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A Community of Saints

  Cima da Conegliano (Giovanni Battista Cima),  Polyptych,  C. 1486-88,  Tempera on panel. Parish Church of St. Bartolomeo, Olera (Bergamo), Italy

Behold this nine-panelled polyptych with the Virgin and Child taking the top panel, presiding over the congregation and the community of saints below. The standing figure in the middle (a statue) is Santo Bartolemeo or Saint Bartholomew the Apostle. He is also known as the patron saint of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and is therefore beloved by the Armenians. 

We didn’t travel to Armenia to get a sighting of St Bartolomeo. We took a little drive from the city of Bergamo to the hillside village of Olera to visit a church perched on a verdant hilltop, surrounded by quaint village houses. The church is dedicated to St Bartolomeo. So, it is apt that this polyptych takes pride of place at the centre of the church. 

The polyptych was painted in 1489 by Giovan (aka Giovanni) Battista Cima from Conegliano, Veneto. This is the reason why this altarpiece is also attributed to Cima da Conegliano — Cima from Conegliano. 

I am not a practising Catholic, although I’ve had a convent education spanning 10 years, and have lived amongst the staunchest of Lutherans, Protestants, and Catholics for more than three decades of my life. I’d admit that Catholicism will always remain close to my heart. I love Catholic saints for the stories they tell. There are just some very sagely trivia that I love to study about these saints. I don’t have a photographic memory, so I don’t always remember all that I’ve read. But I know that Bartholomew was one of Jesus’ 12 apostles. Legend has it that Bartolomeo (his Italian name) was skinned alive and beheaded. His emblems are a knife (the one that he was skinned with) and his flayed skin. For this, he is beloved (in some perverse way) by tanners and those who work with leather, or skins of all sorts, I guess. 

The bottom far right panel is that of San Rocco. He is the patron saint of dogs (woofy funny), bodily afflictions and diseases, such as the plague and rashes, amongst others. San Rocco’s emblems are a staff and he is always depicted with a wound on his thigh or knee. 

Born of nobility in Montpellier, France, in 1295, San Rocco gave his riches to the poor, attended to the sickly and dying, and legend has it that he miraculously cured some people. It is also believed that San Rocco was born from a miracle, his mother having been barren for many years, with a birthmark that looked like a cross on his chest. As an adult, he was arrested on accounts of espionage and imprisoned. He languished in jail for five years without him ever once mentioning his noble connections. Apparently, he was cared for by an angelic presence until he died in 1327 of natural causes. By then, he had already done many things. 

Luca Signorelli – San Rocco 
1515-20. 29.6 x 16.3
Academy Carrara (Accademia Carrara), Bergamo.

San Rocco is now the all important saint invoked in the Catholic world. His help is needed to get rid of the pestilant COVID-19 virus that is circumventing the globe today. 

Above San Rocco is Santa Caterina or Saint Catherine. She is the patron saint of literature. Known also as Catherine of Siena, Santa Caterina was an activist, mystic, author and was conferred Doctor of the Church for her contribution to theological studies. She was the second woman in the Catholic world to be given this recognition. Hence, this makes her the only female saint on the polyptych. 

Her attributes are a crown of thorns, a rose, a book, a crucifix, amongst others. She is invoked for her power to cure the sick, for miscarriages, and bodily afflictions in general, amongst other divine powers that she possesses. [It is good to note that saints are living divine beings as Orthodox Christians and Coptics believe them to be.]

Caterina di Jacopo di Benincasa was born in Rome in the year 1347. She had a twin sister, Giovanna, who unfortunately died in the arms of the wet nurse. Caterina’s mother, Lapa Piagenti, was the daughter of a poet, and she was what doctors today call a geriatric primigravida when she had the twin girls at the age of forty. Not only that, Lapa had given birth at least 22 times before Caterina and Giovanna were born. Half of her children had died by that time. Twenty-two times!! — that in itself is a miracle and Lapa Piagenti should’ve been canonised for the sacrifices she had made with her body. By the time Caterina was 2 years old, her mother had givnen birth yet again. Caterina finally had another sister named after her late twin. This would be Lapa’s 25th child. 

Caterina’s father had a cloth dying business which he managed and ran with his sons. (If I were Lapa, I’d have made sure he died in a bath of red dye for impregnating me this many times. But hey, I am no saint.) All in all, Caterina was born into a middle-income family. Her parents played a big part in Caterina’s life, as most parents do. With so many children to feed and protect, the Benincasas ran a tight ship. When Bonaventura, one of Caterina’s sisters died at childbirth, she was asked to marry her widower. Caterina flatly refused because she knew how Bonaventura had suffered as his wife: Bonaventura had to go on a hunger strike to force her husband to be better. It is not known if he was a wife-beater or a bully. But for Bonaventura to take such a drastic action, he must’ve been most undesireable. A jerkass in today’s lingo. Following in her late sister’s foot steps, Caterina fasted as well when she was told to marry her brother-in-law. I shall just say it as it is — she went on a hunger strike; to fast would be putting it mildly. She never married Bonaventura’s widower. In fact, the only marriage Caterina ever had was with God. 

It is a well known fact that women use their bodies to challenge the status quo. The suffragettes went on hunger strikes in the early 1900s to protest against not being imprisoned as political prisoners for they saw themselves as fighting a political cause — the right for women to vote. The authorities forced-fed the women as a means to keep them alive. This force-feeding became the most poignant docuementation of the suffragette’s fight for gender equality and a basic human right. You can read more about it here

Caterina di Jacopo di Benincasa had a love for God so strong that she became politically active in  fighting for clergical reforms. She travelled widely preaching and advocating her beliefs. She used her body to challenge the authorities, to show her love for the common people and for the Catholic Church. She cared for the sickly and dying. She walked miles to get to places and people that needed her. She wrote reams and reams of letters to the Pope asking for this and that reform. And, she starved herself: fasting was her means to get closer to God. This was ironically  frowned upon by the clerical authorities. Not the getting close to God part, but the starving of oneself to get near Holiness part. The authorities, it has been said, felt that fasting was unhealthy.

It was indeed unhealthy because in 1380, Caterina suffered a massive stroke after months of refraining food and water. She faded away because there is only so much an anorexic body can take, and let’s not forget a dehydrated one too. I think it is a miracle that she managed to last so many months before finally succumbing to the angel of death. She passed away at the age of thirty-three, commending her soul and spirit to God. By that time, she had written The Dialogue of Divine Providence, her most important and remembered work. There were also over 380 letters to the Pope (as well as many to women) and prayers that she’d penned that are still whispered today. Santa Caterina di Siena was indeed a woman of letters. She is my patron saint.

A Community of Writers

I was recently invited to join a community of authors who have come together to find ways to promote our books and work. We’re a hodpodge of authors ranging from children’s to YA to adult fiction and nonfiction. 

Top left to right: Daryl Kho, Joyce Chua, Vicky Chong, Middle left to right: Audrey Chin, Nabeel Ismeer, Eva Wong Nava, Bottom left to right: Nidhi Upadhyay, Vivek Iyyani, Leslie W [photo credit: Joyce Chua]

And behold, we are also a nine-panelled polyptych:

  1. Daryl Kho — Mist-bound
  2. Joyce Chua — Land of Sand and Song
  3. Leslie W — The Night of Legends
  4. Audrey Chin — The Ash House 
  5. Vicky Chong — Racket and Other Stories 
  6. Vivek Iyyani — Engaging Millennials
  7. Nidhi Upadhyay — That Night 
  8. Nabeel Ismeer — The Hunter’s Walk 
  9. Eva Wong Nava — Mina’s Magic Malong and The Roti John Poetry Club (forthcoming)

I hear you asking what our emblems are.

These, my dear reader, are pen and paper, computer and wifi (for research), a vase of imagination, a feather of creativity, a walking stick of kudos, and a mettle of bravado. 

My colleagues and I will vouch that our sacrifices are many: time stolen from family, sleep deprivation from working in full-time day jobs and part-time grave yard shifts writing, anguish when the page is blank and fear that our ideas have run out, cardiac palpitations as the deadlines loom and we still have half a book to write, to name but a few. And let’s also not forget, the long TBR list that forms the basic ingredient to good writing. And for some of us, research — years of research for this is what historical fiction and nonfiction requires. Add to this, the brainwave and physical effort to promote our work because publishing budgets for underrepresented, debut, and back-listed authors are small (unless, of course, your debut novel was acquired through a nine-way auction).

I think every writer is a saint. The Church of Writing has canonised many and these have become household names, sanctified and revered, much like the various saints (santi (m) and sante (f) in Italian) whose names Catholics invoke. 

And like the many saints, these canonised authors are mostly Caucasian/White. Such is the way with publishing. But that is starting to change. And I am so excited to be part of this change. More on my forthcoming picturebooks with Walker Books and Scholastic UK soon.

This aside, the question always comes back to why writers do what they do? And since we’re talking about saints today, let’s flip this and ask, “Why are people canonised?” Well, I can put my hand on my heart and say that I don’t write for fame and fortune (if only), or to enter the canons of literature (that’d be lovely, though). No one who has ever picked up a pen to write or typed away on their computers would say that their motivation is to be canonised. We write because our lives depend on it. We have stories to tell that we would like you to read. And, I feel, most of all, we write because we really do enjoy writing, hard as it is, under the various circumstances and situations that afflict us, and the stiff competition that we face in the publishing world as underrepresented and marginalised writers of colour. (And you know how I dislike this term). Too many adjectives for this nine-member strong community, I feel. But hey, I didn’t invent those descriptors. 

What can you do to help? I pray thee, my dear reader — go buy our books. If not, our efforts would have all been wasted, and that would be a shame. 

For those who are interested in understanding and rethinking diversity in publishing, click here

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The Responsibilities of an Author

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

John Quattrocchi
President, Albert Whitman & Company

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

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

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

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

Firstly, I needed the distance. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear All,

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

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

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

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

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

— 

Warmly,

Eva Wong Nava — Children’s Book Author”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philiip Pullman, ‘Magic Carpets’ in Daemon Voices. 
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D is for Dedication

The writing process is often a lonely journey because the activity of writing demands that the writer gets into his/her own head and the heads of his/her characters. Although the process of getting into other people’s heads is a solitary one and the only company a writer gets to keep is that of the characters’, it is a journey that must be taken toute seule. However, the process of becoming published is often one that involves various parties, unless the author is self-publishing. Having said that, the process of self-publication does also involve various parties—the printer, for example, and the public who read the books or stories you’ve self-published.

This post is all about thanks. 

Open – A Boy’s Wayang Adventure could not have happened without various parties involved. I would’ve mentioned them on the dedication page if I were a more experienced author. Other books I’ve read have entire pages, even two, where the author lists the people who have contributed to the book, pre and post-publication. Now if I were a more experienced author, I’d have done that too.

I’ve thanked the four most important people in my life who I felt made this book happen. As readers will know, they are my husband and my wonderful daughters, and a dear friend whom I’ve learned so much from in terms of autism. I did not, however, thank the book publisher—Ethos Books—and my friend, Raymond Tan, of Brainchild Pictures, who was the first person who believed in my ability to tell a story through words. It was Raymond who asked me to write a book about his movie—The Wayang Kids—that led to Open – A Boy’s Wayang Adventure. However, the book wouldn’t have been published if Ethos Books hadn’t liked the story and felt that it was worth its weight to enter the world of published books. There is also the team at Popular Bookstore who asked for exclusivity for the book until April.

So, this post goes out to the team at Ethos, Popular Bookstore, Singapore and Raymond—Thank you, all!

To the Readers

This post also goes out to the readers of Open. They are Mark Anthony Rossi and his lovely children, Hilary Ryel author of Kids Like Us, James Sinclair of Autistic and Unapologetic, Hubert Hu, Elizabeth Lim, Jessie Tan, Mozhdeh, Hwee Goh, Wayne Tan, Emily Lim and the children she gifted the book to, Lianne Chen, Andera Liu, Liz Lim, Kum Suning, Ng Kah Gay, Ric Liu, Nikki (you know who you are) Trudi Batchelder and her family, Nicola Anthony, Marie-Pierre Mol, Guillaume Levy-Lambert, Sean Soh, Scott M. Anthony, Angie Png, to the family of Mohamed Nikmikail, the readers and reviewers on Goodreads, and the future readers of the book. This list is not complete, of course, and as all lists go, I apologise if I’ve left someone out. I’m not the best at making lists, to begin with; I always leave something out inevitably as my memory is a sieve these days. To top this, I hate shopping lists, Christmas lists and wish lists; it’s just me, I know, as I feel lists are constraining, even as I understand their necessity.

To those who attended the Book Launch

The Official Book Launch has come and gone. There are people there to thank too. June, the book reviewer who came to listen to the dialogue between Raymond and me, who then asked pertinent questions that kept the conversation going. If you’re reading this, June—thank you. To the people who brought their children who stayed quiet for an hour to listen to three adults (Raymond, me and the moderator) drone on about representation, the wayang and writing—thank you for listening, you were superstars! Of course, to the organisers of the launch: The Arts House, the Singapore Book Council and National Arts Council, thank you for opening up a space for promoting SingLit. Thanks go to Axl Loon, Elizabeth Lim, Hubert Hu, Andrea Liu and Edmund Wee for attending. Mostly, thanks go to my sister, Emily Wong-Lim who came with her family and an old friend, whom I haven’t seen in more than 25 years; it was great to see you there, Yvinne. To my niece, Audrey Lim for showing me how social media can work on getting the book out there.

Authors and Bloggers

The book authors and bloggers who gave me a space to talk about Open. Don Bosco, Samara Lynch and Dorothée Oké of Groupe de Press Relations Lyon—thank you, merci!

Now, if I’ve left someone out, it is unintentional. Help me by prodding me with a message.

Last but not least, to all the mummies and daddies who encourage their children to read. You know that your children’s imaginary worlds begin with books—thank you!

The Adventure Continues

The next few months will be filled with book readings, events at schools where I’ll be doing more book readings and talking about how literature can help foster a more compassionate and inclusive world. Come and find me to say hello if I’m in your neck of the woods. Thank you!