Silencing the Female Voice … no more

Crispijn de Passe the Elder (1564-1637), Tereus cutting out the tongue of Philomela c. 1600, Pen and brown ink with brown and grey wash; indented for transfer | 7.2 x 13.0 cm (sheet of paper)

Royal Collection Trust, acquired by George III, King of the United Kingdom (1738-1820)

The wife of the king rolls out the cloth

and reads the miserable fate of her sister

and is silent (to have been able is a miracle): pain restrains her mouth,

and her tongue cannot find sufficiently outraged words,

lacked them. – Ovid

The silencing of the female voice is a popular trope in classical literature and art. Behold this image, inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses, by the Flemish artist, Crispijn de Passe the Elder, depicting the story of Philomela and Tereus. In this sketch, we see Tereus holding a pincer (his hand is raised), pulling Philomela’s tongue out, her tongue which he had cut off, to silence her as soon as he had raped her in the woods. Not only did Tereus violate his sister-in-law by raping and then mutilating her, he had also left her for dead. So afraid of what she might do — speak up — so he did what he knew how to do — censor her. Violating and censoring a woman is what the Patriarchy does and does well, unfortunately. But as we also know, a woman scorned is a woman with a loud voice. Philomela couldn’t speak, but she could still spin a yarn. She weaved her story into a piece of tapestry which she gave to her sister, Procne, the wife of Tereus. Procne was shocked into silence after learning what her husband had done to her sister. Procne was beside herself with rage. She had no words to express herself but she raged and in anger, she committed the most unspeakable crime — she murdered Itys, her son with Tereus, and served Itys to Tereus on a platter. 

The story ends with both sisters transformed into birds: Philomela into a songbird, the nightingale and Procne into a graceful swallow, while Tereus metamorphoses into a cawing hoopoe, a bird that has the most awful voice. Ovid’s Metamorphoses is replete with many stories of transformation and in Philomela’s story, we see how rage can transform a woman into activism speaking up against oppression. Karen Rowe, a feminist scholar of folktales and fairy tales say that storytelling, in particular that of the fairy tale, is ‘semiotically a female art.’

While women spin tales, men appropriate them. It is no surprise that the collectors and collators of fairytales are primarily men — The Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, Ovid. The women of the past were uneducated, especially those from the lower classes. Women from the aristocracy could some read and write, but these endeavours were mostly left to the privilege of the men. So, women spin yarns. And when women learned to read and write, they wrote yarns. The pen is mightier than the sword, as we know. The woman’s plume mightier than the man’s nib, as I like to say. So, I wrote down the story of slave girls found in 1930s British Malaya, the story of what the colonial administration termed ‘The Mui Tsai Problem’. I felt that these girls, whose voices were at best muffled, at worst silenced, needed to be heard. And by the might of the pen invested in me, I gave these little girls words to tell their story, through the voice of Ah Lian, who spoke through Ah Mei. 

The House of Little Sisters (Penguin Random House, SEA, 2022)

THE HOUSE OF LITTLE SISTERS will be in print in February 2022. This is my debut YA (Young Adult) novel and it is a work of historical fiction, weaving folktale, folk religion and lore, with magic-realism and poetry, so that I can share the plight of little girls (aka mui tsai in Cantonese) with the world. Their voices shall no longer be silent. 

Advance Praise

‘An engrossing read … a testimony of Eva Wong Nava’s attention to period details and exquisite storytelling skills’ ~ Felix Cheong, award-winning author of Sprawl: A Graphic Novel.

‘This is an exciting piece of historical fiction anchored by relatable characters, and is the best way to experience the past.’ ~ Audrey Chin, author of The Ash House.


Rowe, E Karen. “To Spin a Yarn: The Female Voice in Folklore and Fairy Tale” in Fairy tales and Society: Illusion, Allusion, and Paradigm, ed. Ruth B. Bottingheimer. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press, 1986, pp 53-73.