Why Sheila Heti explores the question of motherhood in her new novel

The author spoke with Shelagh Rogers about novel Motherhood.
Sheila Heti is the author of several books, including the novel Motherhood. (Malcolm Brown/Knopf Canada)
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Toronto-born writer Sheila Heti is a noted playwright and author of eight books of fiction and nonfiction whose work has been translated in over a dozen languages.

The unnamed narrator of Heti's Motherhood spends the novel preoccupied with a single, pressing question: should she have children? Searching for a satisfying answer, whether it ultimately be 'yes' or 'no,' the narrator consults her partner, her family and her body, breaking down the philosophical underpinnings of motherhood. It is currently on the longlist for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

A question of determination

"I was in my early 30s when I started writing this book. It was a conversation I found myself having with pretty much everybody I got into a conversation with. Do you have a child? Do you want to have a child? What's it like if you do — or what's it like if you don't?

"It was very much on my mind. I thought I was actually going to write this as a book of interviews. But over the years, it slowly changed into being one voice rather than a multitude of voices and from nonfiction toward fiction."

Leaving it to fate

"There's this device of throwing coins and getting a yes or a no depending on how they fall and the narrator asks questions and the coins tell her yes or no. It's like a way of talking to randomness-slash-God-slash-some other. Flipping a coin can tell you what answer you want, if you don't know."

Secret love

"I think you hear from a early age that that's going to be the central experience of your life — that you cannot be whole unless you're a mother and that there's some kind of mystical thing that happens to you when you become a mother. And if you don't do it, there's going to be regret. It's very hard to find your way through those messages to what you really want to do.

"The narrator's point of view is that wanting children or not is the greatest secret she keeps. But she doesn't want children more than she wants them. It feels like a secret because this not wanting isn't 100 per cent. There's a quality of mystery to it. What she's trying to uncover is how much of her desire for children is, as you say, the messaging that she gets as a woman and how much of it is an actual inborn desire. There's a desire to untangle all of these feelings so that she can make a conscious decision."

Sheila Heti's comments have been edited for length and clarity.


The 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize finalists

The winner will be announced on Nov. 19, 2018. Here's how you can tune into the broadcast.