Samantha Rajaram is a rare gem of an author who can bring history to life. Based on true events, The Company Daughters is set in 1620 Amsterdam, centering on young women Jana and Sontje as they’re shipped off to become brides to strangers in foreign lands. What unravels thereafter is a wonderfully queer love story between Jana and Sontje that immerses you in a range of emotions. With stunning detail and care, Rajaram weaves together a story that will both enlighten and engage you, staying with you long after you’ve finished reading.
I’m blessed to have been selected as Rajaram’s Pitch Wars mentee right as her debut came out, and she has graciously given time for an interview here today despite her busy schedule.
The premise of your novel is so unique. Where did you come up with the idea? How did you come across this information?
Thank you! I was researching for another novel (my current manuscript-in-progress) and came across a footnote referring to the Company Daughters. I was immediately intrigued by this horrific 17th c. human trafficking scheme by the Dutch, in part because of my own background studying human rights law in law school, and the idea came to mind that two of the women on this voyage should fall in love. It probably sounds a little crazy, but I heard Jana’s voice in my mind as I read the footnote. When that happens, I know I need to stop everything and listen.
Your novel is packed with sensory details and you really bring the time and place to the reader. What were your research techniques for finding that information?
For The Company Daughters, I traveled to Amsterdam for ten days. I walked around that city all day long, observing the architecture, the flowers, the trees, the canals, how things smelled, sounded, felt. I pretended I was Jana. I also spent a couple days at the Rijksmuseum looking at still life paintings and landscapes as a way of collecting details of the time period. Every object in my book is an object I found somewhere–either in articles or at museums.
I had been to Indonesia before, so that much of that is from my memory. I also do a lot of research at home–reading tourist guides, watching YouTube documentaries set in those locations, going online and reading travel blogs and looking up images. When I was writing the section in Batavia, I was also in India for part of it, and the beauty of that landscape was easy and accessible for me to use in my renderings of Jana.
I know from personal experience that you’re a hardcore planner. What do you feel is the most important part of planning when you’re drafting a new novel?
Ha, takes one to know one! I don’t plan much when I’m drafting. I just make sure I write every day. I don’t use a timer or turn off my internet or have a word goal. That’s too much pressure, and I’m multitasking so much already as a full time working solo mom. I write until the itchy compulsive feeling I have to write simmers down, and then I can happily go on with my day. For The Company Daughters, I had a pretty tight deadline with edits, so my goal was usually to get through 30-50 pages per day. Like you, I’m not satisfied with meeting deadlines. I like to finish at least a couple days before.
Was there anything about writing the book that ended up surprising you or turned out differently than you’d planned? (And for our blog’s namesake, any dead darlings?)
Oh, so much! The first third of my novel was 200 pages originally–I cut 100 pages! When you consider how much research I did, that’s hundreds of hours that I just scrapped on a dime. The fourth part of the book was an expansion beyond the original scope of the novel, at my agent’s suggestion. I’m so glad I did it, because the book is much bigger than I’d originally imagined. It stretched me so much as a writer and researcher. I also had two subplots that I amputated in the first part of the novel. I’ve become a pretty ruthless killer of darlings.
Congratulations, by the way, for hitting #1 on Amazon for LGBT literary fiction, historical fiction, and literary saga, as well as the top 100 for Kindle books, within your first week. How was it getting that news?
This whole experience has been surreal. I never thought I’d even get published. I know how hard it is to get published as a marginalized writer. Many houses have an unspoken quota for how many Indian writers they want to publish each year, for example. To see how well The Company Daughters has done as a book from a smaller publisher is incredibly gratifying. But I most love hearing from readers. I get emails from places I’ve never been to–all over the UK, the UAE, and India. I love thinking of Jana and Sontje traveling the world together through my book, since the reality of the actual Company Daughters’ experiences must have been so suffocating and harrowing.
You’re an English professor on top of being a Pitch Wars Mentor. Is there any advice or guidance you give your students and mentees that you sometimes forget to do yourself? (Pretty sure we’re all guilty of this!)
That’s a great question. I’m always telling my students to be kind to themselves. I teach at a community college that’s predominantly attended by students of color, children of immigrants, or immigrants themselves. They work so incredibly hard and I see myself in all of them–the burden of being an immigrant with all those dreams foisted on one’s shoulders is immense. I feel it daily even now, and should follow my advice to be kinder to myself. But with that burden comes such a feeling of gratitude–my own grandmothers were married off young and couldn’t be educated beyond grade school and high school. I am living a life they could never have imagined for themselves and I feel their joy all the time.
Is there anything you learned in law school that ended up helping your writing career?
So much. Law school taught me how to be a diligent researcher–I was always looking for the case that was “on point”! And law school also taught me how, in a granular way, laws and policies impact individual lives and reify systems of power. I was a huge devourer of critical race theory in law school. Critical race theory was the lens that enabled me to study law without feeling gaslighted by it.
Are there any writers who have influenced or inspired you?
Absolutely. I wouldn’t be a writer without James Baldwin. I read him when I was 15 years old and he blew the doors off for me. What a great soul. I can’t list them all, there are too many, but a few others: Kamala Das, Arundhati Roy, Margaret Atwood, Audre Lorde, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Lily King, Colson Whitehead, Toni Morrison, Alexander Chee, Lisa Ko, and my incredible Pitch Wars mentees–you and Leila Mottley. You both have taught me so much about writing and craft and hard work.
Do you have any other novels or projects on the horizon?
I’m finishing my second novel, called The Renouncers, which is about how three different characters are impacted by the French Renunciation policy in Pondicherry, India, an assimilationist law that enticed Indian people to renounce their native citizenship and become French. The concept of assimilation is something I’ve grappled with all my life, and this book focuses on that process, its insidiousness and unanticipated deprivations, which ironically, occur because colonial subjects very reasonably want more than the colonizers’ scraps.
If you had just one thing you could say to budding writers, what would it be?
Never give up. Writing is all about tenacity and practice, so you just have to keep at it.
The Company Daughters is Samantha Rajaram’s first novel. Her essays and short fiction have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and India Currents, and she was a contributor to Our Feet Walk The Sky, the first South Asian-American anthology published in the US. She was both a 2018 Pitch Wars mentee and a 2019 Pitch Wars mentor. She spent most of her childhood in Gillette, WY, where she and her family were the first Indian-Americans to live in the community. She received her B.A. in English from UCLA and her M.A. in English from the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied slave narrative and African-American literature. She also holds a law degree from U.C. Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco; while in law school, she focused on social justice and international human rights law with a focus on female sex trafficking. She currently teaches composition at Chabot College in Hayward, California, and she lives in the California Bay Area with her three children.