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.