Sara Taylor: Gender fluidity and understanding Mom
Road trips and coming of age stories open up ways of understanding some of the more confounding aspects of growing up
In 2013, when Sara Taylor started writing her second novel, “The Lauras”, Caitlyn Jenner was still known to most of the world as Bruce, the Olympic hero. The Emmywinning television show “Transparent” was still a year away from its première, several months before transgender actress Laverne Cox won her award for the prison dramedy “Orange Is the New Black”.
Alex, the 13-year-old narrator of “The Lauras”, might have been comforted by the gender fluidity of those pop-culture protagonists while struggling through the hormone-driven angst of adolescence. But Taylor didn’t have a political agenda in mind while developing her genderless teen character: this beautifully unfolding roadtrip tale is more focused on the fluidity of relationships between parent and offspring as they both mature and find some inner peace on the highways and back roads of America. “The Lauras” follows Alex and their unnamed chain-smoking Ma, who bundles up her child in the middle of the night, leaving her husband and home behind — in reality, it’s Amber Alert material — to track her own unsettled and painful past across the country. Despite the grotty truck stops, stinky motels and slapped-together meals, the bond between the two is forged in a most unconventional way.
“It was right before all those conversations came to the forefront, and the idea of gender being non-binary was not being talked about much yet. It leaked into the public consciousness just as I was doing my last revisions on the book,” Taylor says. “But it was really important for me to focus on the aspects of the parent-child relationship growing up that really transcends gender because there seems to be a lot of baggage that goes along with mothers and sons and daughters, especially in fiction. I didn’t want to write something that everyone else has explored, I wanted to look at the things that are common between them.”
Taylor, who was born in Virginia and left at age 22 to pursue her academic studies overseas — just weeks ago, she finished her PhD in creative and critical writing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England — spent much of her own childhood in the back seat of the family car on long road trips. “I think in America and Canada and places with big landscapes, that kind of travel is really romanticized,” she says. “Now that I live in the U.K. there isn’t that kind of landscape and I really miss that movement.”
Although “The Lauras” is told through Alex’s introspective first-person narration, the story is driven by Ma’s memories of her own early years, as she reveals to her child a tumultuous history of foster parents, group homes and loves lost. Taylor, who admits that mothers are very hard to talk about, says she cribbed some stories from her own family, but the novel is more true to her own childhood feelings, struggling with the fact that her mom is also an individual human being with her own emotional life.
“There was a time when I was a teenager that I realized that my mother was a person who had a history before me, and would have a future after me. And she is more than just my mother. I think I’m still wrapping my head around that. Everybody at some point has to go through that realization, and it works both ways.”
The Lauras, by Sara Taylor, Bond Street Books, 304 pages, $22.