Mother Superior: Stories
(TW: Eating disorders)
Saleema Nawaz is by far one of my favorite Canadian authors. In Mother Superior, her collection of short stories, Bloodlines stands out not only for its exquisite language but also because it speaks to me in a very personal manner, as one of the main characters struggles with an eating disorder. Nawaz weaves the relationship between two sisters (Beena and Sadhana) in a beautifully descriptive manner, and a careful selection of symbolism, imagery, and contrasts enriches the text and captivates readers all throughout.
Beena (the narrator) opens the story with a curious detail: she and Sadhana stop bleeding at the same time. What is alarming, however, is the contrast in the reasons (though we only understand that much later, as Nawaz keeps it a mystery). We quickly learn that Beena stops bleeding because she is pregnant. Sadhana's reason, however, remains unsaid until halfway through the story, when we realize she has anorexia. That is an impactful moment, for the juxtaposition of reasons represents two extremes: pregnancy symbolizes life, whereas anorexia is attributed to death. I find the delay in revealing this crucial information very helpful, as it generates suspense and maintains readers' interest. Also, by the time we figure it out, we have already connected to Sadhana, making it extremely easy to feel empathy for her.
On a night before a full moon, "the waxing moon h[angs] as round and bright.” This is another amazing contrast between them: the full moon illustrates Beena's pregnant body and the waxing moon is a convincing imagery of Sadhana's anorexic body. We cannot realize this comparison the first time we read the story, though, as we are informed of Sadhana's anorexia only later. It’s one of the marvels of reading a text multiple times: there is always something new to unveil!
When we learn Sadhana stops bleeding because she has been running, I immediately know her amenorrhea is due to excessive exercise as well as biochemical and endocrinological imbalances. When Beena mentions Sadhana always leaves the bathroom with her "teeth freshly brushed,” I also know she has been inducing vomit, a behavior of purgative anorexia. But all these hints could’ve easily gone by unnoticed if I weren’t all too familiar with these behaviors.
Nawaz offers a frighteningly beautiful portrayal of Sadhana's vertebrae: a "string of giant beads down her back.” While string resembles fragility, giant suggests strength. An aggressive simile also portrays her underweight: Sadhana's shoulder blades are "like axe-heads ready to slice through skin.” It is a vivid and clear imagery.
Towards the end, Beena tries to rescue their relationship and her sister's life. The author portrays that through a beautiful imagery of keys: her attempt is as numbing-cold and sharp as locating keys in the snow. It remains unrevealed whether her sister dies. Instead, Nawaz continues to offer ambiguity until the very end.
Sadhana’s disorder is never explicitly labeled, but Nawaz's hints make the diagnosis unquestionable—especially for those of us who struggle with it ourselves. I wonder, though, if it is clear to readers who are not health professionals or who have no personal experience with eating disorders. And it would be a shame if such an impactful trait of the character were to go by unnoticed. Unfortunately, the incidence of eating disorders is constantly increasing, and out of all mental illnesses, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate. It’s essential to call attention to it, especially because it carries with it a huge amount of shame, keeping people from seeking help. In a world of perfect bodies, plastic surgeries, Photoshopped images, and miraculous diets, it’s hard not to succumb to these harmful behaviours.
I value this story because I painfully and deeply relate to Sadhana, but also because of its magnificence as art. I truly admire authors who have the gift of creating multilayered stories that never tire us. Bloodlines is full of concealed connections that require focus all throughout in order to unveil them. Layer by layer, the text's richness is revealed, and every time we reread it, something new and entrancing emerges.
I can’t wait to read her novel Bone and Bread, which carries on the story of the two sisters. Just like Nawaz “had a hard time trying to trim [the story] down to five thousand words,” as she mentions in an interview, I too, as a reader, craved more of it.
Find the book here.
By Marcia Ramos