Making Sense of Our Senses In Writing

As mammals and human beings, we rely on our senses for most everything. Our senses become heightened when we sense danger. Our lizard brain comes into action when we sense that our environment is jeopardised. But when we feel safe, our stress levels fall and our muscles loosen. When we listen to calming music, our bodies relax further. A pavlovian reaction occurs when our olfactory nerves are stimulated by scents of the food we love. Our body is a huge network of impulses and responses and our bodies store these responses to external stimuli as memories. 

In my workshops, when I talk about using our senses to write, I mean to use the faculties of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell to guide writers in their craft. Since our bodies are warehouses of memories, we can trigger our senses to help us find the words to describe how we feel. But first, we must feel. 

Sense became a metaphor and motif when I worked on Sahara’s Special Senses. What makes this picture book so special was the inspiration behind the story. What makes it extra special is the time it was launched. Sahara’s Special Senses was launched during the COVID-19 pandemic— on March 2020. The world didn’t sense what was coming and by the time we felt the virus’ potency, nation after nation shuttered themselves off one by one. So, Sahara Khan was introduced to the world behind the glare of a computer screen. She appeared on a 12×12 poster shared online with this special community of picture book creators to which I belong. Sahara made an appearance on blogs and reviews, her space held by many advocates of children’s books and literature, especially ones who champion diverse books. 

This morning, I woke to a review of Sahara by zekeplaysandreads. I was humbled by this generous review: 

One of my favourite writers, @evawongnava writes in a way that makes us present in Sahara’s kitchen – it’s as if the aroma of the spices (that are so familiar to us, we use them every day, right?) are wafting through the pages. These are beautifully accompanied by @debasmitadasgupta illustrations – I’ve always been a big fan!⠀

• ⠀

I love how disability and physical impairments are dealt with in this story – everyone is special and talented in their own way.”

Instagram account of zekeplaysandreads

You can read the rest of the review here

Making Sense of being Highly Sensitive 

As a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), my senses are always heightened. My body is a palimpsest of sensations—clothes scratch, certain sounds grate, many tastes acrid and acidic. I feel far deeper than the average person: when you’re sad, I feel for you even before you’ve told me how you feel; I feel for you in ways I don’t know how to express—it’s a heavy shroud hanging over me and I just want to go away and hide. When you’re happy, I’m ecstatic til my toes curl. When you’re hostile to me, I feel it most—I know immediately when a person is disingenuous and lacks authenticity. I get overwhelmed easily especially when there’s too much noise—white noise is especially disturbing. I need a lot of alone time to process and reflect or just be me—going inwards makes me feel safe. So I tend to seem anti-social and can be absent for long periods of time. I’ve come to accept these ‘quirks’ as my personality traits. 

As a Highly Sensitive (HS) writer, I am often overstimulated because my sensitivities are heightened. I am wary of the language I use in writing. I am concerned that I haven’t been fair to all my characters, even as I focus on my main character because it’s their story I’m telling, especially when crafting picture books. I wonder about voice because in writing, voice is that entity with its own life and agency. There are just too many things to be aware of. 

Sahara’s Special Senses: I’m aware that Sahara, my protagonist, is South Asian. I am ethnic Chinese of Peranakan heritage. I’m also aware that she is differently abled. I have all my sensory faculties about me. I am aware too that this picture book combines Urdu and/ or Hindi words seamlessly with English. I speak neither Urdu nor Hindi. 

I am wary of cultural appropriation; afraid of being an imposter; conscious that I’ll be the target of criticism by the many critiques lurking in the Twitter shadows. 

As writers, we expose ourselves to criticism all the time. The keys to staving this off is being courageous, compassionate, and truthful. Literature helps bridge gaps. Writers/ creatives put ourselves out there to bring human kind closer and make us kinder to each other through our imaginations and visions. 

Making Sense of How We Write

There’s been much discussion and debate over the years on how to write the ‘other’, on using language consciously so not to offend and hurt and further ostracise oft marginalised communities and  people. These discussions also centre on how to be more inclusive and respectful of what we’re writing about. Here’s a place where you can read more about using inclusive language

As writers, we can write what we want to write about. Nobody can stop us or should stop us. Neither can anyone give us permission to write about the things we want to write about. Some of us may have experienced people saying to us, “Is it ok if I write about the Chinese New Year or about the Hungry Ghost Festival (a traditional festival celebrated in Malaysia and Singapore by the diaspora) if I’m not Chinese?” Of course it’s ok—you can write what you want. As someone of the diaspora, I can’t give you permission to write about my culture, my heritage, its customs and practices because I cannot speak for a diaspora that is spread all over the world from the USA to the UK to the EU to Southeast Asia, East Asian, India, Africa and Northern Europe, who still by and large celebrate traditional customs and practices from China, the country of their origins, or derivations of these customs and traditions that was brought out of China as the diaspora migrated, developed and grew. [Help me fill in the blanks if I’ve missed out some places.] But I can surely help you with how your story is being written through my personal lens of lived experiences as a Chinese of the diaspora with a deep knowledge of my heritage and culture

I’m a sensitivity or diversity reader for Chinese people/ culture/ heritage. 

I’m not saying that I know everything there is to know about East Asian cultures and heritage. But what I do have is a sense when something in the pan East-Asian culture and its peoples have been represented inaccurately in writing and/ or film. By inaccurately, I mean written about with bias and prejudice, in language that denigrates and marginalises them/ me further, and through the lens of the dominant culture (in this case White culture) using tropes that are tired and offensive. I sense immediately when a writer’s portrayal of my culture and people is not nuanced: Chinese females are either femme fatales or the tiger mum; East Asian males are maths whizzes and/ or attached to their consoles and/ or gang members. As people, we are not either/ or. 

I’m not saying that I represent all East Asians or Chinese people either. What I’m saying is that being ethnic Chinese, an (art) historian, and a child of the diaspora, I’m in a better position to help writers, wanting to write about this 5,000-year old culture and people, who are also diverse and speak over 56 languages, with their portrayal of East Asia and East Asians. 

I have the experience of extensive research and personal interest in East Asia, especially China.

I have the privilege of talking to people from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Great Britain, America and Canada, where a large proportion of the diaspora can be found. 

Sensitivity readers are not the moral police waiting to catch the writer out, fine them for writing about the ‘other’, imprison them if they don’t stop. As a writer, you can write what you want and feel. Nothing has ever prevented anyone from doing so, anyway, in the land of free speech and freedom of expression. My work as a sensitivity reader centres on solutions and consultation, if you will, with the mindset to help a writer outside my community/ culture write their story more sensitively. Of course, the writer has the prerogative to listen or ignore my recommendations. I’m paid to offer solutions like anyone in the consulting business; the client can ignore the advice they’ve paid for—this is their liberty. 

In terms of fees: a sensitivity read is a service that can be part of a writer’s editorial process. Sensitivity readers do not get paid a lot (my fee is USD$45 for a picture book up to 1000 words + an extensive report and conversations with the author if necessary; USD$250 for a full manuscript [up to 100,000 words] with a full report and extended conversations with the author and editor if necessary). I also give a discount to writers from marginalised communities and those who are struggling financially. I’m a writer too, so I know that dollars and cents matter. 

I’m conscious in my work as a sensitivity reader not to be prescriptive or even reactive in my responses. I am aware of being given the privilege to be acquainted with something as delicate and fragile as a work-in-progress. Mine is not a position to give off-handed and insensitive solutions to quickly fix a “problem”. It takes me over 2 weeks to read, reflect, and respond in a report a manuscript that can be as little as 350 words. What I’m offering is a literary reading/ examination and analysis of a text in terms of how the character/s and story arcs are constructed. This was what I was trained to do and what I trained others to do as an English literature teacher. 

I am explaining all this not as a defence but as a way to keep the conversation going about the importance of sensitivity reading in the editorial process. I spend a lot of my time listening to the debates out there, to the controversy surrounding the backlash faced by some authors whose intention it is/ was to write authentically. I’m aware that some are saying sensitivity reading is a form of censorship—there’s certainly room for debate here. From my perspective, what’s important to me is being able to contribute to the cultural exchanges taking place in the literary arts where I am learning along with the writer in an open conversation, while educating the writer about unconscious biases or perceptions that they may have of a certain culture and people, in my case—the Chinese diaspora. 

For the most part, I enjoy my work. I am grateful for the learning that this work gives me. I approach every project with an open-mind, with mindfulness, and with a view to contributing to an industry that aims to be more inclusive. I appreciate being able to put into practice what I was trained to do and be valued financially for my literary knowledge and cultural perspective.

I don’t wish to go into the politics that’s been raging and continues to attract rancour regarding sensitivity readers. But I do want to say that helping a writer polish their work by making them aware of what is accurate representation and portrayal of their characters and how they can do this should not be a political issue, although I can see why politics come into play here. Wanting to help authors do better through sensitivity reads shouldn’t be controversial either because don’t we all want to be represented accurately and truthfully? I’d like to end by saying this: what’s controversial is this insensitive writer’s (mis)understanding and (mis)representation of a perfectly necessary vocation—that of the sensitivity reader. Shriver just doesn’t get it and I doubt she ever will. I cringe at the thought of reading her work; I recommend a pass on this. [I am aware that I’m sounding prescriptive here. If you know what Shriver has said and done, you’ll understand why.]

And yes, a sensitivity reader has the prerogative to pass on a project when the work affects them to the point that they cannot give objective recommendations or find solutions that’ll help the writer. At this juncture and in regards to passing over a project, I can only speak for myself, of course, because I want to be responsible in acknowledging that I need to practice self-care when it comes to triggering works. I need to be honest and acknowledge that no piece of literary work can capture the complexities of the world we live in and of human kind—I cannot be responsible for projecting all my anger at oppression on individual authors, who aren’t purposefully writing the ‘other’ with violence and trauma, but are simply doing what writers do: write from their unique perspectives and through their personal lens. So far, I haven’t passed on any projects and hope that I never have to as writers continue to learn and grow more aware and sensitive to the issues and realities facing oppressed and marginalised peoples. 

As always, I’m happy to answer any questions you may have on being a sensitivity reader or what I do as a sensitivity reader. You can contact me at enquiries@evawongnava.com.

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