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.
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 Her debut novel, Behind the Night Bazaar, won the 2004 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript.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.
Mother of Pearl
Transit Lounge Publishing
Author: Angela Savage
Question: What inspired you to write Mother of Pearl?
Angela Savage: The idea for Mother of Pearl was sparked by a 2013 newspaper article noting 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'"that is, hiring Thai women to be surrogate mothers for them.
As a writer with long-standing interests in sexual and reproductive health, and in 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 'intending parents' from Australia arrived at a course of action as precarious as paying a Thai woman to have a baby for them"just as I wondered what might drive a Thai woman to gestate a baby for strangers.
As I reflected more on the issues, I recognised the seed of an idea for a novel.
Question: How much of your inspiration comes from real life and real people?
Angela Savage: In the course of my research for this novel, I interviewed Australians who'd had babies through surrogacy in Thailand, women who'd been surrogate mothers, and women who'd spent years on IVF, as well as doctors, lawyers and counsellors involved in surrogacy. As one of my characters is a jeweller, I also interviewed jeweller friends and visited one of their studios. While conducting fieldwork in Thailand, I visited an IVF clinic, skulked around a hospital maternity ward, took myself on the kind of tours I imagined my characters would take, and hung out in village markets. I even visited houses in Melbourne, Bangkok and Sisaket in Thailand's northeast, where I imagined my characters might live. This material helped me to being the characters and the setting to life. But the story itself is entirely made up.
Question: Was it difficult to write about this topic?
Angela Savage: There were two aspects of writing about this topic that were particularly challenging for me. Firstly, I wanted to write about big issues"infertility, IVF, surrogacy, ethics, etc"but through the lens of an intimate story. I wanted the story to feel personal, rather than political. This meant allowing the ideas to be driven by the characters and not the other way around.
Secondly, I am aware of the risks involved in writing from a Thai woman's point of view when I'm not a Thai woman myself. However, it was crucial to me that the Thai surrogate mother's perspective was included in the story. To refer the Thai character, Mukda, solely through the eyes of the Anglo-Australian characters would be to 'other' her, to keep her at a distance. This distancing is part of what enables overseas commercial surrogacy to happen in the first place: some 'intending parents' never even meet their baby's birth mother. To help create a credible and authentic Thai character, I had a Thai friend read the draft manuscript and I made changes based on her feedback.
Question: There are several issues raised in this book. Was this deliberate or did the story evolve this way?
Angela Savage: As noted above, I came to Mother of Pearl wanting to write about the ethics of overseas commercial surrogacy. But the story evolved, as stories tend to do, as I did more research along the way. For example, reading Julia Leigh's brilliant memoir, Avalanche, about her decision to cease IVF treatment made me aware of how difficult it is for women in the midst of IVF treatment to get objective advice from someone who doesn't have a financial stake in the process. These reflections found their way into the story when the character of Meg reflects on her seven fruitless years of IVF.
Question: Are the characters based on anyone you know?
Angela Savage: There are two minor characters in Mother of Pearl who are based on people I know, though their names have been changed. Real people make cameo appearances in several of my novels. I can't imagine any of them ever reading my books, but if they did and they recognised themselves, I hope they'd feel flattered.
Question: What was the best part about creating the character of Anna?
Angela Savage: In my previous novels, I made the mistake of giving my main character curly black hair and hazel eyes. As a result, everyone thought she was me (she isn't!). Anna, who as Mother of Pearl opens is trying to settle back into life in Australia after more than a decade as an aid worker in South East Asia, has straight red hair and eyes that are 'striking starbursts of gold on blue'. No one can mistake her for me"although there is some overlap in our employment histories.
Interview by Brooke Hunter
Mother of Pearl
Transit Lounge Publishing
Author: Angela Savage