Carol Major

Interview with Carol Major: Pulling Apart Binaries

Interview by Louise Sapphira


The heartache of losing someone you love using the metaphor of war.


Carol Major’s memoir The Asparagus Wars is an emotive journey about losing her talented daughter to muscular dystrophy, a daughter who was also diagnosed with bowel cancer that could not be conventionally treated. But the memoir is not simply about grief; it is also about Major’s complicated past, one that lead to a stand-off over her right to be by her daughter’s side.

Major lost her first child to adoption when she was seventeen and another son and daughter as part of an international custody dispute, during which the removal of her first child was used as ammunition to suggest she was morally unfit for motherhood.  The Asparagus Wars follows limited contact between mother and daughter over the years. However, their connection grows strong due to their shared creative passions.

Rather than being told in chronological order, the epistolary memoir follows the fragmented order of memory – memory that unravels while Major resides in a small a cottage in the Marne region of North-Eastern France following her daughter’s death. Here Major writes honest and courageous letters to her daughter.

Major said she felt incredibly alone in that cottage and deeply sensitive to her surroundings – surroundings that acted as touchstones to memories as she tried to make sense of the unfolding battles in her daughter’s care. As she writes in her memoir:

I sat in the small sit-tub in the bathroom on the landing between the bedrooms until the water turned stone cold. I was mulling over the story I began yesterday, trying to locate the flash points, trying to come to grips with how wars begin.

Major told me that to a large extent she had felt like a deserting soldier because she had not charged headlong into battle. Fearing her children would become collateral damage and deeply shamed, she didn’t fight to keep her adopted child and walked away from the custody case. Unlike Lillian, her daughter’s stepmother, who explored every known alternative cure for cancer, beginning with a diet of pureed asparagus, which gives the memoir its name, Major didn’t do battle with the disease. Instead, she made a crazy attempt to take her daughter to Paris, the city that had inspired the young woman’s writing and art.

I asked if Major if her and Lillian’s differing approaches were symbolic of hope or a band-aid that families often place over traumatic events.  Major replied that she had been exhausted by hope. She did not envisage recovery.

‘What does winning the battle against disease mean?’ Major said. ‘We attach dying bodies to machines and think we have won. Lillian believed she could beat the disease. I didn’t. I wanted to make the most of the time we had in an unwinnable war. Lillian was armed, wading through the trenches, while I was metaphorically decorating them with tinsel, shouting, “Let’s look at beauty. Let’s delight in the now.” Later, I felt I hadn’t risen to the occasion and because I learned that my daughter had inherited muscular dystrophy from me, I felt I’d caused every aspect of the war, that I was root of everything that had gone wrong.’

In the Marne Region, the scene of such terrible wars, Major tries to gain admission into Section E within the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery. Section E is where disgraced soldiers are interred and is hidden from public view. Major felt this was where she belonged. But as her time in France unfolded, she came across the lonely graves of German soldiers, many of whom were seduced or dragged into a war not of their own making either – soldiers as human as those deemed to be the winning heroes.

‘War begins when we take sides,’ Major said. ‘It begins when we settle into entrenched positions of certainty. Good soldier and bad soldier – when it is the binary positions of war itself that has made people these things, just it as it made good mother versus bad mother out of Lillian and me.’

Major hopes The Asparagus Wars encourages readers to reflect on how binary thinking undermines an understanding of the complexities of life – an understanding that can pave the way toward reconciliation and peace.

The Asparagus Wars is prefaced with a note that it is a memoir, ‘a remembering from a particular vantage point. For this reason Major has changed names because ‘names define in a way that suggests someone or something has been pinned down.’ In keeping with her themes, she stresses that she does not want to pin anything or anyone down, although her sister Alice remains as Alice, because there is an essential quality she brings to Major’s life.

As for Major’s daughter, she bears no name at all. I asked her about this. She replied, ’My daughter is – was much larger than my relationship with her. She was a fabulous artist. She was a fabulous writer, and for me to frame her in this one story denies the expansiveness of her ‘all-ness’. That’s why you just hear me say, “Dearest or My darling girl.”’

Major is well-known and respected for her work at Varuna (The National Writer’s House). I asked her about working with emerging writers and in particular a piece on her website about the physical space of telling a story. In which physical place did she like to write?

‘Ah,’ she replied. ‘That comment is about envisaging the physical place where the story’s narrator is located when they are telling the story, which affects the voice. It is not about where I am when creating that narrator. But I can say that I do like working at my large dining room table surrounded with windows.  It’s as if my imagination requires that much space. I’m also very affected by colour and light. But at other times I’ve written in airport lobbies, small cafes or curled up in bed. It depends on the demands of time and opportunity, and those venues offer their own sensory textures that can be useful. Writers can’t be overly precious about where they write.

When working with writers Major does her best to unearth the central pattern in a manuscript. ‘It is easy for a writer to get lost in content and lose sight of the story’s intention,’ she said. ‘Like a painting or a piece of music, a story must work as an artistic whole to take us to a felt place.’

On occasion Major also suggests writers stop thinking about writing a book, which can lead to a wooden thing, and think about speaking to someone. ‘Locate the central disturbance that made you want to speak in the first place,’ she said. ‘That’s the story heart.’

Major is currently writing a new work of fiction ‘Writers are always writing,’ she said. ‘For me it is how I make sense of the world.

For more about Dr Major.