Housegirl Complicates the Diaspora Narrative

The debut from the Ghanaian British author Michael Donkor explores the life of a domestic worker in London, while rejecting the common impulse to focus on more aspirational immigrant stories.

pop_jop / Getty / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

The Ghanaian British author Michael Donkor’s U.S. debut, Housegirl, is full of movement. The novel follows a 17-year-old domestic laborer named Belinda as she travels from Ghana to London. Before the start of the novel, Belinda has already journeyed from her home village to Kumasi, one of the largest cities in Ghana. The voyage to London marks her second sojourn. It is not her last.

Like many immigrants, Belinda is driven from her homeland by economic need. In Ghana, that meant traveling to the comparatively affluent Kumasi to serve as a housemaid for a comfortably middle-class couple whom she refers to as “Aunty” and “Uncle.” When the couple’s friends Nana and Doctor Otuo visit from London, they ask that Belinda accompany them back to their British abode to look after their troubled teenage daughter, Amma. As with most requests made of young women working in others’ homes, it’s less a question and more a command. After Belinda arrives in London to help Amma become a “proper” Ghanaian young woman, the two teenagers forge a reluctant, uneasy friendship, with the ashen British metropolis as their backdrop.

Donkor is careful not to simplify Belinda’s connection to Ghana. Leaving home, even when one is presented with opportunities for upward mobility, is often not a linear path. Housegirl troubles the idea of ascendance. “There’s always a kind of longing to go back,” Donkor, who was born in London to Ghanaian parents, told NPR’s All Things Considered. “We can’t really escape from … where we’ve come from.”

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.

But the dearth of stories focused on domestic workers can’t be separated from the conditions in which their labor is performed. Especially in the American and British contexts, domestic laborers are most often women, immigrants, and people who come from tremendous poverty. Domestic labor itself is devalued, both in wages and in cultural esteem. These are not coincidences. According to a 2014 Human Rights Watch report on abuses perpetrated against migrant domestic workers in the United Kingdom, around 15,000 laborers from Asia and Africa travel to the Commonwealth every year to perform a range of duties for moneyed families—typically child care, cooking, and cleaning. But domestic workers have precious few legal and social protections; their lives are often precarious, a vulnerability that some employers exploit to abusive ends.

While the families employing Donkor’s titular housegirl do not force her to work against her will, the novel does not gloss over the hardships that Belinda faces and broadens the canon of literary heroes in doing so. Even in sketching out a set of duties that does not include traditional housework, Donkor makes plain the toll that emotional labor can take on those for whom rejecting the order is not an option. Even before Belinda arrives in London, the demands of the role weigh on her; she is overcome by the difficulty of sharing the news of her impending departure with Mary, the 11-year-old housemaid she’s come to adore during her time in Kumasi.

It’s not just Belinda whose story is painted with careful attention. Donkor grants Amma, the comparatively wealthy teen daughter of Nana and Doctor Otuo, a complexity that extends far beyond diasporic woes. Donkor, who came out to his parents in his 20s, writes about Amma’s struggle to come to terms with her sexuality—a struggle that sometimes bumps up against traditional Ghanaian values—with deep compassion. It’s tempting, at times, to take Belinda’s confusion about Amma’s journey as an indictment of some uniquely Ghanaian adherence to gendered expectations.

But in weaving together a novel that presents three Ghanaian girls who experience isolation in radically different ways, Donkor resists the impulse to make any sweeping declarations about Ghanaian womanhood or immigrant identities more broadly. None of these relationships or locations is fixed, Housegirl reminds readers; that’s the point.