On Life and Finding A Way

Life has a way to meander and lead you to places that you’ve never thought you’d go or imagine going. Life finds a Way, as the saying goes. 

On Viruses and Finding a Way Around

A virus is also a type of life form that finds a way, in my view, but according to medical experts, whether a virus is a life form or not is highly debatable. In truth, nobody really knows if a virus is alive or not. But a virus needs a host to stay alive and to recreate itself. A host is infected with a virus, which lives in the body symbiotically, until such time that the virus takes over its host. I understand all this in layman’s terms only. I am no medical expert nor am I percolating and/or passing on false information. I’m trying to understand how a pneumonia-like virus could be this deadly because as I write this, a novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) is spreading virulently across the world, with its epicentre in Wuhan, China. I’m trying to make meaning of what I’m reading in the news and as I do this, I also start to think about why it’s important for human beings to understand the inter-relationship between human culture and the structures that cause us to feel, think and act the way we do.

Thinking about viruses and hosts made me wonder too about how stories are passed on. I know that a virus is not like a story and a virulent host is not like a storyteller. The mind meanders, though. My mind is now meandering and taking me places I haven’t imagined going to before; it asks me to probe the meaning and significance of stories as viruses that get passed on orally and textually, and to think of storytellers as hosts, where the story-virus resides. I’m excited as I allow my mind to do its thing, to make meaning through metaphors.

On Characters and Finding a Way Out

All this excitement about viruses and hosts is happening simultaneously as I take part in global writing challenges, writing lesser-told stories of inspirational women, and learning about storytelling through genres like (informational) non-fiction and creative non-fiction, though there’s really nothing to be excited about any sort of viruses as the Wuhan virus meanders its way around the world. But excited I am, not for the virus, of course, but for a little character who’ll be bursting her way into the world any time soon, infecting everyone with her get-go attitude and positive spirit. 

Sahara Khan is my latest invention. As a fiction writer, I get to make up characters and invent stories. I like how fiction churns the imagination; how the mind meanders and wanders. I love imagining what little people in books can do. I love how picture book characters always find a way out. Out of trouble. Out in space. Out of the ordinary. Sahara as you’ll see will find a way out of her own narrative and create a new one, despite being differently abled. How I love that narratives can change and be improved. One’s narrative is never deterministic or static.

On the Whole Book Approach and Finding a Way to Infect Children with the Love of Books

The more I immerse myself in the learning, writing, and teaching of picture book creation, the more I’m enthralled by just how much more than images and text a picture book really is. I’m currently re-reading Megan Dowd Lambert’s enlightening book, Reading Picture Books With Children. Lambert created an inquiry-based model of storytelling, asking children to look at the whole picture book, beginning with its jacket/cover, the illustrations within, and how these images contribute to the story as a whole. It’s meaning-based approach, encouraging children to find and make meaning of everything that forms a picture book — text, visuals, design — looks at picture books holistically. This has brought back memories and my mind meanders to a place where I used to teach literature in schools. The children were older but the whole book approach never strayed far from my teaching methods, even though the students were making meaning from more text-heavy books. These books — middle-grade, young adult, plays and poetry anthologies — had jackets that were filled with images, some with busy jackets, others minimalist, that attracted our attention, brought the stories and poems within to life. How a jacket is designed also tells a story, and my students and I would spend precious time talking about the artwork covering the books they were studying. Fast forward and years later and I would read Jhumpa Lahari’s, The Clothing of Books, a thin and minimalist-designed book of less than 100 pages that explores and asks us to probe the complex relationship between text and images. This is Structuralism at its core. In remembering this, I see that Life finds a way to remind us of the meaning that we look for; the power of attraction, if you will, as my friend and Michelin chef, Matthieu Escoffier, calls it. 

On Dreaming and Making Sense of it All

Sahara dreaming

I love sharing sneak-peeks of the images that fill picture books. Here is this wonderful creature, Sahara, a little girl my mind created, inspired by so many structures and systems that I’ve tried over the years to make meaning of. Dreaming is my favourite thing to do, day-dreaming especially. It’s my dream to write meaningful picture books and to help children answer questions that they’re eager to find out. Of course, in writing my picture books, I’m also busy answering the questions that I have; questions like: Why are female chefs mostly overlooked in the culinary world when cooking is a job placed on the female shoulder in the house-hold kitchen? How do our senses impede or expedite our culinary experiences? How can I, a writer of children’s picture books, encourage young readers to taste what they eat, feel the food that they put into their mouths, and see with their other senses what textures and tastes food produce? Readers, I present Sahara’s Special Senses. Please allow Sahara to show you the answers to these questions.

Baby Wearing and Mirroring

Javanese Man wearing his daughter. Source: open source internet

Mirroring is the behaviour in which one person unconsciously imitates the gesture, speech pattern, or attitude of another. Mirroring often occurs in social situations, particularly in the company of close friends or family. The concept often affects other individuals’ notions about the individual that is exhibiting mirroring behaviors, which can lead to the individual building rapport with others. ” Wikipedia

When my elder daughter was born, I looked for ways to be able to carry her and still have my hands free. We were living in London at that time and using a pushchair was inconvenient in so many ways. Many tube stations did not have lifts or escalators which meant that I had to carry the pushchair up a long flight of stairs, most of the time on my own. If I was lucky, someone would help and I’d lift the back holding the handles while the kind person would lift the pushchair from the foot rest or bars connecting the front wheels, and walk up backwards. These kind souls were mostly women or men with strollers or pushchairs of their own. When this happened, we would lift one pushchair first and collect the other after.

I invested in a sling that looks much like the one in the photo you see. It was a ring sling where two rings held the cloth together, using dynamic tension coupled with the baby’s weight to keep the infant held. It was the best piece of material I’d ever bought. The philosopher-princess was locked in the sling where she snuggled, cuddled, and bonded with me as I did the food shopping, walked in the park, hoovered the floors, and cooked the meals. Basically, she went everywhere with me snug as a bug in her light blue sling. Mine was padded at the shoulders which made baby wearing comfortable.

When the ballerina-princess was born eight years later, I graduated to another type of sling–the wrap sling. This was essentially a long piece of cloth that you wrap around you and your baby and then tie around your waist to keep the baby in. I was more confident then of baby wearing so was a little more courageous. This sling gave me more flexibility in that I could wear my daughter straddled on my hip, on my back, or in the front. When I was cooking, I wore her on my back, so she could see what I was doing; I tied her high enough over my right shoulder so she could peek over.

Baby wearing is an ancient tradition spanning the whole of Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Europe. A children’s book author friend even wrote a book about it. This is a non-fiction picture book and the illustrations and artwork are simply gorgeous. What I love about Susan’s book is that it promotes all kinds of diversity and shines a spotlight on the different cultures in the world showing children that underpinning us all is the love we have for our children and the similar ways we care for them.

During the launch of Mina’s Magic Malong, someone in the audience asked where I got the idea of the malong from. In Southeast Asia, women and men have been wearing their babies in sarongs or malongs for the longest time. When I held my babies hands-free in their slings, I could have conversations with them and I could look into their eyes as they looked into mine. This allowed me to bond with my girls while doing other essential things. Mirroring is a behaviour where children mimic the gestures, speech, and actions of their caregivers. That’s how children learn. When they see their caregivers mirroring positive actions back to them, children learn acceptance, they learn empathy, and they feel affirmed. On page 22 of Mina’s Magic Malong, “Ella opens her eyes and sees herself in Mina’s dark, brown pupils. She feels safe being folded inside the malong with Mina.” The book conveys the bond between a caregiver and the child, a bond which is so important for child development.

There are often many layers to a children’s picture book. As parents, we can help our children make meaning of the pictures by asking them to talk about what they see. You can get them to tell you 1) What’s happening in the picture? 2) What they see in the picture that makes them say what they’ve said? 3) What else can they see or find? These visual thinking strategies (VTS) help engage children with the illustrations and help them make meaning of the images by expanding on their surface impressions. In fact, these are strategies that museum educators use to get kids visiting museuems to talk about the artworks. Fascinating stuff, isn’t it? All these critical thinking questions also help young readers engage with the text subconsciously.

I leave you this image for you to ponder on.

I don’t know where this photo originated but here’s a tribal woman wearing her baby in a basket.

Disclaimer: I am in no way advocating that you wear your baby. Only you know what’s best for you and your child.

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 in Singapore and Malaysia, and on Amazon

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

Emily Lim-Leh