We Should Be Unsettled: An Interview with Angie Abdou


Angie Abdou pic

By Shawn Syms

What does it mean to survive? To thrive? And what are the costs? The answers to these questions may differ radically depending your own circumstances—a reality that is starkly illuminated in Angie Abdou’s masterful new novel Between. Ligaya leaves behind a family in the Philippines, enduring alienation and hardship for the chance for a different and better life together in the future. Vero, struggling to bear the competing demands—economic and emotional—of being a working wife and parent in Western society, hires Ligaya to care for her children. Across barriers of race, class, culture and a potent power imbalance, the two women take halting steps toward a meaningful and respectful relationship with one another.

I recently had a conversation with Abdou about research methods, the permeable membrane between fact and fiction, and the joy of sex writing. We conducted this interview via email between Ontario and Alberta, where Abdou was in the midst of touring to promote Between.

What inspired you to write this book? Was there a particular moment when you were inspired to develop Between—something you saw, read, or experienced first-hand?

The initial inspiration for this book was very personal. I came to motherhood late in life. My son was born when I was thirty-seven and my daughter just two months before I turned forty. I desperately wanted children (and I’m thrilled that I do have them), but I wasn’t prepared for the havoc that parenthood wreaked on my life and my identity. I kept thinking “Why didn’t anyone tell me it was this hard?!” I don’t know what I thought—that I was going to carry on in my regular life with these cute little accessories who I could wind up to play with me when I needed to be entertained? Parenthood is not like that.

I wanted to write about the challenges of contemporary parenthood in an honest way.

The initial inspiration for the Filipina nanny storyline was also personal. We hired a nanny when my youngest was one, and she lived with us for two years. This arrangement is a common one but one I hadn’t seen one explored in our fiction. When I started telling people I was working on a nanny story, they would say “Oh! Like The Help!” So I went and read The Help. No. Not like that at all. The Help talks about domestic labour but holds it at a safe distance. We as readers can judge those bad white employers from way down there and way back then. Instead, Between says: How about we talk about the Filipina nannies in our own basements? Between gets more in the reader’s face than The Help. It’s meant to be uncomfortable. I like books that are unsettling. We should be unsettled.

While you are quite careful not to overwhelm the reader with facts and figures, it’s clear in this novel how much research has gone in. Can you tell us how you learned about the international domestic industry? Were there any particular anecdotes or pieces of information that may not have materially made it into the book, but still influenced your thinking?

I read everything I could about the Philippines and about the Filipina nanny experience, of course. I also interviewed quite a few nannies, and those interviews were the most helpful. I did include most of that information in the book. However, I softened the representation of the Hong Kong employer Madam Poon. The Filipina women I talked to had very negative experiences in Hong Kong. They slept on closet floors instead of having their own bedrooms. They weren’t allowed to eat what the family ate. They worked incredibly long hours with never a full day off. They were treated horribly: yelled at, bossed around, criticized. They put up with these living and working conditions because it is easier and faster to get into Canada via Hong Kong than via the Philippines.

When I sat down to focus my novel, I knew I wanted my focus to be the Canadian experience rather than the Hong Kong experience, so as compelled as I was by the Hong Kong stories, I downplayed them somewhat in the novel. I didn’t want them to detract attention from the main narrative. Still, these stories did influence my representation of Ligaya’s suffering. I think the reader will have a sense of what her life is like in Hong Kong and the sacrifice she has made (and the hardship she has endured) to get to Canada.

After my mother read my own book, she said, “There’s a lot I recognize here.” Authors often borrow bits and pieces from reality to help generate a feel of authenticity. Though I assume your characters and the plot of Between are firmly fictional, how much of your own life went into the novel, and has this had any impact on your relationships?

I put a great deal of myself and my own life into my novels, for just the reason you mention. That authentic detail brings a story and its characters to life. A real-life beginning for a novel also means that I am more engaged with the material—the story and its themes matter deeply to me. That personal investment is what gets me through the long haul of completing a novel and seeing it into print. Of course, once the novel is out in the world, those bits of reality are immensely uncomfortable for me and my family. I would hate for anyone to think Vero is me or Shane is my husband or Ligaya is my nanny.

I take all of that anxiety and project it right onto my mother.

I was terrified to let her read this book. In fact, for the first time ever, she did not get a copy of her own daughter’s book until it was available in the stores. Only then, when I could see there was no way out, did I put a copy in her hands, and then I immediately left town. I was a wreck. My writing partner and good friend Andy Sinclair has a writer for a mother, and she once told him, “Don’t censor yourself for me. Write whatever you need to write.” I was so jealous of that—it is the best thing a mother could say to a writer-child. But as I was explaining this jealousy in public at a recent event, I realized my own mom has given me the same permission, with her actions if not the direct words. She is incredibly supportive. The anxiety is entirely my problem, not hers.

After all that fretting, my mother loved Between. She finished it in a single day.

Your character Vero Nanton becomes hyper-aware of class relationships and the service industry wherever she goes—but at other times she is spectacularly unaware, for instance when she assumes her youngest child must have some kind of learning disability when he’s saying things that she cannot understand. While she is often funny and her dilemmas are understandable, she’s also somewhat of an unreliable narrator. Did this pose any interesting challenges for you in crafting the narrative?

Yes: Vero is an unreliable narrator! You’re the first to have seen this, or at least to have commented on it. Thank you. She is struggling. I want to say she is going crazy, but my doctor tells me “We don’t like to use the word ‘crazy.’” Vero is losing her grip on her sanity, though. She is unmoored from her own identity as she knew it pre-children. She is not coping with her new reality. I enjoyed the challenge of writing from that point of view. It was new for me, and I took inspiration from some of the famous mad-woman narratives in Canlit (like, of course, Surfacing).

Have you received any feedback about the portrayal of Ligaya from Filipina women and/or domestic workers? If so, what did they have to say?

No, I haven’t received feedback from domestic workers yet. The women I interviewed were enthusiastic about the project when it was in progress, but I haven’t sent them the finished product.

So, there you go: I guess my anxiety is not reserved just for my mother!

I hired a Toronto woman who grew up in the Philippines to fact-check those sections for me. She heard about my novel-in-progress on Twitter and expressed interest very early on. She complained that though our country’s Filipino population is so large, its culture is rarely represented in our fiction. She agreed to be an early reader for me, which was so important. I needed to be sure that I didn’t mess up the linguistic, geographical and cultural details. She was wonderfully helpful.

She did suggest a few changes that I didn’t make, though. A couple of Ligaya’s experiences would, according to this reader, only be true of the poorest families in the Philippines. Yet, I got these ideas and images from the nanny interviews that I did in British Columbia. For example, there is a scene in which Ligaya and her male companion Pedro talk about killing and eating street cats. I included that image for the intensity of it, to paint a picture of where Ligaya comes from. My Filipina reader didn’t like it. She told me that Filipino people are sometimes referred to by the derogatory term “dog eaters.” She didn’t want me to perpetuate that stereotype. I had been unaware of the stereotype or the racial slur. I struggled with whether or not to take that scene out of my book—and went back and forth right until I sent the thing off to press. In the end, though, I decided to be true to the interviews, and I left it in.

Writing about sexual intimacy involves a delicate balance. Between includes a number of very effective explicit scenes, including one that is critical to the narrative trajectory. Do you enjoy writing about sex?

This question makes me laugh. Yes, when you ask that bluntly, I guess I do enjoy writing about sex. I never thought of it that way. I thought of it more as an important challenge to take on. Several Canadian reviewers have complained that Canadian writers are too demure about sex. We fade to black just as the act is getting underway and bring up the lights once the cigarettes have been lit. I didn’t want to be accused of chickening out in my representation of something so completely central to human identity: sexuality.

Part way through the novel, Shane and Vero take advantage of the flexibility a full-time childcare giver allows them, and they sneak off for a one-week holiday at a swingers’ resort (Hedonism in Jamaica). Partly, I wanted to write about Hedonism because these places exist and people go to them (ordinary people like dentists and lawyers), but nobody talks about them. I’m interested in the things we don’t talk about. Also, our society is so sex-obsessed—from the receptionist at the doctor’s office reading Fifty Shades of Grey at the front desk to advertising companies using sex to sell us everything from condominiums to toothpaste—but we don’t balance that kind of mindless obsession with real conversations about sex: sex and identity, sex and power, sex and freedom, sex and aging, sex and marriage.

Between has been very well received so far; congratulations! Are there any elements of the book in terms of mood or theme or subject that have not been mentioned in the critical response that you wish more people were talking about?

Thank you. I’m very happy with the early reception of Between. It’s such a relief to get those initial reviews out of the way and have them be positive. Established writers have told me again and again not to read the reviews. Still, I can’t help myself. I need to know what people are saying. Reviewers so far have been talking about Between as a book about motherhood, a book about nannies, a book that engages with feminist issues.

That is all true, but I hope Between does other things as well. I don’t want it to be a novel that only appeals to women or restricts itself to women’s issues. I got a lovely email from Valemount writer Maureen Brownlee who said, “The book isn’t just about women/feminism—it’s about greed and consumer culture and North American lust for ‘more and again.’ I loved, too, that it is (like all of your work) about bodies—what we do to the ‘old bone cage’ in the pursuit of… well, that’s the question, isn’t it?”

So, if I got to pick what reviewers and readers talk about (which I don’t), I would love to see the discussion extend into this wider cultural critique.

Are you working on a new project? If so, is there anything about it that you’re comfortable sharing yet?

For something completely different, I am working on a ghost story. It is about a high-end mountain community built on top of an unofficial graveyard. I am a big Andrew Pyper fan. He is like Stephen King for grown-ups. I devoured Stephen King books in my early teens. Andrew Pyper puts me back there—under the covers with my flashlight reading long past my official bedtime. I’m going to try my hand at that.


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Shawn Syms

Shawn Syms is an Associate Editor of the Winnipeg Review.