It’s July and a long while since my last post; I skipped an entire month. This reminds me of how time has flown and how occupied I’ve been the whole month of June. I’m writing from Italy this time where I’m back for the summer visiting friends and family.
This time around, I visited Umbria, the landlocked region of Italy where the Central Apennine mountains run across. Umbria was once part of the Roman Empire: the ancient architecture and the local accent reflect this historical link. It was also part of the Napoleonic Empire until it was regained by the Pope after Napoleon’s defeat. The people of Umbria saw Papal rule as oppressive and during the unification of Italy (1815 – 1871), they destroyed the Rocca Paolina, a Renaissance fortress built in 1540-43 by Pope Paul III because the fortress was seen as a symbol of papal oppression. This was in the year 1861 when Umbria, together with Marche and Emilia Romagna were annexed by King Victor Emmanuel II of Piemonte and ruled under the Kingdom of Italy. So, don’t be surprised by the many plaques dedicated to the memory of King Victor Emmanuel II.
Umbria is also a region where visitors can find many hillside towns, usually built around an old castle (castello), a lookout tower and a church. Here, brownstone houses hug the hills, many constructed by the townsfolk who work in these small hamlets and/or villages. Artisanal crafts like metalwork and ropemaking were once staple jobs along with wine-making and olive oil pressing which are still being produced for consumption and export in these Umbrian hills today. Let’s not forget the cured meats—salamis and sausages—which are still made with the same millennia-year-old recipes that the Umbrians know well. The Umbrians or Umbri are hearty people, warm, friendly and eager to tell you about their regional cuisine and culture; they were an Italic people which were absorbed into the Roman Empire. Umbria is also home to the town of Assisi, where my favourite saint, San Francesco or St Francis of Assisi, was born, baptised and buried. San Francesco is the patron saint of the poor and of animals, his emblems are his brown sack tunic and the stigmata on his hands and bare feet. The story of San Francesco is known throughout the Christian world and his prayer: “Lord, make me the instrument of your Peace” is one that I remind myself of daily. I’m not a religious person but I am a spiritual one, always looking beyond the material world, searching for inner peace and praying for peace on earth. I’m also reminded of a prayer which I’d mistakenly attributed to St Francis: “God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” (Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr). Somehow, in my mind, I’d always thought that this prayer was by San Francesco as he seems to be the likely person who’d have thought of it. In fact, the Serenity Prayer by Niebuhr, an Amercian theologian is a much later prayer, written and uttered in the 1930s.
Italy is a much-needed break. Between March, when the book was launched, and now, I’ve been busy doing book-related stuff with lots of other writing-related activities in the mix. CarpeArte Journal is keeping me busy as a managing editor. Thank you to all those who have contributed their poetic and literary nuggets to the Journal. My articles and reviews on art-related matters in Singapore have kept me clued on to the visual art scene here, giving me the privilege to meet young inspiring contemporary artists such as Priyageetha Dia, Singapore’s girl with a Midas touch, and Aiman Hakim, who is known for his work that incorporates mythical and fantastical elements. I love this artist for his big heart and his willingness to talk about his fears and his dreams.
I’ve taken this time in Italy to reflect on the past few months. On May 19, Guillaume Levy-Lambert, art collector of the MaGMA Collection and co-founder of Art Porters Gallery, and I collaborated on a book launch party and fundraising event for adults with autism. I had the opportunity to meet so many lovely people who supported the cause. I also had the opportunity to meet families who are parenting autistic individuals and others who are concerned for their autistic relatives. This event started further conversations on what exactly is autism and how we can help those who are living with autism and their families. I’m happy to say that a cheque will be presented to Eden Centre for Adults in August. This is my contribution from book sales to the cause. On his part, Guillaume is donating the proceeds from the sale of Flametta Blue by Artheline and a portion of the sales of artworks during that night to the Autism Association of Singapore. I’m proud to say that apart from book sale proceeds, proceeds from an artwork the Italian and I had bought will also be contributing to the cause. More on that in another post. For the curious amongst us: think cats and masterpieces plus Russian artist, all rolled into one fantastic masterpiece.
As all authors know, once the book is out, there are many book related things to do. One of the more enjoyable things to do for me is visiting schools and talking to students. Before the summer break, I travelled to international schools in Singapore to donate copies of Open to their school libraries. I was invited to talk to several grade groups about the book, autism, and cultural heritage in May. Cultural heritage gets a special mention because the book is also about an ancient dramatic and theatrical art form—the Chinese opera—that was exported from China following emigration since the 18th and 19th centuries. The Monkey King as a theatrical character is beloved by the Chinese diaspora globally, as well as, people in Thailand, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. The Monkey King is known also in India where Buddhism was founded, flourished and exported. There, he is known as Hanuman, with a story of his own.
In my travels in Europe, I visited an international school in Paris where I will be returning in April 2019 to do a reading and start conversations with their students about the importance of accepting difference and showing empathy for kids with special needs. Their school library now has a copy of Open for their students. In addition, The American Library in Paris also has a copy of Open for their children’s library. This library has a special place in my heart. It’s a place I visited often during my expatriation in Paris. I ruminate on the French word bibliothèque and its faux amie librarie where the latter means bookshop. When living in Paris, I often got the two confused and would often refer to the bookshop (librarie) when I mean library (bibliothèque). The duality in the meanings of names never ceases to confound me. Reading in another language other than English, I’ve discovered so many wonderful words with diverse meanings that are also found in the English language since English borrows from other languages and cultures that it mingles with. Part of my role as an author is to encourage reading; this is the best part of being a writer, in my mind.
In Singapore, a National Reading Movement is helping to spread the love of reading through events and festivals. Read! Fest is one where I’ll be reading and performing from Open, on July 14 at the Central Library. I can’t wait to meet these eager readers and to start conversations about the importance of reading and how books can transport us to many wonderful worlds. To close the festival, I will be travelling to a high school in Singapore to talk to their students about Open as a fictional character who happens to be on the spectrum and who has two names. We will be exploring the meanings of our names and how we identify with the names we are given through the process of naming.
I am privileged to be part of the Singapore Literature scene which is constantly developing and expanding and creating a new genre of literature—Sing Lit. As a Singapore based author, my calendar will be filled with more festivals and events to come. I’m looking forward to the Asian Festival of Children’s Content and the Singapore Writers’ Festival, happening in September and November respectively, which will bring me to the close of 2018.
What are your plans for the summer? What will you be reading on vacation? I have a list and I’m done with Educated, A Memoir by Tara Westover and The Lost Vintage by Ann Mah, who kindly sent a pdf version over. They are both very different books but oh so well written, it makes me cry! Jealousy, envy and awe all bundled into one emotional roll! But high on my list of emotions is happiness. I’m so happy for diverse writers like Tara and Ann whose books are windows into another world.
Until the next post, here’s wishing everyone a great summer ahead! Happy reading!