Short Stories: Women in the Workplace
Lucia Berlin, Na'am al-Baz, Mia Alvar, Hananah Zaheer, and Laura van den Berg share the seldom-told stories of women's lives in the blue- and white-collar worlds.
In the past decade or so, the world of work has featured large on American TV shows and in movies — whether they're satirizing Silicon Valley, the advertising industry of the 1950s, or the White House. In its own way, the workplace novel has also been an enduring sub-genre. But, typically, mainstream narratives have been dominated by white male writers.
Within this sub-genre, we have even more categories: the campus novel, the legal caper, the high finance thriller, the fashion chronicles, the office politics drama, the startup sendup, and so on. These fictions also run the gamut of genre and narrative style — they're rom-coms or dystopias, social realism or surrealism, slice-of-life or satire. What they have in common are their insightful depictions of how work and life are deeply enmeshed, how some of life's greatest pleasures and pains come from our work, and how some of work's most complex passions and struggles shape life.
In the short story form, Herman Melville's Bartleby, the Scrivener is often still held up as the original blueprint. Well-known short story writers today also focus on the world of work. George Saunders is known for his darkly satirical and, often, surrealist takes on the contemporary workplace. Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah's 2018 debut collection, Friday Black, includes several stories that unfold entirely at or around the protagonists' workplaces. Debbie Graber's short story collection, Kevin Kramer Starts on Monday, remains an acclaimed favorite, especially due to the several different narrative devices used to cleverly tell bizarre stories about the white-collar workplace. Working-class fiction has also begun to make a much-needed re-emergence through the efforts of British writers like Kit de Waal and Kerry Hudson.
All that said, fiction about work remains a male-dominated sub-genre. And yet, consider all the decades of struggles women have been through to secure and hold jobs (in all fields and at all levels), fight for equal pay, try to balance work and motherhood or other caretaking, deal with sexual harassment in the workplace, etc. Surely there are way more rich, fertile, complex themes and topics to be addressed in fiction about women in the workplace? We need more such fiction to be written, published, reviewed, and discussed.
To that end, let's take a look at short stories about women at work. Almost all of these are from present times except for the first, which reads startlingly contemporary all the same.
'A Manual for Cleaning Women', by Lucia Berlin (The Short Story Project)
This story is from Berlin's posthumously-published collection of the same title (see PopMatters review here). Berlin herself worked as a high-school teacher, switchboard operator, hospital ward clerk, cleaning woman, physician's assistant, and associate professor. Many of her stories were influenced by her experiences in these positions. She managed to hold down these jobs and do her writing through three marriages, four sons, a lifetime struggle with alcoholism, and moving across several homes.
This story has all the hallmarks of a Berlin story: wit, precision of language and detail, non-judgmental compassion, cinematic sights and sounds, memorable voice, and more.
As we go along with Maggie, the cleaning woman narrator, to each of the houses and meet her various employers and fellow cleaning women, we slide easily into this complete world of her daily life. We are just as amused or annoyed or angered by the different characters as she is. Maggie's tips to cleaning women offered intermittently throughout ring so true and honest because of Berlin's own work experiences. The brief, passing references to a lover start off innocuously and are even somewhat whimsical. Which is why the ending is all the more touching for how Maggie reveals her sorrow. Beautifully done.
42–PIEDMONT. Slow bus to Jack London Square. Maids and old ladies. I sat next to an old blind woman who was reading Braille, her finger gliding across the page, slow and quiet, line after line. It was soothing to watch, reading over her shoulder. The woman got off at 29th, where all the letters have fallen from the sign NATIONAL PRODUCTS BY THE BLIND except for BLIND.
29th is my stop too, but I have to go all the way downtown to cash Mrs. Jessel's check. If she pays me with a check one more time I'll quit. Besides she never has any change for carfare. Last week I went all the way to the bank with my own quarter and she had forgotten to sign the check.
"Mrs Saniya's Holiday", by Na'am al-Baz; tr. from Arabic by Alexa Firat (Words Without Borders)
This is a story of a poor seamstress and single mother. She has left her opium-addicted husband and is raising their four children alone. Though business is usually slow, it picks up around holidays. Which means, of course, that Mrs Saniya gets no holiday, only headaches, from both her customers and her children. The story is a slice-of-life but, with a keen journalistic eye, al-Baz presents many sharp details that usually go unnoticed. In so doing, the author gives us an unforgettable portrait of a tired, hardworking woman who is trying to do the best in a society that has her shackled in many ways due to her gender and her class.
Na'am al-Baz (also known as Niam al-Baz) is an Egyptian journalist and short story writer.
Under the beam of light that fell from the one window of the room, darkening the rest of this particular place, Abla Saniya, the seamstress, starts up her machine aware of making use of the last thread of daylight before darkness takes over the room. Abla Saniya turns on the electric light whose cord comes through the same window, for which she pays five pounds every month and which she takes great care in collecting, since her income melts into the smiles of her youngsters and the toils of everyday life.
"Legends of the White Lady", by Mia Alvar (Literary Hub)
Mia Alvar's debut collection, In the Country, is about the Filipino diaspora. In this story, the protagonist is a young white American who goes to Manila to make a bit of money as a model. Her blue eyes, blonde hair, and fair skin are much in demand (as is often the case in Asian countries.) But the story is much more than that. The ghost of a previous "white lady", also a model, haunts her through local stories and adds color to her own experiences.
This is an interesting reversal of the typical migrant worker story. Usually, we have an impoverished person moving to a richer country for a better life through any kind of job that pays. In this case, we have an American going to an Asian country to make easy money. Of course, plenty of this kind of migration happens in real life — it just isn't reflected quite as often in fiction. That said, having read the story three times now, it's as if something vital was somehow edited out, leaving the ending less than ambiguous — missing some important detail, perhaps.
If you are beautiful and broke, one place left for you is Asia. Usually when I ran out of money I went to Tokyo—always a face cream or a push-up bra there that could use me. This time, I went to Manila. I'd been there once before, with my roommate Sabine. In cities like these there is a demand for blue eyes and light hair and skin like milk.
"Fish Tank", by Hananah Zaheer (Alaska Quarterly Review)
Such a delightfully-told story. Set in Lahore, Pakistan, it's about how an American-educated free-willed young woman starts working at a government office and disrupts the lives of the four conservative men who report to her. The first-person plural POV is used rather well here to show both the collective mindset and the lack of self-knowledge among the men. Overall, it is a sly, satirical take on the ancient misogynistic myth that, when a man is agitated by a woman's appearance or behavior, it is the woman who must be stopped or asked to act differently. Zaheer deftly avoids tired, old tropes here, though, and lets events run their natural course as might happen in the real world. Also, that's a terrific opening — sets up a whole lot of reader expectations from the start.
Zaheer is a Pakistani writer based in Dubai and has had many works of fiction and non-fiction published in literary magazines and other venues around the world.
There is a fish tank in the office.
It belongs to the new girl. Her name is Miss Sidra. She went to college in America. She is younger than us. She is different. And she is our boss. Every morning, she has strutted in through the revolving doors of the Siddiqui Center, smelling much too flowery for the Metro and Waterways department elevator, no scarf, dark glasses on her head, and her lips: red, bright, wrong.
"Your Second Wife", by Laura van den Berg (The Lenny Letter)
Yes, the gig economy sure has created some interesting kinds of jobs. In this story, the protagonist calls herself a "grief freelancer". Her job is to dress herself up as her client's dead wife and impersonate them for the duration of her appointment. If this sounds bizarre, consider that such a thing is actually happening in Japan, where people can "rent" families or family members for all kinds of emotional needs.
Of course, as this is Laura van den Berg, the story takes an interesting dark turn. You can almost see it coming but not quite. That's something only some of the best short story writers can do well: give us endings that are unpredictable but inevitable.
Van den Berg writes both novels and short stories but it is with the latter that we get to see her striking range and deeply-honed craft. Her next book is rumored to be another short story collection and will certainly be worth the wait.
The photograph arrives in a padded manila envelope, pressed between two sheets of cardboard. The picture is a head shot, with the blue-nothing background of a corporate portrait. The dead wife wears a starched white blouse and a black jacket. Gray irises like slivers of ice; a modest, toothless smile; tasteful gold studs in her earlobes. Her name is — was — Beth Butler, and she was killed in a hiking accident five weeks ago.
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Not only are there more women in the ("official") workplace (globally) now, but there are more older women now taking positions of power too, at least in the US per this recent New York Times article. Let's hope that we will see that cultural shift reflected more in our literature as well.