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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.

How to Cry and still be Happy during a Crisis

Yue Minjun, The Execution, 1995, oil on Canvas

[…] laughter is a representation of a state of helplessness, lack of strength and participation, with the absence of our rights that society has placed on us.”

Yue Minjun

If your emotions are all over the place and they’re riding you like a roller coaster, take heart, you’re not alone. This is a trying time and even the best of us who are optimistic, a tad panglossian, and always see the glass as half-full, are at the moment feeling all sorts of emotions that we have no words for.

Overwhelmed. Anxious. Depressed. Impatient. Inundated. Horrified. Irritated. Annoyed. Irascible. All these Thesaurus-friendly words don’t even begin to describe how I really feel. 

The trouble is I don’t even know how I really feel. Does anyone? Apart from the above emotions, I feel nostalgic too. On top of all this, I also feel like I’m becoming someone else. I feel that when this crisis is over, I’ll be in a state of novel-normal. I feel hopeful that life will really change; my life will really change and that fills me with excitement. Yet, there are days that I feel like crying—like today. But, I can’t cry though, which causes that lump in my throat to grow bigger making swallowing hard. I find something to do.

screen grab of Nadiya’s summer salad

I start to cook. I feel that any minute now if I drop a bowl and it crashes to the floor, I’ll cry. I’m so weepy but the tears stay at the base of my throat, hurting my eyes while I wait for the floodgates to fling open. But they don’t. I rattle them but they won’t budge. So I leave cooking (I’m all over the place now—the kitchen is a mess) and flick through Netflix. I find a cooking programme: Nadiya’s Time to Eat. She’s British and everything takes place in her culinary Kingdom far away. I want to be there. Her accent makes my heart ache. I miss this accent so much. Her recipes using favourite British ingredients hit me hard: I miss Marmite, Golden Syrup, Scottish Salmon and Smarties. As I watch her cooking hacks, the tears start to flow. They stream down my face. I feel deliriously happy. I imagine that I’m in my garden in London again and it’s summer. We’re having a barbecue. I’m making a rice salad filled with edamame beans dressed with sesame oil and soya sauce; I add a spoonful of harissa to spice the dish up a little. I throw in some chopped coriander and drizzle some tahini over the top. A squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of lemon zest and this piece de la resistance is done. I set it aside and turn my attention to the meat. The ribs and butterflied lamb will hit the hot grill soon and I’ll be throwing tubers of sweet potatoes into the charcoal to bake. I’m in food heaven. I wait for friends to ring the bell. I’m so excited. Then, I sob like I’ve never cried before. The floodgates are wide open. 

My daughters panic. “Mummy, are you alright?” They rush to my side, the teenager hugs me and the adult one strokes my arm. I’m watching a cooking programme I say. “Mum!!!” They think I’ve definitely gone over the edge now. Then, I laugh. I’m so tickled pink that there are so many cooking hacks that can save busy folks who love cooking time so that cooking does not become a chore but remain a joy. I’m chuckling hard now. “Mummy, you ok?” The girls asked hesitantly. They’re now convinced I’ve flipped. 

I’m so happy now. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I return to the kitchen. I make a salad. I cook some rice and marinade the meat for a bulgogi. In between, I sip a glass of crisp Chablis. After I’ve wiped down the work surface, I open my laptop and I write. Et voilà—here’s a new blog post. And I wrote this with relish and a glass of wine by my side. I’m ecstatically happy now. 

You’re looking at Yue Minjun’s ‘The Execution’ painted in 1995. It’s an oil on canvas and depicts a scene where a laughing man, Yue himself, is being shot by a row of executioners wielding imaginary guns. This style of painting has become known as Cynical Realism, a term coined by art critic and curator Li Xianting in the 1970s. Yue says of his work, “[…] laughter is a representation of a state of helplessness, lack of strength and participation, with the absence of our rights that society has placed on us.” There’s no more apt a quote than this encapsulating how I feel right now. So, I laugh because I’m a cynical realist. [This image is courtesy of Jeffrey Say, Art historian and lecturer at LaSalle College of the Arts.]

How to Write During a Crisis

In my last post, I spoke about how for some people this COVID time has opened up opportunities for living and working differently. Today, I’m going to talk about how to do just that. 

Since some of us now have a bit more time on our hands, this is a great opportunity to write. (But if you’re a carer of young children and aging parents, please do not be hard on yourselves; do what’s best for you and find other opportunities to stay creative.) Recently, I spent one and half hours with Heidi Stalla free-writing using modern images as prompts. Free-writing is a great way to get your writing juices flowing. I do this all the time always using art works as prompts. Here’s one story inspired by an artwork at the National Gallery Singapore. Do note that this story is the cleaned-up version.

Right. When you’re free-writing, put your woes and insecurities aside. Let your words flow from your consciousness to your fingertips as you write away. I recommend writing because in the act/art of orthography, your brain releases joy hormones as you put thoughts to words. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, and those practical things that an editor takes care of. Just write. 

The other thing you can try is automatic writing. This type of writing takes one on a spiritual journey. You don’t have to be religious or believe in psychics or things of that nature. You just have to channel that psychic in you. Automatic writing is an ancient art form. Casting any inhibitions aside, just write automatically. 

The other thing you can do is blog. In one of my Instagram stories, I shared a note on how to use your blog to help readers connect to you. [see image] Much like what I’m doing here. Blogs are fun to write. You don’t need to use luscious poetic language when blogging. But nothing’s stopping you from doing that if you wish. And, you can blog about anything. So, if you follow my blog posts, it may seem a little bit all over the place. But there is order in the chaos. You’ll see that I blog mostly about art, books, and writing. So, blogging is essentially about whatever that interests you and something you want to have a conversation about with your readers. 

Then, there are newsletters. Newsletters require less creative writing and more informational writing. It’s business-like language if you will. But, again, nothing’s stopping you from using luscious poetic language to engage your readers newsletter-wise either, It’s your newsletter and you’re a writer. Here’s a great one that I love reading cos the way it’s written is just yummy. I signed up using the sign up box on the right hand column and each time David blogs about something—ping, it goes to my inbox. That way, I’m up to date on his latest recipes. I love the apéritif hour, so Swampwater was just the right mouthwatering juice for me. Here’s another that I love. This one keeps me up to date on the children’s books I love. As you’ll see, this link takes you directly to the sign up box. 

Speaking of newsletters: Over at Picture Book Matters, Debasmita Dasgupta and I have created our own newsletter to keep our readers and followers informed. If you’d like this newsletter to be sent directly to your inbox, you know what to do—just click here. If you think that this newsletter can benefit your friends, please send it on. 

Right. Write away, folks. Pen those thoughts and ideas now and inform your readers what you’re up to. This newsletter tells you what some people are doing during this COVID time. 

Hindsight 2020, Oh Captain! My Captain!

The COVID has reignited my love for poetry. There’s so much poetry in motion these days as people reflect on what this virus has brought us and then pen their thoughts in verse and metre. 

What is Poetry?

I’m aware that poetry isn’t for everyone. And many have asked, “What is poetry?” 

Technically, poetry is a rigid form. But when done right, following poetic rules, therein lies freedom and rhythm. Many think that rhythm is found in words that rhyme. Here’s some food for thought:

Not all poems rhyme, so readers beware. But all poems have a rhythm, which the ear catches even when listening to blank or un-rhyming verse

If rules don’t stick, then there’s free verse where poems are written with no specific rules or patterns. Here’s an example

Now that you know what poetry is, here’s what you must know.

Why Poetry? 

Oh Captain! My Captain!–maybe this might jog your memory. This poem by Walt Whitman spoke to the people of America in 1865. It was 7 months after Lincoln’s assassination. After Lincoln’s death, the people were caught up in a state of shock and grieve. For those of us who’ve lost loved ones, there are no words that can describe how we feel. There’s nothing anyone can say that’ll make sense. However, poetry can offer people respite, acknowledgement and affirmation. Poetry moves people. Poetry cuts to the heart. It’s a balm in times of crisis as Poetry changes lives.

I’m always a little envious of poets and writers who can write across genres with poetry being one. Alas, I can only sit back and enjoy the sounds of their words because no matter how hard I try, I just don’t have it in me—come virus or high fever—to write poetry. So I listen as people read. I cogitate on the phrases. I ruminate on the metaphors. I tap my feet to the rhythm of the musicality. And, sometimes, I cry just a little. 

Like to this beautiful piece, Hindsight 2020. Written to be read to a future child who wants to know why The Great Realisation took place, this poem is why poetry moves people. It’s so beautifully done, my heart tugged and the flood gates opened up.

Yet, the words were a balm to me as I stay home safe, even as the subject matter is poignant and the truth hard to reckon with…“sometimes, you got to get sick, my boy, before you start feeling better.” 

Meanwhile, “lie down and dream of tomorrow and all the things we can do. And who knows, if you dream hard enough, some of them will come true.”

Poetry brings Hope.

What’s a poem you’d like to share, my friends. You can comment below.

How to Find Opportunity in Crisis

As history repeats itself, so will art. Revisiting the books, stories, and paintings created after past plagues can help contextualize our lives under the specter of COVID-19—and predict the stories we may tell as a result.” 

JANE BORDEN, Vanity Fair

A friend and mentor asked me today (April 17), “What is your opportunity in this crisis?” That got me thinking lots.

Those who know me, know that I’m not one to brag. I keep my achievements and my successes  quiet, tucked at the back of my mind, contented that I have beaten myself at my own odds. Tenacity was something I learnt as an adult and making lemonade with the lemons you’re given something I didn’t do cos I’d always thought orange juice was better and I made lemon custard pie instead with the lemons life threw at me. And, I can tell you life has thrown me more lemons than I care to remember, and also lots of curve balls too. Sometimes, I miss out and other times, I make lemon custard pie. This post is not about being successful or being an opportunist. This post is about what this strange time, when we’re locked down, forced to work from home, made to stay socially distanced, is doing for us. 

For me, it has created opportunities for more learning. It has extended the time that I get to spend with my adult daughter, who flew the nest but is now safely home from London, and my teenager, who finds every opportunity to keep mum at arm’s length. Having an aperitivo on the balcony is something that the Italian and I look forward to most evenings. The lock down has opened up more space and time to connect with friends in far away lands: we’re connecting more than ever online but really connecting through Zoom, Skype, Hangouts—whatever the mode—rather than posts and tweets when we don’t see faces. Don’t get me wrong, the twitters and the posters are still doing their thang all the same. But the rest of us who shy from social media, we’re taking to connecting through social media cos this is the option we’re given right now. 

Human beings are made to connect. This is one of the many human conditions we live with. It’s vital that we stay connected to the people we care about and this goal is the impetus that drives us all online during this period.

Human beings are also made to communicate. Again, one of the many drivers that keeps us ticking. The channels of communication are varied. Some choose to write, others paint, while some others make films. Many are even doing this online, like I am.

Munch, Edvard, The Scream, 1893, The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design

Edvard Munch (born 1863 in Løten, Hedmark, died in 1944 in Oslo) needs no introduction to those dwelling in the art world. His most famous painting ‘The Scream’ has been shared virally in so many ways that nobody is counting anymore. But this painting, ‘Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu’ painted in 1919, is lesser known. Look at how the colour palette—an over-usage of greens—reflects the moment. There is a blanket draped on his leg, signifying the subject as an invalid. A gaping hole for a mouth, a gaunt blurry face are signs of a sick man. 

Edvard Munch understood pandemics. He understood diseases. He understood loss. His mother, Laura Cathrine Bjølstad, died from tuberculosis when Edvard was five. The year was 1868. After her death, Edvard and his siblings were cared for by his aunt from his mother’s side. Tuberculosis claimed Sophie, his sister, in 1877. Edvard himself was a bronchial child, suffering from chronic asthmatic bronchitis. These traumatic experiences would influence the way he made art. 

Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait After Spanish Influenza, 1919, Oslo, at the National Gallery.

Munch was a prolific Norwegian artist. He was part of the Symbolist Movement in the late 1800s, a pioneer of Expressionism from the 1900s onwards, and he was tenacious in experimenting with different art genres—sculpting, graphic designing, drawing, even photography and film—throughout his long career (60 years). Munch took all the opportunities proffered to him at every uncertain moment to advance his craft. He made crises his premise for self-reflection and expression. 

Munch did train as an engineer but his focus was art and he chose to make art his career. He travelled widely and made many friends in the art world. He networked with intellectuals, literary luminaries, philosophers, and musicians. His long and prolific life as an artist is outlined here

In 1919, Munch was infected with the Spanish flu. [See the connection to the self-portrait?] This pandemic destroyed millions of lives world-wide and the current pandemic is being compared to it. Out of the Spanish flu came this self-portrait. This was Edvard Munch’s opportunity. Then, more opportunities would follow his way. In 1930, he took to photographs as an art form, taking a series of self-portraits while convalescing from eye disease. The thing is that Munch never let down turns or pandemics stop him from creating. He found opportunity in the worst of times and made the best out of his time. Munch wasn’t the only artist who did this. Before Modernism in art was developed, artists in the Renaissance were documenting the Plague through art. 

But art for art’s sake isn’t what making art is about. Art is a conduit for expressing other connected issues. This article explains the situation well for what opportunities COVID-19 will produce in the near future. Our world has turned upside down but we can turn it around again because the learnings that we will take from the virus will change us and lives.

My life has changed since December 2019. I returned from a wonderful family Christmas in Italy to not knowing when I’ll be seeing them again. First I was disappointed, then I was despondent, and finally after despairing, I calmed down and hunkered down. I thought I would follow in Munch’s footsteps: find opportunities in this crisis to create, to innovate, to make art. I’ve started to document these various confluences of art-making on social media: picture book reviews, teaching the craft of writing picture books, and talking, talking to people about art and writing. You can find me on Facebook and Instagram doing this. Remember, it’s not about being an opportunist. It’s about finding the opportunities to help you move forward and stay positive (sans virus) in these COVID times.