Thursday 24 March 2022

The House of Little Sisters: Eva Wong Nava Writes About The Challenges of Writing YA Historical Fiction

Thank you, Elaine Chiew, for the invitation to share about the challenges and issues in regard to writing historical fiction for a teenage audience, and about my book The House of Little Sisters, launched February 22, 2022. It is categorized as a Young Adult or a YA book suitable for a readership of 12-18 year olds. but YA is an age category rather than a genre, created by publishers to market books. The genre for this novel is historical fiction. 

The blurb of The House of Little Sisters tells readers that the novel is a “supernatural exposé of a past system that still has a tight grip on contemporary Singapore and Malaysia.” The word “past” gives this novel its context.  What brought me to finally write HOUSE was a burning curiosity about the employer/ helper relationship that is so predominant in Singaporean society. During a 7-year sojourn in the city-state, I was struck by how families in Singapore relied so much on their helpers. I was particularly struck by how co-dependent several employer/ helper relationships I had observed were. I wanted to know what the historical premise for this was.

I knew there were challenges in writing a historical fiction novel. Because I am also an art historian, I understand the nature of research and how sometimes, research can throw up some curve balls. HOUSE took me nearly 5 years to research. My research includes trawling through archived photographs, locating and reading historical documents, interviewing and talking to people. 

I’ll share some the challenges below:

Challenge #1

Historical fiction doesn’t excite readers as much as Fantasy or Sci-fi in the YA category. Why? Firstly, history is always seen through a personal lens. History is subjective. 

Challenge #2

Young adults don’t engage as well with history as they do with fantasy and/or science fiction. So, I’ve been told by some Commissioning Editors. 

Challenge #3

History is never fun or easy, and it is definitely not funny. But history never lies. 


All that aside, historical fiction does have a huge market share in trade publishing. What is historical fiction? As the genre name suggests, it is fiction peppered with historical facts. Trade publishers continue to publish historical fiction novels because they are a great source of entertainment and a resource for learning about the past. 


Challenge #4

Writing historical fiction entails a great amount of research. Although the story is fictional, the historical details have to be nonfiction, that is, real. HOUSE is set in 1930s colonial Malaya. It is set particularly in Singapore, which was a town then. To get the nuances of the period right (1930s), I had to read up on what was happening at that time in British Malaya. I needed to see how the people, streets and the landscape looked like so I could build a world. 


Add to that, there are so many events in history to choose from. And quite a few hundred personalities to choose from, too. So, a historical fiction writer must be specific. 


Challenge #5

The 1930s is a long span of time. So, where do I start? I had to ask myself what the premise of my novel was. After ploughing through a lot of documents at the National Archives of Singapore, I finally decided that what I wanted to write about was the “Mui Tsai Problem”; this problem gave me a context to explore the master/ servant relationship I was and still am so curious about. The premise for HOUSE was the Mui Tsai Ordinance of 1932, a piece of legislation written by the British government to protect servant girls who were being traded in Malaya in the 20th century. 


But a piece of legal document does not a story make. I had to tease out a story from the mountain of research papers and court reports. I had to find a way to tell the story of mui tsai, or bond-servants, to give these girls a voice amidst the legalese that I was reading. So, here is where the fiction begins. I had to create characters to tell my story. 


Challenge #6

Finding one’s voice is enough of a feat, but finding two voices, now that is a feat doubled. The story in HOUSE is told through the voices of two main characters: Lim Mei Mei (or Ah Mei) and Ah Wan Jie. To make sure that my characters’ voices remained authentic, I had to put myself in Ah Mei’s shoes; she’s 16, and Ah Wan Jie’s shoes; she’s in her late 40s. 


Speaking of voices, the most challenging part for me was the issue of multilingualism in the novel. HOUSE is populated by people of the diaspora, Malayans, who spoke in different tongues: Malay, Baba-Malay, Fukien/ Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, English. The two predominant dialects in HOUSE are Fukien and Cantonese because these were the languages that the two main characters conversed in, or rather belonged to as a clan group. This comes from understanding local as well as colonial history of segregation. Whilst I could hear my diverse characters speaking in their various mother tongues in my head, I am, however, writing in English, and I had to find a way to parse these dialects to contemporary English. As for English, though I said contemporary, people in the 1930s would have spoken differently, so the dialogue had to reflect that and the characters interiority — their thoughts — had to reflect how people behaved, thought, and spoke during that time. 


Challenge #7

After I found my characters, or rather, after my characters found me, I had to find a way to make their local story glocal (local + global). As I’d mentioned, history is always seen through a subjective lens — how can I make this local and rather unknown historical event one that would resonate with readers beyond the shores of Singapore and Malaysia? As a writer, I would like all my readers to engage with the story, wherever they come from. 


So, putting my writer’s helmet on, I looked into my toolkit. In there is a memory bank of lived experiences and emotions. I used spanners of anguish, drills of helplessness, hammers of heartache and longing to construct my manuscript. Then, when good things happen in a scene, I celebrate with bowls of ice-cream and glasses of champagne, and toast to the good health and longevity of my characters. 


Why all this emotion? The only way readers can engage with a story, any story, is through its characters. The only way stories can develop empathy is through how the characters feel, struggle and finally find peace (or not). It’s the human condition; the characters have to be human like the readers. And to get teens to read and find joy in reading historical fiction is writing a story that leaves enough historical details that would whet their curiosity to consume more history. History is, after all, made up of stories, stories backed by data. And in historical fiction, the data for the reader is not important, they’re not interested in the data, what readers are interested in is always the story, peopled with relatable characters. 


Challenge #8

Going deep meant that every scene where Ah Mei witnessed something horrific became triggering to write. I was seeing the plight of the mui tsai unfolding before me like a silent monochromatic movie. When Ah Wan Jie is anguished, feeling helpless, tired, and her arthritic joints were aching, I felt these emotions and her pains too. When Hassan was choked with frustration, I had to hold his space. When Ah Lian raged, I shook with unfathomable anger. 

HOUSE took me a little under two years to write. This means that these characters haunted me for nearly two years. They wrangled, squabbled, and found a way to get along in my head for all the time it took me to write the novel, and then for all the months it took me to edit and proofread the manuscript before it was ready for publication. The novel isn’t done yet until the editing is done and editing can be a long process. 


Historical fiction is enriching to write and read. I have learned so much about world history by reading historical fiction novels. My next book will be another historical fiction, but I’m going younger this time. The House of Little Sisters could only be for YA readers because of the themes that the novel explores: physical abuse, human trafficking, patriarchal attitudes towards women, to name a few. 



Eva Wong Nava lives between two worlds. She was born on a tropical island where a merlion guards the islanders from marauding pirates. Her ancestors braved monsoon winds, sailing from the Middle Kingdom to Nanyang, planting roots in Nusantara. When the winds changed, her relatives sailed again, coursing through the northern seas, for cooler climates. Eva combines degrees in Literature and Art History, and is a full-time children’s book author. She writes stories that explore identity, belonging, and culture and heritage. She loves adding a dash of magic to her stories, because who doesn’t like a sprinkling of magic dust. Eva lives in the Land of Albion with a tiger, goat and dog. Find Eva on Twitter and Instagram @evawongnava, and Facebook as Eva Wong Nava.


NB: The House of Little Sisters can be purchased at Kinokuniya, Epigram Bookshop and all available outlets at local prices.