Megan Cheong reviews Mother of Pearl by Angela Savage
Mother of Pearl
by Angela Savage
Reviewed by MEGAN CHEONG
Mother of Pearl: Perspectives on exploitation
When I open a book by a white writer and am confronted by the point of view of a person of colour, my body tenses as if in anticipation of a blow. Rather than reading, I pick nervously at the writing in search of cliché and oversimplification. Because the source of the tension I feel in relation to point of view is less a question of who has a right to whose story than it is one of craft. As Rankine and Loffreda point out in their introduction to The Racial Imaginary, “our imaginations are creatures as limited as we ourselves are” and therefore susceptible to the same preconceptions under which we labour as the products of an entire history of racist culture, politics and violence. The first-principle question is not therefore: “can I write from another’s point of view?”, but instead: “why and what for?”
The narration of Mother of Pearl is shared by three women, each of whom bears a distinct experience of exploitation. Meg has endured almost a decade of infertility treatments at the hands of a for-profit fertility industry in Australia. Her older sister Anna has spent the greater part of her adult life working with the ostracised and oppressed throughout South-East Asia. And early in the novel Mukda, or ‘Mod’, turns to surrogacy in an effort to lift her family out of the poverty endemic to the Isaan region of north-eastern Thailand.
Savage cycles quickly through each perspective to kaleidoscopic effect – each chapter is just a few pages long and written from a different point of view to the one before – and by interweaving Meg and Mod’s trauma, Savage expands the limits of an essentially western narrative of infertility to encompass the non-white suffering that it brings about. Her portrayal of the medical procedures that Mod undergoes are particularly uncomfortable:
‘Inserting the speculum,’ the doctor said to no one in particular.
The slide of cold metal against her skin made her catch her breath.
‘Cleaning the cervix.’
It felt like something had crawled up inside her. Mod bit her lip.
A woman doctor joined them in the room, carrying what looked like a long, uncooked vermicelli noodle. The two doctors glanced at the screen Mod couldn’t see, murmuring in voices she couldn’t hear. She closed her eyes and brought an image to mind of Pui at the market. She’d been buying bplaa krai when a catfish leapt from its basin and slithered through the mud over Pui’s foot, making him shriek with laughter. He’d shown off the muddy whorls on his toes to his grandmother as proudly as if they were new shoes.
The medical staff’s failure to address Mod, let alone guide her through the process of implantation, signals her objectification as a surrogate – within the framework of the surrogacy industry, Mod is nothing more than a receptacle for the embryos of paying customers. As I read these scenes, I recall the gentle and attentive manner in which the midwives and doctors navigated my body during pregnancy, the work they did to keep me informed and seek my consent. Mod’s passivity is both assumed and imposed and elucidates the way in which capital, or a lack of capital, can strip back an individual’s humanity in the eyes of both institutions and the individual themselves. Similarly, the poverty of her circumstances, in combination with the warm rendering of her love for her son, Pui, speak to the illusory nature of choice in destitution.
By placing the reader on the examination table and leaving their knees dangl[ing] from hard plastic bars (123), Savage embodies the human cost of surrogacy and succeeds in her aim of lessening the distance that “enables overseas commercial surrogacy to happen in the first place”, and yet I am never able to sink into Mod’s world in the same way I do Anna’s or Meg’s. The finer details of Mod’s character are the product of much careful observation and deliberation. Like Anna, Savage spent several years living and working in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam; her research for the novel took her as far as Mod’s hometown of Sisaket; and she revised the manuscript in consultation with a Thai friend.
The grain of sand in my eye: while there is something in lending your voice to the voiceless, I don’t think I will ever be fully at-ease with characters whose submissiveness so closely aligns with “the kinds of feelings and attributes” that “our culture has imagined over and over again” for Asian women, and at times, Mod’s passivity and generosity facilitate the narrative in such a way as to remind me that writing from another’s perspective is inevitably an act of habitation and appropriation. One that can so easily lead to exploitation.
Savage enacts the awkwardness of her position as an outsider through the character of Anna. Anna’s knowledge of Thai culture, as well as her ability to speak Thai, simultaneously afford her greater access to Thai perspectives, and bring her face-to-face with the limits of her understanding as a farang, or white foreigner. When she expresses concern for the Thai surrogate who will carry Meg’s child, her Thai friend’s wry smile stops her mid-sentence:
‘What? The surrogate mothers are vulnerable, aren’t they?’
Fon shrugged. ‘Probably not as much as cleaner and factory workers. And the salary is better.’
‘So you think it’s okay for farangs like my sister to pay Thai women to have their babies for them?’
‘Why shouldn’t women in my country take advantage of such opportunities? Reuu dtawng gin naam dtai saawk mai?’
The expression was one Anna had heard Fon use before, the Thai equivalent of being satisfied with the crumbs from the rich man’s table. Translated literally, it was more visceral: ‘Must they drink only the water that drips from the elbow?’
‘Being a surrogate mother is a way of making merit,’ Fon said. ‘It’s considered a humanitarian act. A lot better than sex work.’
Anna chased the ice cubes in her water glass with a straw. She’d assumed that as a feminist, Fon would be dead against commercial surrogacy.
‘Neither surrogacy nor sex work seem like great choices to me.’
‘That’s because you’re thinking like a farang.’
This and other similar encounters serve to undermine Anna’s conventional authority as a white woman narrating Asia and in turn, reflects Savage’s awareness of the fraught nature of her own narrative choices. But for all her awkwardness, of the three women, it is Anna who allows Savage to articulate the problems of distance and othering with the greatest clarity. Anna’s acquaintance with the extreme poverty of South-East Asia makes her an exacting judge of others’ suffering. As Australia mourns in the wake of the Black Saturday fires, Anna wonders why those who are poor to begin with don’t seem to make it onto the radar (84) and stroking Meg’s hair at the hospital, where she is being treated for overstimulated ovaries, Anna sees that:
Meg would be all right. She had Nate, her family and friends, a comfortable home, a steady job. Compared with what the people Anna encountered in her work had to contend with, Meg’s sadness was a small burden.
It is shocking, in a way, to see infertility described as a small burden, yet throughout Mother of Pearl Savage interrogates the notion of ‘infertility’ until it starts to come apart. Reflecting on the last ten years of her life, Meg observes:
Once, a woman in her circumstances would’ve been classified as barren, with no room for ambiguity. But infertility was something else: a diagnosis, subject to an ever expanding array of medical interventions. Even the word infertility carried with it the hope, false or otherwise, of fertility. More than once Meg had thought it would be easier to know that there was no hope, that she would never have children. But no doctor or nurse, not a single professional she had dealt with, ever suggested she give up.
Mother of Pearl is not, in the end, a traditional portraiture of infertility. Nor is it a blunt condemnation of international surrogacy. Savage writes from the centre of each woman’s hopes and fears and the end product is a complex web of exploitation, accomplishment and loss that reaches farther than any one woman’s story.
- Rankine, C. and Loffreda, B., ‘On Whiteness and The Racial Imaginary’. Literary Hub, April 9, 2015. https://lithub.com/on-whiteness-and-the-racial-imaginary/
- Hunter, B., Mother of Pearl. FEMALE.com.au. https://www.female.com.au/mother-of-pearl.htm
- Rankine and Loffreda, ‘On Whiteness and the Racial Imaginary’.
MEGAN CHEONG is currently working as an editor and completing her Masters of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. Her work can be found in Overland and Farrago.