In 1622, a shipment of women set sail on a perilous voyage from Amsterdam to Batavia (present-day Jakarta, Indonesia). Their destiny? To become wives to Dutch colonists, leaving behind their familiar, impoverished lives for the promise of dowry payment, exotic travel and, perhaps, a brighter future. In reality, these girls and women were at the mercy of the Dutch East India Company, which sponsored the endeavor, and were largely treated as goods to be bought and sold like any other cargo. So says Redwood City author Samantha Rajaram, whose debut novel "The Company Daughters" takes place through the eyes and voice of Jana, one of the titular "daughters."
Over the course of the novel, Jana experiences love and loss and bears witness to a forced intermingling of cultures, all brought to life by Rajaram's richly detailed and vivid prose. Through a heroine rooted in historical context but with a modern sense of social justice shining through, Rajaram touches on issues including patriarchy, slavery and capitalism.
The novel is out Oct. 30, published by Bookouture, and the author has recently finished her second manuscript, a historical novel taking place in 19th-century India, France and Vietnam. In the interview below (edited for clarity/length), Rajaram discusses her path to historical fiction, being a stickler for research and why it’s important to listen to underrepresented voices.
Q: How did you become interested in the topic of "company daughters" and the lives of women during this period in colonial Indonesia?
A: It was in the course of researching for another novel that had a footnote that made reference to "company daughters." I had the sense that one of these women wanted to tell me her story.
Q: While much of the historical background of the novel is based in fact, Jana and her specific story comes from your imagination. How did you decide what to include and did you find yourself surprised along the way?
A: I was really interested in the development of Jakarta itself and how the Dutch sort of tried (with unfortunate results) to emulate the city design of Amsterdam.
I was surprised how diverse (the population) was. A lot of the information around slavery is not documented well at all. My own family's history influences the way I wrote this novel, as there were slaves from India and African slaves, as well as native slaves. The colonial approach was, not only do you separate families but you separate people from their homeland.
Q: Many scenes demonstrate the brutality faced by Jana and others. Was it hard to write these passages?
A: It is really a tragic story. I didn't feel it was honest without including the scenes of violence and all of that exploitative behavior. Violence is everywhere; they can't escape it. Jana describes that feeling of being hunted. I was thinking of my own life as a woman -- I have a daughter and I worry about her safety. There's always this sense of fear about walking alone at night or parking your car after dark. I felt that was important to convey that in this whole colonial narrative as well.
Q: Good historical fiction involves attention to period-specific details. How did you do your research?
A: I needed to understand this world and this society. I do the best that I can to get as much primary material as I can. I did end up doing a lot of database research, purchased a lot of books on my own, and traveled to Amsterdam to look at paintings, clothes and things to get a sense of that period of time. Pretty much every object in the book is an actual object I found somewhere. I'm very obsessive when it comes to research. When I describe the square nails in the floor of the ship, that detail was probably four hours of research.
Q: You're currently a professor of English composition at a community college. How did you get started as a writer?
A: I was a lawyer for almost 10 years and then I made a big career change when my marriage ended and I decided to go back to graduate school and pursue teaching. I journaled a lot when I was younger but I didn't really start writing my novels until I was a single mom. I would wake up really early and start writing these stories.
Q: Have you always been interested in history?
A: I think so. Part of that is informed by growing up in Wyoming, where I was the only Indian kid in my school, the only Indian family in the community. I was always very aware of how my own history was never really discussed in world history classes. I was also pretty aware of how a lot of Native American history was omitted from what we learned about the history of our state. That sort of planted a seed for me to be looking at untold stories. That's been my guiding principle, to find those stories.
Q: You mentioned that your background in law influences your writing, in both research and issues explored.
A: In law we often have to analogize to some other sorts of cases and I've had to do a little bit of that. My main research interest in law school was sex trafficking. This ("The Company Daughters") is in essence a sex-trafficking narrative. I've always been interested in how laws and policies impact people who don't often have a voice. There are so many analogs to issues happening right now -- racism, the #MeToo movement -- the way women have been treated by these patriarchal systems we have.
Q: In the book, Jana fights to secure a bit of independence for herself and others. Would that have been likely in that time period and for her situation?
A: I think it's somewhat doubtful, but that's aspirational on my part. It's kind of what I get to do as a fiction writer. I didn't want it to be just this horribly sad book. I also didn't want to write the super-capitalist narrative or a white-savior narrative. I don't think women were able to have much autonomy in those days, but I tried to embrace that there could be possibilities embedded for those women.