In a same-sex and mixed-race relationship, award-winning Scottish journalist Chitra Ramaswamy says that it’s not uncommon for strangers to make her and partner Claire feel like their family, with a three-and-a half-year-old son, gets written out of existence by silly assumptions.
“When you are in a same-sex relationship and you embark on becoming a family, there’s all sorts of extra obstacles and hurdles and issues you have to overcome and it requires a lot of sensitivity and understanding and respect from people and often, sadly, you don’t get it,” she tells me over the phone from their home in Edinburgh.
From the very beginning of their journey towards pregnancy, a civil partnership had to be undergone, even before meeting a sperm donor, so that they would both be considered legal parents of the child they hoped to conceive. On the very day a pregnancy test kit delivered happy news in the shape of a little blue cross, fellow dog walkers traversing an ancient wooded hill stopped and spoke to only one of them about their rescue pup, as if the Staffie surely couldn’t belong to them both.
In a Britain changed forever by the unravelling and divisive path of Brexit, penning Expecting, The Inner Life of Pregnancy - out now from Text Publishing - felt like an exercise in visibility for Ramaswamy. “Writing at this moment, in this country about what I suppose the idea of a super-21st century family could look like, there’s a sense of social documentation about it, of standing up and saying, we are a family too,” she says.
Beautifully conceived in a nine-chapter structure pregnant with symbolic meaning, it’s a universal book that should appeal to anyone interested in the human condition, not just those who are expecting.
Drawing inspiration from her rapacious reading, Ramaswamy sought out signs of pregnant life in literature, and was surprised by how few novels closely examined such an important aspect of life. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Toni Morrison’s Beloved were all key texts, as was Sylvia Plath’s nine-lined poem Metaphors, written when Plath was pregnant with her first child.
“Each line has nine syllables and I loved that structurally, so I used it for Expecting because it felt like there was something so writerly and bookish about it,” Ramaswamy says. “I love the idea that the final chapter would be both a kind of a beginning and an end.”
The everyday language of pregnancy can sound a little strange once probed. Ramaswamy notes, “There’s something so kind of linguistically distant about language like ‘bump’, almost as though it’s separate from the woman, and this goes back centuries, both in language and thanks to religion and the way pregnancy and birth has always been medicalised as a sort of shame, of course because it happens as a result of intercourse.”
Expecting looks at how the evolution of language itself is explored inthe challenging “Oxen of the Sun” chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which progresses from Latinate prose to Dublin slang in lilting brogue as it depicts Mina Purefoy’s labour. Ramaswamy also examines the occasional terror and alien nature of pregnancy through Mary Shelley’s motherless monster in Frankenstein, haunted as that novel is by the death of two of Shelley’s children and of her mother, radical feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.
Ramaswamy’s final job before maternity leave involved a train trip down to London to interview lauded Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, evoking the opening and closing scenes of his much-loved movie All About My Mother. The book recalls the powerful line spoken by trans character Agrado, “You are more authentic the more you resemble what you’ve dreamed of being”.
Responding in Expecting, Ramaswamy says, “I had always dreamed of being a mother.” But even promoting the book came hand-in-hand with its own little disappearances and otherings. “I got asked to go on BBC Radio Scotland and one of the researchers phoned me up beforehand to prepare me with some of the questions they were going to ask and her first question was, ‘so how different was your pregnancy to a heterosexual pregnancy?’”
Ramaswamy laughs with exasperated disbelief when recalling the moment to me. “I was just like, ‘uhh, not different at all because I’m a woman.’ So what, you’re a complete alien? What was a bisexual, mixed-race pregnancy like? Any person in a same-sex relationship experiences all manner of stupid questions like that.”
Now pregnant with their second child, Ramaswamy hopes that readers will find solace in Expecting’s more philosophical musing on what it means to bring new life into the world. “While I was pregnant, it just felt so sort of inescapable and universal, that idea that this had proceeded all of our existences, whether we are women, men, trans, pregnant, never intending to have children, whatever,” she says.
“The actual meat and two veg of pregnancy is really about day-to-day joys and fears and anxieties and confusion, many of which are unspoken and many of which are obscured in shame and metaphor.” Ramaswamy adds. “It would be amazing if people read this book and understood that it’s not just prurient dinner party chat. It’s people’s lives, isn’t it?”
Expecting, the Inner Life of Pregnancy is out now from Text Publishing.