The new book by Angela Garbes, Essential Work: Mothering as Social Change (Harper Wave), weaves together scholarly research and astute policy insights with the idiosyncrasies of her own experience as a Filipino American woman, mother, and daughter to examine the history, pandemic-induced present, and possible future of the care work in the United States. I spoke with Garbes about his explorations of work and care and what our bodies tell us about trauma, healing and pleasure.
Sarah Franklin: In this book on mothering, you also talk about mothering. You highlight this tension of figuring out how to be the bridge between different generations and how to grow within ourselves. Is that how you would describe the book?
Angela Garbes: Absolutely, although I don’t expect that to be the dominant narrative being told about the book. There are things I was trying to accomplish: getting people to think about caring, giving people a space to think about their mothering in a different way, and exploring how mothering can be a progressive aspect of change. positive social. But, of course, you write to get by. That’s what everyone does. That’s what I always do.
There are books about Asian girls, but I wanted to explore this on my own. A big part of the book is that I try to honor and understand how my parents, and specifically my mother, raised me: I lived a life bathed, soaked, saturated in unconditional love, but at the end of the day, that might be one of the only things about my upbringing that I wanted to recreate for my daughters. I was trying to figure out the things I wish my parents had done for me, and also to figure out that they didn’t do them for me not because they didn’t want to or wanted to deny me something, but because they weren’t capable of them or just didn’t know what I needed.
Many of us are caught between how we were raised and how we really want to live. And I think parenthood is a place to explore that and move on.
FS: This book looks like peeling off the skin or scabs in some way. It feels contained, but not finished: a reflection of a moment for you and a series of recent moments, both looking back and looking forward and determining your position within that. There is no stasis.
AG: As a writer, I wouldn’t just write a memoir of my experience. I have to have a whole stats element and a bigger purpose than my individual story. I know my story is valuable, but it’s not just me. I wanted to be really specific partly because I really feel like a first generation Asian American, and I wanted to write something that would be relevant to first generation Asian Americans. Specificity is not alienating to people. It’s actually more emotionally open. This is something I still understand.
FS: Yes. Are there any parts of this book that you feel particularly protective of? Concretely, it is not for white people?
AG: True, but if I put myself in the spotlight and tried to seek internalized whiteness, I’m not sure I could tell. People of color are often told, “Write for yourself, don’t worry about anyone.” Which is great, theoretically. But there’s a certain level that I can’t separate the part that I’m trying to write to please white people. I bought into the idea of being a good writer very early on, of being eloquent, clear and grammatically correct. But that’s just whiteness. These rules are whiteness. So the way I express myself as a writer, I’m afraid, is kind of a reflection of a deep internalized whiteness. Instead of trying to completely undo that, I try to call people. I have explained my culture and that of my family to white people all my life. At the start of this book, I decided I wasn’t going to do that: no italicized Tagalog words, no explanations of Filipino dishes. There was definitely the issue of readability for me, and I was ready to defend every choice like that. I learned that you have to prepare for it. But it’s no secret; if you’re Filipino, this all makes sense on a different level. I know there are people for whom this book will resonate on a deeper physical and spiritual level. I didn’t really think about what it would be like for white people; they can do what people of color do all the time, which is make a little effort to see themselves in something.
FS: You are so gracious in moving from sharing to providing learning opportunities. And this book smells huge. There is so much to tap into with the expansive openness of the larger discourses you enter: feminist literature, poetics, personal experience. You just keep opening doors in a refreshingly harsh way.
AG: I like the idea that some non-Filipinos see it as an invitation, even a discreet affectionate challenge.
FS: This book is based on your exploration of identity. But it’s also anchored in your work of reflection and reading about bodies. Tell me about how this thread found its way.
AG: As I read new research on Filipino nurses coming to the United States, I felt these studies in my body. Like a shiver. I struggled to figure out how to tell the story of care work in America. It’s overwhelming. Much of it is rooted in slavery, and there are people better equipped to tell that story. For me, from a narrative perspective, it was intimidating. I realized that I wanted to talk about Filipinos, because it is something that is personal to me; I could emphasize my family history to emphasize colonialism, capitalism and white supremacy. It’s a very different story, but the same forces are at work.
All forms of oppression manifest in the body. That’s why people have worse health outcomes, shorter life expectancies, all that stuff. It occurred to me that those of us who don’t have what are considered “normal” white cis bodies have, on some level, been told that we would be better off without our bodies. Whether it means better as a simple mind, someone who produces things and proves your worth in that sense, or literally dead.
Another main motivation for this book was to stop feeling so dead inside for two years. I felt physically drained. The things that I liked before, like cooking, going for a walk, have become “get away from it all!” It was as if the color and fun of my life’s activities were bleeding. I wanted to reclaim those things and rediscover the sensations in my specific Filipino body. I wanted to try to find that meaning. And I wanted to celebrate the physical pleasures of mothering, because there are so many of them.
FS: While reading your book, there were many times when I found myself saying “Yes!” or “True!” or “Oh wait, I didn’t know that!” But there is also pain.
I noticed at one point that you quote a conversation you had with your parents in which they really closed your “what if” questions about their own experiences immigrating to the United States.
AG: Yes, they really slammed the door in my face in that conversation. I didn’t push, because those are their feelings.
FS: Another place I witnessed this is when you write about sex. It did something to me as a woman, as a mother, as someone who carried babies in my body and then nursed them with this kind of struggle for autonomy that was, and still is, physically and intellectually pleasant and painful at the same time. . And then there is also the need sometimes to be silent: “Enough! I’m overexcited”, or “I can’t be touched anymore, I can’t give you anymore, I have to go recharge my batteries”. And the sexual component of this book seemed to attenuate this duality. In my body’s memory, there is pleasure “out there” in that distant land that I once knew as sexual youth and pre-maternal freedom in my body (which is, of course, of a particular generation that we can even feel that freedom, and can access it without terror all the time, and certainly not everyone) – but on the other hand, he disappeared from you for a while.
AG: I think I wanted, even when I was depressed, to have sex. But, at least for my partner and I, when there are so many results in healing and when you’re so exhausted… I just wasn’t in touch with myself enough. I felt very separated from myself. And how being physical with someone else seemed to require more energy than me.
I didn’t know for sure that sex was going to be part of the book. But reproduction is why we are all here. So I strongly believe that we as a culture need to talk about it more. I thought this chapter would be about sex education, not about me or my sexual experience. But it became very clear to me that I couldn’t write about sex without writing about my relationship to sex. It was extremely dishonest. But it was really scary. I just kinda dared to do it.
FS: It makes sense to me that you included sex, because the experience of motherhood is in many ways erotic. It is Audre Lorde’s fuller notion of eroticism– which recognizes sensory input and extends the notion of sensual pleasure beyond sexuality – as a source of power and a means of resisting the oppression you work with in the book.
AG: Yes. Not only do my own kids enjoy lying on top of me sometimes for hours at a time, but during the height of the pandemic, the other kids in our group did the same. It made us all so happy. I mean, don’t we all want to feel as good as possible as often as possible?