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

The Hamilton Spectator - - BOOKS - SUE CARTER Sue Carter is the ed­i­tor of Quill and Quire. Metro

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.

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