When it comes to talking about sex, the accepted wisdom is that parents and kids alike would just rather not. But Kansas City poet Natasha Ria El-Scari doesn't think that's healthy.
Neither does her college-age son, who says he's benefited from his mother's openness and candor in a way his peers are missing out on.
"You need to write a book and call it the 'Mama Sutra'," he once told her. "You can thank me later."
Now she's written the book. She thanks him in the introduction.
Based on notes she jotted down throughout her parenting journey, "Mama Sutra: Love and Lovemaking Advice to My Son" is candid but not sexy, despite the racy title. It contains advice and encouragement on a range of topics: body image, how to talk to your friends about what's going on in your life, or the nitty gritty of personal hygiene.
In short, the kind of stuff parents talk to kids about in every other aspect of their lives.
For El-Scari, those conversations involve the word "patriarchy."
"It's everywhere," she says. "I was like, 'Is it too many places?' But patriarchy is everywhere, so I had to address it as such. We do so many things that are patriarchal that we don't even realize ... down to the intimate details of our bedrooms."
She knows the idea of the book can make people uncomfortable.
"People when they first hold the book, they go, 'Huh?' And then it's, 'Are you the mother?' And then sometimes when I'm talking to young men I get this blank stare, looking at me as if I was their mother, like, how could this be?" El-Scari admits.
But she also thinks motherhood comes with a responsibility to impart this kind of wisdom. At the beginning of the book, she writes a note to mothers explaining her position on the matter:
"Mamas: Why abandon your sons now? Presumably you've taken the time to talk about everything under the sun, so why would you cease these conversations now? Haven't you taught your sons to pray, clean, cook, handle conflict, grow and love so far?"
That these conversations would continue into more adult territory feels natural to El-Scari.
"One of the most difficult parts of being a mother is how intimately you are tied to your child's life. You know their personality, their habits, their ways, when they're becoming cranky, or not even when they're cranky, you can head it off at the pass. You know what they can eat, what's best for them. And then we get to this part and it's like, 'Go ask your dad?'"
It also feels necessary.
"How do you open that conversation with a partner, with a lover, if you've never had it anywere else? It's hard to talk about your vulnerabilities if you've never said, 'Mom, I'm afraid.' Or, 'Mom, I'm sad.'"
To El-Scari, teaching men to do this is how you dismantle patriarchy.
She sees "black love," in particular, as a sacred institution, a source of shared humanity and joy in the face of hardship.
"When we think about racism in this country, and how we survive racism, love is one of the ways we do," she says. "It's very difficult to be in the world where you get beat up every day, you have to have something to turn to."
Her own parents split when she was 2, and from then on she lived in a house full of women: herself, her sister and her mom. She grew up near 75th and Paseo, adjacent to an empty lot filled with fruit trees, daydreaming not of having kids, but becoming a world-traveling professor.
"I wanted to do lectures and research and, like, meet hot guys at lectures." These imagined lecture attendees all had accents. "They would come up and say something to me and I'd be like, 'Yes, exactly.'"
She understood what her intellect could unlock for her from an early age. In school, she noticed that kids were treated differently according to gender and race — except the "smart kids," who grownups treated in a way that wasn't about either one.
"Being smart helped ease the angst of racism and sexism," she says.
El-Scari attended a historically black college, then went on graduate studies at UMKC, ultimately leaving academia to become a writer and tell the stories of "ordinary black women."
She's been successful in that mission. Her work has been published in anthologies and journals, her books have earned high acclaim, and she's been the recipient of numerous awards and residencies.
This book is part of that mission. It may be a letter to her son, but it isn't just for him, and it isn't just for men. It's for women, too, as an act of sisterhood.
"It's a tool for men," she says. "But it's a gift for women."
Natasha Ria El-Scari spoke with KCUR on a recent episode of Central Standard. Listen to the entire conversation here.
Gina Kaufmann is the host of Central Standard. You can reach her on Twitter, @GinaKCUR.