Stun­ning mem­oir about work, mother­ing and do­mes­tic help

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Spotlight - BY ERICA PEAR­SON

House­work is “ev­ery­thing,” for­mer Los Angeles Times for­eign cor­re­spon­dent Megan K. Stack writes in her new mem­oir about mother­ing, work and the hired help who make it pos­si­ble for her to do both as an ex­pat in China and In­dia.

Stack, a fi­nal­ist for the 2010 Na­tional Book Award for her book about the war on ter­ror, “Ev­ery Man in This Vil­lage Is a Liar,” was work­ing and liv­ing in Bei­jing when she de­cided to leave her job to have a baby and write a novel.

The novel re­mains un­pub­lished, de­spite four years spent writ­ing in “crazed bursts of work” from home while her jour­nal­ist hus­band con­tin­ued his job and nan­nies and house­keep­ers watched their kids, cleaned their home and cooked their meals.

In­stead, that in­tense, com­pli­cated time be­came the back­bone of the mem­oir, “Women’s Work: A Reck­on­ing With Work and Home.”

“The sub­ject was ter­ri­fy­ing and also some­how abas­ing, and it took me a long time to ad­mit, even to my­self, that I would go there,” she writes.

She does go there, though. Stack writes, un­flinch­ingly, about what it was like for her world to shrink and her life to en­twine with the lives of her hired help – who left their own kids be­hind in or­der to work in her home. The re­sult is messy, self-crit­i­cal, prob­ing and fas­ci­nat­ing.

Stack doesn’t shy away from de­scrib­ing her own feel­ings of guilt and de­pen­dence, as well as the dis­tance that grows be­tween her and her hus­band.

“Ev­ery­thing that was most pre­cious to me – my work and my child – was bound up in the be­hav­ior of a woman I hardly knew,” she writes about their Chi­nese nanny, Xiao Li.

She also works to turn her own daily “post­mod­ern fem­i­nist break­down” into an ex­plo­ration of the ways that do­mes­tic work has and con­tin­ues to shape women’s re­al­i­ties. “The cause was not, as I had been led to be­lieve, that women had been pre­vented from work­ing. Quite the op­po­site: we had been do­ing all of the work, around the clock, for cen­turies,” she writes.

Stack’s writ­ing is sharp and lovely, es­pe­cially in the first sec­tion of the book as she deftly de­scribes her plunge into new moth­er­hood and year­long jour­ney to find her­self again. Her ac­count re­minded me at times of Elisa Al­bert’s in­tense, raw novel “Af­ter Birth.”

“Long mad morn­ings. Weird sleep­less nights. Veins of sum­mer light­ning. Sleep bleed­ing to life bleed­ing to sleep. I was a shade; my baby was an­cient; I had been breast­feed­ing for­ever,” Stack writes.

While Stack ably and com­pas­sion­ately writes about Xiao Li and the fam­ily’s re­la­tion­ships with their In­dian do­mes­tic work­ers, Pooja and Mary (even de­tail­ing in some mem­o­rable pas­sages how she Face­book-stalks Pooja), the one way the book didn’t fully suc­ceed was in shar­ing th­ese women’s full per­spec­tives.

Stack tries to do this in the third sec­tion, trav­el­ing into the coun­try­side to do in­ter­views. She ends up ad­mit­ting that her re­la­tion­ship to the women is too com­pli­cated to fully get at the truth in the ways she once did as a re­porter.

In this book, the tough ques­tions Stack asks are of her­self.


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