Karien van Ditzhuijzen was one of the first members in our Expat Book Club, and I was so intrigued when she messaged me to let me know about the book she was writing. Well, that book has now been published and I am very happy to be able to share more about it, plus an interview with Karien.
‘The Yellow House’ is a coming of age novel, set in Singapore, which explores the plight of domestic workers. Karien’s extensive research means that the book is well balanced and thought provoking – and Maya, the 10 year old main character – is very likeable! It’s a great read – especially for anyone who has lived in Asia and had domestic help – and I think anyone, wherever they are from, reading this book will learn something from it.
You’re an expat and an author – which came first? Being an expat or an author?
Being an expat! I was born into expat life, and made my first intercontinental plane trip at two weeks old. We were living in Oman at the time, but since (as my mother tells me) the goats were roaming freely through the hospital there, she went to her parents in the Netherlands to give birth to me.
Tell us a little about your expat journey
As a child I lived in Sarawak (Borneo) as well as in Oman twice before repatriating to the Netherlands for secondary schooling. Being an expat stays in your genes though, so as an adult I have lived in France and the UK and now six years in Singapore. We moved to the UK for my career, so not until our last move I became the ‘trailing spouse’. This has proved a good moment to reinvent myself and move from a corporate career to becoming a writer.
The Expat Book Club is all about connecting women living overseas through a love of reading. Have you been a member of a book club during your time living away from home?
Yes, I am part of an amazing book club in Singapore, that is a mixture of expats and Singaporean women. We usually read Asian fiction, and often have local authors visit. This year we decided on a different theme: Around the world in 80 books. Since we all come from different backgrounds there are so many interesting things to share. We all love reading and my book cub has been a massive support in finishing my novel.
What inspired you to write your novel?
I grew up with domestic workers in the house, when we lived in Malaysia they were local women, but in Oman they came from India. As a ten year old I was quite intrigued – and also a bit disturbed – by the fact that our Anna had left her own children behind in India to look after us. When we moved to Singapore I knew I wanted to write about women like her. They are expats like us that migrate for work – yet their lives are so different. Not only do they have to leave their own families behind, also, as they live-in with their employers and are not much protected by law, they are quite vulnerable to exploitation.
Did you write the novel while living in one country or did you move?
I have lived in Singapore for 6 years now (a personal record for me!) and wrote it all here.
How did the experience of writing differ to the work you did in your career previously?
It is very different. I have a MSc degree in Chemistry and Sustainability and worked in the food industry as a product developer for a decade. I always had an interest in human rights issues, and have been involved in great projects like for instance developing Fair Trade or similarly certified products for brands like Ben & Jerry’s and Magnum, so the interest was always there. Writing fiction had always been a dream, and quitting my job and moving across the world pushed me to finally giving it a go.
How did you research your novel?
Writing about a sensitive subject like ‘maid-abuse’ as a Westerner I knew I could afford no mistakes. So before I started writing I spent five years with a Singaporean charity (HOME) that runs a helpdesk and shelter for domestic workers that have been ill-treated. Amongst others, I was part of their befriender program, and taught empowerment and writing workshops. I also founded a blog (My Voice At Home) where I share stories written by domestic workers and compiled an anthology of their work (Our Homes, Our Stories). I met so many amazing, strong women this way – they inspired the domestic worker characters in A Yellow House. I wanted to make sure they were not portrayed as victims, but as strong women that have the courage to help themselves and each other.
And tell us a little about you as a reader – what genres do you enjoy? Do you have a favourite book or author?
I read a lot (a lot!), and love reading about different cultures. I also seem to have a preference for female authors – when I was younger Isabel Allende was a firm favourite, now I love strong women’s voices like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Since we moved to Asia I have read a lot of local literature – there is so much out here people in Europe have barely heard about! Thankfully the main language in Singapore is English, for other countries I am limited to what is available in translation. Singaporean authors I enjoy are Christine Suchen Lim, Amanda Lee Koer, Alfian Sa’at. Indonesian Lakshmi Pamuntjak and Malaysian Tash Aw are great too.
Is the book based on your own experiences?
Yes, I think every book has a lot of the writer in it. I struggled a bit at first what type of protagonist I needed. I did not want to use an expat woman that swept to the rescue – a bit too much of a cliché – nor one of the domestic workers themselves, as I felt that would not offer enough space for reflection. Then Maya sprung up; a ten-year-old Singaporean girl with a mixed ancestry. On paper she is very different from me, but she can ask all the questions I forgot to ask when I was her age and am too polite to ask now. A child is not judgemental, but looks at things with an open mind. Maya starts to rescue abused helpers with her own ‘Aunty M’, and all the situations of maid ill-treatment I portray in the book are based on real events. The domestic worker characters are inspired by women I know personally. I put a lot of colourful personal experiences in Singapore in the book as well, to convey my love for this little country.
How did you find the writing process? And how long did it take you to write the book?
Initially I got a bit carried away with the charity work and did not have much time to actually write. I also struggled with the way to write the book, fiction or non-fiction. When I finally came up with the plot around Maya and Aunty M and started writing the first chapter I finished the first draft in less than half a year. But then the hard part comes: re-writing and querying agents and publishers. Thankfully I was fairly lucky, in total it took less than two years from the start until the book hit the shops – if I don’t count the preceding years of research.
What does a normal workday look like for you?
We get up and seven, and our lovely helper (yes, I am an employer of a domestic worker too!) will have set the table by 7.15am. After feeding the kids I bring them to school and try to spend the morning writing as those are my best hours. In the afternoon I am more likely to have appointments; I do school talks and sometimes give workshops. I have stopped going to the charity three days a week to focus on my writing but there are always things that are happening that I need (or want?) to join. At 3.20pm I pick up my kids and most of the afternoon I am either a driver or entertaining a bunch of kids at home. We have a large garden that is a favourite spot for playdates. What I love about writing is how flexibly I can combine it with being a mum!
Did you experience any creative slumps? How did you get yourself out of them?
Not really, I find my biggest problem is lack of time and energy, not lack of ideas. There is so much happening in my life I always have inspiration.
Many of us expat women find ourselves moving from full time work to no work…would you encourage others to write?
Absolutely! It is such an enriching experience. I am staying in Singapore on a ‘dependent pass’ which means I am not allowed to make any money inside the country (thankfully my publisher is in the UK!). In any case, making a living as a writer is hard these days, but for me it has been more than worth it, it definitely helps with my feeling of self-worth to know I am contributing to society this way and have something more than playdates, coffee mornings and sport meets to occupy my brain with.
What’s next for you and your writing?
Just like I read several books at the same time, I am also writing several. I am currently working on a new novel set in my own house. I live in an old colonial ‘Black and White’ house that was built by the British in the 1920s and saw a lot of history: a WWII battle after which it became a prisoner-of –war camp for soldiers that were later sent to the Burma-Thailand railway. Many people say these houses are haunted… It is a contemporary novel about two women – one Malay and one from Europe – and a lot of ghosts from the past!
At the same time I am working on a middle grade children’s book, also set in Singapore, which shows humans and nature struggling to live together. And yes, we have plenty of nature left in Singapore’s urban jungle.
A Yellow House (Monsoon Books, 2018)
Ten-year-old Singaporean Maya is lonely: her grandmother is dead, her mother is focused on her career and her best friend has become a bully. When Aunty M, a domestic worker from Indonesia, joins the family to take care of Maya and her baby sister, Maya is ready to hate her.
Aunty M smiles a lot, but says little. However, after Aunty M rescues a fellow maid living in the same building and beaten by her employer, Maya discovers a side of Singapore hitherto unknown to her. She and Aunty M grow closer as they meet more and more women in need.
What will happen when Mama finds out about Maya and Aunty M’s growing involvement with the aunties? Will Maya lose Aunty M too? After all, Mama did say she hates busybodies …
This poignant coming-of-age story, told in the voice of inquisitive Maya, explores the plight of migrant domestic workers in Singapore and the relationships they form with the families they work for.
Karien van Ditzhuijzen – Bio
After a childhood of moving around Asia, the Middle East and Europe, Karien van Ditzhuijzen moved to Singapore in 2012. Karien has a degree in chemical engineering, but gave up her career developing ice cream recipes to become a writer. She now dedicates her life (in no particular order) to advocating migrant workers’ rights, her family, her pet chicken and being entertained by monkeys while writing at the patio of her jungle house.
In 2013 Karien joined Singaporean charity HOME to support domestic workers staying at their shelter. In 2014 she founded the MyVoice blog; a place for migrant workers to share their stories. Karien created and edited the book ‘Our Homes, Our Stories’, an anthology of 28 real-life stories written by migrant domestic workers, which was published in March 2018.
As a freelance writer and blogger Karien contributes to several publications in Singapore and the Netherlands. In 2012 she published a children’s book in Dutch recounting her childhood in Borneo. ‘A Yellow House’ is her first novel.