Tuesday, November 3, 2015


It's no surprise that, in the general sense, "Westerners" (I'll refrain from defining THAT, if I may) find the concept of a wet nurse ooky, if not outright immoral. I have been a little surprised, though, at some of the specific folks who've recoiled a bit when I've brought up research for the WIP.

Personally, the idea of milk-kinship in particular intrigues me, particularly in the context of American slavery and the biological use of women. Reading historicals, as I almost always have, wet nursing wasn't clear to me early on, but once I understood it, it's possible I've known about the practice for more of my life than most, and so have never much questioned it.

One of the most important characters (in a multi-generational novel, and as the story grows, I am more and more hesitant to describe anyone as a "main" character) in my WIP starts out as a midwife and becomes a wet nurse. I am fairly confident in the whys and wherefores of this latter situation; setting up not only her physical ability to lactate, as well as its cultivation, but also the job itself and her position in the household. Less confident is my providing her the transition from midwife to wet nurse, and research on this sort of job shift in Late Antiquity Ostrogothic Italy is not easy to find (suggestions welcome!), but I hope it can be believed, because her being both is important as the novel is developing so far.

Almost impossible to find is any resource discussing what a worship service in the Arian Christian church looked like - but that is another post for another day. (Suggestions welcome!)

Perhaps the most modern literary reference to wet nursing is Rosasharn, in The Grapes of Wrath, whose gift of her milk is not presented as creepy or gross in any way. Less modern, but much more recently written, is Mirabilis by Susann Cokal, in which the main character nurses an entire population, in a historical set in France. I can't think of any movie depicting wet nursing, except perhaps in the most passing way, and Juliet's Nurse is less identifiable to most high-schoolers flogging their way through Shakespeare by her biological function than by her indecipherability, where she is supposed to be the comic relief and few really get that, any more than the rest of the language.

Wet nursing isn't much addressed in memoir, science fiction, fantasy, nor by category of audience. We have issues with the breast as a source of nutrition. The idea of sharing bodily fluids wigs people out for one reason or another - fear of disease, fear of being replaced as a mother or as a spouse, fear of intimacies unfamiliar to the nuclear family model, religious morality, name the parameters. I can still recall a scene from The Last Emperor, in which an eight-year-old Pu Yi nurses from his extraordinarily beautiful (and exotic; coz, yeah exoticization) wet nurse, and the way people responded with shock and titillation. I can recall The Big News story of its minute when an American woman nurses her child after it's old enough to be walking, talking, and training in the essential sexuality of the breast, which even still we are not comfortable seeing as the source of nutrition and bonding.


If my blog were more widely read, here we would have the onset of commentary on the fact that I have never procreated nor lactated myself. Let's consider my ignorance as read and remember I don't know what it's like to be an ancient Frankish warrior either, nor have I ever experienced life in Ravenna nor Paris, never mind 1500 years ago. I am an author, and "write what you know" is, frankly, horsefeathers.

Beyond milk-kinship and the fascination of a world not my own, the transactional nature of wet nursing is a deep draw for me in this writing (as the similar nature of sex has been). This character has traded on her body in a different way than many modern people might think of a woman "using her body" to get ahead or to support herself. The moral and the practical considerations, for this time, are vastly unfamiliar to our mindset, if not entirely inconceivable. Putting aside the objections my society, indeed even my friends and my family, might have to the idea of wet nursing, and exploring it not just as an institution but also at the individual level, where my characters meet, is exciting to me, an opportunity once again to leave my skin and leave the air I breathe and sounds I live with, and to imagine living another way, in another place.

This, for me, is what writing is *for* - because "the story", whatever else it is, is always a projection out of the familiar, out of the present. To me, "the story" is sacred space, takes place in sacred time. It's outside my workday and yours, outside what we know, outside, perhaps, even what we ACCEPT. Whether it is acceptable in its own terms, acceptable at all - these are the tricky fascinations of telling a story, the rabbit holes we bolt down, following its plot. Do I accept a world of dragons and palaces, where everybody's white and royal? Do I accept dystopian tales, where young people are imperiled? Do I accept these images of faith, of life, of relationships and of distances between my characters?

I'm a writer; I get to decide what to describe and where to go. You get to decide whether you'll come along, down the rabbit hole ...

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