The opening lines of the first story of Montreal author Saleema Nawaz’s debut collection are riveting and set the tone for the entire collection: “Joan won’t get an abortion … says [drinking] won’t hurt the baby. At worst, she says, it might make it slow.” The seven short stories that comprise Mother Superior are all concerned with mothers, daughters, girls who are both, and sisters who sometimes help, sometimes hinder.
Nawaz writes about motherhood as something complex, daunting, often unchosen, and never performed with perfection. There are many mothers in this collection, not all of them good. The unnamed mother in “The Beater” abandons her three children, leaving them with the man who threw one of them against a wall. Her daughter from a later marriage struggles to understand this life – these lives – her mother left behind, and from all this, Nawaz presents a story so rich and complex, it deserves rereading.
But for every Joan, who is mismatched with motherhood, there is a Claire, who, in “Scar Tissue,” marvels at “the matchless feeling of suckling her babies at her breast;” or a Kate, who, in “Look, But Don’t Touch,” steps in where her cold mother doesn’t and loves and guides her disabled brother through a life that exhausts and frightens her. Nawaz’s stories have a huge diversity of voices and perspectives, and are filled with great eloquence and great compassion.