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Siri Hustvedt’s ‘Mothers, Fathers, and Others’ explores family ties and tangents

David Wilson for the Boston Globe

At 66, the writer Siri Hustvedt says, “I have the sense that I have a lot more behind me than I have ahead of me, which changes your perspective on time.” But, she adds, age has given her “a greater flexibility of mind” than when she was younger; despite feeling an urgency to be productive, “I think working steadily and deeply is my ideal state.”

Hustvedt is the author of seven novels, one poetry collection, and several works of nonfiction, including the new essay collection “Mothers, Fathers, and Others” (Simon & Schuster), which moves from personal, memoir-inflected essays about her parents and grandmother to denser, more allusive works that explore politics, prejudice, and violence.


“The book gets denser as it goes on,” said Hustvedt, who holds a PhD in English and lectures on psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. In its final essay, she grapples with a horrific crime: the 1965 torture and murder of 16-year-old Sylvia Likens by a group composed mostly of children. “It is a punch to the gut,” Hustvedt said of the case, adding that “the miniature politics of that story, I think, echo larger political realities.”

Not all the essays are so grim, however; in one, Hustvedt recalls her own mother and their long, loving relationship. She wanted to write about it clearly. “I think sentimentality cheapens genuine human feeling and should be avoided at all cost,” she said. “And I think motherhood, mothers, and maternity are always ripe for sentimentality. So I really didn’t want to do that.”

Motherhood in all its realities is often overlooked in western art and thought, Hustvedt added. “I don’t think that either popular culture or scholarly culture has come to terms with what I think is an omission in western culture. And it’s an omission that’s also a suppression,” she said. “This dearth of thought about gestation and birth and maternity rises out of fear, envy, and very, very old established hierarchies of masculine over feminine.”


Siri Hustvedt will read at 7 p.m. Wednesday at a virtual event hosted by Harvard Book Store.

Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.