Miriam Nash talks about the inspiration for her new Hercules Editions book, The Nine Mothers of Heimdallr, and what it has meant to work with her own mother, the artist Christina Edlund-Plater, in the bringing together of image and text.
When I was commissioned to rewrite a myth or folk tale for the podcast series Bedtime Stories for the End of the World, I knew I wanted to draw from my Scandinavian heritage. My maternal grandmother was Swedish and moved to the UK in the 1950s. My mother was raised bilingual, but when I was growing up in Scotland, she didn’t feel in a position to pass Swedish on to me. The first time I visited Sweden I was 16 and it was, of course, a foreign country, but full of family and family stories – a place I already had a feeling for, through my imagination.
I learned Norse mythology at primary school. Odin, Thor and Loki – and their shadowy neighbours the frost giants – were vivid characters to me, though I didn’t connect them with my own heritage at the time. I wanted to write about these stories, to explore them more fully for myself, and in particular to find out more about their female characters. I remembered there were important goddesses, but in googling women in Norse mythology, I came across the nine mothers of Heimdallr, nine Jötunn or ‘giants’ who ‘gave birth’ to the god Heimdallr. All nine are named in the surviving Norse literature, but with very few details about them or their stories. We don’t know how or why Heimdallr has nine mothers, or what this might symbolise.
In my poem, The Nine Mothers of Heimdallr, nine giants tell the Norse creation myth to their son, in their cave on the edge of the Norse worlds. In the beginning, ice and fire met in the ‘Ginnungagap’, the void, to create Ymir, the first being, who was mother and father of the giants. After the first god, Buri, emerged from the ice, gods and giants lived together for a time, until Odin (half giant himself) convinced his brother-gods to destroy Ymir and cast out the giants. Ymir’s body was flung into the void to form the earth; their bones became hills and mountains, their skull became the sky. The gods became rulers; the giants swam for their lives through Ymir’s blood. In the nine mothers’ telling, this is also the tale of how Heimdallr became their child.
I’m interested in non-nuclear families. This is both because of the expansive shape of my own family (which includes stepparents who are very important to me, cousins in all directions and friends who are family) and because I care about having children in my life without being a mother. The idea of a child having nine mothers, who might all play different roles in that child’s life, is part of what made the nine mothers so compelling to me as characters.
When Tamar Yoseloff at Hercules Editions asked me if I had an artist in mind to illustrate the book, I heard myself saying: “My mum?” This was pretty wild of me – I hadn’t asked her, and we’d never discussed it. All my life my mother, Christina Edlund-Plater, has been making things: clothes, cushions, toys, paper weaving, costumes, cards, outlandish nativity scenes... I’d considered her an artist for many years, but she didn’t really think of herself that way. She was recovering from a serious illness and had told me about the fabric pictures she planned to make when well enough. When I thought about images for the book, I could see something like what she’d described. Tamar was interested. I asked Christina and she said yes.
Over the past year, Christina and I have worked together, expertly guided in the process by Tamar. Christina has refined felting techniques that allow her to create a sense of vastness but also detail in her pictures. One of my favourite parts was when, in her explorations, she laid out images in felt, froze them in the freezer, then cooked them in the microwave to make the fibres blend: a literal process of fire and ice, like the Norse creation.
Making this book together, we’ve spoken a lot about the mythology, about Sweden, about her mother and my grandmother, and about making art. She’s shown me the images she sees from lines in my poem, which are far more pictorially vivid than what I imagine, because she is such a visual thinker; I’m more focussed on sound and spoken story. The poem has grown larger with the artwork, even though the book, as an object, will be pocket-sized. The works have brought literal texture to the poem, and it’s lovely to see wool fibres in the photographs.
Christina has given me the space and tools to play with creativity all my life (her mother did the same for her), and it means a lot to me to have brought this commission and project to her, and see it become ours. Watching Victoria Adukwei Bulley’s Mother Tongues films, in which and poet-daughters and their mother-translators talk about language, culture and working together, Christina and I felt part of a wider possibility: celebrating art that springs from home, from everyday stories passed down (or not passed down), from sayings, from jokes, from making what needs to be made, together. The Nine Mothers of Heimdallr brings what was always a domestic collaboration – my mum and me making things at home – into a public space, and in doing so, deepens our work as intentional art. This process chimes with a poem of motherhood and creation; a story told to a child in a cave, that contains a universe.
Miriam Nash is a poet and educator. Her poetry collection, All the Prayers in the House (Bloodaxe Books, 2017), won a Somerset Maugham Award (2018) and an Eric Gregory Award (2015) from the Society of Authors. Her debut poetry pamphlet, Small Change (2013) was published by flipped eye. She performs and teaches internationally, supporting children and adults to find confidence in their creativity. Her long poem The Nine Mothers of Heimdallr, published by Hercules Editions, will be launched on 29 October 2020. miriamnash.com