Liza Bakewell is the author of Madre: Perilous Journeys of a Spanish Noun, published in November 2010 by W.W. Norton & Company. If you missed my review of Madre yesterday, be sure to check it out! Not only did I learn so much from the book, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading it as well.

Ms. Bakewell was kind enough to answer some questions about her book and the experience of writing it. Read on to hear about Madre from the author herself as well as enter to win one of two copies of Madre!

Meet Liza Bakewell!

Madre by Liza Bakewell (cover)ER: I was amazed, as I made my way through Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun, how many different angles that single word could be examined from and how many factors came into play when determining how it had acquired its contemporary connotations. Was there one that was particularly fun or fascinating for you to explore?

LB: I had a lot of fun researching the word madre for this book. In large part because I have so many friends in Mexico who all have wonderful senses of humor, so there was always a lot of laughter, even though, very often what I discovered about the word madre was rarely comforting. Nevertheless, what ultimately grabbed me, among the various perspectives I explored, was how much a role religion plays in shaping language. The realization of the intertwined presence of the Catholic Church with the Spanish language amazed me beyond all other revelations that occurred throughout my research, and there were many, many revelations for me. But religion has a profound impact on language.

ER: Did you anticipate, when you began to explore madre, how complicated your journey would become? How does one go about tackling the many facets of a word like madre?

LB: No, in a word, I did not have any idea. I set out to write an article on gender in Mexican Spanish, which the editor of the Encyclopedia of Mexico had asked me to write, along with another entry on Frida Kahlo. However, I had a hard time completing the article. I kept writing and writing and writing. I couldn’t stop. I was so mad at myself for not being more succinct. Ultimately I whittled the entry down to the requisite word number, but what I discovered in this hair-pulling month of writing, was I had enough material for a book, even though the topic was only (on the surface) “one little word.” Of course the word “mother,” in any language, no matter how small the word may be, is always a complicated one. In Mexico, it is very, very, very complicated.

The second half of your question–How does one go about tackling the many facets of a word like madre?–came about, I suppose, from my teaching, years back, “Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology” at Brown University. During the semester class, I outlined for students the major areas of inquiry within the field, from neuroscience to phonetics, grammar and semantics; from child language acquisition to adult joking, gossip, and many other twists, turns, and somersaults we do when we speak.

ER: I know sometimes for native speakers it’s difficult to look objectively at one’s own language. I also know that trying to learn a culture well enough to understand its idioms can be a challenge. As a foreigner to Mexico and a non-native Spanish speaker, what was your experience of trying to understand a word so steeped in the country and culture? Do you feel like your position made your job easier or harder?

LB: Yes, I was an outsider, and my job was without a doubt easier than had I been a native, even though many aspects of the research were hard and challenging. First, I noticed and questioned more than a native speaker. Second, I could claim stupidity and ask people to explain things to me in a way a native speaker would appear strange asking questions as I did. On the other hand, I am a woman, which caused problems that would have been circumvented had I been a man. The word “madre” appears most openly in a man’s world, the way the f-word does among U.S.-English speakers. Yes, women use it, but no it is not appropriate for most women to use it. So, I had to overcome reticence on the part of women and men to speak with me on the topic because I was a woman, and an “educated” one at that (they would remind me, I kept forgetting), which made the reticence even greater. Nevertheless, claiming “I’m not Mexican” and sometimes “I’m an anthropologist, this is my work!” helped me. Men and women eventually opened up. Some, because they thought I was a tad crazy. Others were amused by this educated “Gringa” wanting to know how to swear in Spanish.

ER: During your journey with madre, you became a mother yourself. How did your experiences with madre contribute to your personal experience of motherhood?

LB: That’s a good question. I would say it both put a wrench into my writing time as well as spur me on to write. I have twin girls, so I have double trouble. Of course, they are very cute. As they went from infants to crawlers to toddlers, I recorded them making all sorts of sounds, that, eventually, evolved into words and sentences. I took a lot of notes when they were babbling and gurgling and articulating syllables, all in an effort to communicate eventually. I found it fascinating. Those observations informed my chapter, “Sounding it Out.” But my girls were most influential when they turned eight and we went to Mexico to live, while I put the finishing touches on the manuscript. (By “finishing touches” I mean I completely rewrote the whole entire manuscript based on “suggestions” from my editor, agent and friends.) My girls accompanied me to churches to hear and witness wedding services. They observed Mexico in youthful ways. They were my willing assistants. In return, I bought them a lot of ice cream. (Mexican ice cream is made from fresh tropical fruits, no preservatives). They ended up being quite expensive assistants, however, because they started to demand more compensation than the single scoops we had settled upon as recompense. For example, “I’ll go to one more wedding only if I get a banana split and a hot fudge sundae, whipped cream and nuts.”

ER: After such a long journey with madre, what’s next for you? Is there another book on the horizon?

LB: There is another book on the horizon, and I can’t wait until I have some time to sit down and focus on it. Maybe this summer (if my girls go to camp?). Between the book tour and an Internet project I direct, not to mention an involved magazine article I’m writing, I have little time to write. When I do finally sit down, my next book will involve Mexico, my girls, travel and motherhood. It will involve exposing an imbalance, too, as does Madre. In what combination will these topics appear? I haven’t any idea. But I know that when I do sit down, the story will push my pen along.

Liza Bakewell

Liza Bakewell is an anthropologist, a faculty member at Brown University and the author of Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun.

While Liza was an anthropology PhD student, her research took her to Mexico, where she became intrigued by the numerous Mexican expressions that use the word “madre” (mother in Spanish). Her book, part memoir, part anthropological investigation into the culture and language of Mexico, was funded in part by the Fulbright Fellowship that she received in 2008.

Liza graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with a B.A. in performing arts and anthropology and earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from Brown University. She has been on the faculty at Brown since 1992, first as teaching faculty, and now as research faculty. She also directs The Mesolore Project, a research and educational software project on Mesoamerican writing systems, manuscripts, and history, from both the pre- and post-Cortés periods. In addition, she has taught courses at Bowdoin College and Colgate University

Liza has lived in Connecticut, Ohio, Colorado, California, Mexico, and Rhode Island. For the past ten years she has lived on the coast of Maine with her twin daughters.

Win a Copy of Madre!

Up for grabs were two hardcover copies of Madre: Perilous Journeys of a Spanish Noun by Liza Bakewell, generously supplied by W.W. Norton & Company. The giveaway is now closed. Thanks to all who entered!

Join the Conversation


  1. Great interview! Learning English can be tough as well – how many different meanings are there for one word? The word “bar” can mean so many things – to ban someone from a place, a place to drink, the exam for attorneys, etc.

    1. Very true. It’s amazing how easy languages seem once you know them and how hard they can be to pick apart or learn.

  2. I loved this interview, and think that Liza sounds like an incredibly smart and astute lady. I also entered your giveaway, as I would love the chance to read this book! Thanks for sharing the interview, and for the great giveaway!

  3. This is a fantastic interview. Liza Bakewell is so smart and approachable. I love how her twin girls were born and grew up during the research/writng of Madre and were with Liza for some research. I also found it interesting that it was easier to talk to people about the languauge because she was an outsider and could feign ignorance. And had she been a man some of her questions would have been even easier (ugh!)

    I am even more interested in Madre now!
    I tweeted this giveaway:!/Amestir/status/52775737966592000

  4. Sorry if this is submitted twice — there was an error the first time around??

    Anyway, this book seems fascinating on so many levels — the culture, the linguistics, the experience of the author and her twins living in Mexico. I’d like to read it!

    I tweeted about this give-away — nto sure how to include the link of the tweet here, but I did include your twitter handle in the tweet.

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