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.

Mohana Rajakumar – living & writing in Qatar

Mohana RajakumarMohana Rajakumar is a writer who earned a PhD in the US and is currently living in Qatar.

We connected through Twitter where her byline says: The modern #mother #writer #scholar. Trying to do it all but not all at once. Published 8 ebooks, more on the way. I have a lot to say.

Apparently, having a lot to say doesn’t always go down well in Qatar where her novel, Loves Comes Later, has been banned. Banned? In today’s world?

Although A Writer of History deals almost exclusively with historical fiction, I invited Mohana to drop in and tell us about her writing.

What themes are you exploring with your writing, both non-fiction and fiction?    My main themes are gender, writing, and race; all of my books have characters in unusual settings, faced with finding their happiness against cultural or social challenges.

Where do you get inspiration for your fiction?    All my books start with a central question: how does a modern person who values tradition find love? What does it feel like to be the child of immigrants in America? How did people react to communism in Laos? The ensuing book is an answer to the question.

What is your writing process?    I try to get all the way through a rough draft, scene by scene, with an idea of the plot in mind. As I’ve kept writing I rely on outlines that have the major point in a scene described; this helps me get all the way through the story in order to go back and flesh out parts later. My goal is always to begin with a 60,000 word manuscript. The process of revising can take months or even years.

You were educated in the United States and now live in Qatar. How did that journey unfold?     I came to Qatar 9 years ago to work at a university, met my husband, had two children, and have loved every minute since.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and current projects?    I’m a South Asian American writer who has been living in Qatar since 2005. My PhD is in English literature with a focus on women and Islam. I teach writing and literature to university students. I love to write and have released 8 eBooks in the last two years, each of which I’m now starting to publish in paperback, one every six months.

Your novel, Love Comes Later, has recently been banned in Qatar, the country where it is set and where you live. Have you been able to discover the reasons for the ban? How do you feel about it? What do you plan to do?    The authorities have said that the book is about Qatar and Qatari citizens and therefore inappropriate for sale in Qatar. I am disappointed by this news as the process for the paperback has been years in the making. There is no appeals process so I’ll keep this in mind in writing the sequel.

What is the subject of your next book?    The next one in paperback will be The Dohmestics, [MKT this is not a spelling mistake] a novel set in the Arabian Gulf as well, that features 6 women; three of them housemaids and 3 of them the employers.

Is there a question you would like to answer that I haven’t asked?    I’d love to know how your readers decide what books they’re going to read next. Do they rely on word of mouth, magazine reviews or bookstore browsing? And do they read more independent authors than commercially published ones or how would they describe the ratio?

Love Comes LaterMany thanks for telling us about your writing career, Mohana. I would encourage everyone to check out her books and provide her with the feedback she’s requested.

Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar is a South Asian American who has lived in Qatar since 2005. Moving to the Arabian Desert was fortuitous in many ways since this is where she met her husband, had two sons, and became a writer.  She has since published eight e-books, including a momoir for first time mothers, Mommy But Still Me; a guide for aspiring writers, So You Want to Sell a Million Copies; a short story collection, Coloured and Other Stories; and a novel about women’s friendships, Saving Peace.

Her coming of age novel, An Unlikely Goddess, won the SheWrites New Novelist competition in 2011.

Her recent books have focused on various aspects of life in Qatar. From Dunes to Dior, named as a Best Indie book in 2013, is a collection of essays related to her experiences as a female South Asian American living in the Arabian Gulf. Love Comes Later was the winner of the Best Indie Book Award for Romance in 2013 and is a literary romance set in Qatar and London. The Dohmestics is an inside look into compound life, the day-to-day dynamics between housemaids and their employers.

After she joined the e-book revolution, Mohana dreams in plotlines. Learn more about her work on her website at www.mohanalakshmi.com or follow her latest on Twitter: @moha_doha.