Singapore Shelf: The House Of Little Sisters gives enslaved girls a voice

The House Of Little Sisters by Eva Wong Nava. PHOTO: ALVIN HO, PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE SEA

SINGAPORE - In this monthly feature, The Sunday Times lines up hot-off-the-press local books for readers to dive into, with a focus on titles by women authors.

1. The House Of Little Sisters

By Eva Wong Nava
Young adult/Penguin Random House South-east Asia/Paperback/240 pages/$26.64/Available here

Author Eva Wong Nava has written her first young-adult novel, about a teenager in 1930s Singapore who is sold to a family as a mui tsai (Cantonese for "little sister"), or indentured servant girl.

The book was originally for nine-year-olds but, while working on it, she changed her mind.

"The more I dug up, the more I understood the plight of the mui tsai. I had to bring in all the issues that they faced. They were raped, sold and dumped," says the Singapore-born author, 53, via a video call from London.

"I was able to explore these horrific issues in greater depth by notching up the age category."

The House Of Little Sisters is about 16-year-old Lim Mei Mei, who is sold to the Lee family. She discovers a shameful secret lurking within the household, and meets and falls in love with Hassan, an aspiring poet.

To write the novel, Wong Nava drew on her own experiences with sexual assault.

"I was molested by my uncle when I was 10 years old till when I was 14. I couldn't stop him, I didn't know how to stop him," she says.

She was disappointed that the global #MeToo movement against sexual abuse and harassment did not gain more traction in Singapore.

"It was very triggering for me to write House. It was tough, but it was also cathartic. In helping the mui tsai find a voice, I also found a voice for myself. I hope younger girls will have the courage to come out to tell someone, because they are not alone."

Wong Nava, a naturalised British citizen, grew up in a house in Holland Village in Singapore and moved to Britain in the early 1990s to read English literature at the University of Hull. She is married to an Italian and they have two daughters aged 15 and 24.

Several events planted the seeds for The House Of Little Sisters. One was the story of a Filipino woman who was trafficked into Paris and trapped in the home of the family she was working for.

When Wong Nava returned to Singapore from 2013 to 2020, she also became fascinated by people's "very co-dependent relationship" with domestic workers. Later, she began to research the history of the mui tsai, typically daughters of poor Chinese families who were sold to rich households as bondmaids.

Her earlier books include Open: A Boy's Wayang Adventure (2018), about a 10-year-old on the autism spectrum, and Mina's Magic Malong (2019), a picture book about a girl who finds it hard to cope with her nanny going home. The latter was co-authored by June Ho and illustrated by Novita Elisa.

In 2018, Wong Nava and illustrator Debasmita Dasgupta founded Picture Book Matters, a mentoring platform for aspiring picture book creators from Asia.

That same year, Wong Nava and children's book author Sim Ee Waun also started KidLit Southeast Asia, which advocates for South-east Asian voices in children's literature.

The picture book scene in Singapore has grown over the years, she says, with a nod to authors such as Emily Lim-Leh and David Seow.

But she hopes people will be more open to the idea of using picture books as an educational resource in primary school.

"By the time pupils are six years old, teachers no longer seem to want to use picture books to teach. What it has developed is this mentality that picture books are for little children. Some of these children are struggling to read, but want to be seen reading big boys' books and big girls' books."

She intends to write more young-adult fiction. "I will still keep on writing what I call representational stories - stories about me, about us, about the (South-east Asian Chinese) diaspora."

2. Where I Was: A Memoir About Forgetting And Remembering


By Constance Singam
Non-fiction/Ethos Books/Paperback/308 pages/$25.68/Available here

Author and activist Constance Singam, 86, has been dubbed the mother of civil society in Singapore.

This updated version of her 2013 memoir looks back on a lifetime of advocacy, and tells the story of her life as an Indian, a woman and a widow. It also considers the events leading up to the 2009 "Aware saga", in which Christian conservatives tried to seize control of the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware).

Singam, the former president of Aware, has also co-founded civil society groups such as Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), which helps migrant workers in Singapore.

A launch event for the book on March 20 at 4pm will be live-streamed on Facebook.

3. Prophecy Of The Underworld


By Low Ying Ping
Young adult/Penguin Random House South-east Asia/Paperback/220 pages/$24.50/Available here

Julian Kee, 13, is an unlikely hero. He is not the chosen one, but a random last-minute replacement for the prophesied hero. He and his friends venture into the Underworld to find a magical rock that can save their world.

4. Emman, Time Traveller: The Redhill Tragedy


By Josephine Chia
Young adult/Penguin Random House South-east Asia/Paperback/80 pages/$13.80/Available here

Emmanuel, a boy from modern-day Singapore, time-travels to 14th-century Singapura to help a boy named Nadim escape death.

5. She Never Looks Quite Back


By Mallika Naguran
Fiction/Penguin Random House South-east Asia/Paperback/176 pages/$24.50/Available here

Social unrest, infidelity and the pandemic are some of the issues that loom large in this debut collection of short stories about women.

6. An Atheist Gets The Gita


By Rahul Singh and Galyna Kogut
Non-fiction/Rupa Publications/Paperback/240 pages/$30.54/Available here

This book, which unfolds as a dialogue between a young investment banker and an older man, encourages people to see the Bhagavad Gita with fresh eyes.

It is written by married couple Singh and Kogut - a banker from India and a linguistics researcher from Ukraine - who are now Singapore citizens.

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