Q&A with Jenni Mazaraki

The white background is superimposed with the cover of The Suburban Review #22 on the right. In the centre is a photo of Jenni Mazaraki. She wears a black top, her hair long, and smiles with her eyes, in front of green stalks and leaves. Illustrated, coloured shapes frame the photo, and an orange arrow points to the handwritten text ‘Jenni Mazaraki’. On the left, text reads ‘New Issue Out Now thesuburbanreview.com’.

JENNI MAZARAKI is a writer from Melbourne. Her poetry has been shortlisted in the Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Award 2020 and her short story collection I’ll hold you was highly commended in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for an Unpublished Manuscript 2020.

Our Associate Editor, Panda Wong, talks to Jenni Mazaraki about her poem ‘Put Your Mother on the Mantel’ published in #22: Organise & Mobilise.

In ‘Put Your Mother on the Mantel’, you create this really incredible rhythm through repetition and the lack of punctuation in the first section—it makes me think about how work can blur life together, so the days are hard to tell apart. Can you expand on what shaped this poem and how you arrived at it as a response to ORGANISE & MOBILISE?

I was hoping the rhythm would immerse the reader in that sense of everything being tumbled together in an uncontrollable momentum. I began this piece some time ago when I was working in a job that placed unreasonable demands on my time and energy. I remember working late one night at the office and I felt the ground shift under my feet and the room tilted and my heart began to race uncontrollably. I literally thought I was going to die at work. I further developed the poem as a response to ORGANISE & MOBILISE, thinking about how we internalise our individual experience at work as being unique, but when we come together as a collective, there is an understanding of the ways we are affected by the structures that we are held in.

There is a big shift in the second section, where punctuation and capitalisation start to creep in. The reference to the spreadsheet makes me think about how work and the language we use in a workplace can trickle over into our daily lives… Can you discuss this shift to more ‘formal’ language and the shift in format here?

The trickle of workplace language into our personal lives is interesting. In my day job I am reading, writing, and editing documents which use language related to community development, policy, and issues for various groups. I use words like stakeholder, cohort, engagement, hybrid, pivot. Spending so much time using this type of language makes it naturally seep into the way I talk. However, I make a conscious choice to let that go when speaking with friends and loved ones. 

The introduction of more formal punctuation in my poem wasn’t deliberate, but the second section definitely reflects a sense of identifying priorities and boundaries. I guess it recognises that if structural changes aren’t made then we’ll just repeat the patterns of everyone who came before us.

We usually ask three questions—but this poem prompted so much thought! Can you expand on your exploration of the mother–daughter relationship here—and how it interacts with work?

This question makes me think about labour—of what is identified as valuable and measurable and quantifiable and what is considered worthless and invisible. When I was applying for a bank loan with my partner at the time, he was considered the primary loan applicant because he earned more and I was considered a liability. Can you imagine, sitting there and some guy calls you a liability straight to your face? Clearly, in that situation, my worth was based only on what my paid work said I was worth. So, that made me think of the big fat gold watch as a symbol of retirement after a job well done and how useless it is. Time is the most valuable thing we have. I will never get that time back with my children from when I worked excessive hours. I look back at photos of them from that time and I simply do not remember some of those moments, either because I wasn’t there or because I was in a haze.

I grew up observing my mother work incredible hours juggling household chores, volunteering, caring for family, and paid work. It looked exhausting. I thought my life would be different, except, since having children I have worked freelance jobs around volunteering and caring for my children. That has often meant that I have completed jobs late into the night or in the early hours of the morning with my children needing me. I know I’m not the only one who feels so deeply tired of being split in two. I’m reading lots of literature about this. In particular, Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs beautifully addresses this intergenerational duality of work and motherhood.

Now with Zoom, the workplace intrudes into our homes. There is no end to the way work shapes our lives, on and on, forever it morphs into insidious forms if we don’t set limits. I strongly believe in contributing to the local community but I also have mixed feelings about volunteering that I am still trying to reconcile. I read some interviews with Enza Gandolfo about the schism between generations within migrant families and could relate to her experience. As the eldest daughter of a Greek mother, I have seen the way mothers and daughters are expected to contribute labour. These expectations are not always easily passed on or accepted through generations.

Is there anything else you’re working on at the moment that we can look forward to?

I’m undertaking research for my PhD, examining the visibility of motherhood in literary fiction through a psychoanalytic lens. I’m also writing a short story collection that focuses on mother–child bonds.