Emotional Labor in Literature: On “How to Make Collard Greens”

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NOTE: I’m treating this very poetic essay as a piece of autobiographical nonfiction, since that’s how it’s framed in the Introduction to Number 4, Volume 15 of New World Writing, where it was published. Bergman writes both fiction and nonfiction, but this piece is not listed as either on her website. I found it through this essay by Nick Ripatrazone, who also treats it as nonfiction. Bergman’s fiction, including the story “Housewifely Arts,” deals with similar themes.

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On New Year’s Eve, I mentioned Megan Mayhew Bergman’s essay “How to Make Collard Greens.” In my last post I wrote about gender and emotional labor. Today I want to tie those two things together, because while I think Bergman’s essay is worth reading  on its own, I also think it’s a great illustration of what we mean when we say “emotional labor.”

Before I start, though, let me confess my personal attachment to the piece. In one of my favorite passages on writing, Gaston Bachelard says:

Thus, very quickly, at the very first word, at the first poetic overture, the reader who is ‘reading a room’ leaves off reading and starts to think of some place in his own past. You would like to tell everything about your room. You would like to interest the reader in yourself, whereas you have unlocked a door to daydreaming. The values of intimacy are so absorbing that the reader has ceased to read your room: he sees his own again.

Basically, according to Bachelard, good writing is when you describe your childhood home and in doing so cause your readers to think about their childhood homes.

The thing is,  “How to Make Collard Greens” rhymes so fully with my own life that it sometimes feels like Bergman’s actually writing about my house, just with some of the furniture rearranged. I found the essay last fall, when I was looking for nonfiction to teach my new class. I was immediately drawn to the title, because, as I’ve written, collard greens are an important symbol of continuity in my family—to me, and to my grandmother, who passed away last April. What made me catch my breath was one of the ingredients that Bergman’s grandmother uses in the piece: hog jowl.

My grandmother also insisted on using hog jowl (she pronounced it hog jole) in her New Year’s Day hoppin’ john. Ham hock wouldn’t do, nor salt pork. Definitely not bacon. In case you’ve never tried, hog jowl isn’t easy to find in every American city. It was not easy to find in exurban Tulsa, where my grandmother was living during my mom’s last years.

I can still see my mom rolling her eyes at her mom, in those hectic days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, for adding one more errand to her list. The way she could turn into a 50-year-old teenager: Yes, mother. We’ll get the hog jowl. 

Mom wouldn’t even eat the hoppin’ john. Like Bergman, my mom turned her nose up at the dish. I don’t know why, exactly. Bergman claims that she didn’t like the smell of the pot, and that she thought making collards on New Year’s was a “superstitious and country” tradition. I suspect my mom would have said much the same, but I also think there was some underlying stubbornness behind it, some attachment to an ancient rebellion.

My mom died of cancer in 2009. Bergman’s evocations of the ugliness of chemo and radiation reminded me of her last years, which my grandmother also witnessed. And Bergman writes about saving her mother’s voicemails: I did that, too.

In other words, I picked up this essay to read about my grandmother, found myself reading about my mom, and even more than that found myself enmeshed in the relationship between the two. In any event, I’ve been reading this essay—for months—to remember. In that reading, the collard greens mean continuity, and the theme of the essay is loss.

But now that I’ve been thinking about emotional labor, something that should have been obvious has become much clearer to me.

In “How to Make Collard Greens,” the greens aren’t just an emblem of continuity; they’re also an emblem of care. The author hopes (against hope) the dish’s vitamins will cure her mother-in-law; another part of her hopes its good luck will protect her family in the coming year.

This realization has re-centered the essay for me. It’s no longer (for me) just about my mom and my grandmother; it’s about the woman who held me together when I was falling apart from both of those losses. It’s about my wife. She’s the woman who asked my grandmother for her collard green recipe, delighting her. She’s the woman who made sure I called my mom and grandmother when they were alive.

Somehow, the first few times I read “How to Make Collard Greens” I glided right over the fact that the author was taking care of her mother-in-law, not her mother. The husband in the story is not exactly absent—the piece is addressed to him, in fact—but, rereading, it’s striking how much of the work of family-making falls on the author. And Bergman’s essay makes clear just how devastating that work can be. Here’s an early passage on the decision to have kids:

I would like grandchildren, she said one night over dinner.

What I couldn’t say was this: it is strange to make love in the face of grief.

Another thing I couldn’t say: I am not ready.

And another: I may never be ready.

There are so many layers to that: the work of grieving acting against the responsibility the author feels for providing grandchildren, which in turn acts against the author’s personal fears about pregnancy (“I was afraid of babies and afraid of miscarriage and afraid of everything,” Bergman writes).

Passages like that illustrate the complexity and pervasiveness of the emotional labor typically expected of women. As a result, the piece offers a powerful literary complement to a quickly-expanding conversation on the subject. It’s also great—if anguishing—reading.

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