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Writing Believable Characters

If you’re tired of hearing that your character must be believable, I don’t blame you. I’m tired of reading it, too, in ALL the writing blogs I read on how to write believable characters. So, I’ll spare you what you already know and talk about why credibility is important. 

What makes people want to read your story is character-driven. I know that there are people who love plot-driven stories. But this is the picture book we’re talking about. 

Who is a believable character is character-driven. 

What makes people love your character is character-driven. 

Take MRS ARMITAGE ON WHEELS, by Quentin Blake, for example. Don’t you just love her? She’s an old-er lady, for goodness sake; hardly a child at all. But just look at her, just watch how she behaves, and you’ve fallen in love hook, line and sinker. Mrs Armitage didn’t set out to deceive you. No! No! She set out to capture your heart. 

1. Believable characters have flaws. They’re not perfect. Mrs Armitage is a flawed character. She is socially dysfunctional—just look at the loud horns she’s fixed to her bicycle and then tooting away like there’s no tomorrow. Only a child would do that. 

2. Believable characters aren’t flat. Mrs Armitage is immensely complex. Look, she is an old-er woman who thinks she can do all the things children can do: build a dog seat for her dog, Breakspear, for example. And, that name alone is only one that a child would think up. A dog named Breakspear. What was she thinking? And, her imagination is just explosive. Literally. All children can relate to that.

3. Believable characters have quirks and eccentricities that make them memorable. Mrs Armitage is just one cray-cray old-er woman. But wouldn’t you just love to hate her? She can roller skate like an energetic child on speed. And, boy, do children love whizzing about, zip-zapping here and there on wheels. Every child can relate to being speed devils at some point in their lives.

Mrs Armitage, although an adult, is what every child relates to immediately. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times: it’s ok to make your picture book character an adult, but this adult must be someone a child can relate to. This is how you can make your character believable–Mrs Armitage’s behaviour is consistent throughout this hilarious picture book:

  • She has the innocence of an angel. She smiles while tooting her loud horn. Naughty!! 
  • She is obsessed with minute details: a seat for Breakspear; a basket to carry food and treats [all kids know that inventing and creating makes them hungry and it’s best to feed them before they get hangry + hot coco—yums], umbrellas for when it rains. There is a thing for everything. Imaginative!!
  • She is terribly rebellious. I mean just listen to the racket she makes while on her wheels. Unconventional!!

These are three very important reasons why credibility is crucial when you’re planning your character. Jot all these characteristics down in your character profile logbook. And build your character up from there. 

Writing Believable Biographies

Is there a difference between a real character and a made up one? That’s a great question.

When we work on biographies, we are dealing essentially with character; believable characters at that. 

A good biography is character-driven. Who is the subject and why are they worth reading about? 

A good biography is also plot-driven. A writer must balance the two well. 

A biography is essentially a window into the world of the character. All the elements that make characters believable apply just as well when writing picture book biographies. 

Take Tun Siti Hasmah, for example. She was a child before she became a doctor. So, the story started when she was a young girl. It charts her childhood when she played with her brothers—carefree, mischievously. 

  • She has desires like any child. 
  • She faced obstacles, like any child. She found ways to work out her problems, like any child. 
  • And, she has quirks like any child—catching labah-labah? That has got to catch any child’s attention. 

Unlike in Blake’s Mrs Armitage, which is not a biography, in The Accidental Doctor, we watch Hasmah grow up. War struck when she was a teenager causing pain and anguish. War popped her bubble and her dream of becoming a journalist got dashed. She almost failed at medical school. 

All these trials and tribulations that the character, Siti Hasmah, faces in this biographical story make her a believable character. What’s more—she’s a real person. 

The one major difference to note between Mrs Armitage and Siti Hasmah is in the execution of the story. Blake’s has a comical voice while mine is serious. 

The subject of the story is character-driven, after all. And although Tun Siti is a funny woman herself, her story requires a serious voice. 

Anyone can write a picture book biography. If you’ve always wanted to write one, read this blog post for more information.

If you’re itching to get a copy of Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali: The Accidental Doctor, it’s available here. If you live in Singapore, Malaysia and/or Southeast Asia, get your copy here. In America, it’s here

For teachers, I can visit your school virtually to talk to your students about reading picture book biographies. I can send you an activity pack for The Accidental Doctor ahead of time. Please contact me for more details.

It doesn’t matter how old you are when reading picture books because picture book stories are still stories. I read picture book biographies to find out more about other people. It’s a great way to start reading up about other people. Here are a few people you can read up on. This one made me cry. This one inspired me to use my words to affect changes. This one resonated with me because it’s about moving countries and finding roots.

Picture Book Matters

For those interested in creating picture books about and of real characters, Picture Book Matters can walk you through the process. Contact them here for more information.

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Writing About Other People

I love reading biographies, don’t you? A biography allows us a small window into the minutiae of someone’s life. Why only a small window? Well, if you think about it, life is short but the journey is long. I know this may be an oxymoron but I’ve given this phrase a lot of thought for many years now. 

When reading someone’s biography or autobiography, we’re not reading everything about that person; only those things that the person wants to share or those things that you, the author, feel are important to share. And, a book must come to an end some time. It could be 320 pages long or 32 pages short. So, the writer must choose the bits to put in that would keep the reader turning the pages. 

As biographies go, there are those endorsed by the subject and those that the subject refuses to acknowledge, they may even shun the book. Not all biographies are written with permission. 

This is similar for children’s picture books. 

But first, the writer needs to know that permission is not necessary to write about someone. Second, anyone can write about the same subject/ person. There is no such thing as someone copying your idea for a biography. Just look at how many Frida Kahlo picture books there are or picture books about Malala Yousafzai. Third, even if you want to write about a particular person, the publisher may not think that this person is worth their publishing budget. This could be for many reasons and here are three: the subject is controversial, like Aung Saan Su Kyi, for example; the person is too obscure—who would want to read about them?; the market is already saturated with bios of the subject. Repetition may be good for children but too much of one thing is never good.

Who To Choose Then?

There is a parade of people we can write about. So, choosing the right one can be challenging. 

First, write about someone you want to read about—this person may be well known but not famous. Second, do your research—are there books out there about them? In your case as a picture book author: are there picture books about your subject? Third, pick a theme—why are you writing about them? 

How Did I Come Up With The Idea of Writing About Asian Women for Children? 

I had the idea of writing about Asian women for a very long time. This idea germinated in Paris when I was living there. I was the Chair of Memberhship for a society called the Asian Women’s Association in Paris (AWAP). This was the brainchild of a few Asian women, friends of mine, who were interested in starting a community for Asian women living in Paris. The group was made up of Asian women from all over the world. They were a global  diaspora of women who could trace their roots back to East Asia and Southeast Asia. And, many were leaders in their fields and doing wonderful things while juggling motherhood and a career. 

Having the opportunity to meet and speak to some of AWAP’s members made me think about the Asian women whom I wanted to know who have shaped Asia in so many ways. But as life goes, I was a mother of two—one toddler and the other a teen—juggling learning a new language—Oui, Je parle français—and navigating an expat life in the City of Light. I was too mesmerised by Paris—it’s Paris!!—to think about writing about other women’s lives. I concentrated on writing about my life instead—how selfish, non? So, I started a blog writing about what I know and love best—food, Asian food—which took me down a rabbit hole searching for veritable Asian grub, which took me down another warren looking for female chefs, particularly Asian ones. That blog turned into a memoir of sorts and helped me cope with major homesickness for Asia. And, before I knew it, I found myself in Singapore. The blog is now on a hiatus. 

Navigating Singapore became the next step in my expat journey. In Singapore, I was both an insider and outsider. I sought books for my then 6.5 year old with Asian themes, on Asian heroines and Asian aesthetics. Books that I wished I’d read when I was a child. Books that made me look up to women for leadership. I was disappointed to find none of the latter, and the few I found that ticked the boxes on themes and aesthetics were copies or pastiches of western children’s books like ‘The Diary of Adrian Mole’, ‘Katie’s museum adventures’, or stories written through a western lens. [These are books written in English.] 

There was nothing on Asian women. No biographies that I could show my young daughter that reflected the wonderful achievements by Asian women, and we have so many great women too. But at the same time, I found many written and published in America.

As Toni Morrison once said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

And Maya Angelou reinforced it when she wrote, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” 

And so, I found myself proposing a 6-book series to publishers on Asian Sheroes. [I was pretty gung ho about it too as at that point, I only knew I wanted to write about 6 Asian women, but did not know who yet.]

It was a hard sell, to tell the truth. Asian Sheroes? Who are they? Why would American and British children want to read about them when they have nothing to do with “us”? 

I worked alone for some time researching and finding out who I can write about. I sent out feelers and got some great answers back. The problem is in the lack of information (more on that in another post) about many of these women. I even thought of self publishing at one point.

Working alone is fine and fun but as life is short and the journey is long, I wanted to share this journey with people I love. So, I roped in two sheroes: June Ho and Debasmita Dasgupta. We discussed it and furnished a proposal and sent it out, closer to home.

World Scientific Publishing who was in the midst, unbeknownst to us, of starting a new imprint, World Scientific Education, acquired the series on proposal. 

The Birth of A Series

Meetings were held. At that time, we could still meet face-to-face. And names were proposed. And that was how Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali: The Accidental Doctor was born.

Did I follow my own rules on writing about lesser-known but known-enough Asian women? Did I write a book that I wanted to read because there is none out there? Did I condense a long journey into a short book of 32 pages? 

I would say, yes. WE did it because the creation of ‘Women Who Shaped Asia’ takes a team. The creation of sheroes takes a family. 

And just like this, the seed that I germinated in Paris grew into a plant that now needs constant watering and feeding. It won’t eat you, I promise. But it’ll feed you and your kids with knowledge and pride of the women who shaped Asia. 

Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali: The Accidental Doctor is available here. If you live in Singapore, Malaysia and/or Southeast Asia, get your copy here. In America, it’s here

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Twitter Pitch Parties anyone? What happens when you have the jitters and the twitches?

I just took part in my second Twitter Pitch yesterday, folks. Seriously this time. It was #DVpit. This is for agents and editors looking for diverse manuscripts or stories written by people who identify #POC [#BAME in the UK]. It is serious business. So, I took it seriously this second time round. It’s not to say that I wasn’t serious when I took part the first time round. I was dead serious then. I just didn’t understand the rules the first time round. I seriously have a problem when there are too many rules. And I have a problem when they say [TL:DR]:

“How many times can I pitch?

Each USER is allowed UP TO 6 #DVpit pitches per project, which cannot be tweeted more than once per hour regardless. You don’t need to use all 6 opportunities. If you have 4 good pitches, that’s fine. If you only want to send out 1 pitch—also fine. We recognize that this is confusing, so here are some examples:

ex1. You have 1 project to pitch. Options: you could pitch once every other hour over the whole 12-hr period; OR pitch once per hour over 3 hours in the morning, and once each hour for 3 hours in the afternoon. There will be 6 of the 12 hours during which you cannot pitch in #DVpit at all.

ex2. You have 2 #DVpit projects, up to 6 pitches for each. You could alternate pitches for them each hour; OR pitch 1 project over 6 hours in the morning, and the other over 6 hours in the afternoon. In either case, you pitch ONCE per hour, using up to the maximum 6 per project over the 12hr event.

ex3. Let’s say you have 3 #DVpit projects. You can only pitch once per hour, so you have to divvy up those 12 opportunities to your projects. Options: you could do 6 for project A + 3 each for projects B & C; OR 4 each; OR 2 for project A, 4 for project B, and 6 for project C.

Just remember that your twitter account cannot pitch into the #DVpit feed more than once per hour. Which project you choose each hour is up to you, as long as no single project exceeds 6. This is to keep the feed less cluttered and more fair.”

I read all the rules and I read this particular one a few times. And I realised that I’d failed elementary school maths and can’t do the sums. So, how many times can I twitch, I mean pitch twitch? Or was it tweet pitch? How many times again? Please bear with me on this. Maths whizzes know it’s easy. But if you’ve lived with numerophobia all your life, it’s hard when you read a rule with such intense and focused numerical sense that don’t make sense to you.

Anyhooo, I asked a bunch of very helpful friends in my writing community who had participated in twitter pitch conferences before and they told me “6 x per MS and at 1 hour intervals only”. That explained it. 

So I sent my pitches into the twitching tweeting universe. 

I had two. That is two manuscripts. So I spaced them out between the hours of 8 am – 8 pm EST, which is Eastern Standard Time. That just means 8 in the morning to 8 in the evening New York time. 

But first, what is a twitter pitch conference? 

  • It all started with #PitMad. This was the original twitter pitch event or conference for unpublished manuscripts and writers who are unagented or agented. 
  • The event happens every quarterly according to a schedule based on EDT (Eastern Daylight Time)/ Spring-Summer or EST (Eastern Standard Time)/ Autumn-Winter.
  • Hashtags are used to denote different categories: #DVpit for Diversity Pitch #PBPitch for Picture Book Pitch #CB for Children’s Books, etc., etc. There is now a #BVM hashtag for Black Writers and Illustrators. [YAY] 

If you’re a children’s book writer like me, you’d want to look out for #PBPitch which is open to all picture book writers 3 times a year: February, June, and October. The next one is on October 29th, Thursday from 8 am to 8 pm EST. 

Here are the rules.

If you’re a person of colour or someone from a marginalised or under-represented community, you’d want to look out for #DVpit. I took part in #DVpit because I identify #BAME or #POC. DVPit is open to ALL diverse creators or writers, working on ALL genres writing for children, YA or adult. Do look out for the dates as there are two days for different genres and age groups, and for writers and illustrators. 

Here are the rules.

I made a couple of boo-boos, like retweeting someone’s tweet with a comment because someone had done that for me and I wanted to pay back in kind. Apparently, participants are not allowed to retweet. You can comment inside their tweet but not retweet with a comment. That was where I misunderstood. Only editors can retweet. These are editors who like your pitch but will only work with agented authors, so I was told. 

You definitely cannot like or heart ❤ a tweet cos that is the reserve of agents or editors. You’re meant to reply sans hashtags if you want to show support; see above about not retweeting.

Well, I’m learning along the way, as they say. 

I don’t know about you but Twitter gives me the jitters, to be honest. There are some real serious trolls out there waiting to get ya. But thankfully, people just laughed my boos-boos off. And, frankly, nobody has the energy to tell you off, cos at the end of it, you’re meant to know what to…read the rules, and don’t be so zealous like me in wanting to boost other people’s tweets. 

What came out of all this, you ask. The good news is that I got a genuine like or <3. Why genuine? It was a like from an editor, who then asked to read my manuscript. How did I know that? I went to find out who ❤ my twitch and that’s that. And I scrolled down her tweets where she said that “if I like your pitch, it means I’m interested to read your manscript. Please DM me.” 

I wouldn’t go private messaging the editor/ agent if they had not tweeted for the author to do that. I’d just go check out their website for submission guidelines and type in DVpit in the subject line. Nobody likes being stalked, editors and agents no less.

So I sent my manuscript to this editor after I’d DM-ed her to ask how I can submit, and she has confirmed receipt of it. So, you see, this was how serious I was about taking part in #DVpit, and because I was serious, the Universe sent out positive vibes, unlike the first time when I took part. So, don’t make the mistake I did the first time round—join in for the fun of it. I’m not saying you mustn’t have fun. Because FUN + PASSION = ENJOYMENT.

#DVpit is now over and I can’t wait to take part in the next one cos the fun of it all is in composing the tweets in 280 characters. It’s an exercise in precision and concision

Here was what I’d tweeted and pitched for one story. 

When a little girl longs for her grandma’s dumplings, but her grandma can no longer cook, she discovers that faith and love are enduring. This 389-word #PB explores the relationship between an unnamed protagonist and their grandma.  #DVPit #OWN [this one got me a like but I’ve decided not to pursue this like for personal reasons.]

Like a Tai Chi dance, an unnamed protagonist must grapple with her grandma’s fading breath. DANCING DUMPLINGS FOR MY ONE AND ONLY, a 389-word story that charts the relationship between a child and their grandma rises and falls with each breath. #DVpit #poc #own

You’ve got it! 

Good luck! 

credit: PB Pitch Website
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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.

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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.]