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Kitchen Table Theory: On Writing, Kitchen Tables, Motherhood and Time

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There is magic in creating something good in an often wretched world. Writers can do that; reaching into their imaginations, grasping wisps of goodness where there is little or none in the world around them. Helena Maria Viramontes says, "There is strength in this when none is left in the soul." (1)

I was raised on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, my parents' farm located between the small cities of Cut Bank and Browning. Viramontes was raised in East L.A. I had a family of six, three younger brothers myself and our parents. Our house was lively and overwhelming; brim-filled with friends and relatives, sleeping on couches and floors. Viramontes came from a family of eleven. She, too, lived in a household which extended couches and floors to the wayward who stopped by, some of whom were relatives who had crossed the border.

My early life was shaped significantly by two things. The first is me, slouched at a kitchen table, enamored by stories our various friends, relatives and visitors would tell. I was enthralled by these stories. The laughter. The sadness. The pure entertainment. The other was my mother. Milling around the household, cooking, cleaning, picking my brother and me up from school for lunch; she was boundless. It is still difficult for me to realize that, at the time, she was younger than I am now. Helena Maria Viramontes was shaped by similar circumstances. She remembers late night kitchen meetings in which everyone in the household played cards and talked. Like me, she was fascinated by these tales. Like me, she also yearned to be one of those who would regale others with her own stories someday. She, too, recalls her mother. Her energy. Her kindness. And her cooking.

I mention this because writers often have the same or similar types of inspiration.

Reading her essay, "Nopalitos": The Making of Fiction", was in some ways like looking in a mirror. I have long felt that minorities shared interrelated themes with each other. This is probably why an American Indian farm boy from a reservation in Montana can have a similar background to a Hispanic woman from East Los Angeles. I think it is important to consider that minorities in general, even men, share similar interrelated themes with women. However for now, I'd like to focus solely on how these themes impact women, specifically minority women. In particular, there are three themes that significantly resonate in the lives of minority women, all of which Viramontes touches on in her essay. [i] These are the kitchen table, mothers/motherhood and time.

In my opinion, Viramontes' central argument in her essay is that a woman's imagination is too important to stifle; that historically women, in particular, minority women, have been isolated from entering the public debate on most topics. She specifically notes that women have always been considered the weaker sex which conflates with having a weaker mind. Traditionally, women were characterized as having nothing to say, they had an important voice but it was stifled. And now in contemporary times, they are finding the creative means and opportunities to express it. This concept of a woman's creativity runs consistent with the three themes I mentioned earlier.

Muskokee Indian poet, Joy Harjo writes:

"The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat
to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table".

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to
be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers" (2)

Like Viramontes, the concept of the kitchen table is important to Harjo. It is where the action is, adults gossip, tell the news, eat and mold children into adults much like themselves. Notice how Harjo correlates the kitchen table with life. "We must eat to live." The kitchen table is essential. Without it, there would be no existence. The world ends here. Meanwhile, Viramontes has a concept of the kitchen table which is twofold. First, it holds that same special appeal to her. This was the place she first heard those wonderful stories. Good fiction. She says, "I began my apprenticeship without knowing it." I imagine this is where she does quite a bit of her writing, her thinking. However, the kitchen table does pose a problem. With the kitchen table comes responsibility. As a woman, that means cooking, household duties and a certain sense of servitude; the type which can stifle imagination. While important in shaping her as a storyteller, a kitchen table can also conjure up feminine stereotypes. There is a conflict there.

Similarly, motherhood is significant and conflicting to Viramontes. Her mother was an important role model. She notes her father for his "oppressive cruelty" and her mother as a symbol of everything good. She seems impressed by her mother's innovation, especially with food. Her mother had to feed eleven people, if not more, every night. She did this on a limited budget, "adding this and that" and apparently was able to create a great variety of dishes. Creativity is not limited in its scope, there are all kinds of ways for one to show innovation. While her mother was creative in this sense, in a manner that Viramontes herself could never replicate although her invention lies elsewhere, I sense a different outlook on the concepts of work and creativity between the two. Viramontes mentions that her mother, at least for a time, felt it inconceivable that her daughter wanted to write. She would watch her daughter writing, seeing her stare off into space, then ask her to get tortillas or to do some other chore. Viramontes would eventually give in and begin to do whatever was asked of her. These interruptions would quell her thoughts and ideas, making it difficult to write, edit and polish her work. Her mother and, of course, motherhood represent a certain sense of responsibility. They represent a responsibility to the household, as opposed to a responsibility to imagination and critical thinking. Again, there is a conflict within this one theme. While her mother was her greatest love and influence, there is also a viable problem within this culture of responsibility which can and often does inhibit the imagination of a woman.

Closely related to the concepts of the kitchen table and mother/motherhood is time. Writers typically lack time, as most lack the wealth and privilege to solely be a writer. Women face another situation which again lies in responsibility. The societal role of women as homemakers places strong emphasis on familial responsibilities. Running a household comes first and foremost above everything. Viramontes equates writing as being seen as "a hobby we do after all our responsibilities are fulfilled." For her, the work of women suffers from these constant interruptions. She further elaborates by saying, "Phones will ring, children will cry or mothers will ask favors." Time, in her view, is precious to a woman's creativity. Now she does not advocate shirking familial duties and responsibilities, she merely wishes for respect. She understands and will attend to her responsibilities, yet her family must "respect, my time, my words, myself."

This respect is essential for women if they are to expand on their imagination and creativity.

Personally, I am interested in history, people and culture. As an American Indian, I fully understand the idea of how the world is often viewed through a certain prism. The history of American Indians has predominantly been told through the eyes of white male Europeans and their descendants. This phenomenon is prevalent even today in contemporary society and pop culture. Women also deal with a dominant culture. Their lives, history and traditions have been articulated from a wholly male-dominated perspective. Stifling their imagination only exacerbates this problem by narrowing the scope of reality. I am compelled to hear this different perspective of history. I am positive that I and the rest of the world would be enriched by doing so. Yet, as Viramontes asserts, within this culture women must first go about challenging status quo oppressive beliefs and tradition. They should evaluate their roles within the system and go about breaking stereotypes. This and the respect of their time by family, friends and loved ones will help women's creative imagination flourish.

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Bill Wetzel is Amskapi Pikuni aka Blackfeet from Montana. His writing has appeared in the American Indian Culture & Research Journal, Yellow Medicine Review, Studies In Indian Literatures (SAIL), Hinchas de Poesia, Red Ink Magazine, Literary (more...)

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