Karien, author of A Yellow House, has spent the majority of her life as an expat. Nominally from The Netherlands, she has also lived in Oman, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, France and the United Kingdom. But where is home? And how has her experience bled into her writing? Join me to explore this and more.
Where is your home country?
My parents are Dutch, but my father worked for Shell, so I grew up an expat child. I was born here, but we returned to Oman when I was two weeks old. I didn’t live in The Netherlands until I was ten. When I arrived, I struggled to adjust. This experience has given me a lifelong interest in displaced people. Although my moves have always been privileged – with a job, a network and money in the bank – I gravitate to humanitarian work to help immigrants and refugees.
Much of your writing is about domestic workers. When did you first experience home help?
I grew up with domestic workers in my home. In Oman, we had a worker from India who had a small room behind the kitchen. She kept a photo of some children in her room. When I asked who they were, she told me they were her kids. That shocked me. I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t with them. She wasn’t really part of our family and I felt she should have had a life of her own. Looking back, I am embarrassed that I didn’t do anything to make her life better. I parked the thought but didn’t act on it and become nicer to her.
Where have you lived as an adult?
I’ve continued the expat life. Our first move was to the United Kingdom for my job as a product developer in food (ice-cream). Later, we moved to Singapore for my husband’s work. We moved to Bali for a break, and I did a course in agriculture there.
We’re back in the Netherlands at the moment and it’s been quite an adjustment. I find the weather miserable, and with Covid lockdowns, we’ve had the kids (9, 11 and 12 years old) home from school since March. They had just gone back to school when we all caught Covid, so we were back in isolation for another two weeks. Fortunately, it was just like a mild flu for us, and we’re better now. Our government is about to announce new lockdown measures. School will stay open, but sports, restaurants and bars will close, which is not at all like the Netherlands.
How do your children find the moves?
So far, so good, but after seven years in Singapore and one in Bali, they want to stay here a few years now.
Tell us a bit about your career.
I have a master’s degree in chemical engineering specializing in food chemistry and sustainable development. I worked in the food industry for ten years, and then took a break. I’d like to go back to the sustainability bit rather than the commercial part, which didn’t suit me.
In the meantime, I’ve been writing a blog and I’ve published two books. If my next book is a commercial success I’ll remain a full-time writer.
How did you come to edit Our Homes, Our Stories: Voices of migrant domestic workers in Singapore?
In Singapore, I started teaching writing workshops at HOME, Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics, a charity supporting migrant workers subject to human rights abuses. I decided to publish a book to tell these women’s stories and to raise money.
We collected diverse stories from the women in our shelters as well as our volunteers. For some, English wasn’t their first language, so we heavily edited their work, but for others, we needed to do little. We always tried to keep their voices. They have written strong, inspiring stories.
We presented the book at the Singapore Writers Festival. There was press in the national newspaper, and we got invited to speak at all sorts of places. It was a massive success. They still do events and promote the book. Their pride in it is amazing.
Can you please share the book blurb?
Have you ever wondered what life is like for a migrant domestic worker in Singapore?
In Our Homes, Our Stories, women that work in Singapore as live-in domestic workers share their real-life stories. They write about rogue agents, abusive employers, complicated relationships, and that one thing they all suffer from the most: missing their families back home – in Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar and India.
The women write about sacrifice, broken trust, exploitation, lack of food, salary deductions and constant scolding; but also about supportive employers, the love they have for the families they take care of, or how they use their time in Singapore as a stepping-stone to realise their dreams for the future.
100% of the proceeds of this book go to HOME Singapore (www.home.org.sg).
How did you come to write A Yellow House?
I wanted to explore the experiences of domestic workers. I began with nonfiction, but it didn’t work, then I considered writing a children’s book. In the end, it became adult fiction.
I didn’t like having an expat protagonist, or a Singapore worker, and I struggled with how to show these stories without being judgemental. In the end, I chose a child protagonist, because the young are not too judging. Maybe I created Maya to do the things I didn’t do with our home help when I was 10 years old.
Can you please share the blurb for A Yellow House?
Ten-year-old Singaporean Maya is lonely: her grandmother is dead, her mother is focused on her career and her best friend has become a bully. When Aunty M, a domestic worker from Indonesia, joins the family to take care of Maya and her baby sister, Maya is ready to hate her. Aunty M smiles a lot but says little. However, after Aunty M rescues a fellow maid living in the same building and beaten by her employer, Maya discovers a side of Singapore hitherto unknown to her. She and Aunty M grow closer as they meet more and more women in need. What will happen when Mama finds out about Maya and Aunty M s growing involvement with the aunties? Will Maya lose Aunty M too? After all, Mama did say she hates busybodies …
This poignant coming-of-age story, told in the voice of inquisitive Maya, explores the plight of migrant domestic workers in Singapore and the relationships they form with the families they work for.
Do you have any tips for authors?
It’s really important to join writers’ groups and work with other people. I am part of a Singapore writing group, some online writing groups and I work closely with a couple of good writer friends. We support each other and improve our skills by sharing work. It’s so important to learn to both give and receive feedback.
I have just finished an upmarket commercial fiction manuscript, inspired in part by an old colonial house where we lived in Singapore. Built by the British in the 1920s, rumours say that these houses are haunted. The story tells of a friendship between a Dutch expat and a Malay Singaporean.
I’m now planning a new novel set in Bali where we lived last year. There’s a lot of mythology in Bali, so the story involves folklore and ghosts.
My interest in displaced people continues in The Netherlands, where I work with refuges, helping them to integrate into our society.
You can follow Karien on:
Next time: an interview with Enni Amanda Tuomisalo on Self-Publishing
4 thoughts on “Karien Van Ditzhuijzen on Expat Life, Writing and Migrant Domestic Workers”
A lovely introduction and a reminder of your own contributions Andrea in Lagos Nigeria with the publication of Nigerian Gems and the successful school project. Another example of how ex-pats who enjoyed a privileged nomads life use their knowledge, resources and humanity to support those in need. Proud to be part of this “tribe”.
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Thanks Angela, the expat life is certainly unique!