On the Time We Forget in Olga Ravn’s My Work

My Work
Olga Ravn, translated by Jennifer Russell and Sophia Hersi Smith
Book*Hug Press
2023, 390 pp., $25.00

When I work as an astrologer, I find that people are more comfortable pinning their personalities to constellations than they are asking their mothers about their birth times. Birth is our entrance, but as a culture, we may shrink from birth and our pre-recollective early childhoods further even than we do from death and mourning. Shits and sicknesses are listed on stationery scattered with ducks and bows. Pain and worry are seeded in the minor keys of lullabies. In that time of lingering in the universal gateway of pre-memory, we each have a secret keeper who usually stays in our lives: the person who gave birth to us. Many of us don’t feel able to access that person’s secrets. We mythologize the birthing parent as mysterious while looking away from their knowledge, experience, and labour.

Olga Ravn’s My Work, an archive of the experiences of an isolated, middle-class, present-day Scandinavian writer who experiences postpartum depression and anxiety, gives voice to the reasons for this obfuscation. Ravn documents Anna’s early motherhood—from pregnancy to a child speaking his first words—with ornithological closeness. The closeness Ravn finds comes through many interpreters, as doctors, acupuncturist, government educators, husband, child, boss, lay claim to Anna’s body and mind while barely consulting her. Readers witness her utter disorientation through bureaucratic and depressive lenses. When Anna looks at her work as a mother, it hurts her. “I am a 29-year old state-owned milkmaid,” she declares, characteristically bleakly funny, her writing her only emotional property.

The facts of the narrative are secondary to the documentation of an early parent experiencing an ambivalent swirl of anxiety, defensiveness, and grief as her autonomy is frayed and consumed by new motherhood.

The narrator of My Work is an unreliable author who uses a variety of media to tell Anna’s story. The text opens with her telling the reader that she has discovered Anna’s papers, and has designated herself an archivist of them. From the get-go, the reader is offered the question of whether the narrator may be Anna’s alter-ego, dissociated through postpartum grief. The facts of the narrative are secondary to the documentation of an early parent experiencing an ambivalent swirl of anxiety, defensiveness, and grief as her autonomy is frayed and consumed by new motherhood.

In press for this translation, Ravn has said that while “we are calling the book a novel,”[1] its form is closer to an archive—an archive of parenthood, and an archive of attempting to write. Anna’s emotional commotion is matched by the elegantly deconstructed form of the book: it begins again and again, disorganizes time, and shifts from journal entry to emotive poem to doctor’s note to theatre script to almanac entry and beyond. At times, the ephemera of parenthood devours the text as Anna herself is devoured by pregnancy and responsibility, breastfeeding eight hours a day. A tragicomic insertion is a pamphlet explaining the chemical risks that everyday activities pose to the new child—from shampoo to shellfish—that interrupts Anna’s journals for several pages. My Work is a book of lists that recalls the endless to-do list of working-from-home when someone else is making a mess of it. Even Anna’s poems, wastelands of shadow and body, read like lists of longings.

For all its digressions, My Work is deeply readable. Perhaps the reader occupies that sweet mysterious position, that of the pre-verbal child at her breast, as the narrator swoops and growls and interrupts herself. Ravn propels us through the syncopated rhythm of the text’s mixed-up files with the raw embodiment of her protagonist. Anna’s Catastrophic Thoughts (numbered) proceed for three pages, and are followed by an excerpt from a state parenting guide about the likelihood of the pregnant woman’s libido waning as she searches for physical privacy while a human being grows inside her. This bricolage intelligently captures a mother discombobulated, a life assailed.

Ravn is a Danish writer, and My Work’s English translators, Jennifer Russell and Sophia Hersi Smith, have risen to the task of capturing the range of voices present in the text. They capture Anna’s poetic despair, her anxious love (“In the dark, his sweet-smelling breath beats against her face”) and her wry digressions (“If a man tells you that you’re worrying too much, ask him to do the worrying for you”). The cool observations of medical professionals harmonize with the whims of the literature she reads: “If the weather is mild, some white anemones may become so confused that they bloom.” All this comes together in an imitation of the overstuffed filing cabinet of a time that is out of time, a time that children can’t remember and that Anna, too, seems likely to forget.

Pain, boredom, and isolation are some of what challenges the mother in My Work, taking her, from time to time, just beyond sanity. Anna is not, however, especially challenged by money, at least superficially. Although she documents financial injustices—with the child in daycare, she is offered a wage decrease while her partner globetrots—Anna is firmly bourgeois. She is addicted to shopping as an anchor, records “a hunger” for fancy diapers and expensive shirts, and cries over a Christmas tree. A psychiatrist’s note describes Anna’s finances as stable, although it observes that her fluctuating income as a writer appears to be “mysterious to her.” In this case, mystery looks like luxury.

Anna’s partner, Aksel, is depicted as a gratingly egalitarian and successful playwright, who cannot sympathize with the tremendous physical changes she experiences. He feels bereft of sex with her. He longs both to be recognized as an equal parent and for his partner’s body, but cannot seem to see the pressure that early motherhood has placed on her, physically, psychically, and hormonally. Though Aksel can be read as well-meaning, he lacks curiosity. The pressure of understanding is too much for the couple. Anna seeks solace in her shopping cart.

Alongside books that record similar periods in literary mothers’ lives, such as Kate Zambreno’s Drifts and the 21st century mother of frustrated mothering books, Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, the mother in My Work is alienated first physically and then socially. My Work’s mother seems to lack friendship, solidarity, and even generosity toward her peers or other human life. In Drifts, the pregnant writer protagonist is more attuned to her dog and her books than to her partner. A Life’s Work is spine-tinglingly cranky toward street noise, other rich mums, and newcomer nannies alike. All three mothers take rare pleasure in dressing their bodies and homes, finding comfort in thingness over relation.

Although sharp with submerged anger, My Work is more melancholic than polemic. Like Zambreno and Cusk before her, Ravn speaks to caregivers of all kinds in nuclear families trapped in non-understanding.

At points, Anna’s isolation in My Work is tomb-like, total, sprinkled with silky rewards to be laid over the lonely laundry pile. Her love narrows to the field of her child and what she can provide him. In a group therapy session, a fellow patient describes her own condition as “Pure O,” OCD without the C or D: Pure Obsession. Anna’s love for her unnamed child approaches Pure O. Like the anxious lovers in the works of Barthes or Ernaux, Anna obsesses over the object of her desire to the detriment of her other relationships. She is materially tethered to her child, and forsakes all others as they have forsaken her.

Although sharp with submerged anger, My Work is more melancholic than polemic. Like Zambreno and Cusk before her, Ravn speaks to caregivers of all kinds in nuclear families trapped in non-understanding. My reading of the vulnerable postpartum world depicted in My Work suggests that the pressure is too great for a couple alone, perhaps especially a couple attempting to meet middle-class expectations of “normalcy” and elegance, buying tiny clothes and dishes against a tide of blood, milk, and waste. This pressure is heightened when, as in a heterosexual couple, one partner cannot bring themselves to imagine the physical transformation the other has undergone for the sake of the child. For birthing parents, My Work gives voices to their discontent beyond sentimentality. Others are called by these texts to inquire and understand, to serve and support, to revisit our beginnings and bring an understanding into our present. Unlike Aksel, the reader is asked to listen before they assume.

My Work is abundant with false starts and determined continuations, a rhythm that defines the parallel labours of writing and maternity. Anna makes a point of denouncing this equivalency:

Anna hated when people talked about their books as if they were children. That the conception had been difficult. That it was a life-changing experience to birth something into the world. That the book was the author’s baby. A book is not a human and an authorship not motherhood. You do not have a proprietary right to your child, you do not own it.

Anna grants her child an autonomy that she herself lacks. He is protected, unscrutinized, unnamed. He remains a sweet and blameless presence even as his presence alters everything about her world, her moods.

Anna claims that writing saves her. It's her one-way, solitary plea into the siloed domestic worlds of other middle-class families. Near the end of the novel, however, the narrator discloses: “for as long as I’m writing this book, I think I will remain in a state of postpartum depression.” Anna concludes her work by filling in yet another form, a bibliography of writers on motherhood. She is distracted. She records hearing her child's early verbalizations (charmingly translated as “Beep-deep-dee-dee. All done”) through the window while she tries to write. The text is a record of conflict, a desire to reach out, through the solitary act of writing, while being consumed from within. Ravn presents a prism through which to examine one shrouded experience. Any reader lucky enough to be available to its pain should meet the eyes of people pushing strollers, the people who carried and carry us inside of them, with a little more honesty and ease.

[1] Book*hug Press Release: ​​https://www.youtube.com/watch?...

About the author

Lee Suksi's book, The Nerves, won a Lambda Literary Award. They've been published in The Brooklyn Review, C Magazine, Peach Mag, and elsewhere. They have work forthcoming in Public Parking and Dundurn's Secret Sex Anthology. They are a bookseller and astrology columnist in Toronto. This winter they'll also share a collection of their drawings, Acting On You.