wild seed, immigration, and the institution of motherhood
November 23, 2008 § 2 Comments
recently i read for the first time octavia butler’s wild seed. it is a brilliant novel. i have not been a huge fan of science fiction, but i decided to rectify my lack of sci fi experience by joining a book club (uhuru 2266) dedicated to reading sci fi and speculative fiction. recently i also read gretchen hunt’s article: immigration is a mother’s issue and i started to see how wild seed is exploring the same issues as immigrant mothers are.
Motherhood and immigration are intertwined. Some mothers leave their countries and their families for a better life for their children. Some come here seeking a better life, have children, and face all the challenges of being split-status families. Some stay behind, and only dream visions of what their children may experience so far from home. Yet the story of immigration, and the policy debates now circling around the topic are strikingly gendered, and ignore the reality of mothers and their children. So too do the writings and public conversations on motherhood often exclude the stories of immigrant mothers.
There is a word — peña — in Spanish that was once explained to me as summing up the feeling of pain, heartbreak and physical heaviness. Dictionaries define it as grief, but it has a more textured feeling, one that surfaces in more day-to-day speech. That’s the closest I can get to my feeling when I think of the three snapshots I have recounted above. Why do I share these? Because I believe these moments representing such sacrifice, ambivalence and hope of a world that welcomes the stranger as if s/he is our own child are moments that are missing from our current dialogues about motherhood.
both butler and hunt illuminate the intersections of motherhood and national boundaries. both the current immigration issue and wild see are narratives about freedom (or the lack thereof) to move. anywanyu, who is considered a ‘wild seed’, is a constant immigrant. her powers, to heal herself and others and to transform herself, allow her to survive by escaping and crossing boundaries. and the boundaries that are the most powerful in their ability to contain and enslave her are psychological and emotional, not physical ones.
and in both narratives women are seen by the ‘powers that be’ as ‘breeders’ whose bodies and sexuality must be controlled for the sake of nationhood. their bodies are seen as subservient to the cause of creating, maintaining and empowering the nation, especially the nation’s purity. these boundaries are enforced by violence.
but using physical violence against the bodies because of their ability to create life becomes an impossible task and so the more effective use of violence is emotional violence. these women, the imaginary and the immigrant, suffer immensely for the sake of the few privileges they can garner for their children.
the final scene from the film Maria Full of Grace. Seventeen year old Maria, while pregnant, smuggled in cocaine from Colombia as a mule, escaped the smugglers and certain violence, evaded Customs Enforcement, and she is standing in the airport with her friend, contemplating the trip back home. In a heavy moment, she turns, leaving her friend to walk into the sea of people and an uncertain life as a single mother, undocumented, in the United States. She will become another invisible face in the sea of undocumented persons in the US.
these women’s power to escape is through the bodies. anywanwu’s escape is through her ability to transform her body, to shift and hide, and become an immigrant once again.
at the end of the novel, anywanwu, the wild seed, gains a measure of freedom because doro realizes that he has to create a relationship with her that shifts the boundaries and that the boundaries cannot be maintained by violence.
and i believe that in the end the united states will have to learn at least what doro has learned-that controlling life through violence is isolating and the states will have to shift its own sense of nation, of power, of boundaries, and of the place and worth of the bodies that labor for its survival.