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!⠀

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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.

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