What Happens When Emotional Labor Is Your Job?
Lila Savage, author of "Say Say Say," on the blurry interpersonal roles of a caregiver
In Lila Savage’s novel Say Say Say, Ella is hired as a caregiver to Jill, a woman with rapidly advancing dementia. The moment Ella steps into the house, she is swept into a world of extraordinary intimacies and wrenching, private grief. Still, there remains a distance she can’t quite cross—particularly with Bryn, Jill’s husband and her employer—even when she yearns to do so. She’s a domestic worker, not family; she’s full of youth in a house where aging and decline are on stark display; she is able to walk out of the house at the end of her shift. How does she navigate a space full of boundaries but resounding with cries for true human connection?
Say Say Say gives us a close-up look at the work of caregiving, and how the tasks of physically caring for another human being can be simultaneously monotonous and momentous. In the process, it also explores societal stratification—particularly of gender and class—but resists easy commentary. Instead, the novel is full of complexity and page after page of piercing insights.
I was hungry for this novel before I knew it existed. Here is a book that does not chase the hot-button issues of our day and yet feels timely and crucial. Here is a book not held hostage to plot, but whose drama involves the highest stakes.
I felt compelled to talk to Lila Savage about her novel—what drove her to write it, her own work as a caregiver, and, really, anything at all she cared to tell me about creating this strange and gorgeous book.
Chia-Chia Lin: Contained in this slim, 161-page book is a stunning array of inquiries. The novel tackles sexuality, gender roles, power dynamics, class, grief, and more. Was there one obsession that called to you especially? Put another way, what was your entry point into the novel?
Lila Savage: Two things really drew me to write this novel: finding personal meaning in the caregiving work I engaged in for so many years and also exploring the nature of intimacy in such settings. I studied sociology and social justice as an undergraduate and remain very interested in the sense of identity and purpose found in employment, especially working-class labor.
As a much younger writer, I hoped to become an oral historian or labor journalist, but fiction has thus far provided a more flexible emotional framework for the ideas and feelings I’ve sought to explore. What are the roles and interpersonal obligations of employee and employer in such emotionally fraught situations? What does it mean to perform caring and to be compensated for emotional support? What does it mean to bear witness to loss of self and in what ways might this be a gift to both client and caregiver? Say Say Say is my attempt to grapple with these kinds of questions.
CL: Each one of those questions is so richly and deeply explored, and the scenes are packed with the details and specificity of real-life experience. Can you talk more about your caregiving work, and also about any challenges that arose as you created art inspired by your experience?
LS: When I began writing this novel I was working as a full-time caregiver for a woman with Alzheimer’s. It was very challenging to work with her all day and come home to relive the feelings of stress, boredom, isolation and shared grieving associated with caregiving work as I tried to capture them on the page. My progress was very slow until she moved into assisted living and I qualified for unemployment. I felt such gratitude for the opportunity to write full-time while I looked for work and then for the further opportunities to write full-time that followed (two years as a writing fellow and then two more as an MFA student).
Now that I haven’t worked as a caregiver for a few years, however, I find myself grateful that there was overlap between caregiving and writing about it. I think it’s very likely the work is better for it. Still, balancing a day job and writing is a significant challenge most writers face. Not very many writers from class backgrounds like mine receive the remarkable opportunities I’ve been graced with, and yet I so crave more art depicting working lives and jobs and the experiences of folks whose struggles with various forms of marginalization overlap or differ from my own. Some criticize MFA programs as rendering writing lamentably homogenized. That differs from my experience but also neglects to acknowledge how crucial time and funding are for working-class writers.
CL: It’s surprising to me that you had a period of overlap in caregiving and writing. The novel feels so ruminative, full of the kinds of insights that come with time and distance. One of the things I love most about this book is how unapologetically interior it is. With the weight of Ella’s sharp insights, even the smallest of gestures suddenly becomes far-reaching in significance. So many novels being published today contain dramas and conflicts that play out externally rather than internally. Why were you interested in writing something that pointed inward?
LS: I’m drawn to interiority, I think, because where else besides reading do we have such ease of access and empathy to the innermost thoughts and feelings of another? Narrative action can take other forms with great success but this depth and reach of access is in some ways unique to writing. In Say Say Say, however, I think the interiority on offer is particularly unusual, in a class sense as much as anything else.
Most folks know much more about how people experience aging or the aging of their loved ones than they do about the internal experience of being a professional caregiver. It is a role observed by many from the outside, and it is maybe more comfortable to deny domestic workers interior lives. One reason may be the feeling of uncomfortable exposure—it may be easier to imagine detachment and uncomplicated contentment as the primary responses from close observers to deeply personal loss. That is understandable. But I think there is much more to be gained from making room for the emotional complexities of full personhood.
CL: Earlier, you mentioned the compensation aspect of domestic work. Stuck at the back of Ella’s mind is the fact that money is exchanged for her care: “[I]t was a strangely limited intimacy, it always was, no matter how much Ella loved a client, loved their family, because there was always a degree of withholding that came with being paid for her time.” This notion is present throughout the book and returns at the end, when money prevents Ella from saying what she wants to say to Bryn, her employer. The ending intrigued me. It’s moving and complex. Why did you end the book with this small-yet-enormous, incomplete connection?
LS: I suppose in the end it’s a book about work, about employer and employee. It’s about workplace intimacy and its limitations. However, too much can be made of the transactional aspect. More than one concern interferes with Bryn and Ella’s ability to connect—there’s age, and gender, and temperament to a certain degree. But the tenuousness of their connection is part of what interested me in writing about these characters—their imperfect, complicated, and heartfelt esteem for one another. It’s more unusual than romance and I think deserves a more nuanced ending than we might expect from something romantic.
CL: I also want to ask you about bodies. In a way, the novel’s intense focus on physical bodies—its needs and hungers and desires, but also its limitations—provides a counterweight to the interiority, the depths of the mind. And in the character of Jill, we witness both the body and the mind in decline. “Every skill was leaking from her.” We start to ask terrifying questions about what makes us human.
LS: I love that observation, that the physical provides a counterweight to the interiority. Thank you. On the subject of bodies I would say I am fascinated by physicality, especially thoughts and feelings about bodies and having a body. Writing a book about decline offered welcome opportunities to explore that. After observing the similarities and differences in the decline of so many clients, I’ve maybe become somewhat desensitized to that terror. Of course not entirely—I’m not at peace with aging—but there’s a certain amount of inevitability involved. I suppose I’m saying that aging is a human experience.
CL: I love short novels. Do you? Do you have favorites, or did you have models in mind when you were writing Say Say Say? Was it always a short novel, or did you pare it down to its current size?
LS: I do love short novels, but I didn’t set out to write one on purpose, at least not in the beginning. I am, I think, a writer and reader who tends to value succinctness, and once I realized more than half the pages I’d written weren’t necessary, it became a pleasure to concentrate it down to its essence. I did want a degree of claustrophobia to permeate the story and that left less room for digression.