On Autism Awareness Month and Author Visits

The Daily English Newspaper in Bhutan

We are now at the end of April. What a whirlwind month this has been. April is important for a couple of things: the two most important men in my life — the dad and the hubby — have birthdays in April, one day after the other, and April is a month when most of the world celebrate and embrace autism.

I’ve been busy celebrating. 

A Class of Boys reading in the school yard. The school is a co-ed school.

It all started in Bhutan where Autism Awareness Day (April 2) was acknowledged by this predominantly Buddhist Himalayan nation. The lighting up in blue of the Memorial Chorten (Choeten) in Thimpu warmed my heart. This celebration was organised by Ability Bhutan. Unfortunately, I was not able to stay for the light-up as we left Thimpu for the hills which took us up more than 1,700 m above sea level to a public school – Bayta Primary – in the Phobjikha valley, also known as the Gangteng valley. Gangteng is named so for its famous monastery of the same name which belongs to the Nyingma sect, the oldest of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The Phobjikha valley is also famous for its wildlife, flora and fauna, and the Black Neck Cranes (Grus nigricollis) that visit the valley in the winter months (between late October to mid-February) to roost. These cranes are protected birds as they are on the endangered species list. For those interested to visit the Gangten Monastery during the winter months where the Crane Festival is celebrated, you’ll have to visit Bhutan in November. This festival is a one-day affair that takes place annually on the 11th of November. Unfortunately, we were not able to celebrate the majesty of these cranes since our visit took place in April. [Thank you to Phurba Tshering of Travel Guru for organising this trip to Bayta Primary.]

Talking about majesty. The Bhutanese love their kings and for that matter, their queens too. And they have good reason to: Bhutan, under the Wangchuck dynasty, continues to journey towards further unity, democracy, decentralisation and development since the early 20th century. Hence, many monuments in this Kingdom of the Dragon are built and named in memory of their kings (and queens). 

The Memorial Chorten, also known as the Memorial Stupa, was constructed in 1974 to commemorate the third king of Bhutan, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (b.1929 – d.1972) who ruled between 1952 to 1972. At this memorial, one can find the aged of Bhutan circumambulating the white-washed stupa, prayer beads in hand, whispering Buddhist chants repeatedly, their prayers floating up to the mountainous valleys of the gods. At the entrance of the stupa, a jubilant community of retirees is seen whirling prayer wheels and chanting in between chats and snacks and sometimes babysitting their grandchildren. What a happy way to spend those golden years in one’s life. 

My one week trip to Bhutan with the family ended all too soon. I returned to Singapore, unpacked, repacked and took off again. This time to the western hemisphere where kings aren’t that celebrated in this European nation – France. In fact, the last king, Louis VXI, was executed for treason in 1793, at the Place de la Revolution, in Paris. What a diametrically opposite view of royalty, I would say. But deservedly so (not that I condone capital punishment, more that I prefer republics to kingdoms), in my view, because the French royalty pre-revolution was known for its debauchery, opulence and callousness towards the people. “Let the people eat cake!” is an all too familiar chant attributed to a famous French queen when she was told that her people were starving. 

France is a home away from home on many levels and I will always have Paris. My visit brought me back to the International School of Paris for an author visit where I presented to parents and teachers about the importance of diversity in children’s books. The ISP was where the girls had almost four years of education prior to Singapore. So, this school is very dear to my heart. The ISP also has the most incredible community of expatriate teachers, families and students. I’ve never been made more welcome as an alumni parent than at the ISP. I was more than pleased to share with the students of Grades 1, 2, 3 and 4 about Open and The Boy. It was such fun to hear the students make connections as they asked questions, gave answers and discussed issues like special needs and the importance of writing diverse characters into children’s books, and why we need to be patient, kind and compassionate to everyone, especially those who have different needs. Someone asked why my protagonist is named Open. Another wanted to know what stammering is. Open was able to open windows and minds; Owen charmed the little ones with his ukulele and songs. My session ended with a book sale and signing and some of us chanted “Your voice is S T R O N G E R than you think”, taking this mantra home with us. 

With Tash Aw who doesn’t do smiles but smiled for me and Claire, who took the photo.

April 15th will always have a special day in my heart. The author visit that took place that day ended with another author visit, this time, at the American Library of Paris where Tash Aw and Édouard Louis had tête a tête about marginalised communities, identity and the disease that is killing a class of people in our societies: Louis is the author of ‘Who Killed My Father’, a memoir translated into English about his relationship with his right-wing, patriarchal father in a small and insular town in the north of France, Hallencourt, and Aw wrote ‘The Face: Strangers on the Pier’ which is also a memoir (in essays) about being perceived as the token Southeast Asian, his relationship with his Malaysian ethnic-Chinese father and about being an ethnic-Chinese of Malaysian origins. This author visit also ended with a book sale and signing and I was so pleased to exchange a few words (of admiration and awe) with both Louis and Aw. They also signed my book purchases. I breezed through The Face, savouring every ounce of its thoughtful and profound introspection about identity, the human condition and ethnicity, and finished Who Killed My Father, chewing on the reality of a father/child relationship stagnating, the yearning of every child to be seen and accepted for who we/they are and how one individual saved himself through education. Both books were mirrors to a life spent in familiarity yet also one lived as an/other. Both authors talked about loving that familiar space — the home — that made them who they are and of leaving that familiar place — the city of their home — which stifled who they became that distance is the only answer to creative survival. A peripatetic life of dipping in and out of familiar spaces that are also displacing spaces is only too familiar to me. Stifled conversations between parents and children are also very familiar to me. What does a child do when they know this is where the conversation ends each time they start to have one with their parent/s? A familiar burning desire for connection ignited within me again. 

Then, news of the Notre Dame in flames. 

I left Paris with a lump in my throat, saddened by so many things – the gilets jaunes demonstration that disrupted traffic in central Paris and because of this, I couldn’t make it to see a friend across town; the charred steeple of the Notre Dame falling; saying goodbye to a dear friend who kindly put me up and made me laugh so much, cajoling that inner child in me to get out a little more. I am missing all these monumental places and people already. 

I returned to a joyful 12-year old and a newly minted mid-century-year old + a-couple-more-years. Who would have thought a 10-day trip away from someone who was more than familiar, someone who has become part of the furniture, would cause her to be missed so much? Another lump formed in my throat as I hugged the two familiar people in my home and spoke to the one who now lives and studies down-under, hugging her virtually. I told them news of my adventures in Paris and they exchanged news of theirs: the little one cooked an omelette for dinner last night and the big one made her favourite egg and tomato omelette Chinese-style. I’m so glad that conversations in this family, my family, are celebrated and that each one of us has found our own voices. All is well again in this familiar space that I never want to leave. 

Then more news.

The Boy Who Talks in Bits and Bobs has been recognised by the ‘Reading with Your Kids’ programme as a ‘Great Read with Your Kid’. Here’s a list of certified Great Reads

The lump in my throat grew bigger. 

There’s nothing more rewarding for an author than having what they’ve written about being recognised for its worth. I want to say a big thank you to Jed Doherty and Fatima Khan for recognising the importance of reading and for telling the world that Reading Matters! and for giving Owen a shout out. 

I also want to say thank you to Jed for interviewing me. You can listen to the interview on the Read with Your Kids podcast where I talk about Open: A Boy’s Wayang Adventure, about the Wayang, about Singapore and the perception of autism on the red dot. I also talk about dreaming up stories and of dreaming of Owen in a city far away because I couldn’t find a book that helped my child cope with her speech challenges long ago, and of working with an illustrator who gets your story and your cause. I do believe that when you write from your heart, all good things happen.

Interviews are difficult for me, especially one that is not scripted. It has taken me some time to find my voice and listening to my voice speaking back to me is a surreal encounter. I wear my heart on my sleeves and I speak from my heart. These two phrases when read literally can be very funny to a child. I remember being laughed at by the Big One when I told her this many moons ago. She said, “You’ve just said that your sleeve does the talking” and she broke into fits of infectious laughter turning the two of us into a hiccuping heap of giggles. “Smarty-pants”, I said and we laughed some more.

I tear up a little now as I remember how funny children can be. Don’t forget that inner child in you. Always find something to celebrate because all good things come to those who lift up their arms and allow themselves to be tickled by the smallest of tickle monsters. As always, thanks for coming full circle with me. I end with this quote, “Children listen to stories”. Don’t forget to read to your kids because books can save lives. More on that in another post. 




On Synesthesia

Synesthesia is a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.” — Wikipedia.

In my book, Open – A Boy’s Wayang Adventure, the protagonist, Open, likes to read. He reads “about anything and everything”. (Open: pp 7). He would sometimes consult Wikipedia when he wants to find out things. He also perceives his world differently from the rest of us. For example, he describes his feelings in relation to one of the five senses—taste. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 7, where Open talks about how he feels on learning that Mama may be leaving him to work in New Zealand.

I will not be seeing Mama for a few months when she goes to New Zealand. It will take more than 10 hours to reach Auckland by plane. That’s very far away. I will not be seeing Mama every day.

“When will you go?” Papa asks.

“They’re still deciding…”

“It’s just that Open…”

“Oh Ben,” Mama sighs. “I don’t know, Sky. He’s not getting better and I don’t know what to say to him.”

I am tasteless inside.

Some people, like Open, are synesthetes. They often experience one sense using another part of their sensory organs. For example, listening to music can trigger a vision of bright lights in some people. In another case, known as grapheme-colour synesthesia, letters and numbers are seen as colours or coloured. Open experiences his world in a lexical-gustatory way, where certain tastes are experienced when hearing certain words or when certain people are associated with particular tastes. In chapter 7, Open feels “tasteless inside” when he hears his mother uttering “Oh Ben”. Like many lexical-gustatory synesthetes, Open expresses his feelings, sadness in his case, through tasting it.

A well known synesthete was Wassily Kandinsky. He experienced visions of colours in motion when listening to classical music. The moving colours correspond to the movement in the music. In his paintings, you will often see dashes of colours—sprays of blues, swirls of violets, glares of yellows, circles of reds, lines of black—rendered in watercolour. Take for example, his Composition VII (1913), the canvas is a mess of colours, distracting to look at. But in this piece, Kandinsky is expressing a profound sense of the spiritual. He often associates and ascribes certain emotional qualities to certain shades of colours.

Wassily Kandinsky is a Russian artist (1866-1944). He was also an art theorist, often talking and discussing art with his friends and in lectures. Kandinsky is credited with being the first artist recognised to have painted the first work of pure abstraction.

Kandinsky is very grandiloquent in expressing the processes at work when painting: “Our hearing of colours is so precise … Colour is a means of exerting a direct influence upon the soul. Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings. The artist is the hand that purposely sets the soul vibrating by means of this or that key. Thus it is clear that the harmony of colours can only be based upon the principle of purposefully touching the human soul.” (The Guardian, 2006)

Emotions are too abstract to describe in real terms. Associating an emotion to a certain taste or colour, often helps us picture how we feel concretely, in my opinion.

I would be happy to hear what readers have to say about synesthesia. Please leave your comments below. Remember that this blog may be read by children who have read Open and want to discuss the book here. Do remember to be polite and mindful that young minds may be present in this space.

If you haven’t purchased your copy of Open – A Boy’s Wayang Adventure, you can buy it here. For Singapore readers, the book is sold exclusively at Popular Bookstore until April. To review Open, you can go to Good Reads where the book is listed.

To participate in Instagram, take a picture with the book and hashtag #OpenEveryChildMatters, @evawongnava, to share about your reading journey. I would love to hear from you.

Every Child Matters

Today has been an emotional rollercoaster ride of sorts.

It all started this morning at the memoir writing class I attended with veteran children’s book writer, Emily Lim. She is also a memoirist who wrote about a period in her life when she lost her voice due to a rare neurological disorder called Spasmodic Dysphonia. She struggled for 10 years with this condition and finally has her voice back; it is now gently whispery with a character of its own and she sounds positively divine. Her story is one of heroism against all odds. Heart wrenching. Encouraging. Miraculous. Her book, Finding My Voice, is a page turner. I finished it in one night’s reading and you can too. Her story touched me in so many ways and it will touch your lives too.

Emily also conducts workshops on memoir writing. I’ve always fancied myself writing memoirs of sorts. I started with blogging about my food trails when living in Paris. The blog soon took off with a life of its own. With each food discovery, I also discovered that recipes themselves have stories of their own which led me to researching the myriad ways of cooking and eating the many familiar but taken-for-granted dishes of my childhood; these researches formed the backstory to the memories of savouring particular dishes with friends and family. Hence, the blog became a food memoir which traces my journeys in the City of Light looking for veritable Asian dishes because I was missing home. Now, my life has taken another path and I’m now a freelance writer, with a children’s title to my name. The food blog has had to take a bit of a hiatus, unfortunately. But I’m sure that with my next writing venture in mind–memoir writing, the blog will rise from the ashes iminently.

The next thing that happened was listening to Maggie Lai, another memoirist, tell of her story in writing a memoir about the period in her life when she was an educator to wayward teens in an educational institution where her students saw very little hope in their lives and “where some say “It’s The End” [book blurb]. In her memoir, Raw Diamonds, Maggie traces her experiences of being that educator to those who needed boundaries set, encouragement beyond the call of duty and embracement of a kind that some children have never had.

As an educator in my past life, I understand the challenges Maggie went through in trying to bring the love of learning to students who can’t see the importance of education in their lives because their worlds have been turned upside down from abuse, neglect and poverty. Every child mattered to Maggie who struggled to make a difference in these children’s lives. Her story resonated with me. It triggered memories of being a teacher in an inner-city London comprehensive where more than half the lesson time was spent in setting boundaries for teens who would throw their pens at me, disrupt the lesson at every juncture or talk incessantly amongst themselves. It took me a good part of 7 months to gain respect from my class. It took a personal story of struggles that struck a chord in these teens I was teaching because my story resonated with their own struggles of being a constantly overlooked teenager that society turned a blind eye to because they didn’t fit into the mould. Square pegs round holes, was what my Head of Department called these kids.  Every Child Matters, was what I learnt. “This is what inequality looks like” was another lesson learnt.

The following thing that happened took place after the workshop.

In a rather busy area of town, there is a shopping mall, specialising in books and art supplies, housed in an old, lacklustre monstrosity of a building, a go-to for locals looking to buy second-hand books, past-year exam papers, books and stationery. There, I quickly found my way to the most popular bookstore in Singapore, aptly named… Popular Bookstore. I wanted to see if Open – A Boy’s Wayang Adventure has been stocked.

Imagine my joy when I saw those blue books sitting on two shelves independently. Blue is Open’s favourite colour, by the way. So, in discussing the design of the book cover, it only made sense to have the background in blue. Many folks have asked me about the illustrator who worked on the cover. I’m so privileged to have worked with an illustrator whom I met because as many children book writers will know, writers and illustrators can sometimes live across oceans and never meet. Liz Lim is young, likeable and super talented.

Emotional rollercoaster ride.

The minute I saw those blue gems shining in their own light under some very bright lights provided by the bookstore, a lump immediately formed in my throat. You mustn’t cry. No, no, I won’t cry. Keep a straight face, get over yourself. And I did. I composed myself, made the hubby take some photos and even managed to sell a copy of the book to a lovely bespectacled boy who was looking for suitable reading material. I asked him if he’s heard of a condition called autism and he said no. I went into overdrive and persuaded him, rather his mother, to buy Open so that he can learn about the world of a little boy who lives with autism. The mummy kindly bought the book and I obliged with an autograph dedicated to Wayne. If you’re reading this, you get a mention, Wayne, for being a risk-taker and choosing this story over another one that you could’ve asked mummy to buy. Well done, you!

For those of you who don’t know where Popular Bookstore is, they have a website with a store locator. That’s for those who are visiting Singapore and want a copy of Open. Treat the book as one of the many souvenirs you’ll be buying. There’s more packed in there than raising awareness of autism.

Every Child Matters.

When you purchase your copy, please take a selfie with the book and hashtag, #Openeverychildmatters. Spread the love of reading books, be that risk-taker like Wayne, who chose a book with text over a graphic novel. [disclaimer: nothing wrong with graphic novels, I read them too.]

#Openeverychildmatters