Sunday 9 September 2018

The Real Yellow House

In my novel A Yellow House that came out this summer [minor spoiler alert!] the yellow house of the title is a dream. A goal. It is what Aunty M wants to build for her daughter Nurul in Indonesia with the money she made working in Singapore as a domestic worker. But did you know this actual yellow house already exists in Java?

For years I taught a ‘Dreams Class’ at HOME shelter for ill-treated domestic workers. The shelter houses women that have run away from their employers. Women stay at HOME shelter for a plethora of different reasons. Some haven’t been paid their salary, are overworked. Some were abused – physically or mentally. Others were simply homesick but their employer didn’t want to let them go. Women stayed there for days, months and sometimes even years.

In the Dreams Class we take them away from their troubles for a few hours. A favourite in this class is the Million Dollar question. 

We are lucky, we have won the lottery, 1.000.000 $$$! 
In the brainstorming game that follows, the first thing almost every single woman does, is built a house for their family. A house is solid, will last and can be shared with loved ones. It is the ultimate dream for many migrant workers. Talking about these imagined houses made twinkles burn in their eyes while we talked about how best to make our dreams come true – even without winning the lottery.

Years ago we visited Indonesia with Indah, or own helper (I always struggle to use the more PC word domestic worker when it comes to her, not only as it is so long and stiff, it just seems too impersonal. The word friend comes to mind when I talk about her but that doesn’t do her justice either – she is so much more). Driving through her village in Central Java Indah pointed out all the beautiful houses of her friends. ‘That one works in Hong Kong. That one, Singapore. There, she went to the Middle East.’ Then we passed a small hut with slatted bamboo walls and an attap palm roof. ‘They stayed here.’

It is obvious how working abroad can bring prosperity to a country but we should not forget what it costs the families involved. In A Yellow House, Aunty M’s daughter runs away – she can’t forgive her mother for abandoning her for years, even if this is the only way to pay for her education.

Back in Java, past rolling rice paddies and past mosques with gleaming spires, a sugar cane factory and many houses of all colours, we finally reached our destination: the original yellow house. A tad jealous I admire Indah’s house which is painted in my favourite colour: a warm, rich, ochre. 

Inside we meet her family and eat the best meal we ever had. Getting to know her family, friends, her village and her beautiful house deepened our relationship and understanding of her life. 

Women like Indah and those joining my classes at HOME shelter inspired me to write A Yellow House and share their stories with the world. I shared a photograph of Indah's house with the designer who made this gorgeous illustration for the cover:

So did Aunty M ever get to build her yellow house? Well, I gave away enough, if you want to find out, you’ll have to read the book! 

A Yellow House is published by Monsoon Books in the UK and available in bookstores in Singapore and the UK as well as online retailers (for instance here or here) or on Kindle or Kobo.

In the Netherlands it will be available in bookstores from October 2018 as well as here or, already now as ebook.

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