What do women hold? This is the question that Maira Kalman takes on in her new compilation of words and pictures, Women Holding Things (Harper Design, $32.50) attempts to answer. Early in this book she writes that women hold “…the home and the family. And the children and the food. The friendships. The work. The work of the world. And the work of being human. The memories. And the troubles. And the sorrows and the triumphs. And the love.” Kalman talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about this moving meditation on the beauty and complexity of women’s lives and roles, all revealed in the things they hold.
YZM: Where, how and when did you get the unique idea for this book?
MK: During the pandemic I was doing many paintings. One day I went to a farmers market and saw a woman carrying a huge cabbage. It occurred to me that I was painting many women. and they were often holding things. so the idea was born. It became a booklet that my son and I produced to raise money for voting rights organizations.Then the idea expanded into more paintings and a great deal more writing.
YZM: Clearly, the idea of holding is central both in a literal sense and also a figurative one, as in Hortense Cezanne holding her own or the woman holding court—can you say more about this?
MK: Even though we live in a patriarchy or because we always have, for me, women hold the more compelling narrative. They are heroic in some important ways. They have always seemed like the center of the story, even though they did not have, for the most part, the kind of independence or means that the men had.
It is not that men are not wonderful. But women somehow keep it all together.
YZM: You’re known for your paintings and illustrations; what was it like to combine writing with your visual art? Which came first—the paintings or the the words? When I was young, I wanted to be a writer. It was very clear and powerful. In my early 20’s, I became disenchanted with my writing. Too angst ridden. Too turgid. So I thought it would be much more fun to tell my story (which I clearly needed to do in some form) and paint. That led me to editorial narrative illustration.
The first time i really combined story and art was in children’s books. I could write and paint. Be funny and sad. Smart and stupid. No limits. Children’s books are fantastic forms of creative expression. That led to books for adults. And the idea of combining image and text was very potent. Sometimes the words come first. Other times, the image. I am thinking about flow and narrative. Not wanting to write too much. Just enough to convey the emotion and idea.
YZM: Is there a way in which the concept of holding has a particular resonance for Jewish women?
MK: In my family there was (and is) a great sense of tribal connection. Unbreakable bonds. I don’t know if it has particular resonance for Jewish women. In my family, the women, of course, took care of the home, the food, cared for the children. That is a very great role in the world. We are not religious. But we loved the preparation for the holidays. Sometimes the sense of tradition might feel onerous. And then you have to adjust as needed. But for the most part, the bond of the home and the family is a very strong one.
YZM: You also make reference to the idea of letting go; why is that important? Would you consider writing and illustrating a book on that theme?
MK: You cannot hold everything all the time. As I say, it is exhausting. And impossible. So sometimes, you have to be very small and unimportant. No responsibilities other than small, very small acts. If any. That respite from holding is critical. Sometimes a person has to be selfish, or thoughtless, or confused. Without that we are not human. I think I will write about that. But in fact, those ideas and feelings are woven through all of my books. But perhaps I can be more explicit. But then I don’t like to tell people what to do.