A Yellow House is a beautiful new Singapore-set novel that looks at helpers (and all working mothers) from a refreshing new perspective
Here at Sassy Mama, you know how we feel about helpers: we are grateful for their hard work, we recognize the economic imbalances that require them to often leave behind their families (and the tremendous, heartbreaking sacrifice that entails), and we do whatever we can to raise awareness to ensure they receive fair treatment and safe working conditions here in Singapore.
Dutch mama Karien van Ditzhuijzen – herself a frequent Sassy Mama contributor – has become a leading voice and advocate for migrant domestic workers through her work at HOME (Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics). Whether volunteering at HOME’s helpdesk, or establishing a blog for helpers that’s evolved into a beautiful book, Karien has worked tirelessly to empower helpers and improve their situation since she arrived in Singapore in 2012.
The next chapter, as it were, of this work has resulted in a beautiful new novel, A Yellow House, which takes a deep and engaging look at the plight of migrant domestic workers in Singapore.
Karien, a mother of three with children aged 7, 9, and 10, was herself an expat kid, growing up in Borneo and The Middle East among other places, often with domestic workers in her own house.
As a child, Karien says, she never gave much thought to her helpers’ own families and what they had left behind, but she looked on it with fresh eyes after moving to Singapore as an adult. Told from the point of view of a 10-year-old girl named Maya, A Yellow House offers a fresh perspective on migrant workers and the relationships they forge in their employers’ families, but is also a meditation on the wider challenges faced by all working mothers (including Maya’s mom, an investment banker, and her grandmother before her).
While it obviously deals with important – and at times quite heavy – subject matter (including the physical abuse many helpers are subjected to), A Yellow House is a fast and enjoyable read that’s been likened to the popular U.S.-set novel The Help (also inspired by real-life childhood experiences). Singapore readers will appreciate the local references, and might in fact recognize that many plot points draw on real-life helper experiences. The inner thoughts of Maya, who is mixed race and grapples with her own questions of identity and belonging, add yet another fascinating dimension to the book.
We recently spoke with Karien to find out more about what inspired her to sit down and write a book (as an aside, can we just say that while it’s no small feat in itself to publish a book, to write such a beautiful one in a language that’s not your first is doubly impressive!). We don’t doubt you’ll find yourself plenty inspired as well, mama!
What inspired you to write A Yellow House? When did you start writing it?
I grew up as an expat child with domestic workers in the house. When we lived in Borneo they were local women — they lived in an apartment at the side of our house with their extended families and had full lives. But in the Middle East we had Anna, an ‘amah’ from India in a tiny cubicle behind the garage. We weren’t encouraged to go there, but when I did I saw photos of Anna’s children in India. I must have been around Maya’s age and those photos made me very uncomfortable. My mother said that Anna’s husband was useless – he lazed on the sofa all day – and that working for us allowed Anna to send her children to school. All of that kept haunting me after we moved back to Europe.
So when I came to Singapore with my own children (and hired my own domestic worker) I felt I needed to do something with my nagging questions. After we arrived here in 2012 I started volunteering with HOME, a local charity that supports domestic workers, to learn more about them, with the intention to write a book. But then I got carried away with the volunteering to the extend that I did not have time to write. There was so much to do at this inspiring organisation – at some point I found myself even managing their shelter. I decided to step down partly to focus on my writing, but am still involved with HOME. I manage a website for migrant workers to share their stories and made an anthology of work written by domestic workers earlier this year. I started working on A Yellow House end of 2015; the first draft was done quite quickly, but since this was my first full novel it needed quite a few rewrites to get it right!
Why did you choose to write from the perspective of a 10-year-old girl?
This is quite a controversial subject and I did not want a judgemental main character, I prefer to leave drawing conclusions to the readers. And I definitely did not want the cliched storyline where an expat or Singaporean woman “saves” a poor domestic worker. I wanted to portray the domestic workers as strong women that are able to stand up for themselves. The characters of Aunty M and her friends are inspired by women I met though HOME; we have a lot of domestic worker volunteers there that run helpdesks for their peers. At the same time, I wanted a more neutral central character that would allow for some comparison and reflection. A young girl is a blank slate and looks at the world with an open mind. Having a child protagonist allows you to address a heavy subject in a relatively light manner. And I also love writing for and about children, they are so fun and creative!
Despite being just 10, the main character, Maya, confronts some very adult situations (and even realizes she needs to hide these from her parents). At what age do you think it’s ok to expose kids to these issues? Is this the approach you take with your own kids?
Personally, I believe kids can understand much more than adults give them credit for and that it is good to expose them to the realities of the world at any age. It is better they hear things from you so you can deliver the message in a suitable way. My own kids know about my work with HOME. We often talk about cases I handle there as a family. I also like to take my children to HOME events like picnics with HOME shelter residents and Kartini celebrations with music and dance.
My children haven’t read A Yellow House yet, but I think I will give it to them quite soon. Kids get fed all these violent and scary movies these days that are way worse than the things I write about. This is not a children’s book — but for me that does not mean children can’t read it. It might be my Dutch parenting style, we typically have quite a free approach in the Netherlands. That is definitely something parents would have to decide for themselves. Younger readers would probably not understand everything in my book, but they could still take a away a lot from it, as long as there is an adult there to support them and discuss it with them. My 10-year-old son likes reading the newspaper and he’ll come to me with questions when he doesn’t understand what he is reading.
Generally I would say A Yellow House is a great read for slightly older teenagers – particularly ones that have grown up with domestic workers – to give them some perspective about what life is like for these women.
You mention in the foreword that ALL of the incidents in the book (including helpers being beaten, starved, cheated out of thousands of dollars in salary, and much more) were based on real events you’ve witnessed working with HOME.
In the book Maya’s European father seems to have only a vague awareness of the seriousness of these incidents, do you find that’s often the case with men in Singapore? i.e. Is it common to take the attitude, ‘I’ll let my wife handle the helper and will just stay out of it’? How can we get men to be more “woke”, as it were?
I don’t think is it just men that need to wake up to these issues. I think many people in Singapore could be more aware, which is exactly why I wrote this book. I think that one thing that is important to do is to “humanise” domestic workers. It is quite easy to see them as household robots who don’t need certain rights. I think giving them a face and a voice in books can help employers understand that they are people. Yes, they are here to work, but they are also human beings with needs and wants and hopes and dreams.
When we traveled in Central Java we made a detour to visit or helper’s village, which was such a great experience. It showed us where she comes from, we met her family, which really helped in understanding her. So when she tells me her uncle is sick, I know who she is talking about — it makes it all more real. It’s the same for my husband, he feels quite involved now. Of course a visit like that is not feasible for everyone, but getting to know your helper really helps in establishing a good and trusting relationship. That goes for both men and women.
Along these lines, Maya tries to come to terms with “feminism” and what it means to her, to her mother, her grandmother, and to migrant domestic workers. What feminist lessons do you hope readers will take away from this book?
Good question! I never thought of feminist lessons specifically when I wrote this book. My view on feminism is that it is about choices; every woman should have the possibility to be whatever she wants to be, be it a career woman or housewife or both. In this book I show women from very different backgrounds that all struggle to balance work and life. They all need to make hard choices. So I suppose my main lesson would be that it is okay to find it difficult. Being a woman – a mother – is not easy, whether you are born in a rich privileged country or in one with more challenges. At the same time there are of course huge differences between those women and Maya and Cat sum those up quite nicely in the book: Life is not fair.
While bravely trying to help helpers who are abused by their employers, Maya also struggles with school bullies. Was this an intentional parallel?
Yes, it was. I think bullying children and abusive employers have many similarities. I even added a scene with fighting monkeys to show this kind of thing happens in the animal world as well. Bullying is all about power play and establishing relationships. I wanted to put the situation of abused helpers in a broader perspective by showing similar behaviour in other layers of society. At the same time, comparing it to children and monkey behaviour shows how childish and animalistic it is, and that we as adults should be able to rise above it.
I was fascinated by the story you relayed of Kartini, whom I’d never heard of before. Can you tell us more about Kartini Day celebrations here in Singapore?
Kartini is such an amazing character, she was a very early Indonesian feminist, campaigning for women’s rights and girls education in the late 19th century. It is lovely how she is still very much revered in Indonesia, Kartini Day is a national holiday nationwide. Many Indonesians in Singapore celebrate as well, at the Indonesian school or the embassy. At HOME we have a large group of Indonesian domestic worker volunteers who always organise Kartini Day festivities. There will be Indonesian traditional dances, music, other performances, speeches and of course great food. The scene I describe in the book where Maya and Aunty M attend a fashion show in a batik theme on Kartini Day happened for real a few years back! I took my daughters there, and they loved seeing the amazing dresses, many of which were made by women that follow dressmaking classes at HOME academy.
Finally, is Maya’s Dutch friend Cat from Borneo your alter-ego? 🙂
Haha, I wish. There are definitely similarities as we are both Dutch, I also lived in Borneo as a child, and Cat’s house in the jungle is a lot like my house here in Singapore. But when I was a child I was more like Maya, a bit shy and a dreamer. I was thankfully never bullied like Maya, but I did find it difficult at times to find my place at school, especially after we repatriated to the Netherlands. Cat is probably the girl I would have wanted to be as a child! She is happy and confident in herself and doesn’t care what other people think.
Thanks so much for speaking with us, Karien, and for writing such a wonderful book!
A Yellow House is available for purchase online through Monsoon Books or via Amazon, and can be purchased in Singapore at Kinokuniya and Times Bookstores. Karien will also be selling copies at the HOME booth at our Helper Appreciation Celebration on September 8, with profits on the day being donated to HOME!