Writing a Historical Novel: From Family Story to “Inspired” Characters

Mohana Rajakumar and I connected in the way people do these days via social media. She’s a South Asian American who has lived in Qatar since 2005 – quite the contrast in cultures, I’m sure.  I had the good fortune to have her on the blog previously talking about a book she wrote that was banned in Qatar.
I invited her on the blog today to talk about the story behind the story of her latest novel – The Opposite of Hate. Take it away, Mohana.

The Opposite of HateI married a man who everyone assumes is Chinese because of the epicanthic folds of his eyelids. I didn’t know Laos was a country until I heard my husband explain over and over again that no, Laos was not another name for Cambodia. Through our personal travel to visit his family, but more so the stories I heard over lunch and dinner, my interest in this landlocked part of Southeast Asia developed.

Everyone knew about Vietnam, and most now have a frame of reference for Cambodia, but Laos, this was a word that could stop conversations.

Yet during the 1960s and 70s, more bombs were dropped on this landlocked part of Southeast Asia than in any other war. The turbulent history of the Land of a Thousand Elephants is the backdrop for my latest novel. The Opposite of Hate opens a window onto a forgotten corner of Southeast Asia and brings little known history to life through vivid characters and settings.

Three years of writing, research (reading everything I could get my hands on which was not much), and listening to family stories helped me put together a trajectory for a set of characters who were buffeted by history in this complex setting. One of the places I got stuck was when the characters in my story departed from the real lives of my in-laws.

Should I stay faithful to real life? Or could I take Hollywood screenwriter like liberties and let the wheels I’d put in motion find their own paths? That’s what happened in the end: I wrote a story inspired by family lore but no longer a representation of specific lives but rather informed by historical, personal, and imagined experience.

The Opposite of Hate explores the intersections of family, loyalty, and nationalism as Vientiane, the capital of Laos, is being taken over by Communists. The political instability drives Seng, a widowed engineer, to marry his best friend’s teenage daughter, Neela, so they can escape re-education or even worse, death. The unlikely husband and wife cross the Mekong River into Thailand as strangers.

Life in the refugee camp brings surprises along with the grime. As they struggle for survival, romances blossoms into an unplanned pregnancy. Seng and Neela get their wish of immigrating to the United States. Succeeding in suburbia, however, presents another unique set of challenges, ones that are not black and white. A story of hope, violence, love and ambition, Seng and Neela embody the struggle of thousands who fled the threats of communist only to face the challenges of democracy.

Thanks for being on the blog, Mohana. The Opposite of Hate opens a window onto a forgotten corner of Southeast Asia and brings little known history to life through vivid characters and setting. As someone who lived in Asia for three years, I encourage you to visit Laos virtually through Mohana’s new novel.

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Meet M.K.Tod

The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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One Response

  1. Your novel sounds compelling, Mohana. I am particularly interested in how you fashioned a story arc for your characters. Fiction offers flexibility that staying true to the facts may not.
    Thanks for introducing me to another interesting author, Mary.

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