When the World is a Water-coloured palette

Watercolor is an alchemical medium – colors mixing with water, joining with it, being extended by it – creating new life where none had been before.”

Joseph Raffael

Lim Cheng Hoe’s water-colour depiction of the Singapore River is simply my most favourite image of Singapore’s trading artery in the 20th century. This one was painted in 1962 and it hangs in the National Gallery of Singapore.

Notice how the colours bleed into the paper and shapes, forming an abstract, diluted representation of life by the river. The hazy effect—a smudging of colours—is caused by diluting watercolours with more  water than needed: it lends this piece a dream-like quality. The block of yellows and dots of blues are still so distinct, it feels like this piece was only completed yesterday. Uncannily, the blotching of water stains does remind one of water. But could the boat be a clue and we are reading Lim’s visual narrative using our personal experiences to make connections? Does anyone feel that this could be a Chinese landscape painting? 

I love anything rendered in watercolours. Perhaps, it is because water colours were the first art materials I used in childhood and they are reminiscent of an idyllic past. Watercolours were easy enough to find—boxes with lids that contained circles of colours. They were economical too—great presents for birthdays. A plastic cup for water, a crude brush, and some paper—it doesn’t have to be of good quality either—were all you needed to keep a child interested in art occupied for hours. I painted flowers, houses, grass, sampan boats (much like what you see in Lim’s piece), and stick figures with skirts and trousers to fill in with watered down hues. 

In Singapore River, Lim has managed to capture a proverbial everyday scene in the early 60s. It’s a Romantic imagination of this river. Lim painted en plein aire, outside, in the humidity and heat that cleave themselves to this nation-state. In my imagination of how Lim painted, the scene in my mind’s eye is hardly Romantic. I know the reality of living in the tropics where sometimes, it is just too hot in the day to be out and about. I also know that when Lim was painting, the River was a convenient source for tipping one’s rubbish and waste. The stench must’ve been strong. But the inclination to capture a scene, documenting a way of life then, must’ve been stronger. 

The Singapore River still exists. It’s a cleaned up and less smelly version. In fact, there is now no stench at all. The Romantic imagination captured all those decades ago has now materialised and become reality. Today, a Disneyesque version of the boats in Lim’s painting ply the water, ferrying tourists from one end of the river the the other. 

As many know, art forms a very important part of my life. I’ve chosen to focus on picture books because it is often the art between the pages of the book that I’m drawn to. That’s not to say that I disregard the story or the writing. I find, more often than not, when the writing is wonderful, good art inevitably follows. These two modalities in the arts come hand in hand. 

When Penguin Random House Southeast Asia acquired Mina’s Magic Malong last year, I had no idea that the illustrator would be a water colourist. A picture book author does not have control over these things. Once the manuscript is written and handed over to the publishing house’s editorial team, it’s time to let go and work on your next project. It’s the house that chooses the illustrator. But to add to that, because I believe in the hocus-pocus way life can meander, it is also the work that chooses the illustrator in a cosmic kind of way. Creation works on multi-levels and is multi-layered. And, who knows how the Universe makes so many things happen.

The process with Novita Elisa was a unique one because she was PRH’s subsequent choice. There were some complications with the first choice, details of which I’m not privy to share because I don’t know them. It was such a relief to see the proofs for the book and to see that Novita Elisa got the story of Mina’s Magic Malong. The bonus for me is that her artwork for the book was completed in water colours. Hence, this gives the picture book a vintage feel. There are similar qualities I see in Novita’s work that draw me in to Lim’s: the running or smudging of colours on the paper, the vibrant flashes and blotches of colours, the nostalgia. 

Well, folks, like I said, when your manuscript has been submitted, it’s time to let go. Following my own advice, I did just that and have started on my next picture book. I wonder who the illustrator will be this time.

Mina’s Magic Malong is found in all good bookstores and on Amazon. 

Mina’s Magic Malong gives voice to an often invisible group.”

Emily Lim-Leh

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.