Exceptionally moving novel that spotlights the harms of a practice that most people don’t even like to think about. I can seriously say that in all my years of reading, I’ve encountered maybe one entire other work of fiction that’s addressed this issue with honesty and compassion, Ovidia Yu’s terrific Meddling And Murder. That said, both MaM and Songbirds are superlative novels about modern slavery under the guise of domestic work, and both deserve to be widely read and lauded.
Whereas MaM was a much more lighthearted take on the subject, however, Songbirds goes straight for the jugular, telling the tale of domestic servant Nisha Jayakody from the perspectives of both her employer Petra and her lover Theo. When Nisha abruptly disappears one Sunday night, neither Petra nor Theo knows what to think. Nine years earlier, a recently widowed and heavily pregnant Petra hired Nisha via a domestic agency. Since then, Nisha has looked after Petra and raised Petra’s daughter Aliki while virtually raising her own daughter Kumari back in Sri Lanka via Internet. Petra, though a Cypriot, is fairly typical of the kind of woman world-wide who hires domestic help from the poorer countries of Asia. She doesn’t really think about Nisha as a person, merely as a tool; she at least has the crushing grief of losing her husband right before the birth of their daughter as an excuse.
Theo is a much less conventional character. A former banker who lost his career, savings and wife in the last economic collapse, he now rents the apartment over Petra’s house and works as a forager, ostensibly, to pay the bills. What he actually does is poach migratory songbirds, an illegal if lucrative enterprise. He and Nisha have been together for almost two years, with her sneaking away to meet him upstairs while Petra and Aliki sleep. Theo wants to marry Nisha, but when she reacts badly to discovering his secret life as a poacher, he fears he may have lost her, even before she vanishes.
At first, Petra feels inconvenienced and annoyed by Nisha’s absence, but as the days go by and Aliki shows her that Nisha’s most valued items are still in their house, she begins to worry for real. The cops laugh at her when she tries to report Nisha as a missing person however, claiming that maids run away all the time and she should just find a replacement. Indignant at their callousness towards someone she’d never really thought about as an individual herself before, she’s further thrown when Theo breaks down and comes asking after Nisha. Maids aren’t supposed to have romantic relationships, and Petra recognizes that if she’d known about the two of them, she’d have automatically dismissed her servant, never mind how integral Nisha’s been to her household this past decade. To Petra’s credit, she understands that this is a shitty reaction, so she and Theo join forces to find the missing woman, even as they come up against all of society’s ugliest attitudes to the indentured.
So, background time: I’m from Malaysia, where it’s common for the relatively well-off to hire foreign maids who, quite frankly, are treated like slaves. They get one day off a week if they’re lucky, and are expected to work up to twenty hours a day otherwise. Often, their passports and other personal documents are confiscated so they don’t run away. They’re expected to spend their entire lives devoted to their employers, enduring whatever abuse is thrown their way, often without any way to protect themselves, seek redress or choose better working conditions. Agencies are predatory, claiming large debts that the maids can only pay off after long years of drudgery. The only upside for them is that they can send more money to their loved ones back home than they could make in their homelands.
Sure, slavery is better than starvation, but what kind of monster actively helps perpetuate either system?
Tho my family could have afforded a foreign maid, we declined, choosing instead to hire local staff to come in several times a week at fair wages. Shanthi cleaned our house but we also visited hers for Deepavali, and I played with her daughter (and we ran away from racist kids who asked why I, a Malay child, would play with an Indian girl.) It was very much an employer-employee relationship, the kind that my best friend’s family also had with their more numerous local staff, and very different from having an obsequious live-in servant, like some of our extended family had. It just didn’t feel right to have someone so much in our power, didn’t feel right to ask so much of anyone. And as I got older and learned how these women are treated, how, if we’re being honest, any impoverished foreign nationals imported specifically for menial labor are too often treated, I felt a great revulsion for anyone who buys into the system without keeping in mind, first and foremost, that workers are as much human beings as employers are.
Christy Lefteri thoroughly understands this position, understanding too that her privilege, like mine, means that we need to be allies to domestic workers, and that it’s more compassionate — and, for being lived in, more powerful — for women like us to write stories like these from our perspectives instead of claiming to represent something we don’t. Her book clearly elucidates a worldwide class (and often race and sex) problem as seen by people who never really questioned the exploitative system but slowly learn to abhor it. It’s not that either Ms Lefteri or I think that people don’t need helpers, or that migrants don’t need jobs. It’s that the system is in dire need of regulation, with protections for workers and punishments for abusers. Because it isn’t just the rapists and sadists who need to be checked, tho those monsters certainly need to be prosecuted for their crimes and barred from ever employing servants again. It’s that even people who consider themselves “normal” bosses will think there’s nothing wrong with denying employees personal lives or expecting greater than eighty hour work weeks with tightly circumscribed “breaks” that they would never accept for themselves.
And that’s what lies at the heart of the problem, that this modern-day slavery depends on people refusing to see the humanity in others, in not living by the Golden Rule. Ms Lefteri has written a moving, passionate plea for people with political power — ordinary people, really, like you and me — to reconsider their attitude to the abuses of this system. Based on true events, Songbirds highlights a shocking global problem that doesn’t need to be left the way it is, if only people would treat others the way they’d want to be treated themselves.
Songbirds by Christy Lefteri was published August 3 2021 by Ballantine Books and is available from all good booksellers, including