Mastodon The Writing Desk: Special Guest Post by Eva Wong Nava, Author of The House of Little Sisters

8 February 2022

Special Guest Post by Eva Wong Nava, Author of The House of Little Sisters

Available from Amazon US and Amazon UK

A supernatural exposé of a past system that still has a tight grip on contemporary Singapore and Malaysia. It's August of 1931 in Singapore, sixteen-year-old Lim Mei Mei (Ah Mei) arrives at the home of Eminent Mister Lee on the eve of the Hungry Ghost Month. 

I'm pleased to welcome author Eva Wong Nava to The Writing Desk:

Tell us about your latest book 

My latest book is a YA historical fiction, The House of Little Sisters. It is published by Penguin Random House, and releasing on February 22, 2022. It is my debut YA as well as a proper historical fiction novel. I will explain why “proper” below. 

22022022 is a palindrome date day and I feel rather lucky to be launching The House of Little Sisters on this auspicious day. 

What is your preferred writing routine? 

In my older age, I have become an early riser. I get out of bed blurry-eyed and bear-breathed, and make a cup of coffee. Then, I turn on my ‘puter and write the first thoughts that come into my head about a story I’m developing or about something I discovered about a character. That done, I go the last page where I’d left my character in the middle of making up their mind on something, or where I left a scene, figuring out how that scene will pan out, and just write without editing. I have a personal target of 1,500 words per day. 

This is a sweet number for me as I also write flash fiction. I feel that this word target (I won’t say limit because 1,500 is not a limit but a target as “limit” is constraining, whilst “target” is liberating) is achieveable. Then, I write for two - three hours. Take a coffee break and write some more. And, before I know it, it’s lunch time.  

When I am stuck, I let the character speak to me, or I let my mind meander in that time frame or what I like to call the ambience of the place. I ask questions, go deep with the character and enter their world. If I run out of steam, I read and/or watch a movie or documentary, preferably ones that relate to the writing I’m doing. I might also go through the research again, see if there’s something I’d missed or something that could lead me down another path.

I am lucky to be able to write full time. I feel privileged that I am able to immerse myself in my stories. This hasn’t always been possible when the children were younger. This has something to do with pushchairs in the hallway being obstacles to writing especially when that writer is a woman. I read that bit of historical tidbit somewhere. 

What advice do you have for new writers? 

  • Be kind to yourself because you’re in this for the long haul.
  • Writing is a craft, learn it well, and make it work for you.
  • Be supportive of your colleagues, as much as the competition is stiff. We all write about different things and in this case, different periods and people in history, and there is just so many fascinating historical events and people to write about. 
  • Then, I’d like to say, enjoy the journey. 
  • Every book is a discovery. 
  • And you can only get better as a writer. 

What have you found to be the best way to raise awareness of your books? 

In comparison to many veteran authors, I’m a newbie in this industry. I am also newish to this genre — historical fiction — though I have read many, many historical fiction novels. I have written historical flash fiction, but this is my first YA novel. 

As a reader of historical fiction, I often find these books on Twitter or author websites, and now on TikTok, where Booktokkers recommend titles. I have a Tiktok account but frankly, I don’t use it at all. 

Personally, I like Instagram because the target audience for my book is there. I write for young adults and teens, and Instagram is known for being a social media platform for millennials and Gen Zers. My audience are readers and reviewers and book-bloggers. Instagram is whatever you want it to be, I feel. I like creating Instagram posters on Canva and peppering my IG feeds with bread crumbs leading to my book. This way, I get to show readers the research behind the book, the inpiration behind the characters, and behind-the-scenes sleuthing work that is so important to writing an engaging historical novel. When a fellow writer follows me, I return the favour. It’s how I support the community. 

Twitter is fun too, but you’ll need to like this fast-paced environment. I have a Twitter account and I use that to tweet about my work and to help boost other writers by retweeting their tweets. 

Facebook is also a good platform, and I use Facebook for discussions and letting my friends who aren’t on either Twitter or Instagram know about my books. 

I send a newsletter out every month. But the newsletter is less about my book and more about what I’ve been doing besides writing, though much of it is related to writing. I love this perhaps oft misquoted quote: “Don’t become a writer because you’ll suffer if you write and you’ll suffer if you don’t.” 

And, I never say no to an interview, being a blog guest, or blurbing other people’s books. I was a guest on a podcast recently ( where I chatted with Marc Antony Ross, an Italo-American writer and podcaster on writing The House of Little Sisters and other things. 

There really isn’t a best way, I feel. It’s what works for you; what you have time for besides writing. Historical fiction novelist, Christina Hollis, said that “[s]ocial media is like fire: a great servant, but a terrible master.” I can’t help but agree, so I master what I can and refuse to be a servant to any. 

Tell us something unexpected you discovered during your research 

This is a long answer. I started researching colonial Malaya because I have ties there. I am a child of the diaspora with deep roots in Singapore and Malaysia. There are tons of things to find out and learn. I was most intrigued by Singapore’s contemporary reliance on migrant and domestic helpers. 

On a recent sojourn there pre-Pandemic, I saw that many children were being cared for by their nannies; there was such a co-dependence on childminders and nannies on a national level, I felt, and I wondered about the children’s relationships with their helpers or “aunties” (as domestic helpers are called in Singapore). 

That got me thinking about a nanny who used to care for me when I was around 4 or 5 years old. My memory is fast fading so I asked my father about her. She wore a uniform — a black-and-white trouser suit. My father told me that she belonged to a class or category of paid servants who emigrated from China pre-WWII and took vows of celibacy so that they could work and send money back to their families in China. 

That intrigued me further, so I started to research who these women were and what happened to them. Then, I discovered a class of servants known as Mui Tsai, who were sold into servitude from as young as 7 years old. I couldn’t stop there, of course! 

So, my research took another path: Who were these girls? Why were they sold? How come they were known as mui tsai, which means little girl in Cantonese? And so, I dug deeper, found photos, perused documents and research papers, read interviews, talked to people of a certain generation, and almost 5 years later, I had a story. 

Discovering the history of mui tsai was an unexpected turn in my research. I was not planning to write about them, I was going to write about a class of servants known as black-and-white servants or Amah, because they were said to be the first feminists of British Malaya. A book for another time, perhaps.

Finally, herstory, the mui tsai’s story called out to me. I asked around my network and commuity if anyone has heard of the term ‘mui tsai’. I found that people of my parents’ generation did (Dad was born in 1931 and Mum in 1944), but those in my nieces’ generation didn’t (these are millennials and Gen Zers). I didn’t want the mui tsai’s story to go to the grave. Their voices needed to be heard, and as a writer who believes in uplifting female voices, I heeded the mui tsai’s call. 

What was the hardest scene you remember writing? 

There were a few challenging scenes in the novel, I’ll admit, to write and then to read over when editing. The story of the Mui Tsai, or what the British administration termed ‘The Mui Tsai Problem’ was not easy to write.

I would say the most difficult scene would have to be the one when, Ah Lian, one of the characters revealed the depth of abuse she had suffered, dramatising for the readers the abuse that mui tsai suffered historically, and layered into that, the inter-generational trauma that still has bearings in contemporary Singaporean and Malaysian society. It was triggering to write this scene not only for the facts involved but also because of the character’s hopes and aspirations — as a bond-servant, a slave, she had little choice, but as a young girl, she hoped for a big change. 

What are you planning to write next? 

I am primarily a children’s book author, known for my picture books and an award-winning middle-grade novel. There were some historical elements in my middle-grade book which was set in contemporary times, namely the history and the evolution of the Chinese opera in China and outside of China, set in contemporary Singapore. When the book was published, I hesitated to say that this middle-grade novel is a historical fiction “proper”. But as time passed and as my understanding of this genre grew, I will say that my middle-grade novel is a historical fiction for children. 

I have found that many of my stories are peppered with characters from East and Southeast Asian mythology and folklore, or from the past. I don’t force these things, as in I don’t sit down and say to myself that today, I’ll be writing about this and that myth, or this and that event or person. These things, I found, develop organically. Because I am an art historian and I love old photos, I use old photographs to guide and inspire me.

The House of Little Sisters started out as a middle-grade novel, for children aged 9 -11. But as I continued exploring, researching and writing, the novel had to grow up a little due to the themes that started to emerge during the writing process. My main character turned 16 and it became a coming-of-age novel, with several layers of heart-rending historical information weaved in. 

I am working on a middle-grade novel this time, a historical fiction again. This time, I am looking at trans-national adoption, particularly Chinese adoption from colonial Hong Kong and British Malaya. It’s still early days and everything is still up in the air. But I hear the gods speaking to me and a mythical bird churring in my ear, and I know that this historical fiction will be filled with talking gods and animals. Perhaps, the category for this is Historical Fantasy?

Eva Wong Nava

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About the Author

Eva Wong Nava was born on a tropical island where a heraldic animal guards the inhabitants from marauding sea pirates. Her ancestors braved monsoon winds sailing to Nanyang to plant roots in Southeast Asia. When the winds changed, her relatives sailed again for cooler climates, where they faced hail storms and freezing north winds. Eva combines degrees in English Literature and Art History, writing stories that are inspired by her childhood, the books she read, and her heritage and history. She loves adding a dash of magic in her stories because who doesn’t love a bit of magic? Eva loves historical fiction because she feels stories help to make the learning of history fun and interactive. She particularly loves herstory. Eva is a full time writer and a member of the Society of Authors and SCBWI British Isles, where she is the Events Editor for Words & Pictures, the society’s magazine. She is also a feature writer for the magazine’s Representation segment. When she is not writing, Eva is a Sensitivity Editor at The Writing Essentials. She helps writers with their representation of East and Southeast Asian characters, culture and history. Eva lives in the Land of Albion with a tiger, dog and goat. Find out more ar her website where you can sign up for her newsletter, and follow her @evawongnava on Twitter and Instagram, where she will feed you breadcrumbs of her processes. Eva is also on Facebook if you want to connect with her there for a natter on history and writing.

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