her youth, all the women were named Laura. Fleeing an unhappy marriage, she packs up Alex and they begin an odyssey across the United States to retrace the meaningful people and places of her youth.
Narrating this saga is Alex, who doesn’t identify as male or female, a teenager coming of age in an unconventional manner, living between motels and month-to-month rentals, sporadically enrolled in school as their mother works at dive bars and diners to fund the journey. Alex struggles with social perceptions, solitude, and sexuality, and as they travel around the country, they encounter far more of both the joys and disturbances of America than the average teenager.
Over email, Sara and I talked about social performance of gender and culture, America’s weird attitude toward sexuality, and the insidious nature of controlling access to information.
Becca Schuh: At the end of the first chapter, the narrator, Alex, talks about their mother not knowing how to act American or act female. The nature of performance, of both culture and gender, continues to be a theme throughout the book. What inspired you to take this lens on social performance?
Sara Taylor: My mother is an immigrant, whose own mother was not always present to pass on the secrets of femininity while she was growing up. I remember listening in as a child as she got friends to explain things — how you French braid hair, what kind of food you make for a cookout — that everyone else seemed to just know. Not knowing herself, she wasn’t always able to teach me, and so for the longest time I thought that being female, and acting American, came naturally to everyone else and I was just bad at it.
When I moved to England I had the privilege of observing culture without the expectation that I’d perform correctly. Watching women presenting a more formal version of femininity than I’d seen in America, and figuring out a different set of rules of social interaction, I realized that both things were learned, both were performative, that neither were inborn traits. Being foreign allowed me to fail in my participation of both to some extent, but for everyone else performing gender and culture correctly seemed mandatory, their approach and success determining their degree of belonging, and therefore what opportunities were open to them. After thinking about it for so long, The Lauras seemed as good a place as any to start exploring the idea of social performance more concretely.
BS: Alex begins the book without close friends and these struggles are only exacerbated as they move around the country, without much time in each place to form interpersonal bonds. What interested you about creating a protagonist who had so little peer to peer influence?
ST: One of the things that I wanted to explore while writing the book was the sense of isolation that comes of not belonging, in Ma’s case because of cultural differences, and in Alex’s, gender presentation. The other was the sort of baggage that surrounds the relationship between a parent and a child when both of them start to grasp that the other is a fully realized person who is neither defined nor limited by their relationship. Both instances demand a degree of separation from other characters.
On a completely different level: there are many books about adolescent friendships, or adolescents who long for friendships, but not many which feature young people who lack close friendships and yet are content within themselves. I’ve known many people who grew up with minimal peer interaction and who were content being alone with themselves, and wanted to take the opportunity to portray that character.
BS: At one point Alex says that their reluctance to be tied to a gender identity had something to do with parental allegiance: “Because in my mind that’s what they were asking, do you want to grow up to be like your mom or dad?” I hadn’t thought of gender identity as relating to parents in that way before, but it makes total sense. Could you talk about that a little more?
ST: The first brush with gender that I remember involves being told that the world was grouped into mothers and fathers, and that I was like my mother, while my newborn brother was like my father. And even though it wasn’t so often explicit, a lot of the gender lessons I was taught continued in that vein: I was given play makeup, and plastic heels, a vinyl purse, and a baby doll because I belonged to the same group as my mother. Refusing these was read less as a rejection of the toys I’d been given than a rejection of the sameness between us; people didn’t say, “don’t you want to wear makeup?” they said, “don’t you want to be like your mom?” And all of the kids around me seemed to have had it explained, and to understand it, in those terms. Gender wasn’t male and female, it was mothers and fathers, and no matter how closely you identified with your opposite sex parent, we were all told that we were fated to grow up to be a version of our same sex parent. Most of us seemed pretty ok with that, but I remember not being the only one who was certain that I’d grow up to be the other gender, because I was more similar to the parent who I’d been told I had the least in common with.
There are more sophisticated ways of conceiving of gender, but putting it in one of the most essential ways I felt was more natural to how Alex would express the question.
BS: Obviously the name “Laura” has a huge significance throughout the book, and I loved this passage in particular: “You try to get the new Laura to fill the hole the old Laura left. And when you get older it doesn’t matter that you know things don’t work like that, because your ears will be primed and your heart will beat faster at the sound of that name.” Did you have an experience in your life that inspired this passage and the mother’s path with the women named Laura in her life?
ST: Unfortunately (or not) the answer is pretty pedestrian. When I was a child I lived next door to a girl named Laura, with whom I was extremely close until we moved away, when I was eight years old. When I got to college it seemed like every woman I met there was named Laura, or Lauren, or some other variation of the name. The more I got to know those Lauras the more surprised I was that, even though they were each very different people, there was a quality about them, and a feeling they elicited in me, that reminded me of the Laura I’d known as a child. It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out that what I’d felt was the odd closeness of female friendship, which I hadn’t experienced much of since leaving that first Laura behind.
BS: At one point, Alex’s mother says, “If I could do one thing for you, kiddo, I’d make it so you didn’t want. Not that you had everything that you could want, but that you never feel the feeling of ‘want.’ That you could get along without it.” Do you agree with that idea?
ST: Masochistically, I love the sensation of anticipatory wanting, almost more than I do of actually fulfilling that wanting. My mother, as mothers do, doesn’t get it, and she’s said to me before that she absolutely hates having to see her kids longing for things they can’t have, either material or abstract.
If you only had one wish and wanted to spend it on making sure your child never suffered, “I wish they were freed from want” is a pretty good way to phrase it: Pain is just a condition of wanting relief, hunger a condition of wanting food, loneliness of wanting love. I understand the urge to be free of want, and I understand the desire for someone you love to be free of want, but I feel like being free mutes the feelings of being human. But again, I’m a masochist; the Buddhists and stoics I know would probably disagree.
BS: Throughout hearing about the mother’s past, we get a lot of interesting insight on the intersections of religion and sexuality. That’s obviously a centuries long conflict — how do you think that’s reflected in current culture?
ST: I’m not sure I can really say. I grew up in a conservative Christian environment, in the American south, both of which have religious and sexual hang-ups of their own. I didn’t realize quite how hung up on sex America is, and how closely it is tied to religion, until I came to England, where it wasn’t just my peers, but their parents and grandparents, who didn’t seem to think that sexual expression was a big deal, and similarly seemed to think that it was a personal, rather than moral and religious issue.
I think that the degree to which popular culture seems to be saturated with sex is less a product of our having transcended a repressive or religious past as it is a sign that we are still effected by it, and that Christian attitudes towards sex are so tightly woven into the fabric of American culture that we no longer realize that they are there.
BS: In the chapters where Alex’s mother helps Anna-Maria escape her impending marriage, I was particularly creeped out by the idea of her fiancé controlling the books she read. Do you think that the effort to control someone’s information intake is a form of abuse?
ST: This might be one of my pet soapboxes…
One of the most disturbing hypothetical situations I can think of is one in which Person A needs to make a choice, and Person B restricts the information available to Person A about the implications of that choice in such a way that Person A can only reasonably choose the action that Person B wants them to choose. If you add a patina of benevolence — Person B only manipulates Person A because they want what they know is best for Person A — it only becomes more horrifying. Put in abstract terms, it is easy to see how this is a violation of Person A’s free will, and the fact that it is a method of exerting control, and therefore a form of abuse, is clear.
But once it’s mapped onto real life situations the distinctions seem to become muddied. A not insignificant part of the thesis I recently finished deals with the question of how restricting adolescents’ access to information impacts the quality of the education they receive. A lot of the arguments in favor of restriction are based on the idea that if teens are given limited information it will compel them to make the ‘right’ choices, and that the good of the youths concerned outweighs any violation of their rights. But benevolence is no substitute for rights, and despite all of the arguments in favor of controlling access to information, yes, I do think it is a form of abuse, and that it’s a form that’s incredibly insidious because it can have such an impact on a person, and because it doesn’t read as abuse to people outside the situation who would intervene if the dynamic were more apparent.