Angela Garbes’s new book, Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change (Harper Wave), weaves together scholarly research and astute political insights with the particularities of her own experience as a Filipina American woman, mother, and daughter to examine the history, the pandemic-wrought present, and the possible future of care work in the United States. I spoke with Garbes about her explorations of labor and care and what our bodies tell us about trauma, healing, and pleasure.
Sara Franklin: In this book on mothering, you talk about daughtering, too. You highlight this tension of figuring out how to be the bridge between different generations and how to grow into our own selves. Is that how you would describe the book?
Angela Garbes: Absolutely, though I don’t expect that to be the dominant narrative that gets told about the book. There are things I was trying to accomplish: getting people to think about care, giving people space to think about their mothering in a different way, and exploring how mothering can be a progressive aspect of positive social change. But, obviously, you write to work some shit out. That’s what everyone’s doing. That’s what I’m always doing.
There are books about Asian daughtering, but I wanted to explore that on my own. So much of the book is me trying to honor and understand how my parents, and specifically my mother, raised me: I lived a life bathed, soaked, saturated in unconditional love, but when it came down to it, that might be one of the only things about my upbringing that I wanted to recreate for my daughters. I was trying to understand the things I wish my parents had done for me, and also understand 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.
So many of us are caught between the way we were raised and the way we really want to live. And I think parenting is a place to explore that and move forward.
SF: This book feels like a peeling back of skin or scabs somehow. It feels contained, but not finished: a reflection of a moment for you, and a series of moments in recent time, the looking back and the looking forward at once and figuring out where you sit within that. There’s no stasis.
AG: As a writer, I wouldn’t just write a memoir of my experience. I have to have a whole element of statistics and a purpose greater than my individual story. I know my story is valuable, but it’s not just me. I wanted to be really specific in part because I feel very much like a first generation Asian American, and I wanted to write something that would be relevant to first generation Asian Americans. The specificity isn’t alienating to people. It’s actually emotionally more opening. That’s a thing I’m still understanding.
SF: Yes. Are there parts of this book that you feel like you feel particularly protective over? Specifically, that are not for white people?
AG: Certainly, but if I were to put myself under the lights and try to scan for 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 some level on which I cannot separate the part I’m trying to write to please white people. I bought in so early to the idea of being a good writer, being eloquent and clear and grammatically correct. But that’s all whiteness. Those rules are whiteness. So the way I express myself as a writer, I fear, is in some ways a reflection of deep internalized whiteness. Instead of trying to completely undo that, I am trying to call people in. I have been explaining myself and my family’s culture to white people my entire life. Early on in this book I decided I wasn’t going to do that: no italicizing Tagalog words, no explaining Filipino dishes. There was definitely the question of legibility for me, and I was prepared to defend every choice like that. I’ve learned you have to be prepared for that. But it’s not a secret; if you’re Filipino, all of this 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 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.
SF: You’re so graceful at moving between sharing and offering opportunities for learning. And this book feels huge. There’s so much to tap into with the expansive opening of the larger discourses you’re entering into: the feminist literature, the poetics, the personal experience. You just keep opening doors in a way that is refreshingly hard.
AG: I love the idea that some non-Filipinos would see it as an invitation, or even a low-key loving challenge.
SF: This book is grounded in your exploration of identity. But it’s also grounded in your work thinking and reading about bodies. Talk to me about how that thread found its way in.
AG: As I was reading new research about Filipina nurses coming over to the United States, I felt these studies in my body. Like a chill. I was having a hard time figuring out how to tell the history of care work in America. It’s overwhelming. So much of it is rooted in slavery, and there are people better equipped to tell that story. For me, from a storytelling point of view, that was daunting. I realized I wanted to make this about Filipinos, because that is the thing that is personal to me; I could bring into focus my family story to point out colonialism, capitalism, and white supremacy. This is a very different story, but it is the same forces at work.
All forms of oppression show up in the body. It’s why people have poorer health outcomes, shorter lifespans, all of that stuff. It came to me, this idea that those of us who don’t have what are considered “normal” white cis bodies have been, on some level, been being told that we’d be better off without our bodies. Whether that means better off as just a mind, someone who’s producing things and proving your value in that sense, or literally dead.
Another main motivation of this book was to stop feeling so dead inside from the last two years. I felt physically drained. The things that I used to take pleasure in, like cooking, going on a walk became “gotta get away!” It was like the color and the pleasure of activities in my life were bleeding out. I wanted to reclaim those things and rediscover feeling 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.
SF: Reading your book, there were lots of times I found myself saying “Yes!” or “True!” or “Oh wait, I didn’t know that!” But there’s also pain.
I noticed at one point you quote a conversation you had with your parents where they really shut down your “what if” questions about their own experiences of immigrating to the US.
AG: Yes, they really slammed the door in my face in that conversation. I didn’t push, because those are their feelings.
SF: Another place I witnessed it is when you write about sex. It did a thing to me as a woman, as a mother, as a person who carried babies in my body and then nursed them with that kind of tussle over autonomy which felt, and still feels, physically and intellectually pleasurable and painful all at once. And then there’s also the need sometimes to shut it out: “Enough! I am overstimulated,” or “I cannot be touched anymore, I cannot give to you anymore, I have to go replenish for myself.” And the sex component of this book felt like it limned that duality. In my body’s memory, there’s pleasure “over there” in this distant land that I once knew as sexual youth and pre-mothering 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 can)—but on the flip side, it was gone for you for a time.
AG: I think I wanted—even through depression—to have sex. But, at least for my partner and me, when there’s so much output in caring and when you’re so drained… I just wasn’t in touch enough with myself. I felt very separate from myself. And how to be physical with somebody else seemed to require more energy than I had.
I didn’t know for sure that sex was going to make it into the book. But reproduction is the reason why we’re all here. So I firmly believe we, as a culture, need to talk about it more. I thought, this chapter is going to be about sex education, it’s not going to be about me or my experience with sex. But it became really clear to me that I could not write about sex without writing about my relationship to sex. It felt extremely dishonest. But it was really scary. I just kind of dared myself to do it.
SF: It makes sense to me that you included sex, because the experience of mothering is in so many ways erotic. This is Audre Lorde’s fuller notion of eroticism—which acknowledges sensory input and expands the notion of sensual pleasure beyond sexuality—as a source of power and a means to resist oppression that you work with in the book.
AG: Yes. Not only do my own kids like to lay themselves on top of me sometimes for hours at a time, but during the height of the pandemic, the other kids in our pod did the same. It gave all of us so much pleasure. I mean, don’t we all want to feel as good as we can as much of the time as we can?