Maternal Abandonment and Queer Resistance in Twenty-First-Century Swedish Literature

The aim of this project is to explore what it means that a significant number of mothers leave their families in twenty-first-century Swedish literature. My material consists of representations of 25 mothers in 22 female-authored novels, both from literary fiction and from more popular genres like women’s fiction and crime fiction. Most of the mothers live in heterosexual nuclear families and have small children, but some are single mothers or have teenaged children. Some mothers return to their families after having spent some time away, while others leave for good. I examine the literary representations of maternal abandonment in relation to discourses on motherhood, family, and gender equality in contemporary Sweden. Why do the mothers leave, and how are they portrayed? How do Swedish cultural and sociopolitical discourses on motherhood, family, and gender equality figure in the novels, and how do the novels relate and respond to them? How can we understand this literary trend, situated in a country which is usually seen as one of the best countries in the world to raise a family, especially for mothers?

The twenty-first-century Swedish novels about mothers who leave contrast with the image of Sweden as a nation that prides itself on being in the vanguard of gender equality and family politics. I use a queer-theoretical framework to discuss to what extent the novels about mothers who leave can be understood as ways to problematize Swedish-branded values like gender equality and a progressive family politics that promotes involved parenthood, the nuclear family, and pronatalism. More specifically, I draw on queer theories that explore failure and negativity as modes of resistance (primarily Sara Ahmed’s and Jack Halberstam’s work) to investigate how ideals about motherhood and family figure and are challenged and resisted in the novels. While the project deals with Swedish literature, it points beyond the Swedish context; I raise general questions about maternal ambivalence, family politics and pronatalism in a time of climate change and increased neoliberalization, but I also discuss how literature can work as resistance and provide alternatives to the current social order.

Contact: Jenny Björklund