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. 

Life Movements

Liu Kang, Life by the River, 1957, oil on canvas, 126 x 203 cm (National Gallery Singapore)

When Liu Kang painted Life By the River in 1975, it had already been a little over 20 years since he discovered Bali’s charms and colours. He didn’t plan on starting an art movement but Bali made him an inadvertent advocate for painting local and owning the local visual narrative. 

Liu Kang was a Chinese émigré who arrived in Malaya in the mid 1900s (then Singapore and Malaysia under the British) with no recourse to return to the Motherland because the Second World War had begun. The irony was that he had escaped China for Muar, in Malaysia, where his family had a business and home, due to the escalating Sino-Japanese war. The Liu family had thought that Malaya would be a safe haven, not realising that Japanese soldiers were hot on their trail. No, Liu Kang wasn’t a spy, he was a painter. 

Fast forward some years and WWII ends. Liu Kang decides to remain in Malaya for personal reasons and to make Nanyang his home. To the mainland Chinese, anywhere south of China was known as Nanyang — the Southern Seas. Nanyang included Singapore, Malaysia, Borneo, Indonesia, and the Philippines. 

Having lived in Nanyang for some time, I feel a sense of emptiness […] I also feel an unspeakable aridity, as though trudging thousand of miles in the desert, unable to find any dewdrops and greenery, or any villages.” Liu Kang, The Voice of the Motherland, 1937.

Liu Kang, Essays on Art and Culture

As an artist, Liu Kang found Nanyang arid and devoid of aesthetics. He was dismayed at the lack of artistic education, and the lacklustre efforts at promoting art in Singapore by the colonial government. However, Liu Kang plodded on and formed an art collective where he gathered artists like himself for dialogues and discussions. In many essays written in Mandarin Chinese, later translated into English, he outlined his feelings and his thoughts on the art scene in Singapore. In these essays, it’s clear to see that being a pioneer is never easy, especially when one’s vision doesn’t align with the status quo. 

Liu Kang was trained in Shanghai in Traditional Chinese landscapes and in Paris, where he learnt European-style paintings. In Paris, he was enthralled by Gauguin and Cézanne and other Impressionists. He really wanted to go to Tahiti like Gauguin who painted the landscape and locals there. But the war thwarted Liu Kang’s dreams. He had big dreams for himself and for art. 

As some dreams have a way of coming true and manifesting themselves differently, Liu Kang found a new kind of hope when he travelled with 3 fellow émigré artists to the island of Bali in 1952. There, he found another way to paint that would revolutionise the art world in Nanyang. Fast forward more years: Liu Kang founds the art movement known as the Nanyang Style. Since then, generations of art viewers have been privy to a large body of work on display at the National Gallery Singapore, where Nanyang-styled art works can be viewed. 

Movements begin and Movements end. But Movements start because communities or collectives of people want to find a way to manifest their desire or their hope for change. A Movement is a revolution, if you will. 

There is a need for a Movement in Singapore to promote and elevate the literature that is being written and produced on the island-nation, or the Little Red Dot, it’s friendly moniker. I speak about KidLit in particular. I’ve mentioned many times before that Singapore’s KidLit production and market is still in its infancy. It’s young but not green as there have been some people writing for children since the late 1990s. There are also many self-published KidLit authors in Singapore or those whose work have been commissioned by various organisations. Organisations do use picturebooks to reach out to their target audiences and to raise awareness of causes and the work they do. 

I believe some 12-15 years ago, the government of Singapore offered grants and awards or prizes to encourage people to write children’s books. This started a small movement of writers lured by the rewards to write for children. Many have become established children’s book authors and their books are selling well locally and some even internationally. However, these children’s books are not reaching the kind of international audiences that books produced in America and the United Kingdom are. Why? 

A Movement takes concerted effort. It takes a village. In Singapore, the various governmental organisations who promote the arts work disparately and often competitively. The village is divided but the people are all striving for the same thing — to elevate their status. As one knows only to well: “divided we fall …”

Then, not everyone knows about the plans and policies (unless you’re an interested or curious party and go looking; many of the government’s plans are online anyway, and can be found) that the government is putting into action or wants to put into action; these plans are the guidelines that stakeholders are encouraged to take note of and follow. This just means that the stakeholders or the target audiences aren’t being reached, unless they take it upon themselves to look out for these plans and policies, and remain in the dark while attempting to do the job of elevating the state of the arts in Singapore. The result is that everyone’s trying to build a town hall in the village but the builders are lacking guidelines or instructions. 

Recently, I came across the National Arts Council’s (NAC) ‘OUR SG ARTS PLAN 2018-2022’ for Literary Arts. Yes, I know, it’s 2020 and this plan was my new discovery! See what I mean about plans not reaching target audiences? In this plan, the arts council, essentially a governmental body, as all arts councils are, put forward solutions to encourage reading and steps to increase literacy on the island-nation, focusing on Singapore Literature as texts to develop empathy and develop a sense of the Singaporean identity. Note that it’s simply Singapore Literature with no specific mention of Singapore KidLit. And, it is also Literature that is Singapore-centric and Singapore-related. 

The OUR SG ARTS PLAN begins this way “Literature is more than just words on a page. It captures our stories, experiences, aspirations, and cultures — in short, literature is an important expression of our Singaporean identity.”  Then, it goes on to mention a large amount of money being injected into the “first Literary Arts Plan in 2020”, we’re talking SGD$24 million. 

Ethnic Fiction

Stories and novels whose central characters are black, Native American, Italian-American, Jewish, Appalachian or members of some other specific cultural group. Ethnic fiction usually deals with a protagonist caught between two conflicting ways of life: mainstream American culture and his ethnic heritage.”

Writer’s Digest University

As a children’s book author who simply writes and not write ethnically, I find this plan rather short-sighted. Its focus on only Singapore Literature is limiting since the Singapore KidLit scene is a fairly new one, with only a handful of authors writing specifically Singapore-centric and -related literature. If I were to be more specific, the Singapore KidLit scene is newer still compared to the generic Singapore Lit scene. (And, if I were to be brutally honest, not all Sing KidLit being produced is of good quality. There is such a desperate drive to produce Sing KidLit that publishers are taking in anyone who can write and then rewriting or revising their manuscripts just so that these are publishable.) Besides, debates about ethnic writing and writers are also very America-centric, where writing has become so politicised. While it’s good to heed and take note of what’s going on in the writing world at large, it’s not good to mimic a movement that has no semblance to the reality of what’s going on in Singapore. And, the irony is that most Singaporeans would buy and read KidLit which is America-centric or Euro-centric over Sing KidLit, which is Sing-centric and good for developing a love for the nation and self. Goes to show, doesn’t it?

Although the literary scene is now more vibrant, awareness and appreciation of Singapore literature is low — just one in 10 Singaporeans read Singapore literature. We need more quality literary arts experiences to interest Singaporeans who are not familiar with Singapore literature.” 

OUR SG ARTS PLAN 2018-2020

On the other, I do understand the NAC’s focus on local literature since the diet of books fed to local children seem to be Eurocentric or America-centric, these book markets being more mature and aggressive. Secondly, with so much western-centric media influence be it TV, social media, movies,and/or music, local anything in Singapore does get a poor following. Research undertaken by government agencies in Singapore also points to a pitiful 44% of the public reading (Singapore literacy rate is 97.05%), and these readers are not always reading fiction. Singapore’s obsession with reading falls into the tight brackets of self-help books (mostly to do with how to make more money and/or mental health since living in wealth-obsessed Singapore is very stressful) and nonfiction tomes about notable personalities. I guess like many reality-TV obsessed viewers, the average Singaporean loves the minutiae of important people’s lives. Yes, people do read but it’s not quite KidLit and fiction. Then, there is a section of the population who specifically seek moralistic books that teach their children good values instructionally. A lack of imagination stops many well-intentioned parents from seeing that all children’s books teach good things and more often than not are wells full of solid good values, even the funny ones. I’ve also been asked to write educational books that will help local children improve their English language learning. This indicates to me that fiction is not the main interest of result-oriented local parents who do want their kids to read but are often not discerning enough to know the difference between good writing and great literature, and that it is literature that develops the critical thinking often needed to ace in exams, not merely pass them. As I say this, it’s also fair to mention the many parents out there in the tropical forest of Singapore’s literary woods who take a profound interest in pointing their children to quality writing; I applaud these parents for their mindfulness in swimming upstream with the salmon. 

So back to what I was saying about the SG ARTS PLAN being limiting. Where is there wiggle room in the plan for writers like me—a Singapore-based children’s book author, with books that aren’t always Singapore-centric or -related, who write fiction and am never didactic—to march in unison with the rest of the local (KidLit) writers? I ask this because the ARTS PLAN specifically states that “[w]e need to work hard at articulating a Singaporean identity and to enlarge common spaces for diverse communities.” All this, I understand, is to accommodate the many new Singaporeans who’ve taken citizenship but do not as yet identify Singaporean. It’s also to be inclusive, I understand, as Singapore is really a melting cauldron of cultures and ethnicities. And, here’s the irony: When I do submit a Singapore-centric and Singapore-related manuscript to local publishers, it gets rejected because it’s too Singapore-centric. [LOL emoji appropriate here] The frustration, folks! I digress. Back to the PLAN.

Then, the PLAN goes on to mention positioning SG as a global literary nation in the region and finding ways to collaborate with literary agencies and organisations in the Southeast Asian region. It’s an ambitious plan it must be said. But Singapore is not a nation of insipid planners. It’s a tiny nation with big dreams. And this plan highlights the nation’s dream of being great literary literally. But, I find yet another caveat.

If books are containers of stories that help children and adults develop empathy and find a sense of their places in the world, then it should be books that’s the focus rather than only Singapore books or literature. Yet, I do know that courtesy begins at home. So, in all this focus, it is also the Singaporeans themselves who should be reading and buying SingLit, and not only because the government says so. Where’s the home team support? The National Literary Reading & Writing Survey (2015) tells us that only “ […] just one in 10 Singaporeans read Singapore literature.” It’s not a want of trying on the government’s part, I should say. But Singaporeans need to be told what to do in order to do what they should be doing sponteneously. So, it’s time to cheer for the home team, folks — the G needs ya to and Sing KidLit creators need your support. The PLAN says so!

#BuySingLit is a local Movement that takes place in March annually. The government injects a.lot of money in the form of book vouchers and initiatives in terms of events to encourage local readers to buy SingLit. This spans all genres and age-related Singapore literature. However, year on end, the “take up” rate is less than 40% island-wide. Buy SingLit is still in its infancy and only in its third iteration as far as my sources tell me. I’ve taken part a couple of times and will take part again this year in a privately organised story concerto to entice young readers to read through music and play. In my experience, the S$10 vouchers with an expiry date hardly gets utilised. And, buyers ask if they can buy other books apart from “just” SingLit. Where is the courtesy, Singaporeans? 

All said and criticised, the OUR SG ARTS PLAN is a positive move towards encouraging reading and literacy. But the work is not even half done yet. As with any plan, a lot of the work is in getting folks to “buy in”. As I write this, a quiet Movement is beginning to take root on this island-state. It’s a ground-up Movement as most movements are. The Movement took shape when a bunch of local writers or those of us who identify ourselves as such got together to discuss how we can make some noise about what we write about and what we’re planning to do to change the KidLit scene in Singapore. Like superheroes, the KidLit S.E.A. Community (KLSEAC) will be rescuing locally- and regionally-written stories and helping young readers in Singapore and the region to “own our narratives” and to appreciate all the good books produced locally, even those non Singapore-centric and -related ones. As courtesy begins at home, KLSEAC will start with Singapore produced KidLit. Books lovers stay tuned.

Like Liu Kang and the Nanyang style, KLSEAC will find a way to move the people with locally produced KidLit. Forging an identity is only one aspect of reading. The biggest aspect of reading is reading itself and when Singapore starts to produce better quality KidLit, discerning parents will flock to BuySingLit, to buy SG KidLit. It will take a village and a village is what we have. Watch this space, Singapore readers.

On Life and Finding A Way

Life has a way to meander and lead you to places that you’ve never thought you’d go or imagine going. Life finds a Way, as the saying goes. 

On Viruses and Finding a Way Around

A virus is also a type of life form that finds a way, in my view, but according to medical experts, whether a virus is a life form or not is highly debatable. In truth, nobody really knows if a virus is alive or not. But a virus needs a host to stay alive and to recreate itself. A host is infected with a virus, which lives in the body symbiotically, until such time that the virus takes over its host. I understand all this in layman’s terms only. I am no medical expert nor am I percolating and/or passing on false information. I’m trying to understand how a pneumonia-like virus could be this deadly because as I write this, a novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) is spreading virulently across the world, with its epicentre in Wuhan, China. I’m trying to make meaning of what I’m reading in the news and as I do this, I also start to think about why it’s important for human beings to understand the inter-relationship between human culture and the structures that cause us to feel, think and act the way we do.

Thinking about viruses and hosts made me wonder too about how stories are passed on. I know that a virus is not like a story and a virulent host is not like a storyteller. The mind meanders, though. My mind is now meandering and taking me places I haven’t imagined going to before; it asks me to probe the meaning and significance of stories as viruses that get passed on orally and textually, and to think of storytellers as hosts, where the story-virus resides. I’m excited as I allow my mind to do its thing, to make meaning through metaphors.

On Characters and Finding a Way Out

All this excitement about viruses and hosts is happening simultaneously as I take part in global writing challenges, writing lesser-told stories of inspirational women, and learning about storytelling through genres like (informational) non-fiction and creative non-fiction, though there’s really nothing to be excited about any sort of viruses as the Wuhan virus meanders its way around the world. But excited I am, not for the virus, of course, but for a little character who’ll be bursting her way into the world any time soon, infecting everyone with her get-go attitude and positive spirit. 

Sahara Khan is my latest invention. As a fiction writer, I get to make up characters and invent stories. I like how fiction churns the imagination; how the mind meanders and wanders. I love imagining what little people in books can do. I love how picture book characters always find a way out. Out of trouble. Out in space. Out of the ordinary. Sahara as you’ll see will find a way out of her own narrative and create a new one, despite being differently abled. How I love that narratives can change and be improved. One’s narrative is never deterministic or static.

On the Whole Book Approach and Finding a Way to Infect Children with the Love of Books

The more I immerse myself in the learning, writing, and teaching of picture book creation, the more I’m enthralled by just how much more than images and text a picture book really is. I’m currently re-reading Megan Dowd Lambert’s enlightening book, Reading Picture Books With Children. Lambert created an inquiry-based model of storytelling, asking children to look at the whole picture book, beginning with its jacket/cover, the illustrations within, and how these images contribute to the story as a whole. It’s meaning-based approach, encouraging children to find and make meaning of everything that forms a picture book — text, visuals, design — looks at picture books holistically. This has brought back memories and my mind meanders to a place where I used to teach literature in schools. The children were older but the whole book approach never strayed far from my teaching methods, even though the students were making meaning from more text-heavy books. These books — middle-grade, young adult, plays and poetry anthologies — had jackets that were filled with images, some with busy jackets, others minimalist, that attracted our attention, brought the stories and poems within to life. How a jacket is designed also tells a story, and my students and I would spend precious time talking about the artwork covering the books they were studying. Fast forward and years later and I would read Jhumpa Lahari’s, The Clothing of Books, a thin and minimalist-designed book of less than 100 pages that explores and asks us to probe the complex relationship between text and images. This is Structuralism at its core. In remembering this, I see that Life finds a way to remind us of the meaning that we look for; the power of attraction, if you will, as my friend and Michelin chef, Matthieu Escoffier, calls it. 

On Dreaming and Making Sense of it All

Sahara dreaming

I love sharing sneak-peeks of the images that fill picture books. Here is this wonderful creature, Sahara, a little girl my mind created, inspired by so many structures and systems that I’ve tried over the years to make meaning of. Dreaming is my favourite thing to do, day-dreaming especially. It’s my dream to write meaningful picture books and to help children answer questions that they’re eager to find out. Of course, in writing my picture books, I’m also busy answering the questions that I have; questions like: Why are female chefs mostly overlooked in the culinary world when cooking is a job placed on the female shoulder in the house-hold kitchen? How do our senses impede or expedite our culinary experiences? How can I, a writer of children’s picture books, encourage young readers to taste what they eat, feel the food that they put into their mouths, and see with their other senses what textures and tastes food produce? Readers, I present Sahara’s Special Senses. Please allow Sahara to show you the answers to these questions.

E is for Echo and Echolalia

Echo is a nymph in Greek mythology who was cursed by Hera, the goddess of Marriage and Family, and the wife of Zeus, to repeat only the last words spoken to her. Hera was just mad at her husband’s shenanigans and Echo was the scapegoat of her wrath, in my view. The curse meant that Echo became unable to communicate with the man she loves—Narcissus.  In despair, Echo retreated into the mountains and pined away for her lost love, and what she left behind, was her voice reverberating against the rocks as she repeats over and over again the words she last heard. 

In this painting by John William Waterhouse, we see Echo looking over her left shoulder at Narcissus, the Greek hunter who couldn’t stop looking at his own reflection. From this, we get the word “narcissistic”. Echo looks in despair, unable to tell Narcissus how she feels, cursed only to repeat his last words. These could be “I am so beautiful”, the likely words that Narcissus would have uttered, at the core of the myth of Narcissus is his vain and solipsistic view of self and world. However, the words, according to Ovid, were “Who are you?” which Echo repeated back to Narcissus, the object of her love. Their courtship, if they had one in the first place, did not take off, as you can imagine.  But in “Who are you?” lies an important symbol related to self.  Without knowing who we are, we cannot grow and change. Self-development and growth are two very important directions for me, personally, and to do this, one must be just a little bit narcissistic, in my view. But narcissism with a pinch of salt, that is. This is a topic for another day. Today, I’d like to concentrate on Echo.

So back to Echo. In language acquisition, repeating words and phrases is often how a child learns to communicate. “Da-da”, ‘Pa-pa”, “Ma-ma”, “Ta-ta” are all familiar sounds for those of us with toddlers. Toddlers often start with the plosive sounds before they move on to other sounds in the vast database of human sounds and languages. 

The term echolalia is used to describe the behavioural feature amongst autistic children for word and phrasal repetitions. While it is common for children up to 3 years of age to be repetitive, mirroring sounds, that translate into words, at this stage of their linguistic development, it is a sign of autism, if the child continues to echo, beyond the age of three.

Researchers have found many reasons for this symptomatic feature of ASD and have agreed that echolalia is an attempt amongst children on the spectrum to maintain social interactions, and/or learn and practice new words in order to add to their existing repertoire; it could also indicate that they may find some words challenging to understand and therefore repeat these words in their attempts at comprehending them. As a neurotypical adult, I often find myself repeating instructions verbally during my pilates sessions in order to process them. For example, I am not very good at changing directions with ease. When my instructor tells me to reverse an action, I repeat the instruction: “Change directions, circle inwards” again and again to remind myself of what I’m doing while I’m in the midst of doing it. It’s my brain’s way of processing information.

There are three types of echolalia: immediate, delayed and mitigated.

  1. In immediate echolalia, the child repeats sounds/words/phrases immediately after hearing them. It is as if they are rehearsing these words. It is also used to self-regulate, for example, a child may repeat “don’t jump on the sofa” as he gradually slows down this action. Then, a child could repeat phrases in an agitated or frustrated manner with no obvious attempts at self-regulation; this could be alarming to watch, understandably. I tend to think that somewhere at the back of this child’s mind lies their efforts in understanding their world. 
  2. In delayed echolalia, sounds/words/phrases can appear in the child’s speech at a later time. This could be because the child is learning how to take turns, to agree or to protest, and can be seen as a general attempt at communication. Sometimes, delayed echolalia could be a way to communicate emotions as the child mirrors the sounds around them, sounds they have heard when watching a TV programme, for example, or after they have heard people talking and a particular word/phrase used in the conversation has made an impact on them. Then, it could also be an attempt at understanding certain words. This is a processing function and sometimes, the child may use the sounds/words/phrases in inappropriate situations, indicating that they do not really understand the meaning of these words. 
  3. In mitigated echolalia, the child changes the words in the speech they have heard, while habitually repeating phrases and sounds. This is usually an indicator that the child has a stronger grasp of language acquisition. 

It is good to note that the act of repeating is a natural phenomenon in life. We learn through repetition and we retain information through hearing the same things being repeatedly uttered. There is positivity in learning the “broken-record” way.

Readers and followers would have heard me jabbering on, echoing the same words like ~ Open goes to ~ or ~ Open travels to ~ in my excited attempts at sharing Open’s journeys. It’s been fun watching Open travel the world vicariously. Most of the time, I wish I were there too; but a girl can only be in one place at a time, physically. 

People have also been experiencing a high level of social media feeds on my various accounts sharing news about what I’ve been doing creative writing-wise. Do bear with me as I take you vicariously on the book’s journeys, as well as, my personal journeys of growth and development.

As I search for words and phrases and the language to explain what I do creatively, I am also engaging with my brain’s processing function, to better understand what I can offer as a creative and what I can do as an educator in the arts. In these repetitive meditations, I take time to reflect, to consolidate learning and to improve existing skills.

In my industry, where soft skills and intangible personal assets are difficult to quantify or describe statistically, I find that the more I engage repetitively with my processes, the easier it becomes to communicate to others what I can offer. In this way, I live with a tad of echolalia and it would seem that I’m subjecting my friends and family to the same words and phrases again and again. But repetition is not always a negative thing. So do be patient with your autistic child and adult when they echo in their attempts at processing information. With regards to individuals on the spectrum, it is good to note that echolalia is a sign that they are listening and processing.

Some friends would have heard how I am putting together a programme to teach creative writing using artworks as prompts and to offer this at a corporate leadership training level. Through a guided writing exercise, I tap into the participants’ emotional banks, helping them find their words to express themselves comprehensively, all done through engaging with visual art. The magic of the unconscious works to unlock the nuanced emotions that they are already familiar with and through working-through them in the form of creative writing, participants gain a refreshing sense of self and a renewed sense of well-being. Researchers working within corporate training have translated this quantifiably with percentages (%) indicating a decrease (-) in staff turn over and an increase (+) in staff productivity. In my experience as an educator, I’ve seen how creative writing can help with understanding the nuances of emotions as we choose some words over others to express ourselves; creative writing has also added another layer of meaning into language use. Being happy is not the same as being content, similarly, being angry is not the same as being disappointed. When we begin to understand these nuances, we also begin to realise that we are complex beings with potential for growth and change. As the world moves busily around us, it is so very important to engage fully with our nuanced emotions for a deeper sense of living, loving and working. 

As I continue my journey as an author, writer and educator and as the book gains traction in Singapore and internationally, I’m being invited by various agencies to talk, conduct workshops and speak to people about how the creative process can help foster resilience, empathy and compassion. I’ll be at the Singapore Writers Festival in November conducting a creative writing workshop for children aged 11 – 14. Read about it here. 

Also in November, I’m on a panel discussing See the True Me: The Power of Stories with Tan Guan Heng and Grace Phua. I can’t wait to meet both these inspiring individuals. For folks based in Singapore, this panel discussion will be free of charge, taking place at the National Library of Singapore, Central Library, 4 – 5:30 PM, November 3. Come and listen in. 

As I end my post, this reminds me that we are coming to the end of another calendar year. How time has flown! It will soon be my favourite time of the year–Christmas–where I recharge with family and friends. I bet you’ll be doing the same too.

Until the next post, take care and stay authentic! 

 

Image credit: Waterhouse, John William, Echo and Narcissus, 1903, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, United Kingdom.

On Synesthesia

Synesthesia is a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.” — Wikipedia.

In my book, Open – A Boy’s Wayang Adventure, the protagonist, Open, likes to read. He reads “about anything and everything”. (Open: pp 7). He would sometimes consult Wikipedia when he wants to find out things. He also perceives his world differently from the rest of us. For example, he describes his feelings in relation to one of the five senses—taste. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 7, where Open talks about how he feels on learning that Mama may be leaving him to work in New Zealand.

I will not be seeing Mama for a few months when she goes to New Zealand. It will take more than 10 hours to reach Auckland by plane. That’s very far away. I will not be seeing Mama every day.

“When will you go?” Papa asks.

“They’re still deciding…”

“It’s just that Open…”

“Oh Ben,” Mama sighs. “I don’t know, Sky. He’s not getting better and I don’t know what to say to him.”

I am tasteless inside.

Some people, like Open, are synesthetes. They often experience one sense using another part of their sensory organs. For example, listening to music can trigger a vision of bright lights in some people. In another case, known as grapheme-colour synesthesia, letters and numbers are seen as colours or coloured. Open experiences his world in a lexical-gustatory way, where certain tastes are experienced when hearing certain words or when certain people are associated with particular tastes. In chapter 7, Open feels “tasteless inside” when he hears his mother uttering “Oh Ben”. Like many lexical-gustatory synesthetes, Open expresses his feelings, sadness in his case, through tasting it.

A well known synesthete was Wassily Kandinsky. He experienced visions of colours in motion when listening to classical music. The moving colours correspond to the movement in the music. In his paintings, you will often see dashes of colours—sprays of blues, swirls of violets, glares of yellows, circles of reds, lines of black—rendered in watercolour. Take for example, his Composition VII (1913), the canvas is a mess of colours, distracting to look at. But in this piece, Kandinsky is expressing a profound sense of the spiritual. He often associates and ascribes certain emotional qualities to certain shades of colours.

Wassily Kandinsky is a Russian artist (1866-1944). He was also an art theorist, often talking and discussing art with his friends and in lectures. Kandinsky is credited with being the first artist recognised to have painted the first work of pure abstraction.

Kandinsky is very grandiloquent in expressing the processes at work when painting: “Our hearing of colours is so precise … Colour is a means of exerting a direct influence upon the soul. Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings. The artist is the hand that purposely sets the soul vibrating by means of this or that key. Thus it is clear that the harmony of colours can only be based upon the principle of purposefully touching the human soul.” (The Guardian, 2006)

Emotions are too abstract to describe in real terms. Associating an emotion to a certain taste or colour, often helps us picture how we feel concretely, in my opinion.

I would be happy to hear what readers have to say about synesthesia. Please leave your comments below. Remember that this blog may be read by children who have read Open and want to discuss the book here. Do remember to be polite and mindful that young minds may be present in this space.

If you haven’t purchased your copy of Open – A Boy’s Wayang Adventure, you can buy it here. For Singapore readers, the book is sold exclusively at Popular Bookstore until April. To review Open, you can go to Good Reads where the book is listed.

To participate in Instagram, take a picture with the book and hashtag #OpenEveryChildMatters, @evawongnava, to share about your reading journey. I would love to hear from you.