A Disobedient Girl

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A first novel about a Sri Lankan servant girl brings to life a vivid world of class differences, and restores dignity to characters who are often shoved to the sidelines.

The opening to Ru Freeman’s debut novel, A Disobedient Girl, immediately deposits the reader into the life of Latha:

She loved fine things and she had no doubt that she deserved them. That is why it had not felt like stealing when she helped herself to one of the oval cakes that were stacked in the cabinet underneath the bathroom sink in the main house. Who would care if one went missing from the seven sitting there, awaiting their turn in the rectangular ceramic soap dish bought at Lanka Tiles to match the new pale green bathroom towels

It’s easy to slip into the world Freeman creates because it is so vivid and visceral. Latha, who has worked as a servant to the wealthy Vithanage family since she was five years old, daily looks forward to the moment when she can clean herself with a bar of Lux soap. “Every day the soap, pink and fragranced, filled her nostrils with the idea of roses,” Freeman writes. “She had only seen real roses once.” This intimate and heartbreaking moment, and the phrase, “the idea of roses,” draws me fully into her world. While we learn the particular tragedies of Latha’s life, this introduction to her stayed with us throughout the book—at eleven years old, all Latha wants is to feel clean, but given her position this basic human dignity must be enjoyed in secret.

The novel alternates between two women, Latha and Biso, and their unrelated narratives. The alternating chapters provide an interesting tension; Latha’s story leaps and bounds over several years and the passage of many significant events, while Biso’s occurs over the course of a single train journey. This is a fascinating structure that only a writer as skilled and creative as Freeman could accomplish.

I could not help but search for other parallels, points of comparison, and binaries. The story of one character’s life becomes clearer in context and relation to another’s: Latha serves Thara Vithanage, a girl roughly the same age as her but whose privileged life stands in cruel contrast to Latha’s—even the girls’ experiences of first menstruation are marked by their economic and social standing.

In the alternate chapters, we journey with Biso, a mother fleeing with her children from an abusive husband. As she rides the train away from her miserable past, Biso thinks about her husband and murdered lover, comparing the two. Discovering and mulling over all the contrasting elements that Freeman sets up is one of the novel’s deepest satisfactions. In one of Biso’s chapters, Freeman describes “the pinch-and-kiss kind of love,” a phrase that reminded me of my particular Filipino upbringing. “What we women do to babies, gathering the soft folds of skin on plump cheeks and backsides and thighs and squeezing, just a little harder than we should, then kissing them; because really what they make us want most is to swallow them whole and keep them very, very safe.” I’d never encountered such a depiction in literature before and I was thrilled to read it described so well, remembering my aunts’ and grandmothers’ greetings. As a Filipino American writer, I sometimes struggle with how to convey specific cultural experiences in prose, and Freeman shows how this cultural information can be woven into the story naturally.

As a girl, I would search for characters in literature who looked like me. I found characters of Asian or Asian American descent in brief appearances—mostly offensive, stereotypical representations, often in roles peripheral to the dominant narrative. By allowing their stories to dominate her novel, Freeman restores dignity to characters who are often invisible or shoved to the sidelines. This is not to say that Freeman, as a Sri Lankan writer, has a responsibility to correct misrepresentations or present only positive depictions—the characters in A Disobedient Girl struggle, like any of us, to make the best decisions. But because she brings them to life so well, they have range and depth, their complexity bringing this world into focus sentence by sentence.

This keen insight and observation ensures that a character like Latha will come through in three dimensions. Consider this passage in which she tries to convince herself that she’s different from other servants:

She could spot servants from a mile away. There were several right here: they wore shabby clothes that were clearly hand-me-downs or, if they were new, in a cut that simply aped a current style but did not suit them: ankle-grazing dresses on short, stubby women, tight printed T-shirts on chesty ones in colors not picked up by their skirts; they wore Bataslippers or sandals that did not match their clothing; their hair was bunched together and frizzy; they didn’t smell fresh like she did; there was no mistaking the servility in their manner.

Freeman’s characters may encounter bad luck on top of bad luck in this novel, yet like Latha reaching for the Lux soap to provide a brief respite from her misery, they are driven to find relief and to make whatever positive change they can in a dire situation.

Grace Talusan is the author of the memoir The Body Papers and teaches in the Nonfiction Writing Program at Brown University. More from this author →