M.J. Tjia is award-winning Brisbane writer whose debut historical crime novel She Be Damned is about the Victorian London adventures of courtesan sleuth Heloise Chancey, and her handmaid Amah Li Leen. M.J. also writes literary fiction as Mirandi Riwoe, and has won the 2017 Seizure Novella competition, for her novella The Fish Girl. Angela Serrano speaks with her about how she creates culturally hybrid, all-too-human female heroines surviving and thriving in a world dominated by white, wealthy men.
I originally thought I would write something cross-genre, like an erotic-crime fiction, but it didn’t take me long to realise I couldn’t write erotica! By then, I’d decided upon Heloise, courtesan sleuth. I researched courtesans of the 18th and 19th centuries extensively, and was fascinated by their independence and audacity. Despite patriarchal hindrances – of which Heloise is aware – these women had freedoms and celebrity others could only dream of. Heloise is based a little on Catherine Walters, who was nicknamed Skittles. If you go to her house in Mayfair, London, there is still a plaque outside her home that says, ‘the last Victorian courtesan lived here’. Interestingly, though, usually in literature the courtesan features as either tragic or romantic figure. For example, several operas and plays feature courtesans who eventually die (of course) and courtesans often feature in ‘bodice-ripper’ romance novels. I wanted to do a bit more with her level of independence, hence, Heloise works on the side for a detective agency.
In my studies, I also came across quite a few references to actual female detectives in this Victorian period. There are articles in the journals Titbits and Queen (1880s) about female private detectives, and of course female detectives, despite not being formally employed by the police force of the time, often featured in 19th century crime fiction. Just the other day, Lee Jackson, who is an expert on Victorian London, tweeted a photo of an old newspaper advertising ‘an army of lady cyclist detectives’.
I have created a backstory for Amah Li Leen, who is Heloise’s faithful handmaid, that accounts for her presence in London. I also try to portray her life as ‘mundane’, in line with how other Asian women might have lived in Victorian London, as opposed to the ‘sinister, inscrutable Oriental’ of the Fu Manchu ilk found so often in crime fiction. I think that there was only a small network of working class Asian or Eurasian women in Victorian London, and they likely carried out much the same duties as other working-class women.
As a Eurasian writer, I like to write of culturally hybridised characters. I wanted Heloise to be realistic. I didn’t want her to be a perfect specimen, who could achieve outlandish things, like heroes such as Sherlock Holmes or James Bond. I think to have clawed her way from the slums of Liverpool to the elegance of Mayfair means that Heloise would have to possess some ‘flaws’ such as a little selfishness and mercurialness, but also she would have to have a sense of her self-worth and strong willpower. With my characters, Heloise and Amah Li Leen, I definitely wanted to encourage readers to consider issues to do with sexuality and racism.
My historical fiction is absolutely a conversation with issues of the present. I studied neo-Victorian fiction as part of my PhD work and, for this novel, I tried to stick to these three tenets of neo-Victorian writing: it needs to be marketable, to have historical authenticity and be conscious of contemporary concerns. I re-drafted this novel several times to achieve its current tone. Despite its modern air, I absolutely stuck to what was historically valid, such as words and objects that are from the period. I would argue that what might seem prescient in my novel could have been realistic in those times. For example, Heloise’s thoughts on her position in such a patriarchal society are influenced by the likes of Mary Wollstonecraft.
They are different to write. My Heloise novels are heavily researched, and I plot in order to plant clues and red herrings but, mostly, I try to keep the pace up so it’s more of a romp for the reader. Maybe with my literary work, I’m more contemplative, make each word work harder.
My poor mum is usually my first guinea pig. My husband is a little troubled, I think, at what is swirling around in my mind. Ha. I have given my father a copy of each of my novels, but they are heavily redacted!
Elizabeth Strout. I cannot get enough of her work. Maxine Beneba Clarke, Melanie Cheng, Julie Koh, Anthony Doerr. There are just too many books by women writers I’m dying to read, such as Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang and A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe.