Award-winning Australian author Angela Savage joins us to discuss her new novel Mother of Pearl.
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Angela Savage on the inspiration for her new novel Mother of Pearl
The idea for Mother of Pearl was sparked by a 2013 newspaper article that mentioned a ‘sharp rise’ in citizenship requests for Australian children born in Thailand, and attributing this to Australians flocking overseas ‘to find birth mothers for their children’. Already a medical tourism destination, it seemed Thailand had added surrogacy to its mix of available services, prompting an increasing number of Australians—singles and couples, straight and gay—to hire Thai women to be implanted with embryos and paying these ‘surrogate mothers’ to gestate, give birth to and hand over the resulting babies. An expert quoted in the article said,
‘People don’t want to go to a poor country and behave harmfully’
and suggested the solution lay in permitting paid surrogacy in Australia, where it is currently illegal:
‘Parents say the idea that they would ask someone to do that for free is abhorrent.’
As a writer with long-standing interests in sexual and reproductive health, and Australia’s relationship with Asia, particularly Thailand, my curiosity was piqued. I didn’t doubt the lengths that people would go to in order to have a child, having personally experienced a powerful urge to be a parent and the grief of failed pregnancies. But I did wonder how ‘intended parents’ from Australia arrived at a course of action as precarious as paying a Thai woman to have a baby for them. What did Thailand offer that Australia did not? Did their perceptions of Thailand play a part in the decision to hire a Thai surrogate?
I wondered, too, what lay behind a Thai woman’s decision to gestate a baby for foreigners. Research from India, mentioned in the article as a key destination for commercial surrogacy, suggested women were overwhelmingly compelled by poverty and financial pressures to become surrogate mothers. Was it all about the money for women in Thailand, too? Or were there other cultural considerations at play—Buddhist ideas about making merit, for example? Was commercial surrogacy even legal in Thailand, or was this an example of an unregulated ‘grey area’, overlooked by authorities preoccupied with the country’s ongoing political crisis?
I was troubled by the language used in the article, especially the linking of the strongest word—abhorrent—with the idea of not paying for something. Did this indicate another triumph for neo-liberalism in its effort to treat all aspects of the social world as markets? Or did the word ‘abhorrent’ hint at the intensity of the emotions at stake, signifying the enormity of the intended parents’ hopes and fears?
The more I reflected on these questions, the stronger the appeal of the topic became for me as a writer. With this idea in mind, I enrolled in a PhD in Creative Writing in 2014. But I didn’t want to write a diatribe. Taking inspiration from Salman Rushdie in his Paris Review interview,
‘I wanted to make sure in this book that the story was personal, not political. I wanted people to read it and form intimate, novelistic attachments to the characters’.
As I conducted my research, a set of characters started to emerge. There was Anna, who, at 40, returns to Australia after more than a decade as an aid worker in Southeast Asia; Anna’s younger sister, Meg, who despite seven fruitless years on IVF has never given up hope of becoming a mother; and Mukda, nicknamed Mod (meaning ‘ant’), living in the northeast town of Sisaket, struggling to care for her young son and extended family.
By listening to what these characters had to say, I started writing the story that would become Mother of Pearl.
A luminous and courageous story about the hopes and dreams we all have for our lives and relationships, and the often fraught and unexpected ways they may be realised.
Angela Savage draws us masterfully into the lives of Anna, an aid worker trying to settle back into life in Australia after more than a decade in Southeast Asia; Meg, Anna’s sister, who holds out hope for a child despite seven fruitless years of IVF; Meg’s husband Nate, and Mukda, a single mother in provincial Thailand who wants to do the right thing by her son and parents.
The women and their families’ lives become intimately intertwined in the unsettling and extraordinary process of trying to bring a child into the world across borders of class, culture and nationality. Rich in characterisation and feeling, Mother of Pearl and the timely issues it raises will generate discussion among readers everywhere.
(Transit Lounge Publishing, 1 August 2019)
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* Another great title and author to add to your Aussie Author Challenge 2019 reading list!
About the Author, Angela Savage
Angela Savage is an award-winning Melbourne writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her debut novel, Behind the Night Bazaar, won the 2004 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. All three of her Jayne Keeney PI novels were shortlisted for Ned Kelly Awards. The Dying Beach was also shortlisted for the 2014 Davitt Award. She has taught writing throughout Australia and overseas. Angela holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Monash University, and is currently Director of Writers Victoria. Her website is angelasavage.wordpress.com.