But Housegirl deviates from the most common diaspora narratives. The novel charts its own course, bucking the tradition of immigrant literature in which a character’s distance from “home” is measured in either loss of homegrown prestige or access to Western (and it is always Western) opportunity. Housegirl’s protagonist does not leave her home as a member of the African intellectual elite. She is not the daughter of a high-ranking military official, forced into exile and poverty because of tenuous political happenings on the continent. Nor does she represent some elusive ascension from abject poverty to moneyed American citizenship. Even as Belinda moves, first across Ghana and then across the Atlantic, her status remains roughly the same. It is only her demeanor that adapts, with chameleonlike precision, to every new environment she encounters.
Housegirl is refreshing in its tender focus: the interior life of Belinda, and the relationship she forges with Amma. Despite being set in dreary South London, the novel reads warmly. Donkor doesn’t relegate domestic workers to the margins of an immigrant story. Where some aspirational texts depict laborers only to underscore an affluent protagonist’s quality of life, the author places Belinda at the center of his novel’s conflicts and its resolutions. She is complex and fully realized. Even as she adjusts to dramatic shifts in location and in her own emotional development, she does not shrink. The choice to focus on her reads as intentional, studied. To call it welcome is a vast understatement.
For Donkor, the decision to write a story magnifying the drudgery and dignity of a housemaid stemmed from his experiences on the other side of domestic labor. “My primary inspiration came from my curiosity about the live-in maids who cooked, cleaned, and waited on me and my sisters when we visited Ghana as children,” Donkor told the British outlet The Bookseller ahead of the novel’s U.K. release (under the title Hold). “They were incredibly silent, very deferential, and I had few opportunities to learn more about them. So writing Hold allowed me to think more deeply about how these girls—isolated from their families and working very hard—might have felt about the alienating place that they found themselves in.”
Donkor’s empathetic rendering of Belinda’s interiority is perhaps the greatest strength of a novel that is impressive both in form and in scope. Though fictional, Housegirl affords domestic workers, especially immigrant women, a far more nuanced emotional landscape than a significant number of nonfiction narratives. The Atlantic’s June 2017 cover story, “My Family’s Slave,” by Alex Tizon, for example, rankled some readers partly because of how it adhered, wittingly or not, to what the University of Connecticut professor Micki McElya refers to in her scholarship as the faithful-slave narrative: that in which “black caregivers whose deep love for the white children they cared for transcended the cruelty and coercions of their circumstances.” While both Tizon’s essay and Donkor’s novel differ from the original faithful-slave narrative in that they depict intra-cultural power differences as opposed to interracial ones, it’s still worth noting that Housegirl takes great care not to present Belinda as a character whose narrative exists solely as a subplot of the Otuo family story.
So often, portraits of domestic workers, in both fiction and reported renderings, rely on employers (a loose application of the word) to translate the servants’ lives. These stories only matter in relation to other people. In keeping with this tradition, Tizon’s Lola becomes newsworthy because of the titular “my,” which refers to Tizon. Ugwu, the houseboy in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun is introduced to readers because he moves into the home of a main character, the fiery intellectual Odenigbo. In Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which has long been hailed as a paragon of African literature, the houseboy Ikemefuna is denied the affection of Okonkwo, the novel’s protagonist and patriarch; Achebe weaves the more complex stories of conflict and confrontation around Okonkwo’s children.