Sherasure: Re-drawing Matrilineal Spaces in Her Paraphernalia:
On Motherlines, Sex, Blood, Loss & Selfies
Margaret Christakos. Creative non-fiction, 200 pages
Reviewed by Emma Croll-Baehre
Toronto-based poet Margaret Christakos’s most recent book of creative non-fiction probes an intimate labyrinth of femaleness through poems, pictures, and social media snapshots. Her Paraphernalia: On Motherlines, Sex, Blood, Loss & Selfies explores the inescapable connections of matrilineal space through history, memory, and sexuality as a means of coping with and exploring mid-life transitions and loss. Christakos evokes memories that reveal her fierce desire to connect with the past in order to understand the changes around her. The women she captures in her paraphernalia, like Christakos herself, have been bound to societal structures of sex and motherhood. Their sexuality, Christakos tells us, was shaped by their circumstances: conditions frequently stipulated by patriarchal forces.
Christakos’s eclectic and innovative series of Études or “Tumultétudes” explores the interwoven melodies of femininity, fecundity, and sexuality that necessarily tie her to her foremothers. Christakos’s self-investigation is mirrored by a tumultuous plethora of contemporary media. The reader peers at Christakos through diverse lenses; from witty wordplay to acronymic Facebook posts, she journeys into private and often disregarded female spaces:
For the whole weekend she went back up into her hole. There was a bed bed covers into them she slid.
There was a little light by which she could read.
Mostly she thought and thought and thought and erased. She erased. Sherased (114).
From Canada to Greece, Christakos grapples with herself and her matrilineage within the geographical loci from which these maternal histories emerged. With sardonic irony, she meditates on her femaleness from the insular yet exposed space of the Pearson airport women’s washroom as her nose drips with phlegm. Christakos’s intelligent observations of female place move with her across countries. On the streets of Athens, observes Christakos: “Women seem to be second fiddles, to recede behind an ongoing procession of men” (48). Her response to the social eclipsing of female lives and narratives is to propel herself through a symbolic rebirth via an imaginative reflection upon her motherline.
Christakos inserts herself into her foremothers’ histories not only by returning to their homelands, but also by attempting to see through their eyes. She and her foremothers hence become “one body” (123), a notion which Christakos carries throughout Her Paraphernalia. We are drawn into a reverie of her Nanny as a cherubic infant in a pram in Bath. Another vignette portrays Christakos’s fragile yet still vivacious ailing mother in Canada, while another snapshot captures her great-grandmother, who endured numerous miscarriages in Greece. “Waves on a beach” (90) becomes the mantra that connects these women’s histories across time and space. Despite their temporal and geographical disparity, these family portraits are united by the struggles with sexuality and sexlessness which shaped these women’s lives.
Christakos’s fascinating play with “paraphernalia” haunts the book. Her series of textual and photographical mementos captures memories of both real and constructed moments and events that function to unpack her gender and sexual identities in relation to her matrilineage. Christakos is at once fifteen and fifty-three, an assertion she reiterates throughout the work. She is simultaneously escaping, teenage-like, from the seeming sexual rigidity of her mother’s line while also returning to it in mid-life. This pivoting vantage point permits Christakos a reevaluation of her maternal ancestors’ sexuality, a sexuality that also runs through her. She discovers that “There is a life-spite” in her motherline which she “tenderly” carries on (180).
It is only in her fifties, Christakos tells us, that she is able to explore the loci common to these women, one which connects their “sensual” lives like a “sea” (197). Christakos is newly partnerless with young-adult children and a mother in precarious health. In the face of mid-life’s tribulations, she strives with this book to redefine her sexuality. She confronts the societal implications of menopause which deem her to be sexless. However, despite her willingness to contest these implications, she is conflicted. “To bleed is best,” states Christakos as she peers into the latter half of her life (192). Christakos’s uncertainty, captured by the text’s incongruities, humanizes her.
Blood figuratively seeps through the pages of Christakos’s book as a multifaceted metaphor for sexuality, her matrilineal life-force, and death. Menstruation’s cyclical presence incites the potential for life as well as loss of life and self. While menstrual blood points to a woman’s virility, “the lack of blood on the bloomers” (182) foretells of a loss of one’s youth and sexuality to pregnancy. Christakos’s menstrual cycle connects her to her female ancestors whose blood, like her own, enabled them to engender life. However, simultaneously, this blood fosters memories of the miscarriages which have plagued the Christakos women and have filled them with a “sexual despair” (183) never fully absolved.
Christakos investigates femaleness between the boundaries of pre-pubescence and menopause. She attempts to locate herself within the societal narrative of femininity which links all women together by their sexual/reproductive processes. Christakos interrogates the complexities and contradictions of this narrative through both a “selfie” and a selfie of her motherline. This matrilineal history is catapulted into a contemporary context by bringing the stories of her foremothers into a world of social media which simultaneously celebrates and obscures self-reflection. Christakos uniquely toys with this contradiction as she probes the borderlands of women’s sexuality which, despite being constantly in flux, have remained largely undiscussed. Through a tactfully crafted collection of literary and visual records, Christakos courageously exposes herself with the effect of not only normalizing but also celebrating the complexities of womanhood. If only for its unique multi-media pastiche of perspectives, this collection is well worth reading.