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  • Motherhood and Domestic Servitude in Transnational Women's Fiction:Thrity Umrigar's The Space Between Us and Mona Simpson's My Hollywood
  • Ambreen Hai (bio)

In the final crisis of Mona Simpson's 2010 novel My Hollywood, Lola, a Filipina who has served as full-time caregiver for Laura, a disabled child, since Laura was born, is fired when she refuses to iron shirts for Laura's mother's new boyfriend. Lola reports how Judith, her white American employer, prevaricates before she gets her boyfriend to break the news:

"With Laura in school all day, maybe this job's not enough challenge," Judith says. "You always liked having a baby."

"You've helped her," he says. "And now I think the job's done."

"What you mean? You will not be needing me any more?" The job done! Laura, she is five years old. Issa, my youngest, she is thirty, graduate medical school, and my job is not yet over.


This exchange and Lola's ensuing thoughts reveal the stark dichotomy between an employer's and an employee's understanding of Lola's position. Where Judith sees Lola's work as mere contractual labor, and their relationship easily ended, Lola sees herself as a mother whose physical, mental, and emotional labor is never done, caring both for her employer's child and her own adult children in the Philippines whose education she supports by working in the U.S. The ambiguity of Judith's language unwittingly affirms that Laura has been Lola's "baby" as well.

Likewise, in the climactic scene in The Space Between Us, Thrity Umrigar's 2005 novel, Bhima, the old Hindu woman who has served for decades as cook, cleaner, and household helper for Sera, [End Page 500] her upper-class Indian Parsi employer, is fired when Sera refuses to believe Bhima's damning revelation about her son-in-law after he falsely accuses Bhima of theft. The novelist here, too, draws our attention to the unexpected betrayal of a vulnerable older woman by her younger female employer, and to the disjunction between the employer's and employee's perceptions of past and present. "Get out of my sight," Sera screams: "Sobs form like bubbles inside Bhima's throat and rock her frail body. 'Serabai, don't turn me away,' she begs. 'After all these years, where will I go?'" (303). Weeping as she collects her "meager possessions," ejected from what she considers her second home, Bhima realizes she has not taken leave of Dinaz, Sera's daughter, whom she has loved like her own: "'Serabai, it was never my desire to hurt you or baby,' she says. 'That girl is like my own—'" (304). Like Lola, Bhima sees herself as bound by powerful ties of maternal love both to "baby," the child in whose home she has worked, and her granddaughter Maya, the child whose education she supports by doing menial labor.

I begin by juxtaposing these moments of crisis from two seemingly disparate novels to highlight the structural and thematic similarities between them and the questions they pose. In both cases, an aging female domestic servant is abruptly fired by her younger female employer at the self-interested instigation of a male newcomer, in violation of her years of care work and emotional attachment to the family. Each novel brings us to this moment after showing us the complex intimacies and mutual dependencies, structured by inequality, between the female employer and employee pair, where the employee, unlike the employer, understands herself as mothering those she works for, in addition to her biological kin. (This mothering of others and their children is, of course, gendered labor, yet only the woman servant is able to see it as such.) Both novels give us access in the crisis to the servant's interiority—to her pain, helplessness, and surprise at the unilateral rupture of longstanding, almost familial relationships—not to her employer's. Both ask: What are the ethical obligations of female employers to the women who serve in their homes as caregivers and menial workers, enabling the employers to maintain their families, status, and careers, at the expense of the workers' own families? How is...


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pp. 500-540
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