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?
G: 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.