Year Of Change

Image borrowed from Bristol Old Vic

How to make changes during pandemic and post

I can’t believe that we’re almost at the end of February. It seems like time has flown by under lockdown. The Chinese have just entered the Year of the Ox. And feng shui experts promise a strong year of change.

As England eases up on our uniformed incarceration, the mood is buoyant. Articles galore are being circulated around the globe on how wonderful summer of ’21 is looking. Hang on! We are not there yet, but we can hope as we project into the future; hope for change. There is hope too in the UK publishing world as Bonnier Books reveals their inaugural Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan. They and the UK are moving and shaking to make changes to include more diverse voices and people in publishing. About time! 

As most of us in the industry who are not White know, the focus hasn’t always been on us. Yes, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic, People of Colour writers, have existed for the longest time: there are books written by freed slaves (mostly in the USA) that have been mentioned by Toni Morrison, tomes penned by Chinese philosophers and thinkers (all in Chinese but many have been translated into English), and in the modern world, fiction written in English by greats like Tash Aw, Amy Tan, and Tan Twan Eng, there is still a gap in the market that needs to be filled. Patience is the key to seeing change happen for “meaningful change takes time and doesn’t happen in isolation.” But Perminder Mann, c.e.o. of Bonnier Books says that she and her team are committed to more meaningful and prolonged engagement and collaboration to make change happen. I salute them. 

On the home front: As folks know, I am a committed agent of change. There are many reasons why and the biggest one of all is that CHANGE makes us BETTER people. Why be stuck in antiquity? 

On the writing front: I have been prolific in my writing under pandemic. I know that this hasn’t been easy for many writers who have to deal with WFH, home-schooling kids, and being locked down and in small spaces. Don’t be hard on yourselves—choose self-love. For those of us with half empty nests, the lockdown has kept us busy so that we don’t lose our sanity. So, I wrote and wrote reams and reams. Writing helps me find catharsis. But there are other ways to find release as well. 

On the change front: You don’t have to write new stuff. Revising old stuff is also writing. I revised an old manuscript that had been sitting in my computer drawer for ages. I couldn’t find the mojo to finish it under the first lockdown in Singapore. Under my third lockdown in England, I rescued it from my musty computer drawer and worked on it. I shared it with some writer friends in my community and after they’d given me their feedback, I revised it again. Then I found the courage to submit it to an agent who rejected it. No matter. I am an agent of change. So I changed the story a little bit more and I sent it to another agent. This time I got a ‘I love it’ email, are you up for a chat? Now, I’m working with an agent to make changes in the book market in the UK.

Change doesn’t happen overnight. But it won’t happen if you don’t decide to affect change. 

Change happens on several levels and here are three:

  • Choose to change;
  • Vote for change;
  • Make change happen.

Get those pens or ‘puters out and write those stories and be prepared to change them. Then write that query letter and send them out. Here is a list of literary agents in the UK that may like your work. It only takes one. 

Make Change Happen.

I am available for one-to-one consultations and mentoring. I want to help you make that change. Connect with me @evawongnava on Instagram and Twitter. Email me: enquiries@evawongnava.com.

Celebrating All Kinds of Love

And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole

My garden is a soft blanket of snow. It had been snowing all day yesterday and all night too. As I snuggled down to sleep last night, I thought of Pingu. 

Remember Pingu? He’s that claymation anthropomorphic penguin who lives in the South Pole with his family. He has a sister named Pinga and his BFF is a seal named Robby. Pingu and Pinga have two parents—father and mother Penguin. Along with this cast is Grandfather who plays the accordion and was once a professional weight lifter. 

The Pingu family is a normalised family as you can see from the cast. They were created by German animation film maker Otmar Gutmann in the late 90s and early 2000s, and produced for Swiss television and later British television. The transition from Switzerland to Great Britain was a smooth one. There was nothing to translate because Pingu speaks in sounds, in an invented grammelot known as Penguinese. Pingu babbles, mutters, and honks “Noot Noot”. Osvaldo Cavandoli provided the voice over. 

Pingu made me think of Tango, the penguin chick born in a zoo in America. Central Park Zoo had a problem: two male penguins were stealing eggs. They were a couple and their names are Roy and Silo. So, their zoo keeper gave them an egg and the penguins took turns incubating this little egg who hatched into Tango, a female chick. Here is my review of AND TANGO MAKES THREE. I explain why I love this book, why it needs to be celebrated, and what this picturebook means to me. 

How to Create Untoward Attention

I managed to collect this book only in London. This (in)famous picturebook was banned in Singapore and hence, I couldn’t get hold of one when I was living there. Tango first attracted attention when an ultra-conservative person discovered the picturebook in the children’s section at one of Singapore’s state libraries. This person was affronted by the content of the book. Complaints were registered and the Senior Minister of State for the Ministry of Information (a woman at that time) decides to pulp the book. It was because “the content was against the city-state’s family values.” Do you see the irony? 

This is what happens when people view the world through a myopic lens.

Anything on what the minister of information had said in regard to the pulping could not be found when I googled. But I found this article with comments by two veteran Singaporean authors on why Tango should remain shelved at the state libraries. The tone of the statements quoted was not of anger but of reason. And that is important because only parents and paternalistic mininsters can get angry. The rest of the (child) citizenry can only voice their unhappiness as anger is a pill that is too bitter to swallow even for many adults.

But here’s a blog post I managed to find. The tone is relatively different. There is a tempered inflection, a hint of displeasure laced with anger.  

How to Keep the Love of Any Picturebook Strong

The two love penguins loving each other, doing everything together

A friend who adopted three children brought the book over and we all had a good read of it. There was nothing malignant or inappropriate about Tango. In fact it was a book that celebrated families—all sorts. 

Blended families, LGBTQ families, Families who support other families brought their own copies of Tango with them and gathered outside the main branch of the National Library to read the picturebook with their children. It was a quiet but powerful protest. There was no state law that could disband these families because these were families doing the right thing–reading to their children outside the library building. It was the appropriate thing to do and done so by the book.

There is nothing more malignant than to normalise the two-parent-two-children (preferably one boy, one girl) family set up. Love is love and families are families. 

Valentine’s Day is for Everyone

How Love Makes a Baby

So, for Valentine’s Day this year (2021), I am asking that we don’t forget the baby chick born to two male penguins in the Central Park Zoo. Her name is Tango. She has two fathers and they are Roy and Silo. 

Here are other books celebrating all sorts of families:

Mommy, Mama, and Me by Leslea Newman, illustrated by Carol Thompson.

Daddy, Papa, and Me by Leslea Newman, illustrated by Carol Thompson.

Two Grooms on a Cake by Rob Sanders, illustrated by Robbie Cathro.

Making a Baby by Rachel Greener, illustrated  by Clare Owen.

Love Makes a Family by Sophie Beer.

The Island

Many many ocean waves ago, someone told me that I reminded her of an island girl. By that she meant I looked Polynesian or Hawaiian. The signs that cued her to think this were a golden tan, a natural tint highlighting my dark brown tresses, and a healthy glow. 

I was indeed an island girl. I was living in Singapore then. 

For those of you who don’t know Singapore. It is an island-nation; a Republic. It has nearly 6 million people. In comparison, Hawaii is 24 times larger than Singapore, with a population of less than 2 million. It is the only island state in America.

I guess comparisons can be challenging. One island is in Southeast Asia, the other is in the Pacific. But what both islands share in common is their government’s and their people’s varied notions of democracy and freedom. Or put it another way, their shared surface and passive ideologies: their “[…] explicit social, political or moral beliefs”. [Hollindale, Peter. The hidden teacher: ideology and children.]

cover of The Island by Armin Greder ©Armin Greder

I now live on another island. I guess I am really an island girl after all. 

It was on the island of Great Britain that I came across another island. This one had no name. It was simply called The Island, and it was found in a book, a picturebook. I hesitate to call it a children’s picturebook, because the author (also the illustrator), Armin Greder, did not intend for it to be so. The Island was published in 2002 by Saulander Verlag in Germany. Greder is Swiss. The copy I am referring to is the English translation, published in 2007 by Allen & Unwin, Australia. Greder had lived and worked in Australia.

The Island by Armin Greder

Dark. Disturbing. Devastating. Three words that come to mind immediately upon finishing this picturebook. 

The story begins with a new arrival to The Island. A man who came on a raft. “He wasn’t like them.” In the opening page, difference is introduced by these four words. On the recto (right) page, a naked man greets us, looking forlorn. His gaze holds our attention. 

The first islanders we meet are burly, fierce looking men with beady eyes who debate what to do with the man. They decide to send him back. But a fisherman was against the idea because he knew the sea. Sending the man back on his raft would be to send him to his death.

And so, they took him in.

“‘I don’t want that on my conscience,” he said. ‘We have to take him in.’” 

And so, they took him in with sharp farming tools they turned into weapons that poke and prod the naked man leading him to the part of the island where nobody lives. There was a goat pen, empty for a long time. They threw some straw at him and told him to stay there. And then they locked the gate. After, it was business as usual on The Island. Life went back to normal. 

“Then one morning the man appeard in town.” 

The Scream. The Anger. The Commotion. 

Greder’s tribute to Edward Munch

But all the man wanted was some food. And it was the fisherman again who said that they must help him.

The Fear. The Insecurity. The Unwillingness. 

It was the fisherman again who suggested that they must look after the naked, hungry, weak man together. [emphasis mine.]

They tossed him some scraps. They put him back in the goat pen. They took turns guarding him.

He troubled them. He haunted them. He gave them nightmares. 

The naked, starving, helpless man becomes the bogeyman. Every adult, every child, everybody is afraid of this stranger who washed up on the shore on a raft. A stranger who did nothing to anyone. 

The naked man gazes at us, holding our attention.

The only way to get rid of fear is to banish that thing that scares us. The man was sent back to his raft, chased out of The Island. The islanders build a fortress just in case. 

As for the fisherman, he lost his boat, “because he had made them help the man.” 

The Island as a moralistic fable

I read The Island several times, looking for ways to give Greder a bad critique. How could this be a children’s picturebook? How could this even be published? Why did Greder think that this was a good story to tell, assuming he was writing not for children but for adults? 

It didn’t leave the reader with any hope. It didn’t leave us with a lifeline. Come on. We need some good thing to hold on to. Isn’t that what picturebooks do—leave some light at the end of a dark tunnel? 

Who did I identify with? 

I definitely did/do not identify with the islanders— a bunch of fearful, insecure, and passive-aggressive people. I don’t think any reader would identify with the islanders, even those who are like the islanders themselves. It takes being woke to know if you are that islander. 

At the start, I’d identified with the naked man. I felt his vulnerability. I am vulnerable too—lost at sea and washed up on a strange shore. Then, I identified with the fisherman, who is not depicted, by the way. We never see the fisherman; only a representation of him in flames, but that comes later. We hear his voice, though, loud and clear. A voice of conscience. I identified with the fisherman because I want to help too. But like the fisherman, my boat only has room for one. Oh, the guilt. 

On turning to the last page, reading about and seeing how the fisherman’s boat was destroyed by the islanders haunted me. That was his livelihood, a symbol of his rice bowl. This is Singaporean speak for jobs. Does is it mean that helping the ostracised would result in losing one’s ability to earn? I have witnessed this panning out on a sunny tropical island in Southeast Asia. There is truth in Greder’s narrative. What happens if you don’t participate in groupthink, especially when you live in a society that thrives on maintaining the status quo? Would you end up being ousted like the naked man? I have also seen this happening. There are many ways to ostracise someone. What if you were that fisherman, who wants to help, who instigates a reluctant community to help, but does nothing yourself? I can understand starting something but not following it through for whatever reasons.

I have no bad words for Greder. This is an extremely layered story. Some have called it a fable. It is literature at its most powerful: a tale that leaves its readers with more questions than answers. Life is nuanced and takes place in the shadows of light and grey. 

What was Greder’s message?

All books have a message, whether implicit or explicit. It is the nature of stories, especially stories for children. And, “the same book, read by four children in the care of these four adults, will not in practice be the same book.” [Hollindale, Peter. The hidden teacher: ideology and children.]

In any reading of literature (and same for art work) Reader Response Theory comes into play. We respond to words and pictures through personal lenses. We are informed by our culture, our lived experience, especially our lived experience, and our values, mostly our values. Society is a system of values, if you will, because society is a construct of human beings who are products of their values that become their beliefs. Culture is a value and belief system. 

However, as a writer who reads to inform my practice, it is the power of the imagination that nudges me in my responses. 

My friends in England read The Island and they felt its message through the currents of Brexit.

The pandemic has added another layer to the meaning in The Island. As someone who is looked upon with suspicion because of “the China virus”, the story’s message was palpable.

This is a cautionary tale of what oppressive systems do to people. This is a fable of the detriments of groupthink. This is a story of how perceived difference can destroy everyone. But as a story, it is so much more.

I know this because I lived on an island exactly like The Island for seven years. And, because I wasn’t like them, The Island spoke to me through its narrative. You can imagine how, can’t you? 

On Marche à 2021

Carlo Crivelli, ‘Saint Michael’ c. 1476, tempera on poloar [altarpiece]

It’s two more weeks before the end of 2020. What a year! I won’t bore you with details you already know. But I bet you’re as excited as I am to bring on 2021.

We’re talking vaccines now, so people are hopeful for the new-normal to be just normal. But what is normal, hey? Again, I won’t bore you with my existential angst. The fact is that, and it’s good news, scientists tell us these vaccines, whether they are Pfizer or Moderna, are 95% efficient. YAY!!

England, Wales and Scotland will be facing their toughest lockdown ever once Christmas comes and goes.  This would be my third lockdown, believe it or not, and I haven’t even travelled since arriving in London on July 8th, 2020.  

But I welcome the lockdown because there is a new variant of the coronavirus in the U.K. And, I look forward to spending time at home with my family close by. And, I am curious to know how all the new restrictions will affect my mental health. 

Here’s what I’ll be doing safe at home:

  • Read ‘The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began’ by Stephen Greenblatt. The Guardian has called this book ‘dazzling’. I love the Renaissance for its magic, glitter, and sensuousness. Most of all, I love the Renaissance for its pursuit of beauty. 
  • Write ‘Looking for Pauline’ [working title]. I am exploring the hybrid memoir. The hybrid memoir is a literary concept and is said to be a text that occupies “liminal spaces”. [MacAdams, 2017]. There are many hybrid memoirs in the market that explore the human condition, bereavement, and trauma. This literary form provides authors with new opportunities for self-expression, often leading to self-transformation. Writing a hybrid memoir promises to be a healing journey. 
  • Teach ‘Telling Our Stories With Art(e)Facts’. I have been invited to write a new lesson plan for this workshop which will be offered online by SingLit Station. I have to integrate at least 3 digital platforms to teach secondary school students the craft of flash fiction prompted by art. The initial name for this workshop was ‘Painting A Story, something I’d curated back in 2015 combining art history and creative writing, which morphed into ‘Writing Stories from Artefacts’ when I was reading a M.A. in Art History. I was learning about how art is informed by history and how art interrogates history and narratives. I’ve been writing flash fiction informed by art works since then, and continue to do so, finding catharsis with each story. Every workshop is uniquely curated based on the needs and ages of the participants. So, as you can see, I have my work cut out for me.

On the last day of freedom in London (Tuesday 15, 2020), the Italian and I took a stroll in Trafalgar Square and booked ourselves in for an art walk at the National Gallery. It’s been a while since I went to a museum. The feeling was exhilarating. It was sensationally satisfying to be surrounded by great pieces from the Italian Renaissance, like da Vinci to Dutch Old Masters, like Van Dyck. 

I have a foot fetish, I’ll admit. Once upon a time when I could walk on stilts, I loved nothing more than shopping for stilettoes and even made a collection of these shoes. Old feet worn out by too much high heel walking, I have now retired them to being clad by platforms or flats. C’est ma vie! 

You’re looking at the shins and feet of St Michael, painted on poplar with tempera [a quick-dry paint made from colour pigments mixed with a water-soluble binder, like egg yolk] by Carlo Crivelli (c. 1476). Here St Michael is preparing to smite Satan. This painting formed the side panels of an altarpiece for San Domenico, a church in Ascoli Piceno. Isn’t it just exquisite that so much beauty can exist on a piece of wood?—look at the way the toes and depicted so realistically. Isn’t it just marvellous how well preserved it is for being more than 500 years old?—Museums are so important for more than just repositories artworks: its educational programmes, its research into conservation, its collection of artworks as documents of history. 

Alors, mes amies, it’s time to go! I wish one and all lots of festive cheer and on marche à 2021! Bring on 2021! 

The Responsibilities of an Author

In life, in business, and especially in publishing, it’s true that you’re only as good as your word.”  — John Quattrocchi

John Quattrocchi
President, Albert Whitman & Company

Every story should open with intrigue. I love openings that have a double entendre. 

This was the opening line in a public apology by AW&C to Joan He, who publicly shamed the indie publisher for reneging on their agreement. She felt it was her responsibility to put in a few words about the way her publisher had treated her. 

It’s good to speak up. When one speaks up, it opens up the floor to others who have been or are in the same situation. Look how the #metoo movement started and #BLM too. There’s also #publishingpaidme on Twitter that highlights the disparity of advances paid to white vs black authors. 

I have thought long and hard about writing this post for some time. 

Firstly, I needed the distance. 

Secondly, I needed to process what I have to say and to say it without sounding furious because I am so angry that it is ugly.

Thirdly, I also needed to make sure that I protect myself for what I am about to do: name and shame. 

In my short experience as a children’s book author, I have learnt so much about publishing and what it entails. I am grateful for the learning as always. I am also grateful for the opportunity to be published in this very subjective business. However, as grateful as I am, I am also burning with fury at the disrespect shown for my craft, the ignorance of some independent publishers about the global nature of the business, and not to mention the ingrained exploitation of folks, like me, in the creative sector. I speak only about Singapore, of course, because this has been my lived experience in publishing so far. 

My journey as a children’s book author started with this book. As you can see, it won an award, a rather prestigious one, at that, in the children’s book industry. I was darned proud as this was a recognition of the power of the story and its universal themes. What’s more, the story was set in Singapore but it was accessible to judges in America, which is a nod to the industry’s goal of publishing more diverse stories by diverse authors. 

And, what do you think the publisher, an independent, did?

I was asked, “What is the Moonbeam Children’s Book Award?”

I was told, “It is not the Singapore Literature Prize.” 

I was urged not to “harp” on my award because it is [allegedly] “controversial”. 

I don’t know what Moonbeam has to say about that allegation, and I won’t know until I tell them. I won’t because that’s not my raison d’être as a writer. 

I won’t say what I really thought about the Singapore Literature Prize, something I hadn’t heard of before living in Singapore. That is simply a reflection of my ignorance, of course, because it is rather a biggie in Singapore. 

Suffice it to say, the aforementioned publisher did very little to promote this award-winning book. But let’s start from the beginning, shall we? 

Open: A Boy’s Wayang Adventure was published sans contract. The first time I found out that the manuscript was published was when I was given a copy of the film edition of the book, which was shockingly unedited and still raw, at a press conference for the preview of The Wayang Kids, on which the book was adapted. Imagine my horror!

Well, like any person whose rights have been violated, I sought the assistance of a lawyer, who helped me with negotiating the terms of the contract, which the publisher was obliged to sign after weeks of fobbing me off. They felt harangued as I later learnt—there are only 3 degrees of separation in Singapore—and thought that I should not have involved a lawyer. Funny that they signed ASAP as soon as the lawyer called, won’t you say? 

This legal exercise cost me a little more than SGD$5,000, I’ll be transparent about it. Income from this book was in the region of less than SGD$1,500, of which SGD$700 I donated to a charity for the education of autistic children and adults. I bought at author’s discount at least 400 copies of the book, some to give away, and some to sell at author talks.

Open’s journey started with a caveat because this publisher based its working relationships on trust, as they told me. And here I was, thinking that a publishing relationship was based on a contract. How foolish of me. But one can’t blame this publisher because they had thought that a certain film producer, who submitted the manuscript to them on my behalf, was working in the capacity as my agent–the fobbing off was, according to the publisher, caused by a delay on the “agent’s” part. Nobody thought to ask me, the author. And, if you’re wondering, agents don’t quite exist in Singapore, unlike in America and the UK, Singapore is too immature a publishing market for agents to work in. I am in no way saying they won’t one day exist. But just not now. 

Since all the palaver, you will be glad to know, I have taken back the rights of this book. I am now free to submit it to other publishers who would have the eye to see the value of this story. Its universal themes, and a story that interweaves some historical information about the Chinese Opera, may pique the attention of a publisher in the USA or England. Who knows? Right now BIPOC and BAME hashtags are all the rage. Take this publisher for example. 

The success of Open opened more doors [pardon the pun]. This led to my debut picture book The Boy Who Talks In Bits and Bobs. I was literally approached by the publisher, another indie. They were seeking to expand on their trade books “based on good values” and thought I was a good person to write for them. After some discussion, I signed a contract for a book deal with a clause that gives this publisher “first right of refusal” on subsequent titles with a similar theme. 

The Boy was illustrated by Debasmita Dasgupta, who was paid a fee, and published in 2019. It has had raving reviews, was nominated for a Readers’ Choice Award in Singapore, and has sold at least SGD$400 royalty worth of the first print run, so the accounts statement tells me. I had to demand for this statement, BTW. But guess what? It’s 2020 and almost Christmas, AND I still haven’t been paid. 

Similarly, I am still waiting for the rest of my advance payment for the second book in the series, Sahara’s Special Senses, published right before the pandemic hit our shores. Remember the “first right of refusal” clause? Well, I kept to my side of the bargain. The contract says that I will be paid when the book is launched. Well, it was launched at the beginning of 2020. Looks like somebody has not kept to their side of the bargain. Meanwhile, publishers in India and America have shown interest in negotiating the rights for Sahara to be published in their respective countries. As equal collaborators of this picture book, Debasmita and I have approached our publisher [who shalt not be named] to work with these international publishers. And, you’ve got it—no response. 

I have written umpteenth emails gently reminding said publisher of payments due. The last one was sent on Friday the 13th, November. Thought I would flip this unlucky day to make me a small fortune. Here’s what my email said:

Dear All,

I hope you’re all well. Singapore is now the best place on earth in terms of living with the pandemic. Congratulations!

I trust that you’ve all had time to settle back into work.

I’m emailing again to remind Armour of the payments owed to me in terms of:

  1. second tranche of advance for Sahara’s Special Senses;
  2. royalties for The Boy Who Talks in Bits and Bobs. 

I would appreciate it if you can acknowledge this email and make payments immediately. 

— 

Warmly,

Eva Wong Nava — Children’s Book Author”

Well, needless to say that people who live cowardly lives tend to keep mum for the shame of knowing that what they’re doing is simply not on. These are also the same kinds of people who have a ‘higher than thou’ attitude in terms of moral standards. 

I am beginning to sound angry now. So, I must stop. All rant and done, I need you to understand that the publishing industry does not function this way as a matter of conduct. For example, I was paid on time for this book, and since its publication, have had no issues with the way the marketing, promotion and distribution of the picture book has been handled. 

I felt respected and valued by this publisher who aims to look after the needs of their authors, as the managing editor told me. Alright, they are one of the big-5s. But it’s good to note that they are also a small company under the umbrella of the mothership, and have their own (slightly smaller) budgets to negotiate. 

Publishing is a human relations business. It behoves the house to treat their authors and creatives well. At the end of the day, they’re in business because of authors and illustrators who put energy into their craft so that book lovers can continue to enjoy quality literature. 

I have chosen to enter this very challenging and competitive profession because I want to make a difference; I want to write books that not only entertain but also educate. This was the same reason for my entering teaching. I won’t be didactic because that’s not my point. But I will open up conversations to improve the situation so that others that come after me have a better time of it. 

Authoring is a vocation like teaching. It is a pursuit of exchanging information and knowledge through words. As authors, we have the responsibility to look after our needs and those of our colleagues. We have the responsibility to speak up against injustice, not just within the publishing industry. Putting ourselves out there is placing ourselves in a vulnerable position. That’s a position that every author knows only too well. But, our greatest responsibility as authors is telling stories that are accessible and honest. 

I take courage from Philip Pullman who has always spoken up about the craft of writing and the unique responsibilities of authors. 

The first responsibility to talk about is a social and financial one: the sort of responsibility we share with many other citizens—the need to look after our families and those who depend on us.” 

Philiip Pullman, ‘Magic Carpets’ in Daemon Voices.