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The Island

Many many ocean waves ago, someone told me that I reminded her of an island girl. By that she meant I looked Polynesian or Hawaiian. The signs that cued her to think this were a golden tan, a natural tint highlighting my dark brown tresses, and a healthy glow. 

I was indeed an island girl. I was living in Singapore then. 

For those of you who don’t know Singapore. It is an island-nation; a Republic. It has nearly 6 million people. In comparison, Hawaii is 24 times larger than Singapore, with a population of less than 2 million. It is the only island state in America.

I guess comparisons can be challenging. One island is in Southeast Asia, the other is in the Pacific. But what both islands share in common is their government’s and their people’s varied notions of democracy and freedom. Or put it another way, their shared surface and passive ideologies: their “[…] explicit social, political or moral beliefs”. [Hollindale, Peter. The hidden teacher: ideology and children.]

cover of The Island by Armin Greder ©Armin Greder

I now live on another island. I guess I am really an island girl after all. 

It was on the island of Great Britain that I came across another island. This one had no name. It was simply called The Island, and it was found in a book, a picturebook. I hesitate to call it a children’s picturebook, because the author (also the illustrator), Armin Greder, did not intend for it to be so. The Island was published in 2002 by Saulander Verlag in Germany. Greder is Swiss. The copy I am referring to is the English translation, published in 2007 by Allen & Unwin, Australia. Greder had lived and worked in Australia.

The Island by Armin Greder

Dark. Disturbing. Devastating. Three words that come to mind immediately upon finishing this picturebook. 

The story begins with a new arrival to The Island. A man who came on a raft. “He wasn’t like them.” In the opening page, difference is introduced by these four words. On the recto (right) page, a naked man greets us, looking forlorn. His gaze holds our attention. 

The first islanders we meet are burly, fierce looking men with beady eyes who debate what to do with the man. They decide to send him back. But a fisherman was against the idea because he knew the sea. Sending the man back on his raft would be to send him to his death.

And so, they took him in.

“‘I don’t want that on my conscience,” he said. ‘We have to take him in.’” 

And so, they took him in with sharp farming tools they turned into weapons that poke and prod the naked man leading him to the part of the island where nobody lives. There was a goat pen, empty for a long time. They threw some straw at him and told him to stay there. And then they locked the gate. After, it was business as usual on The Island. Life went back to normal. 

“Then one morning the man appeard in town.” 

The Scream. The Anger. The Commotion. 

Greder’s tribute to Edward Munch

But all the man wanted was some food. And it was the fisherman again who said that they must help him.

The Fear. The Insecurity. The Unwillingness. 

It was the fisherman again who suggested that they must look after the naked, hungry, weak man together. [emphasis mine.]

They tossed him some scraps. They put him back in the goat pen. They took turns guarding him.

He troubled them. He haunted them. He gave them nightmares. 

The naked, starving, helpless man becomes the bogeyman. Every adult, every child, everybody is afraid of this stranger who washed up on the shore on a raft. A stranger who did nothing to anyone. 

The naked man gazes at us, holding our attention.

The only way to get rid of fear is to banish that thing that scares us. The man was sent back to his raft, chased out of The Island. The islanders build a fortress just in case. 

As for the fisherman, he lost his boat, “because he had made them help the man.” 

The Island as a moralistic fable

I read The Island several times, looking for ways to give Greder a bad critique. How could this be a children’s picturebook? How could this even be published? Why did Greder think that this was a good story to tell, assuming he was writing not for children but for adults? 

It didn’t leave the reader with any hope. It didn’t leave us with a lifeline. Come on. We need some good thing to hold on to. Isn’t that what picturebooks do—leave some light at the end of a dark tunnel? 

Who did I identify with? 

I definitely did/do not identify with the islanders— a bunch of fearful, insecure, and passive-aggressive people. I don’t think any reader would identify with the islanders, even those who are like the islanders themselves. It takes being woke to know if you are that islander. 

At the start, I’d identified with the naked man. I felt his vulnerability. I am vulnerable too—lost at sea and washed up on a strange shore. Then, I identified with the fisherman, who is not depicted, by the way. We never see the fisherman; only a representation of him in flames, but that comes later. We hear his voice, though, loud and clear. A voice of conscience. I identified with the fisherman because I want to help too. But like the fisherman, my boat only has room for one. Oh, the guilt. 

On turning to the last page, reading about and seeing how the fisherman’s boat was destroyed by the islanders haunted me. That was his livelihood, a symbol of his rice bowl. This is Singaporean speak for jobs. Does is it mean that helping the ostracised would result in losing one’s ability to earn? I have witnessed this panning out on a sunny tropical island in Southeast Asia. There is truth in Greder’s narrative. What happens if you don’t participate in groupthink, especially when you live in a society that thrives on maintaining the status quo? Would you end up being ousted like the naked man? I have also seen this happening. There are many ways to ostracise someone. What if you were that fisherman, who wants to help, who instigates a reluctant community to help, but does nothing yourself? I can understand starting something but not following it through for whatever reasons.

I have no bad words for Greder. This is an extremely layered story. Some have called it a fable. It is literature at its most powerful: a tale that leaves its readers with more questions than answers. Life is nuanced and takes place in the shadows of light and grey. 

What was Greder’s message?

All books have a message, whether implicit or explicit. It is the nature of stories, especially stories for children. And, “the same book, read by four children in the care of these four adults, will not in practice be the same book.” [Hollindale, Peter. The hidden teacher: ideology and children.]

In any reading of literature (and same for art work) Reader Response Theory comes into play. We respond to words and pictures through personal lenses. We are informed by our culture, our lived experience, especially our lived experience, and our values, mostly our values. Society is a system of values, if you will, because society is a construct of human beings who are products of their values that become their beliefs. Culture is a value and belief system. 

However, as a writer who reads to inform my practice, it is the power of the imagination that nudges me in my responses. 

My friends in England read The Island and they felt its message through the currents of Brexit.

The pandemic has added another layer to the meaning in The Island. As someone who is looked upon with suspicion because of “the China virus”, the story’s message was palpable.

This is a cautionary tale of what oppressive systems do to people. This is a fable of the detriments of groupthink. This is a story of how perceived difference can destroy everyone. But as a story, it is so much more.

I know this because I lived on an island exactly like The Island for seven years. And, because I wasn’t like them, The Island spoke to me through its narrative. You can imagine how, can’t you? 

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Making Sense of Our Senses In Writing

As mammals and human beings, we rely on our senses for most everything. Our senses become heightened when we sense danger. Our lizard brain comes into action when we sense that our environment is jeopardised. But when we feel safe, our stress levels fall and our muscles loosen. When we listen to calming music, our bodies relax further. A pavlovian reaction occurs when our olfactory nerves are stimulated by scents of the food we love. Our body is a huge network of impulses and responses and our bodies store these responses to external stimuli as memories. 

In my workshops, when I talk about using our senses to write, I mean to use the faculties of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell to guide writers in their craft. Since our bodies are warehouses of memories, we can trigger our senses to help us find the words to describe how we feel. But first, we must feel. 

Sense became a metaphor and motif when I worked on Sahara’s Special Senses. What makes this picture book so special was the inspiration behind the story. What makes it extra special is the time it was launched. Sahara’s Special Senses was launched during the COVID-19 pandemic— on March 2020. The world didn’t sense what was coming and by the time we felt the virus’ potency, nation after nation shuttered themselves off one by one. So, Sahara Khan was introduced to the world behind the glare of a computer screen. She appeared on a 12×12 poster shared online with this special community of picture book creators to which I belong. Sahara made an appearance on blogs and reviews, her space held by many advocates of children’s books and literature, especially ones who champion diverse books. 

This morning, I woke to a review of Sahara by zekeplaysandreads. I was humbled by this generous review: 

One of my favourite writers, @evawongnava writes in a way that makes us present in Sahara’s kitchen – it’s as if the aroma of the spices (that are so familiar to us, we use them every day, right?) are wafting through the pages. These are beautifully accompanied by @debasmitadasgupta illustrations – I’ve always been a big fan!⠀

• ⠀

I love how disability and physical impairments are dealt with in this story – everyone is special and talented in their own way.”

Instagram account of zekeplaysandreads

You can read the rest of the review here

Making Sense of being Highly Sensitive 

As a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), my senses are always heightened. My body is a palimpsest of sensations—clothes scratch, certain sounds grate, many tastes acrid and acidic. I feel far deeper than the average person: when you’re sad, I feel for you even before you’ve told me how you feel; I feel for you in ways I don’t know how to express—it’s a heavy shroud hanging over me and I just want to go away and hide. When you’re happy, I’m ecstatic til my toes curl. When you’re hostile to me, I feel it most—I know immediately when a person is disingenuous and lacks authenticity. I get overwhelmed easily especially when there’s too much noise—white noise is especially disturbing. I need a lot of alone time to process and reflect or just be me—going inwards makes me feel safe. So I tend to seem anti-social and can be absent for long periods of time. I’ve come to accept these ‘quirks’ as my personality traits. 

As a Highly Sensitive (HS) writer, I am often overstimulated because my sensitivities are heightened. I am wary of the language I use in writing. I am concerned that I haven’t been fair to all my characters, even as I focus on my main character because it’s their story I’m telling, especially when crafting picture books. I wonder about voice because in writing, voice is that entity with its own life and agency. There are just too many things to be aware of. 

Sahara’s Special Senses: I’m aware that Sahara, my protagonist, is South Asian. I am ethnic Chinese of Peranakan heritage. I’m also aware that she is differently abled. I have all my sensory faculties about me. I am aware too that this picture book combines Urdu and/ or Hindi words seamlessly with English. I speak neither Urdu nor Hindi. 

I am wary of cultural appropriation; afraid of being an imposter; conscious that I’ll be the target of criticism by the many critiques lurking in the Twitter shadows. 

As writers, we expose ourselves to criticism all the time. The keys to staving this off is being courageous, compassionate, and truthful. Literature helps bridge gaps. Writers/ creatives put ourselves out there to bring human kind closer and make us kinder to each other through our imaginations and visions. 

Making Sense of How We Write

There’s been much discussion and debate over the years on how to write the ‘other’, on using language consciously so not to offend and hurt and further ostracise oft marginalised communities and  people. These discussions also centre on how to be more inclusive and respectful of what we’re writing about. Here’s a place where you can read more about using inclusive language

As writers, we can write what we want to write about. Nobody can stop us or should stop us. Neither can anyone give us permission to write about the things we want to write about. Some of us may have experienced people saying to us, “Is it ok if I write about the Chinese New Year or about the Hungry Ghost Festival (a traditional festival celebrated in Malaysia and Singapore by the diaspora) if I’m not Chinese?” Of course it’s ok—you can write what you want. As someone of the diaspora, I can’t give you permission to write about my culture, my heritage, its customs and practices because I cannot speak for a diaspora that is spread all over the world from the USA to the UK to the EU to Southeast Asia, East Asian, India, Africa and Northern Europe, who still by and large celebrate traditional customs and practices from China, the country of their origins, or derivations of these customs and traditions that was brought out of China as the diaspora migrated, developed and grew. [Help me fill in the blanks if I’ve missed out some places.] But I can surely help you with how your story is being written through my personal lens of lived experiences as a Chinese of the diaspora with a deep knowledge of my heritage and culture

I’m a sensitivity or diversity reader for Chinese people/ culture/ heritage. 

I’m not saying that I know everything there is to know about East Asian cultures and heritage. But what I do have is a sense when something in the pan East-Asian culture and its peoples have been represented inaccurately in writing and/ or film. By inaccurately, I mean written about with bias and prejudice, in language that denigrates and marginalises them/ me further, and through the lens of the dominant culture (in this case White culture) using tropes that are tired and offensive. I sense immediately when a writer’s portrayal of my culture and people is not nuanced: Chinese females are either femme fatales or the tiger mum; East Asian males are maths whizzes and/ or attached to their consoles and/ or gang members. As people, we are not either/ or. 

I’m not saying that I represent all East Asians or Chinese people either. What I’m saying is that being ethnic Chinese, an (art) historian, and a child of the diaspora, I’m in a better position to help writers, wanting to write about this 5,000-year old culture and people, who are also diverse and speak over 56 languages, with their portrayal of East Asia and East Asians. 

I have the experience of extensive research and personal interest in East Asia, especially China.

I have the privilege of talking to people from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Great Britain, America and Canada, where a large proportion of the diaspora can be found. 

Sensitivity readers are not the moral police waiting to catch the writer out, fine them for writing about the ‘other’, imprison them if they don’t stop. As a writer, you can write what you want and feel. Nothing has ever prevented anyone from doing so, anyway, in the land of free speech and freedom of expression. My work as a sensitivity reader centres on solutions and consultation, if you will, with the mindset to help a writer outside my community/ culture write their story more sensitively. Of course, the writer has the prerogative to listen or ignore my recommendations. I’m paid to offer solutions like anyone in the consulting business; the client can ignore the advice they’ve paid for—this is their liberty. 

In terms of fees: a sensitivity read is a service that can be part of a writer’s editorial process. Sensitivity readers do not get paid a lot (my fee is USD$45 for a picture book up to 1000 words + an extensive report and conversations with the author if necessary; USD$250 for a full manuscript [up to 100,000 words] with a full report and extended conversations with the author and editor if necessary). I also give a discount to writers from marginalised communities and those who are struggling financially. I’m a writer too, so I know that dollars and cents matter. 

I’m conscious in my work as a sensitivity reader not to be prescriptive or even reactive in my responses. I am aware of being given the privilege to be acquainted with something as delicate and fragile as a work-in-progress. Mine is not a position to give off-handed and insensitive solutions to quickly fix a “problem”. It takes me over 2 weeks to read, reflect, and respond in a report a manuscript that can be as little as 350 words. What I’m offering is a literary reading/ examination and analysis of a text in terms of how the character/s and story arcs are constructed. This was what I was trained to do and what I trained others to do as an English literature teacher. 

I am explaining all this not as a defence but as a way to keep the conversation going about the importance of sensitivity reading in the editorial process. I spend a lot of my time listening to the debates out there, to the controversy surrounding the backlash faced by some authors whose intention it is/ was to write authentically. I’m aware that some are saying sensitivity reading is a form of censorship—there’s certainly room for debate here. From my perspective, what’s important to me is being able to contribute to the cultural exchanges taking place in the literary arts where I am learning along with the writer in an open conversation, while educating the writer about unconscious biases or perceptions that they may have of a certain culture and people, in my case—the Chinese diaspora. 

For the most part, I enjoy my work. I am grateful for the learning that this work gives me. I approach every project with an open-mind, with mindfulness, and with a view to contributing to an industry that aims to be more inclusive. I appreciate being able to put into practice what I was trained to do and be valued financially for my literary knowledge and cultural perspective.

I don’t wish to go into the politics that’s been raging and continues to attract rancour regarding sensitivity readers. But I do want to say that helping a writer polish their work by making them aware of what is accurate representation and portrayal of their characters and how they can do this should not be a political issue, although I can see why politics come into play here. Wanting to help authors do better through sensitivity reads shouldn’t be controversial either because don’t we all want to be represented accurately and truthfully? I’d like to end by saying this: what’s controversial is this insensitive writer’s (mis)understanding and (mis)representation of a perfectly necessary vocation—that of the sensitivity reader. Shriver just doesn’t get it and I doubt she ever will. I cringe at the thought of reading her work; I recommend a pass on this. [I am aware that I’m sounding prescriptive here. If you know what Shriver has said and done, you’ll understand why.]

And yes, a sensitivity reader has the prerogative to pass on a project when the work affects them to the point that they cannot give objective recommendations or find solutions that’ll help the writer. At this juncture and in regards to passing over a project, I can only speak for myself, of course, because I want to be responsible in acknowledging that I need to practice self-care when it comes to triggering works. I need to be honest and acknowledge that no piece of literary work can capture the complexities of the world we live in and of human kind—I cannot be responsible for projecting all my anger at oppression on individual authors, who aren’t purposefully writing the ‘other’ with violence and trauma, but are simply doing what writers do: write from their unique perspectives and through their personal lens. So far, I haven’t passed on any projects and hope that I never have to as writers continue to learn and grow more aware and sensitive to the issues and realities facing oppressed and marginalised peoples. 

As always, I’m happy to answer any questions you may have on being a sensitivity reader or what I do as a sensitivity reader. You can contact me at enquiries@evawongnava.com.