Note: This is a series of (very) old posts from a site I used to write a weekly blog/article for. Since the site is now down, I’m putting up a number of my favourite posts back up on my site!
I’ve been trawling agent wishlists lately, and there’s one request I’ve seen pop up time and time again, in different genres and contexts—the “strong female lead”. With the growing popularity of the young adult (YA) genre, whose readers tend to be female rather than male, it’s not a surprise.
But what makes a strong female?
Is it someone who can wield a mean sword (or knife, or garrotte, or other deadly weapon)? Someone who can kick the ass of any male she comes across, no matter how highly trained they are? Someone who can do everything on their own and flaunt every status quo?
I’ve been very blessed to be surrounded by people I would consider strong females, on both sides of my family. You haven’t seen skilfully hair-raising driving until you’ve been in a car with my aunt in Kuala Lumpur. She can dart through the smallest of gaps between moving cars, traverse narrow alleys where the smallest deviation to the left or the right means a tyre in the gutter or an unwelcome encounter with a parked car, and navigate a large, badly-signed city full of similar-looking, interconnected expressways with ease.
She’s also an amazing housewife who ensures everyone gets fed, the bills are paid, and generally, the house keeps running smoothly.
Or there’s another aunt on my mum’s side, who left school early out of necessity. She took any job she could find, sending the money back so her family had enough to pay the rent, buy food, and put her two younger sisters through school. It wasn’t easy, and the work was far from glamourous. There was definitely no kicking of asses involved. But she did it, because there were people counting on her.
Later on, she and my other aunt moved to New Guinea to work. Back in the 1980s, it wasn’t very developed, but they adapted and thrived in the harsh environment. They also met their husbands there, and one of them started a family—the other would move to Australia first. They’ve raised children then let them go off and take up their own lives in other places, one of the most lonely and painful events a mother can endure.
Yet they endured, and kept going.
Closest to my heart is my mum. When my aunts moved to New Guinea, she stayed on with my widowed grandmother in Malaysia. This may not seem a big deal, but my grandmother can be selfish and domineering, determined to have things her way or no way at all (I still love her!). My mum stayed on to care for her regardless, for in Chinese culture, it’s important to care for your family. Sure, she could have left and my grandmother would have survived, but she took her duty seriously and didn’t shirk from it.
Years later, when my dad had cancer and she found herself faced with the possibility of being left to raise two young children alone, I never saw her break down. Don’t get me wrong—I’m sure she did, and when I was older I learned she had frequent anxiety attacks, but for her children, she was always optimistic.
None of them are typical female heroines. They don’t kick ass or do everything on their own. But they are strong in their own ways, and they are people I want to model my characters—and myself—on.