Writers I Read: In conversation with Karien van Ditzhuijzen
Updated: Aug 2, 2021
So, there was that lovely blurb about The Ash House from Karien van Ditzhuijzen, trending on my story over the last two days. But you might be wondering, ‘Who is she?’
Well, here she is:
I did not expect to be friends with Karien van Ditzhuijzen when we met at the Singapore Ladies Literary Book Group in 2014. I was intimidated by her straightforward Dutch ways and how she towered over me at 1.82 m. We were never going to see eye to eye, I feared. And then she told me she’d read my first book about the Borneo jungles, Learning to Fly. It turned out, we both loved trees.
Half a decade later I’ve discovered we're both not just readers, but writers. We’re both concerned about migrant worker’s rights. And, we’re both a little obsessed with houses, especially old ones. Unlikely as it seems, we’ve become friends. And to celebrate this, here we are . . .
AC: Hi Karien, so lovely to be chatting across continents. When we met in 2014 you were just starting on your writing journey. You have a Master’s degree in chemical engineering and had worked as a global product developer for Unilever’s Ice Cream range. What prompted this switch to the written word?
KVD: I felt unsatisfied with my corporate career. Though I enjoyed the creative side of my job, the way in which the company (and the whole food industry) worked, was too commercial for me. I also wanted to do something I could more easily combine with caring for 3 young children at home. Writing had always been a dream. Our move to Singapore felt like a good moment to try a career change – it was now of never!
AC: You became heavily involved with HOME (the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics)? How did all that begin and how did it lead to the book Our Homes, Our Stories: Voices of Migrant Workers in Singapore?
KVD: During my childhood in Malaysia and the Middle East we’d always had migrant domestic workers in the house. I was fascinated by them and knew they were what I wanted to write about. But as a child I had never questioned their lives, and I had to learn a lot before I could write about these women. When I joined HOME, I got very much carried away by the work there. First, I helped out with case work, then I started a befriending program and even ended up managing the shelter for a while. What I loved most of my work for HOME was teaching creative writing classes both at the shelter and our Sunday school, HOME Academy. These women had such fascinating stories to tell. I felt they needed to be heard and started the blog www.myvoiceathome.org to share them.
AC: And those stories became the book, Our Homes, Our Stories: Voices of Migrant Workers in Singapore. Why did you and your collaborators decide to anthologize the stories? Was there a particular intention? Has that been met?
KVD: As you as a writer will know, holding your very own printed book in your hands is such a special feeling. A proper book would allow us to spread our stories to a wider audience. And the book indeed worked its wonders, we presented it at several events, including the Singapore Writers Festival in 2018. The look of pride on our writers’ faces when they were on stage there was invaluable. Since then, they have been asked to speak on many occasions, and in that way the book helped to connect domestic workers and Singaporeans, and increased the understanding between both parties.
AC: That’s so amazing. But that wasn’t the only thing you were doing related to migrant workers in 2018 was it? Just 3 months after Our Homes, Our Stories came out, I had your novel A Yellow House in my hands. Although both books feature migrant workers, the stories are told from very different perspectives. In one, it is the domestic workers themselves who speak. In the other, it is the 10-year-old protagonist Maya. What challenges did you face, working on both books almost simultaneously?
KVD: I actually wrote A Yellow House first. But then I realized that Maya’s story was my own story. It was a good story – but not the whole story. The stories of the women themselves were equally, or probably more, important. That was another reason I began compiling Our Homes, Our Stories. There is a lot of downtime in getting a novel to print with a traditional publisher, so in the end the second book went to print faster than the first. Our Homes, Our Stories was published by HOME and I had great volunteers who helped with editing, translating, proof-reading, design and much more. It was very much a team effort, which is a lot of fun compared to sitting down and writing a novel. It wasn’t a challenge to work at both projects simultaneously, I think the two books really complement each other.
AC: The house mentioned in A Yellow House is being built by Aunty M, the Indonesian helper in the story. Is this based on a real house?
KVD: Yes, fun fact: the real yellow house exists. It is the house my own helper Indah built in Indonesia. We visited it a few years back and it made a big impression on me. Yellow happens to be my favorite color. The cover design was made based on a photo of this house. For many migrant workers building a house for their family back home is a big part of their dreams.
AC: Yellow might be your favorite color, but seems like you have a ‘thing’ for living in black and white houses? Why?
KVD: For a perpetual nomad I suppose I am surprisingly fascinated by houses. I particularly like houses which have stories to tell. Those Black and White colonial houses have an intriguing history, a lot happened there, in the war and beyond … Many people say these houses are haunted!
AC: Yet, your next book coming out isn’t about the ghosts inside the house but about the creatures that live outside?
Another reason I love Singapore’s Black and White houses are the huge green gardens. My house off Adam Road is next to a nature reserve. The jungle surrounding us was the inspiration for my new children’s book #Junglegirl, which is about all the fantastic animals encountered there and how we humans need to learn to share this planet with other creatures. The book is part of a series, the first of which be published in Singapore next year.
AC: And hopefully, there’ll be another one on the way, about the ghosts and people inside the house?
KVD: Yes. I still have a tendency to work on several projects at the same time… So, there’s an adult novel in the works too. When I moved into the house in Adam Park I simply had to write about its illustrious history - a battle was fought there in the war and later prisoners of war were housed in the exact place I lived. I wanted to write a contemporary novel, and one not only about rich white expats. When I learned there had been a kampong right next to Adam Park, that was torn down to build the PIE motorway, I found my second main character. This novel is about the friendship between a Malay woman that grew up in that kampong and a Dutch expat that moves into a Black and White in the area. The novel shows how both women have to face the ghosts (both literal and metaphorical) of their pasts before their can solidify their friendship.
AC: Speaking about friendship across cultures, thank you for your lovely endorsement of my latest – The Ash House. Can you tell us what your favorite scene or who your favorite character was in the book, and more importantly why?
KVD: Gosh, so much to choose from! There are a lot of strong women there - I secretly love to hate Irene. If I have to pick a favorite though it would be Cook. She is such a poignant example of those strong Asian women that come to Singapore to work. She might work as a ‘servant’ but in reality, she’s a boss. Unfortunately, neither Cook nor ‘second maid’ Girl get a happy end, but I did enjoy seeing domestic worker characters in a book that have agency. When both end up as victims of the developments in this story, it is not through any fault of their own, but because society was pitted against them from the start. And that’s the reality for many women like them.
Which brings us back full circle to domestic workers who need support, haunted houses and friendship – the subject of Karien’s next book. I’m watching out for it. You should too.