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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 hodgepodge 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 House of Little Sisters (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 Sporting Spirit

Roman mosaic of two bikini-clad woman playing ball (close up)

I love mosaics. Just look at this one from Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily, a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

The villa can be traced back to 320-350 A.D, so we’re talking 4th Century, A.D. The villa where each room had exquisite floors with figures and motifs made up of mosaics probably belonged to a member of Rome’s senatorial class. He’s someone of high class and exquisite taste. I say ‘he’ because Roman senators were always male. Archeologists have said that from the handiwork, the construction of these floors were made by artists from the African continent, particularly North Africa. The evidence comes from the mosaics’ varying styles and narratives spanning from mythology and to Homeric poems. 

This one is my favourite. It’s a close up showing two bikini-clad women playing a game involving a ball. Beach volley, perhaps? 

I love how modern the scene is, considering that this was made well over 1,500 years ago. I’m imagining that it is a hot day in Sicily, a summer’s day. The locals are out enjoying the sea air and playing games at the beach. Bikini-clad bodies are everywhere during the summer months of July and August on Italian beaches. These are the two months that Italians go to the sea

That women still play ball in bikinis or are expected to do so is, of course, sexist. I can’t believe that the Norwegian women’s beach handball team was fined for not wanting to play in bikinis. In the 21st century too. Come on, people! I hate it that sexism still exists. 

I love mosaics. I love how little bits of ceramic, glass or stone can be used to make a bigger picture. But I hate jigsaw. Love vs Hate — two very basic human feelings. There is no better a place and time when this binary human emotion is displayed than in the sporting arena. 

George Orwell said it best, “[…] sport is an unfailing cause of ill-will….” 

You’ve just got to look at what happened after England lost the European Cup recently. Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka were booed, bullied and blamed for England’s defeat. 

If you’ll allow me another quote: “I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield.”

Here’s George Orwell’s full essay. Read it and weep because it is so insightful, intelligent and eloquent. 

Orwell is a pacifist, it would seem. The battefield he mentioned in his essay was still in his mind for the essay was first published in December 1945. The Second World War had ended only two months earlier. Today’s battlefield is the internet. The battles taking place in this battlefield is a war of words. Some may even say, a war of the thumbs and fingers. Keyboard warriors bashing other keyboard warriors, other keyboard warriors defending other ones, with many venting their frustrations online for the world to read. The screen has become a shield of sorts. 

The world is now glued to their TV screens watching the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Team GB did very well in swimming. Adam Peaty won a gold for GB and “became the first British swimmer to retain an Olympic title”, the BBC says. What Peaty retained was the gold medal for the men’s 100m breaststroke. 

In other parts of the world, on a small island in the tropics, where skyscrapers sweep the skies and migrant workers sweep the roads and pavements, a swimmer named Joseph Schooling was booed, bullied and blamed for not ‘defending’ his gold medal in Tokyo. Schooling is Singapore’s golden butterfly. He became Singapore’s first Olympian champion after he took home a gold medal in Rio for the the men’s 100m butterfly in 2016.

Here’s a stroke by stroke analysis of Joseph Schooling’s performance that only Singapore can do so well. Analyse, analyse, analyse and learn, learn, learn. 

Being a champion is not easy. Being the first to win a gold for one’s country is not easy. There are now expectations and hopes placed on the champion to retain his title. Expectations add pressure to say the least. And Joseph Schooling went to Tokyo with this pressure on his shoulders. 

What many people in Singapore weren’t expecting were the many hurtful and frankly, pathetic comments made online about Joseph Schooling’s performance in Tokyo. Comments, for example, alluding to the state of Singapore having paid to train Schooling. This prompted Schooling’s supporters: friends, fans and family to go public about the truth. There’s integrity in putting people in their places when they’ve been unreasonable or plainly unintelligent. 

Jospeh Schooling paid for his own training. Not one cent of Singapore taxpayer’s money went into sending Jospeh Schooling to America to be educated and trained in swimming. His scholarship at another American educational institution was paid for by taxpayer’s, yes. But it was NOT taxpayers of Singapore that funded this, since the university where Schooling received his schooling and scholarship was situated in Texas. 

I feel compelled to write this post because it aggrieves me that once again, Singapore has made the local headlines (see this post for another reason) for some citizens’ pig-headed and pig-hearted comments. Instead of choosing to be empathetic, some small-minded, myopic and rather annoying Singaporeans have chosen to be pathetic. And, on social media too. Of all things to mimic, some Singaporeans would choose to mimic equally small-minded, myopic and unintelligent racist Britons. 

RACE TO RIO, David Seow

So, instead of griping, grinching and grinding your teeth over Schooling’s performnce in Tokyo, read this instead. It’s a picture book by veteran picture book author Dave Seow. RACE TO RIO is a creative nonfiction picturebook tracing Joseph Schooling’s steps to being Singapore’s Gold Medalist in the 100m men’s butterfly. 

Then, take a look at this touching photograph and weep. A champion will always be a champion no matter what some losers say.

Jospeh Schooling being comforted by his coach,  Sergio Lopez Miro.
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The Sea, the Sea, Let’s All Go to the Sea.

Claude Monet, Sea Study, 1881, oil on canvas Claude Monet, Waves Breaking, 1881, oil on canvas Claude Monet, Rough Sea, 1881, oil on canvas

I started early, took my dog

And visited the sea

The mermaids in the basement

Came out to look at me

By the Sea by Emily Dickenson is one of my favourite poems about the sea. This is the first stanza. Dickenson has written many poems, almost 100, to do with the sea. It’s rather unique, I would say, as Dickenson has lived inland all her life in Amherst, Massachusetts, which is far from the sea. The sea has a mesmerising effect on many people. One could even say, a magnetic attraction. Could it be that Earth is more than 70% water? We have oceans and seas, rivers and lakes, pools and ponds, lochs and lagoons. All these different words that mean the same thing — a body of water. Bodies of water that attract physical bodies to them. 

It’s summer in the Northern Hemisphere. This is the time of the year when Europeans travel to the seaside in droves. La famiglia and I have just returned from Italia, where we visited Sardegna. In English, it is Sardinia. Sardinia, sea and sun — what lovely sibilant sounds this sentence makes. As a children’s book author, I love playing with words and sounds. Alliteration — when each word in the sentence begins with the same letter like in Sardinia, sea and sun — is a fun way to fine tune children’s ears to the sounds that different letters in the English alphabet make. 

The sea in Sardinia is a sheet of turquoise with the water closer to shore a shade of aquamarine. The sea reflects the sky and the sky mirrors the sea. On a clear and cloudless day, when you know it will be a very hot day, black-tipped wings dot the horizon. These are seagulls swooping in and out flying free. 

I am an island girl, as I’d said before. In this post, I’m going to stick to the Italian spelling of this island in the Meditterannean Sea — Sardegna. I just prefer it when a name is in its original form. I love island-hopping and island life. I am one of the many people who is drawn to the sea like magnets to metal. Could it be because I was born on a tropical island? I love dipping my feet in the sea water. Could it be because this was my first memory of a childhood swimming lesson? I love oysters because they taste of the sea. I wonder if this could be because my first experience of eating raw fish was slurping an oyster on a date in a city hotel far from the sea? The flavour was so intense that I was instantly brought to the sea. 

The Sea at Pourville
1882 60x100cm oil/canvas
Columbus Museum of Art

Sardegna, the second largest island in the Mediterranean Sea after Sicily, inspired three picturebooks stories this summer. One of these stories has to do with the sea, of course. In fact, a seaside holiday with a bird’s eye view. It is an Italian tradition to go to the sea or il mare. Despite the COVID, there are families — the old, young and middle-aged — at the seaside in Sardegna. No virus can break a centuries-old tradition of taking a dip in the sea, which in Italian is called fare il bagno — to make a bath, literally. The salt water is good for the skin, the sea air is curative, and it has been scientifically proven that water is therapeutic. Artists from Claude Monet to Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida have all had love affairs with the sea. Even John Constable, the English landscape painter, had a thing for the sea. For him, it was Brighton, though it was his wife’s ill-health that made him move the family there in 1824. 

[photo credit: Raffaella Nava]: The sea reflects the sky and the sky mirrors the sea

My second story involves an Italian celebration and regional food. Folks know how I just cannot get away from writing about food. Sardegna, one of Italy’s twenty regions, produces seafood or i frutti di mare — fruits of the sea, various grains, wines, and cheeses, amongst many other regional products. It is a very self-sustainable and self-contained island in this sense. There’s a bread there that I love to munch on — il pane carasau. This bread is so thin, so flat, and so crunchy and ever so moreish. It looks like a simple bread to make, but I’ve been told that the dough for pane carasau needs tender loving kneading and it is always hand-made and takes a lot of effort. And, I suspect like many dishes or food in Italy, made by women. We bought half a kilo of pecorino which is a type of hard cheese made of sheep’s milk. This one I can safely say was made by a Sardo sheep farmer. To profit from the tourists (many of whom were locals), this paunchy sheep farmer and formaggiaio or cheese-maker, walked the length of the beach selling his produce. Pecorino e pane — delish. I also drank a lot of white wine made from the Vermentino grape. It’s light, fresh and fruity. 

Incidentally, profitare in Italian is not the English equivalent of making a profit, though in this Sardo’s case, it was. Profitare, the infinitive noun, means to benefit from. And there’s no better way to benefit from a busy touristy time of the year than announcing your products on the beach with your refrigerated cheese van parked nearby. Winter in Sardegna, although still warm, is not a peak tourist attraction like it is in the summer. 

The sea, the sea, let’s all go to the sea. If you can’t make it in person, let some art work transport you there. I love this oil on canvas by Claude Monet. ‘The Sea at Pourville’, painted in 1882 captures the impression of a seascape and reminds me of the sea I saw in Sardegna. It’s a seascape of tranquility, a zen image great for early morning meditation and yoga. 

But it is Monet’s ‘Sea Study’ that he had painted a year before which really captures the Sardinian sea accurately for me. Here’s Raffaella’s photo to compare. Monet’s version has frothier waves, which he created by dabbing white paint on a blue background. As you can see, the fluffy white clouds mirror the foaming waves. This is a picture perfect place to be, methinks. I can just imagine myself floating face to the sky in this blue sea, allowing the waves to carry me far far away. 

Travelling in the New-normal

To get to Sardegna, we had to jump through many hoops. First there was the PCR test (at £99 a person) that we had to do at a pharmacy in London before we were allowed to travel to Italy. Italia, the country of my husband’s birth is my second home. This is where the other half of the exteneded family lives. My kids haven’t seen i nonni, the grandparents, i zii, the aunts and uncles, and i cugini, the cousins, for almost 2 years. It has been too long. 

With a negative test, we flew to Bergamo in a positive mood. Ryanair requires everyone to mask up while in the plane — ma, e normale! This is the new-normal, so it’s normal to mask up. Flying from London to Bergamo is a toddle — in less than 2 hours, we were home. Disembarking is now allowed one row at a time. The flight attendant announced specifically with instructions on what each passenger has to do: “Remain seated until the row in front of you is empty. Once the passengers in front of you have all disembarked, then only can you get up from your seat to remove your baggage from the overhead locker. Disembark in an orderly fashion. Thank you for your cooperation.” 

I love the new disembarkation procedures because it requires organisation and order. I am rigid like that. Unlike the old days when everyone would be scrambling from their seats before the seat belt sign can be swtiched off to rush to get their bags from above them, this new-normal way is quieter, more efficient, and keeps people from jostling one another. I love the 2 metre rule…because, please don’t touch me, stranger! Why we needed a virus to make this happen, I don’t know. 

Well, the virus is here to stay, despite some country’s intolerance of its endemic nature. We must learn to live with it. 

We were required to observe a five-day quarantine, which we did happily. This simply allowed us to spend some precious time with la mamma e il papà, namely, my in-laws. Their combined ages make them approximately 180 years old — that’s ancient to many people. The Mediterranean diet has ensured that they’re healthy and glowing at their ages. The only thing is that the FIL is unable to walk unaided — he is after all 91. The MIL still cycles and is as agile as many 25 year olds for being someone in her mid-80s.  

On the sixth day, we were allowed out, but were obliged to do another rapid PCR test (€30 per person) at the nearest available pharmacy. This we did. After 20 minutes, we were given the all clear — “tutto posto” — and a thumbs up, with a set of papers as confirmation. This test was also required in order for us to fly to Cagliari, Sardegna’s capital, where we had to go to get to Villasimius, our summer holiday destination. No test, no flying is the rule in the new-normal. Italy is very strict with COVID regulations as ALL nations should be. There is a sense of freedom but rules are rules, and they must be observed. The 2-metre rule still stands, so beach goers made sure that we were some distance apart. This is a seaside holiday in the new-normal. We arrived at Cagliari pale and pallid. After a few days of sea air and sun bathing, I am bronze and glowing. In Italy, someone with a tan is described as bronzato (for men) and bronzata (for females). Isn’t language just so fun? 

We rented a little cottage by the sea in the village of Villasimius, in the south of Sardegna. Our friend’s cottage was next door, which had a swimming pool. They kindly let us use their pool. They were on holiday too. However, we were within 15 mins walking distance to the nearest beach. The swimming pool came in handy some afternoons before we set out for the next beach. We were spoilt for choice in regard to beaches, frankly. My favourite beach has to be Spaggia Piscina Rei in Costa Rei. The sea was a natural swimming pool (piscina). Speaking of natural, in front of our little cottage by the sea was a natural lagoon, a wild flamingo reserve. I swear that I’ve not seen so many flamingoes gathering in one spot before. They were there to feed on the algae and tiny sea life in the lagoon. This pair is ever so lovely and loving, don’t you think?

[photo credit: Armando Nava]: A pair of love birds. Behind them, the sea. The lagoon and sea separated by a powder-soft sandy beach.

Two days before our holiday came to an end, we hired a boat to take us beach hopping. It was such fun! The skipper, a professional deep sea diver, named Marco, regaled us with stories of his island — lucky Sardo he is. He knew every nook and cranny and hidden beaches where we could dive in and swim, sometimes with the fishes. Sardinia, sea and sun. Lunch was at iki beach, where the sea was sublime and the food first-class. Taste their frittura mista — literary ‘mixed fried things’, in reality fried seafood. Yumalicious! Wash that all down with an Aperol Spritz — make it an Italian Seaside Holiday to remember. 

[photo credit: Marion Ceccoli]: View from Iki Beach Restaurant

Our seaside holiday came to an end all too soon. As they say, when you’re having fun…. 

Before flying back to London via Rome, we had to do another set of rapid PCR tests (€50 per person). This is the mandatory 48-hour test before flying — the fit to fly test. I have never had a doctor stick a flexible wand-like instrument so deeply in my nose before. That is how strict the medical staff and authorities are in regard to COVID in Italy. All very good, I feel. Though it really didn’t feel good. It hurt some but only for a couple of seconds. Before I could say ouch, it was all done. I blinked the tears away and smiled through my mask. It’s the bravest face I could put on in the moment. I discovered that a PCR test is also a great way to find out if you’ve got a septum deviation. Apparently, the ballerina-princess has a deviated septum. Hmmm. Nothing serious, I was told, and easily remedied through a septoplasty. But right now it is not the time to worry about this type of deviation. Our flight had to deviate to Rome because our original flight with British Airways, which would have flown us directly back to London from Cagliari, was cancelled. All ahead of time, of course. With our plans deviated, we flew with Alitalia instead. Viva la Italia! 

Now, we’re back in London. Three self-testing kits arrived at our home the next day. We were obliged to order this from the NHS at £20 per test. So, it’s a do-it-yourself test that comes with full instructions on how to do it. Then we sent the results back to the NHS where they will lab-test the swabs and give us the all clear if negative. As UK changed its quarantine rules on July 19th, we didn’t have to self-isolate. But we had to test negative first before the all clear can be given. However, we chose to do a self-imposed quarantine before our test results are returned, which should be tomorrow. Quarantining is good for writing, in my experience. So here I am, writing this. 

And here we are — travelling in the new-normal. And it wasn’t all that bad, to be honest, albeit more expensive. In fact, I think the plane was really the safest (enclosed) place to be because everyone — the crew and passenger — was COVID negative. 

Testing and then flying, this is the responsible thing to do. If one is safe, we’re all safe. As it has been famously said before, “All for one and one for all.” 

So, test yourself, mask up, and let’s learn to live in this new-normal in an organised and orderly fashion. 

But don’t get me started on UK’s new stance on liberty. As for my family, we’re keeping our masks on outside and staying as far away from folks as much as possible. Back to Italia, my adopted home — ci vediamo presto

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A New Decade Awaits Us

Families are made up of many important ingredients, with love being the only ingredient that matters.”

Eva Wong Nava

The NAVA family began this decade with the entire family getting together to celebrate many things.

The philosopher-princess is now a science graduate and her title has moved a notch up to philosopher-scientist-princess. In Italy, a graduate or laureato/laureata is also known as la dottoressa, a title when translated into English means ‘doctor’, something reserved only for PhD graduates in the English education system. It may seem rather ordinary today to obtain a (basic) degree as more and more of the world compete for education, with individuals from various countries continually upping one another in the race to be more and better educated. Centuries ago, in countries like Italy, France, and many parts of Europe, a graduate is something of a super star. On the other side of the world in China, the Imperial examinations were only available to those who could afford to be educated. Sitting and passing the imperial exams elevated one’s status and ability to have a career within the Emperor’s court. For many Chinese who finally did become mandarins or court officials, huge sacrifices were made on their behalves to enable them to study and be learned. And, there were many of those who took years to pass the Imperial exams; there are stories of graduates well past their prime, who never gave up the race to become a laureato. Basic degrees are easily obtainable these days in a matter of 3 to 4 years, with many continuing on the path to specialise in their fields by reading a Masters and perhaps a PhD. This laureata will continue her studies in London reading a Masters of Science in Biomedicine, specialising in cell biology. Need I say that I’m so proud of her.

Scientists thrive on precision and the philosopher-scientist-princess is no different. You’re looking at a photo of the pasta dish she cooked up in the Italian Alps where we were hibernating for a few days after Christmas. This Sicilian pasta dish is known as Pasta a la Norma. It’s name is derived from the name of an opera by Vincenzo Bellini because an Italian writer by the name of Nino Martoglio pronounced this pasta sauce made from aubergine and ricotta as the real Norma! Who knows why this was his exclamation when he ate melanzane con ricotta but let it be known that this dish by the elder daughter is the real Norma. I’m so proud of her exacting culinary skills.

Bruschetta con pomodori e basilico, fatta in casa a la Raffaella

The second daughter aka the ballerina-princess also tried her hand at cooking. She made us this delicious bruschetta topped with diced tomatoes and basilico leaves torn by hand to extract its herby perfume. She even plated it like a professional chef would. A clove of garlic finishes this dish with that oomph every tomoto and basil salad needs. Watching my girls cook us–her father and me–dinner is a wonderful sight. There are eight years between the two girls yet they get on like a house on fire, both with so much love for each other that watching them being together squeezes my heart. Love is myriad sensations: warm gushes mixed with pain, a good kind of pain; ripples of happiness mixed with waves of fear, fear of losing these two precious beings; contentment mixed with anxiety, an anxiety for them to experience the world and be safe. This ballerina-princess will continue her education in London this year, sitting the International Buccalaureate Diploma Programme examinations in 4 years’ time. She wrote an impressive school entrance essay that got her a place at Southbank International School, Westminster.

The Italian who has travelled many roads and eaten many dishes with me continues to be that reliable and stable man I married more than a decade ago. As we plan the next decade ahead, we take into account what we’ve done for each other and what we will continue to do for love and committment. He’s come a long way since we met and started sharing a life together. Living in Asia has also been an eye opener and he has gotten to know and understand the culture in which I was socialised by and into. He has also come to know how some individuals are not determined by culture but by an individual choice to be different and to make a difference. Culture aside, underlying what we feel and do is our humanity. How I love this Italian of mine.

Eva at the Readers’ Choice Awards Ceremony 2019

Since I started my stint as a published author of children’s books, I’ve been blessed with many wonderful writerly moments. Having my debut picture book, The Boy Who Talks in Bits and Bobs nominated for the Readers’ Choice Awards in Singapore is a huge achievement. I’m so grateful to the many readers and people who made this happen.

The publishing industry in Singapore, especially for children’s literature is a young one. There is great potential in this island-state for Asian and/or local literature to develop and grow. My resolution for 2020 is to write more meaningful picture books that entertain, engage, and enlighten young minds. I’ve been lucky to have parents who encouraged me to read when I was young. It’s a rare thing, I would say, for someone born in the decade I was, because Singapore then was busy building a nation, far less interested in fiction and stories from other worlds, yet these books existed because there was nobody publishing Asian stories that mattered when I was growing up. I was fed a diet of books written by authors who had no idea what living in Asia entailed; many who wrote about Asia had never lived in my part of the world. Likewise, I had no idea what life was really like in the worlds I read about. Snow-capped mountains, apple pies and cream, picnics in the park, drinking lemonade and eating finger sandwiches with cucumber were non-existent when I was growing up in humind and tropical Singapore. Yet, they were as real as their authors had described them in the books I read. Imagination is a wonderful thing. When I then got to see my first snow-capped mountain as an adult, I remember the very book I’d read that made me see and feel what snowy mountain peaks are like. I’ve had many Heidi moments since.

With Nyonya Josephine Chia, who taught me what having many lives is really about

Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”

C.S. Lewis

Life is all the more meaningful when it’s filled with friends. Studies have shown that one of the secrets of longevity is being able to count in one hand the people whom you can call friend. I made a new friend in 2019. Like me, she’s a writer and a Chinese-Peranakan, who has lived in England for more years than we care to count. Here we are, having un bon repas and a tête-a-tête in a newly opened Peranakan restaurant at Claymore Connect in Singapore. Her elegant head of hair matches my snow-white t-shirt. Her glowing smile is no match for my shy coaxing one, though. But in nyonya phine, I’ve found someone whom I feel I can be myself.

While I’m here, I’d also like to mention two other people: June Ho and Debasmita Dasgupta. These special people have become more than friends. June is the co-author of Mina’s Magic Malong and a forthcoming picture book biography, The Accidental Doctor, published by World Scientific Asia, launching in June 2020. Debasmita continues to work with me on various projects, with the most recent one, Sahara’s Special Senses, launching early this decade. She and I also co-founded Picture Book Matters, a mentoring platform for picture book creatives in Asia. We have workshops and courses starting in March in conjunction with the Singapore Book Council.

I was lucky to have met a wonderful soul in the person of Chen Wei Teng. She’s also a fellow colleague, a children’s book writer [Murphy, See How You Shine]. This is just one of her many talents. Her heart is made of pure gold: she is a special education needs teacher, dedicating her life to educating children often left behind by the mainstream. In a recent incarnation, she is a poet, composing haikus filled with philosophy and deep thought.

Two more people I’d like to mention are Uschi and Claire, who both live far from me but who are always an email or text away. I love these two girls for their courage, their inner-strength, their kindness, and their values. And just like this, I need another hand to count the most important people I call friend in my life. But let’s not complicate things too much, less is more and more is obsolete. I love these six people with all my heart.

Time is short but Life is long. Make every moment count.”

Anon

I leave you with this quote. Wishing all my friends and readers a very happy new year. Make every moment count.

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Summer Lovin’ Had Me Some Books

It’s July and a long while since my last post; I skipped an entire month. This reminds me of how time has flown and how occupied I’ve been the whole month of June. I’m writing from Italy this time where I’m back for the summer visiting friends and family. 

This time around, I visited Umbria, the landlocked region of Italy where the Central Apennine mountains run across. Umbria was once part of the Roman Empire: the ancient architecture and the local accent reflect this historical link. It was also part of the Napoleonic Empire until it was regained by the Pope after Napoleon’s defeat. The people of Umbria saw Papal rule as oppressive and during the unification of Italy (1815 – 1871), they destroyed the Rocca Paolina, a Renaissance fortress built in 1540-43 by Pope Paul III because the fortress was seen as a symbol of papal oppression. This was in the year 1861 when Umbria, together with Marche and Emilia Romagna were annexed by King Victor Emmanuel II of Piemonte and ruled under the Kingdom of Italy. So, don’t be surprised by the many plaques dedicated to the memory of King Victor Emmanuel II. 

Umbria is also a region where visitors can find many hillside towns, usually built around an old castle (castello), a lookout tower and a church. Here, brownstone houses hug the hills, many constructed by the townsfolk who work in these small hamlets and/or villages. Artisanal crafts like metalwork and ropemaking were once staple jobs along with wine-making and olive oil pressing which are still being produced for consumption and export in these Umbrian hills today. Let’s not forget the cured meats—salamis and sausages—which are still made with the same millennia-year-old recipes that the Umbrians know well. The Umbrians or Umbri are hearty people, warm, friendly and eager to tell you about their regional cuisine and culture; they were an Italic people which were absorbed into the Roman Empire. Umbria is also home to the town of Assisi, where my favourite saint, San Francesco or St Francis of Assisi, was born, baptised and buried. San Francesco is the patron saint of the poor and of animals, his emblems are his brown sack tunic and the stigmata on his hands and bare feet. The story of San Francesco is known throughout the Christian world and his prayer: “Lord, make me the instrument of your Peace” is one that I remind myself of daily. I’m not a religious person but I am a spiritual one, always looking beyond the material world, searching for inner peace and praying for peace on earth. I’m also reminded of a prayer which I’d mistakenly attributed to St Francis: “God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” (Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr). Somehow, in my mind, I’d always thought that this prayer was by San Francesco as he seems to be the likely person who’d have thought of it. In fact, the Serenity Prayer by Niebuhr, an Amercian theologian is a much later prayer, written and uttered in the 1930s. 

Italy is a much-needed break. Between March, when the book was launched, and now, I’ve been busy doing book-related stuff with lots of other writing-related activities in the mix. CarpeArte Journal is keeping me busy as a managing editor. Thank you to all those who have contributed their poetic and literary nuggets to the Journal. My articles and reviews on art-related matters in Singapore have kept me clued on to the visual art scene here, giving me the privilege to meet young inspiring contemporary artists such as Priyageetha Dia, Singapore’s girl with a Midas touch, and Aiman Hakim, who is known for his work that incorporates mythical and fantastical elements. I love this artist for his big heart and his willingness to talk about his fears and his dreams. 

I’ve taken this time in Italy to reflect on the past few months. On May 19, Guillaume Levy-Lambert, art collector of the MaGMA Collection and co-founder of Art Porters Gallery, and I collaborated on a book launch party and fundraising event for adults with autism. I had the opportunity to meet so many lovely people who supported the cause. I also had the opportunity to meet families who are parenting autistic individuals and others who are concerned for their autistic relatives. This event started further conversations on what exactly is autism and how we can help those who are living with autism and their families. I’m happy to say that a cheque will be presented to Eden Centre for Adults in August. This is my contribution from book sales to the cause. On his part, Guillaume is donating the proceeds from the sale of Flametta Blue by Artheline and a portion of the sales of artworks during that night to the Autism Association of Singapore. I’m proud to say that apart from book sale proceeds, proceeds from an artwork the Italian and I had bought will also be contributing to the cause. More on that in another post. For the curious amongst us: think cats and masterpieces plus Russian artist, all rolled into one fantastic masterpiece. 

As all authors know, once the book is out, there are many book related things to do. One of the more enjoyable things to do for me is visiting schools and talking to students. Before the summer break, I travelled to international schools in Singapore to donate copies of Open to their school libraries. I was invited to talk to several grade groups about the book, autism, and cultural heritage in May. Cultural heritage gets a special mention because the book is also about an ancient dramatic and theatrical art form—the Chinese opera—that was exported from China following emigration since the 18th and 19th centuries.  The Monkey King as a theatrical character is beloved by the Chinese diaspora globally, as well as, people in Thailand, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. The Monkey King is known also in India where Buddhism was founded, flourished and exported. There, he is known as Hanuman, with a story of his own.

In my travels in Europe, I visited an international school in Paris where I will be returning in April 2019 to do a reading and start conversations with their students about the importance of accepting difference and showing empathy for kids with special needs. Their school library now has a copy of Open for their students. In addition, The American Library in Paris also has a copy of Open for their children’s library. This library has a special place in my heart. It’s a place I visited often during my expatriation in Paris. I ruminate on the French word bibliothèque and its faux amie librarie where the latter means bookshop. When living in Paris, I often got the two confused and would often refer to the bookshop (librarie) when I mean library (bibliothèque). The duality in the meanings of names never ceases to confound me. Reading in another language other than English, I’ve discovered so many wonderful words with diverse meanings that are also found in the English language since English borrows from other languages and cultures that it mingles with. Part of my role as an author is to encourage reading; this is the best part of being a writer, in my mind.

In Singapore, a National Reading Movement is helping to spread the love of reading through events and festivals. Read! Fest is one where I’ll be reading and performing from Open, on July 14 at the Central Library. I can’t wait to meet these eager readers and to start conversations about the importance of reading and how books can transport us to many wonderful worlds. To close the festival, I will be travelling to a high school in Singapore to talk to their students about Open as a fictional character who happens to be on the spectrum and who has two names. We will be exploring the meanings of our names and how we identify with the names we are given through the process of naming.

I am privileged to be part of the Singapore Literature scene which is constantly developing and expanding and creating a new genre of literature—Sing Lit. As a Singapore based author, my calendar will be filled with more festivals and events to come. I’m looking forward to the Asian Festival of Children’s Content and the Singapore Writers’ Festival, happening in September and November respectively, which will bring me to the close of 2018. 

What are your plans for the summer? What will you be reading on vacation? I have a list and I’m done with Educated, A Memoir by Tara Westover and The Lost Vintage by Ann Mah, who kindly sent a pdf version over. They are both very different books but oh so well written, it makes me cry! Jealousy, envy and awe all bundled into one emotional roll! But high on my list of emotions is happiness. I’m so happy for diverse writers like Tara and Ann whose books are windows into another world. 

Until the next post, here’s wishing everyone a great summer ahead! Happy reading!