Celebrating All Kinds of Love

And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole

My garden is a soft blanket of snow. It had been snowing all day yesterday and all night too. As I snuggled down to sleep last night, I thought of Pingu. 

Remember Pingu? He’s that claymation anthropomorphic penguin who lives in the South Pole with his family. He has a sister named Pinga and his BFF is a seal named Robby. Pingu and Pinga have two parents—father and mother Penguin. Along with this cast is Grandfather who plays the accordion and was once a professional weight lifter. 

The Pingu family is a normalised family as you can see from the cast. They were created by German animation film maker Otmar Gutmann in the late 90s and early 2000s, and produced for Swiss television and later British television. The transition from Switzerland to Great Britain was a smooth one. There was nothing to translate because Pingu speaks in sounds, in an invented grammelot known as Penguinese. Pingu babbles, mutters, and honks “Noot Noot”. Osvaldo Cavandoli provided the voice over. 

Pingu made me think of Tango, the penguin chick born in a zoo in America. Central Park Zoo had a problem: two male penguins were stealing eggs. They were a couple and their names are Roy and Silo. So, their zoo keeper gave them an egg and the penguins took turns incubating this little egg who hatched into Tango, a female chick. Here is my review of AND TANGO MAKES THREE. I explain why I love this book, why it needs to be celebrated, and what this picturebook means to me. 

How to Create Untoward Attention

I managed to collect this book only in London. This (in)famous picturebook was banned in Singapore and hence, I couldn’t get hold of one when I was living there. Tango first attracted attention when an ultra-conservative person discovered the picturebook in the children’s section at one of Singapore’s state libraries. This person was affronted by the content of the book. Complaints were registered and the Senior Minister of State for the Ministry of Information (a woman at that time) decides to pulp the book. It was because “the content was against the city-state’s family values.” Do you see the irony? 

This is what happens when people view the world through a myopic lens.

Anything on what the minister of information had said in regard to the pulping could not be found when I googled. But I found this article with comments by two veteran Singaporean authors on why Tango should remain shelved at the state libraries. The tone of the statements quoted was not of anger but of reason. And that is important because only parents and paternalistic mininsters can get angry. The rest of the (child) citizenry can only voice their unhappiness as anger is a pill that is too bitter to swallow even for many adults.

But here’s a blog post I managed to find. The tone is relatively different. There is a tempered inflection, a hint of displeasure laced with anger.  

How to Keep the Love of Any Picturebook Strong

The two love penguins loving each other, doing everything together

A friend who adopted three children brought the book over and we all had a good read of it. There was nothing malignant or inappropriate about Tango. In fact it was a book that celebrated families—all sorts. 

Blended families, LGBTQ families, Families who support other families brought their own copies of Tango with them and gathered outside the main branch of the National Library to read the picturebook with their children. It was a quiet but powerful protest. There was no state law that could disband these families because these were families doing the right thing–reading to their children outside the library building. It was the appropriate thing to do and done so by the book.

There is nothing more malignant than to normalise the two-parent-two-children (preferably one boy, one girl) family set up. Love is love and families are families. 

Valentine’s Day is for Everyone

How Love Makes a Baby

So, for Valentine’s Day this year (2021), I am asking that we don’t forget the baby chick born to two male penguins in the Central Park Zoo. Her name is Tango. She has two fathers and they are Roy and Silo. 

Here are other books celebrating all sorts of families:

Mommy, Mama, and Me by Leslea Newman, illustrated by Carol Thompson.

Daddy, Papa, and Me by Leslea Newman, illustrated by Carol Thompson.

Two Grooms on a Cake by Rob Sanders, illustrated by Robbie Cathro.

Making a Baby by Rachel Greener, illustrated  by Clare Owen.

Love Makes a Family by Sophie Beer.

The Island

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

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

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

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

cover of The Island by Armin Greder ©Armin Greder

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

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

The Island by Armin Greder

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

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

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

And so, they took him in.

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

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

“Then one morning the man appeard in town.” 

The Scream. The Anger. The Commotion. 

Greder’s tribute to Edward Munch

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

The Fear. The Insecurity. The Unwillingness. 

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

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

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

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

The naked man gazes at us, holding our attention.

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

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

The Island as a moralistic fable

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

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

Who did I identify with? 

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

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

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

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

What was Greder’s message?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Responsibilities of an Author

In life, in business, and especially in publishing, it’s true that you’re only as good as your word.”  — John Quattrocchi

John Quattrocchi
President, Albert Whitman & Company

Every story should open with intrigue. I love openings that have a double entendre. 

This was the opening line in a public apology by AW&C to Joan He, who publicly shamed the indie publisher for reneging on their agreement. She felt it was her responsibility to put in a few words about the way her publisher had treated her. 

It’s good to speak up. When one speaks up, it opens up the floor to others who have been or are in the same situation. Look how the #metoo movement started and #BLM too. There’s also #publishingpaidme on Twitter that highlights the disparity of advances paid to white vs black authors. 

I have thought long and hard about writing this post for some time. 

Firstly, I needed the distance. 

Secondly, I needed to process what I have to say and to say it without sounding furious because I am so angry that it is ugly.

Thirdly, I also needed to make sure that I protect myself for what I am about to do: name and shame. 

In my short experience as a children’s book author, I have learnt so much about publishing and what it entails. I am grateful for the learning as always. I am also grateful for the opportunity to be published in this very subjective business. However, as grateful as I am, I am also burning with fury at the disrespect shown for my craft, the ignorance of some independent publishers about the global nature of the business, and not to mention the ingrained exploitation of folks, like me, in the creative sector. I speak only about Singapore, of course, because this has been my lived experience in publishing so far. 

My journey as a children’s book author started with this book. As you can see, it won an award, a rather prestigious one, at that, in the children’s book industry. I was darned proud as this was a recognition of the power of the story and its universal themes. What’s more, the story was set in Singapore but it was accessible to judges in America, which is a nod to the industry’s goal of publishing more diverse stories by diverse authors. 

And, what do you think the publisher, an independent, did?

I was asked, “What is the Moonbeam Children’s Book Award?”

I was told, “It is not the Singapore Literature Prize.” 

I was urged not to “harp” on my award because it is [allegedly] “controversial”. 

I don’t know what Moonbeam has to say about that allegation, and I won’t know until I tell them. I won’t because that’s not my raison d’être as a writer. 

I won’t say what I really thought about the Singapore Literature Prize, something I hadn’t heard of before living in Singapore. That is simply a reflection of my ignorance, of course, because it is rather a biggie in Singapore. 

Suffice it to say, the aforementioned publisher did very little to promote this award-winning book. But let’s start from the beginning, shall we? 

Open: A Boy’s Wayang Adventure was published sans contract. The first time I found out that the manuscript was published was when I was given a copy of the film edition of the book, which was shockingly unedited and still raw, at a press conference for the preview of The Wayang Kids, on which the book was adapted. Imagine my horror!

Well, like any person whose rights have been violated, I sought the assistance of a lawyer, who helped me with negotiating the terms of the contract, which the publisher was obliged to sign after weeks of fobbing me off. They felt harangued as I later learnt—there are only 3 degrees of separation in Singapore—and thought that I should not have involved a lawyer. Funny that they signed ASAP as soon as the lawyer called, won’t you say? 

This legal exercise cost me a little more than SGD$5,000, I’ll be transparent about it. Income from this book was in the region of less than SGD$1,500, of which SGD$700 I donated to a charity for the education of autistic children and adults. I bought at author’s discount at least 400 copies of the book, some to give away, and some to sell at author talks.

Open’s journey started with a caveat because this publisher based its working relationships on trust, as they told me. And here I was, thinking that a publishing relationship was based on a contract. How foolish of me. But one can’t blame this publisher because they had thought that a certain film producer, who submitted the manuscript to them on my behalf, was working in the capacity as my agent–the fobbing off was, according to the publisher, caused by a delay on the “agent’s” part. Nobody thought to ask me, the author. And, if you’re wondering, agents don’t quite exist in Singapore, unlike in America and the UK, Singapore is too immature a publishing market for agents to work in. I am in no way saying they won’t one day exist. But just not now. 

Since all the palaver, you will be glad to know, I have taken back the rights of this book. I am now free to submit it to other publishers who would have the eye to see the value of this story. Its universal themes, and a story that interweaves some historical information about the Chinese Opera, may pique the attention of a publisher in the USA or England. Who knows? Right now BIPOC and BAME hashtags are all the rage. Take this publisher for example. 

The success of Open opened more doors [pardon the pun]. This led to my debut picture book The Boy Who Talks In Bits and Bobs. I was literally approached by the publisher, another indie. They were seeking to expand on their trade books “based on good values” and thought I was a good person to write for them. After some discussion, I signed a contract for a book deal with a clause that gives this publisher “first right of refusal” on subsequent titles with a similar theme. 

The Boy was illustrated by Debasmita Dasgupta, who was paid a fee, and published in 2019. It has had raving reviews, was nominated for a Readers’ Choice Award in Singapore, and has sold at least SGD$400 royalty worth of the first print run, so the accounts statement tells me. I had to demand for this statement, BTW. But guess what? It’s 2020 and almost Christmas, AND I still haven’t been paid. 

Similarly, I am still waiting for the rest of my advance payment for the second book in the series, Sahara’s Special Senses, published right before the pandemic hit our shores. Remember the “first right of refusal” clause? Well, I kept to my side of the bargain. The contract says that I will be paid when the book is launched. Well, it was launched at the beginning of 2020. Looks like somebody has not kept to their side of the bargain. Meanwhile, publishers in India and America have shown interest in negotiating the rights for Sahara to be published in their respective countries. As equal collaborators of this picture book, Debasmita and I have approached our publisher [who shalt not be named] to work with these international publishers. And, you’ve got it—no response. 

I have written umpteenth emails gently reminding said publisher of payments due. The last one was sent on Friday the 13th, November. Thought I would flip this unlucky day to make me a small fortune. Here’s what my email said:

Dear All,

I hope you’re all well. Singapore is now the best place on earth in terms of living with the pandemic. Congratulations!

I trust that you’ve all had time to settle back into work.

I’m emailing again to remind Armour of the payments owed to me in terms of:

  1. second tranche of advance for Sahara’s Special Senses;
  2. royalties for The Boy Who Talks in Bits and Bobs. 

I would appreciate it if you can acknowledge this email and make payments immediately. 

— 

Warmly,

Eva Wong Nava — Children’s Book Author”

Well, needless to say that people who live cowardly lives tend to keep mum for the shame of knowing that what they’re doing is simply not on. These are also the same kinds of people who have a ‘higher than thou’ attitude in terms of moral standards. 

I am beginning to sound angry now. So, I must stop. All rant and done, I need you to understand that the publishing industry does not function this way as a matter of conduct. For example, I was paid on time for this book, and since its publication, have had no issues with the way the marketing, promotion and distribution of the picture book has been handled. 

I felt respected and valued by this publisher who aims to look after the needs of their authors, as the managing editor told me. Alright, they are one of the big-5s. But it’s good to note that they are also a small company under the umbrella of the mothership, and have their own (slightly smaller) budgets to negotiate. 

Publishing is a human relations business. It behoves the house to treat their authors and creatives well. At the end of the day, they’re in business because of authors and illustrators who put energy into their craft so that book lovers can continue to enjoy quality literature. 

I have chosen to enter this very challenging and competitive profession because I want to make a difference; I want to write books that not only entertain but also educate. This was the same reason for my entering teaching. I won’t be didactic because that’s not my point. But I will open up conversations to improve the situation so that others that come after me have a better time of it. 

Authoring is a vocation like teaching. It is a pursuit of exchanging information and knowledge through words. As authors, we have the responsibility to look after our needs and those of our colleagues. We have the responsibility to speak up against injustice, not just within the publishing industry. Putting ourselves out there is placing ourselves in a vulnerable position. That’s a position that every author knows only too well. But, our greatest responsibility as authors is telling stories that are accessible and honest. 

I take courage from Philip Pullman who has always spoken up about the craft of writing and the unique responsibilities of authors. 

The first responsibility to talk about is a social and financial one: the sort of responsibility we share with many other citizens—the need to look after our families and those who depend on us.” 

Philiip Pullman, ‘Magic Carpets’ in Daemon Voices. 

Making Sense of Our Senses In Writing

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

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

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

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

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

• ⠀

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

Instagram account of zekeplaysandreads

You can read the rest of the review here

Making Sense of being Highly Sensitive 

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

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

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

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

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

Making Sense of How We Write

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life Movements

Liu Kang, Life by the River, 1957, oil on canvas, 126 x 203 cm (National Gallery Singapore)

When Liu Kang painted Life By the River in 1975, it had already been a little over 20 years since he discovered Bali’s charms and colours. He didn’t plan on starting an art movement but Bali made him an inadvertent advocate for painting local and owning the local visual narrative. 

Liu Kang was a Chinese émigré who arrived in Malaya in the mid 1900s (then Singapore and Malaysia under the British) with no recourse to return to the Motherland because the Second World War had begun. The irony was that he had escaped China for Muar, in Malaysia, where his family had a business and home, due to the escalating Sino-Japanese war. The Liu family had thought that Malaya would be a safe haven, not realising that Japanese soldiers were hot on their trail. No, Liu Kang wasn’t a spy, he was a painter. 

Fast forward some years and WWII ends. Liu Kang decides to remain in Malaya for personal reasons and to make Nanyang his home. To the mainland Chinese, anywhere south of China was known as Nanyang — the Southern Seas. Nanyang included Singapore, Malaysia, Borneo, Indonesia, and the Philippines. 

Having lived in Nanyang for some time, I feel a sense of emptiness […] I also feel an unspeakable aridity, as though trudging thousand of miles in the desert, unable to find any dewdrops and greenery, or any villages.” Liu Kang, The Voice of the Motherland, 1937.

Liu Kang, Essays on Art and Culture

As an artist, Liu Kang found Nanyang arid and devoid of aesthetics. He was dismayed at the lack of artistic education, and the lacklustre efforts at promoting art in Singapore by the colonial government. However, Liu Kang plodded on and formed an art collective where he gathered artists like himself for dialogues and discussions. In many essays written in Mandarin Chinese, later translated into English, he outlined his feelings and his thoughts on the art scene in Singapore. In these essays, it’s clear to see that being a pioneer is never easy, especially when one’s vision doesn’t align with the status quo. 

Liu Kang was trained in Shanghai in Traditional Chinese landscapes and in Paris, where he learnt European-style paintings. In Paris, he was enthralled by Gauguin and Cézanne and other Impressionists. He really wanted to go to Tahiti like Gauguin who painted the landscape and locals there. But the war thwarted Liu Kang’s dreams. He had big dreams for himself and for art. 

As some dreams have a way of coming true and manifesting themselves differently, Liu Kang found a new kind of hope when he travelled with 3 fellow émigré artists to the island of Bali in 1952. There, he found another way to paint that would revolutionise the art world in Nanyang. Fast forward more years: Liu Kang founds the art movement known as the Nanyang Style. Since then, generations of art viewers have been privy to a large body of work on display at the National Gallery Singapore, where Nanyang-styled art works can be viewed. 

Movements begin and Movements end. But Movements start because communities or collectives of people want to find a way to manifest their desire or their hope for change. A Movement is a revolution, if you will. 

There is a need for a Movement in Singapore to promote and elevate the literature that is being written and produced on the island-nation, or the Little Red Dot, it’s friendly moniker. I speak about KidLit in particular. I’ve mentioned many times before that Singapore’s KidLit production and market is still in its infancy. It’s young but not green as there have been some people writing for children since the late 1990s. There are also many self-published KidLit authors in Singapore or those whose work have been commissioned by various organisations. Organisations do use picturebooks to reach out to their target audiences and to raise awareness of causes and the work they do. 

I believe some 12-15 years ago, the government of Singapore offered grants and awards or prizes to encourage people to write children’s books. This started a small movement of writers lured by the rewards to write for children. Many have become established children’s book authors and their books are selling well locally and some even internationally. However, these children’s books are not reaching the kind of international audiences that books produced in America and the United Kingdom are. Why? 

A Movement takes concerted effort. It takes a village. In Singapore, the various governmental organisations who promote the arts work disparately and often competitively. The village is divided but the people are all striving for the same thing — to elevate their status. As one knows only to well: “divided we fall …”

Then, not everyone knows about the plans and policies (unless you’re an interested or curious party and go looking; many of the government’s plans are online anyway, and can be found) that the government is putting into action or wants to put into action; these plans are the guidelines that stakeholders are encouraged to take note of and follow. This just means that the stakeholders or the target audiences aren’t being reached, unless they take it upon themselves to look out for these plans and policies, and remain in the dark while attempting to do the job of elevating the state of the arts in Singapore. The result is that everyone’s trying to build a town hall in the village but the builders are lacking guidelines or instructions. 

Recently, I came across the National Arts Council’s (NAC) ‘OUR SG ARTS PLAN 2018-2022’ for Literary Arts. Yes, I know, it’s 2020 and this plan was my new discovery! See what I mean about plans not reaching target audiences? In this plan, the arts council, essentially a governmental body, as all arts councils are, put forward solutions to encourage reading and steps to increase literacy on the island-nation, focusing on Singapore Literature as texts to develop empathy and develop a sense of the Singaporean identity. Note that it’s simply Singapore Literature with no specific mention of Singapore KidLit. And, it is also Literature that is Singapore-centric and Singapore-related. 

The OUR SG ARTS PLAN begins this way “Literature is more than just words on a page. It captures our stories, experiences, aspirations, and cultures — in short, literature is an important expression of our Singaporean identity.”  Then, it goes on to mention a large amount of money being injected into the “first Literary Arts Plan in 2020”, we’re talking SGD$24 million. 

Ethnic Fiction

Stories and novels whose central characters are black, Native American, Italian-American, Jewish, Appalachian or members of some other specific cultural group. Ethnic fiction usually deals with a protagonist caught between two conflicting ways of life: mainstream American culture and his ethnic heritage.”

Writer’s Digest University

As a children’s book author who simply writes and not write ethnically, I find this plan rather short-sighted. Its focus on only Singapore Literature is limiting since the Singapore KidLit scene is a fairly new one, with only a handful of authors writing specifically Singapore-centric and -related literature. If I were to be more specific, the Singapore KidLit scene is newer still compared to the generic Singapore Lit scene. (And, if I were to be brutally honest, not all Sing KidLit being produced is of good quality. There is such a desperate drive to produce Sing KidLit that publishers are taking in anyone who can write and then rewriting or revising their manuscripts just so that these are publishable.) Besides, debates about ethnic writing and writers are also very America-centric, where writing has become so politicised. While it’s good to heed and take note of what’s going on in the writing world at large, it’s not good to mimic a movement that has no semblance to the reality of what’s going on in Singapore. And, the irony is that most Singaporeans would buy and read KidLit which is America-centric or Euro-centric over Sing KidLit, which is Sing-centric and good for developing a love for the nation and self. Goes to show, doesn’t it?

Although the literary scene is now more vibrant, awareness and appreciation of Singapore literature is low — just one in 10 Singaporeans read Singapore literature. We need more quality literary arts experiences to interest Singaporeans who are not familiar with Singapore literature.” 

OUR SG ARTS PLAN 2018-2020

On the other, I do understand the NAC’s focus on local literature since the diet of books fed to local children seem to be Eurocentric or America-centric, these book markets being more mature and aggressive. Secondly, with so much western-centric media influence be it TV, social media, movies,and/or music, local anything in Singapore does get a poor following. Research undertaken by government agencies in Singapore also points to a pitiful 44% of the public reading (Singapore literacy rate is 97.05%), and these readers are not always reading fiction. Singapore’s obsession with reading falls into the tight brackets of self-help books (mostly to do with how to make more money and/or mental health since living in wealth-obsessed Singapore is very stressful) and nonfiction tomes about notable personalities. I guess like many reality-TV obsessed viewers, the average Singaporean loves the minutiae of important people’s lives. Yes, people do read but it’s not quite KidLit and fiction. Then, there is a section of the population who specifically seek moralistic books that teach their children good values instructionally. A lack of imagination stops many well-intentioned parents from seeing that all children’s books teach good things and more often than not are wells full of solid good values, even the funny ones. I’ve also been asked to write educational books that will help local children improve their English language learning. This indicates to me that fiction is not the main interest of result-oriented local parents who do want their kids to read but are often not discerning enough to know the difference between good writing and great literature, and that it is literature that develops the critical thinking often needed to ace in exams, not merely pass them. As I say this, it’s also fair to mention the many parents out there in the tropical forest of Singapore’s literary woods who take a profound interest in pointing their children to quality writing; I applaud these parents for their mindfulness in swimming upstream with the salmon. 

So back to what I was saying about the SG ARTS PLAN being limiting. Where is there wiggle room in the plan for writers like me—a Singapore-based children’s book author, with books that aren’t always Singapore-centric or -related, who write fiction and am never didactic—to march in unison with the rest of the local (KidLit) writers? I ask this because the ARTS PLAN specifically states that “[w]e need to work hard at articulating a Singaporean identity and to enlarge common spaces for diverse communities.” All this, I understand, is to accommodate the many new Singaporeans who’ve taken citizenship but do not as yet identify Singaporean. It’s also to be inclusive, I understand, as Singapore is really a melting cauldron of cultures and ethnicities. And, here’s the irony: When I do submit a Singapore-centric and Singapore-related manuscript to local publishers, it gets rejected because it’s too Singapore-centric. [LOL emoji appropriate here] The frustration, folks! I digress. Back to the PLAN.

Then, the PLAN goes on to mention positioning SG as a global literary nation in the region and finding ways to collaborate with literary agencies and organisations in the Southeast Asian region. It’s an ambitious plan it must be said. But Singapore is not a nation of insipid planners. It’s a tiny nation with big dreams. And this plan highlights the nation’s dream of being great literary literally. But, I find yet another caveat.

If books are containers of stories that help children and adults develop empathy and find a sense of their places in the world, then it should be books that’s the focus rather than only Singapore books or literature. Yet, I do know that courtesy begins at home. So, in all this focus, it is also the Singaporeans themselves who should be reading and buying SingLit, and not only because the government says so. Where’s the home team support? The National Literary Reading & Writing Survey (2015) tells us that only “ […] just one in 10 Singaporeans read Singapore literature.” It’s not a want of trying on the government’s part, I should say. But Singaporeans need to be told what to do in order to do what they should be doing sponteneously. So, it’s time to cheer for the home team, folks — the G needs ya to and Sing KidLit creators need your support. The PLAN says so!

#BuySingLit is a local Movement that takes place in March annually. The government injects a.lot of money in the form of book vouchers and initiatives in terms of events to encourage local readers to buy SingLit. This spans all genres and age-related Singapore literature. However, year on end, the “take up” rate is less than 40% island-wide. Buy SingLit is still in its infancy and only in its third iteration as far as my sources tell me. I’ve taken part a couple of times and will take part again this year in a privately organised story concerto to entice young readers to read through music and play. In my experience, the S$10 vouchers with an expiry date hardly gets utilised. And, buyers ask if they can buy other books apart from “just” SingLit. Where is the courtesy, Singaporeans? 

All said and criticised, the OUR SG ARTS PLAN is a positive move towards encouraging reading and literacy. But the work is not even half done yet. As with any plan, a lot of the work is in getting folks to “buy in”. As I write this, a quiet Movement is beginning to take root on this island-state. It’s a ground-up Movement as most movements are. The Movement took shape when a bunch of local writers or those of us who identify ourselves as such got together to discuss how we can make some noise about what we write about and what we’re planning to do to change the KidLit scene in Singapore. Like superheroes, the KidLit S.E.A. Community (KLSEAC) will be rescuing locally- and regionally-written stories and helping young readers in Singapore and the region to “own our narratives” and to appreciate all the good books produced locally, even those non Singapore-centric and -related ones. As courtesy begins at home, KLSEAC will start with Singapore produced KidLit. Books lovers stay tuned.

Like Liu Kang and the Nanyang style, KLSEAC will find a way to move the people with locally produced KidLit. Forging an identity is only one aspect of reading. The biggest aspect of reading is reading itself and when Singapore starts to produce better quality KidLit, discerning parents will flock to BuySingLit, to buy SG KidLit. It will take a village and a village is what we have. Watch this space, Singapore readers.