I’ve heard people say that doing a PhD can permanently kill your interest in the topic of your study. Not for me. I had the good fortune to pick a topic where there’s never a dull moment: overseas commercial surrogacy. Six months after I started my PhD, two surrogacy scandals broke in Thailand; one involving abandoned twin Baby Gammy, the other a Japanese businessman alleged to have fathered 19 children by Thai surrogates. This was followed by news of another twin born through surrogacy abandoned by his Australian parents in India. More recently, there was the arrest in Cambodia of an Australian woman accused of falsifying documents in the service of her surrogacy brokerage business.
Like I say, never a dull moment.
My PhD in Creative Writing comprises a creative work—a novel about surrogacy—and an academic component, which includes discussion of other novels about surrogacy. Again, I feel lucky, as my topic has introduced me to some terrific reads.
I started with Margaret Atwood’s canonical 1986 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, though re-reading Atwood’s book in a world in which wealthy women pay poor women to carry babies for them and the US President surrounds himself with religious fundamentalists who seek to curb women’s reproductive choices makes the novel seem not so much dystopian as disturbingly prophetic.
In the totalitarian theocracy of Gilead, the setting of The Handmaid’s Tale, reproductive technologies are outlawed as irreligious and surrogates are unpaid. By contrast, Megan McCafferty, explores the commercial element of surrogacy in her satirical duology Bumped and Thumped, imagining a future in which infertile adults pay teenagers to ‘pregg’ and give birth for them, with the most desirable teens able to command the highest fees. Assisted reproductive technologies are not outlawed but rather eschewed in favour of the more teen-friendly ‘bumping’ (having sex).
While surrogacy seems to lend itself to dystopia—it’s the reproductive method of choice in Lois Lowry’s The Giver, too—my reading on the topic has taken me across a range of genres. In popular fiction, tropes about surrogacy include acts of sororal love—the sister/relative/close friend who acts as surrogate for another—the surrogate who changes her mind, and/or the surrogate who turns out to be not only the baby’s carrier but also the biological mother. Among the stand out reads for me in this genre were Kay Langdale’s strangely titled but moving Her Giant Octopus Moment and Meera Syal’s The House of Hidden Mothers, about surrogacy between the UK and India, which ‘turn[s] the standard British-Asian displacement narrative on its head’, as one reviewer puts it.
While I’m known as a crime writer, I’m not writing a crime novel this time around. Happily, this hasn’t prevented me from reading some fine crime fiction, including Birth Marks (1992) by Sarah Dunant, The Night Ferry (2007) by Michael Robotham, and Origins of Love (2012) by Kishwar Desai. It didn’t surprise me to find these crime writers drawn to the topic of overseas commercial surrogacy. Crime fiction has a long tradition of social realism and is ‘often topical, a barometer of prevailing social tensions, telling us about the world we live in’, as Australian crime writer Garry Disher puts it. Indeed, both Robotham’s and Desai’s narratives are based on real-life cases.
The central characters in these three crime novels are skeptical about, if not openly opposed to commercial surrogacy. Desai’s protagonist, social worker-cum-detective Simran Singh, finds ‘the whole business … very self-indulgent and repellent’ (p. 108) and likens surrogacy to ‘a sort of slave trade’ (p. 110). The assisted reproductive technologies industry in India is depicted as highly contested, unregulated, stratified, duplicitous, and unstoppable; Desai could not have anticipated that within a few years of her novel being published, India would ban foreigners from surrogacy and move to ban commercial surrogacy altogether.
In Birth Marks, PI Hannah Woolfe uses a fairytale metaphor to describe a commercial surrogacy arrangement involving a cash-strapped English ballet student, a wealthy, ageing French war hero and his much younger wife: ‘The old king and the barren young queen; a fairytale filled with the magic of gynaecological science and the goodwill of a graceful peasant girl willing to sacrifice her body in return for riches’ (p. 147). Robotham’s protagonist, Detective Constable Alisha Barba, echoes this analogy, describing illegal surrogacy involving trafficked refugee women as a ‘Goebbels-like fairy tale about forced pregnancies and stolen babies’ (p. 345). This association of surrogacy with fiction has its parallel in the way The Handmaid’s Tale has become what Atwood herself calls ‘a sort of tag’ for writing about reproductive rights and surrogacy. Given the dizzying pace of developments in assisted reproductive technology and the failure of legal and ethical frameworks to keep up, it’s perhaps not surprising that we resort to dystopian metaphors to make sense of it all.
My most recent read is Canadian-born Australian author Claire Corbett’s debut When We Have Wings. While only tangentially about surrogacy, it is easy to see how surrogacy could flourish in the stratified world of the novel. The haves and have nots in Corbett’s futuristic society are fliers and non-fliers. The wealthy obtain wings and genetically alter their bodies to enable them to fly, congregating in Flierville, a city architecturally re-designed to accommodate Flight. Non-fliers are, by default, forced into Edge City, the slum-like kampungs, or RaRA-land (the Rural and Regional Areas): ‘class divisions … entrenched into flesh and bone, cell and gene’ (p. 37).
The story is narrated in alternate chapters by Peri, a girl from RaRA-land who earns her wings in a Faustian pact with a wealthy family, and Zeke, a non-flier and ex-cop turned private investigator who is employed to find Peri when she disappears with her employer’s baby. A literary novel with elements of sci-fi, fantasy, dystopia, speculative fiction and crime fiction, When We Have Wings is a captivating read. The descriptions of human transformation and flight are so convincing that, a week later, I’m still fantasising about what colour wings I’ll choose once biotechnology makes possible Corbett’s equally compelling and disturbing vision.
I’m also mulling over questions the book raises about love—of children, of art—and how we balance what Peri refers to as the ‘competing ecstasies’ of life (p. 338), especially when what we love tears us in opposite directions. As Corbett’s novel so vividly demonstrates, becoming a parent, by whatever means, is only ever the beginning of the story.
Angela Savage is a Melbourne writer who has lived and worked extensively in Asia. She won the 2004 Victorian Premier’s Award for Unpublished Manuscript and the 2011 Scarlet Stiletto Award for short crime fiction. All three of her Jayne Keeney PI novels have been shortlisted for Ned Kelly Awards. Angela teaches creative writing and is currently studying for her PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University.