A Community of Saints

  Cima da Conegliano (Giovanni Battista Cima),  Polyptych,  C. 1486-88,  Tempera on panel. Parish Church of St. Bartolomeo, Olera (Bergamo), Italy

Behold this nine-panelled polyptych with the Virgin and Child taking the top panel, presiding over the congregation and the community of saints below. The standing figure in the middle (a statue) is Santo Bartolemeo or Saint Bartholomew the Apostle. He is also known as the patron saint of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and is therefore beloved by the Armenians. 

We didn’t travel to Armenia to get a sighting of St Bartolomeo. We took a little drive from the city of Bergamo to the hillside village of Olera to visit a church perched on a verdant hilltop, surrounded by quaint village houses. The church is dedicated to St Bartolomeo. So, it is apt that this polyptych takes pride of place at the centre of the church. 

The polyptych was painted in 1489 by Giovan (aka Giovanni) Battista Cima from Conegliano, Veneto. This is the reason why this altarpiece is also attributed to Cima da Conegliano — Cima from Conegliano. 

I am not a practising Catholic, although I’ve had a convent education spanning 10 years, and have lived amongst the staunchest of Lutherans, Protestants, and Catholics for more than three decades of my life. I’d admit that Catholicism will always remain close to my heart. I love Catholic saints for the stories they tell. There are just some very sagely trivia that I love to study about these saints. I don’t have a photographic memory, so I don’t always remember all that I’ve read. But I know that Bartholomew was one of Jesus’ 12 apostles. Legend has it that Bartolomeo (his Italian name) was skinned alive and beheaded. His emblems are a knife (the one that he was skinned with) and his flayed skin. For this, he is beloved (in some perverse way) by tanners and those who work with leather, or skins of all sorts, I guess. 

The bottom far right panel is that of San Rocco. He is the patron saint of dogs (woofy funny), bodily afflictions and diseases, such as the plague and rashes, amongst others. San Rocco’s emblems are a staff and he is always depicted with a wound on his thigh or knee. 

Born of nobility in Montpellier, France, in 1295, San Rocco gave his riches to the poor, attended to the sickly and dying, and legend has it that he miraculously cured some people. It is also believed that San Rocco was born from a miracle, his mother having been barren for many years, with a birthmark that looked like a cross on his chest. As an adult, he was arrested on accounts of espionage and imprisoned. He languished in jail for five years without him ever once mentioning his noble connections. Apparently, he was cared for by an angelic presence until he died in 1327 of natural causes. By then, he had already done many things. 

Luca Signorelli – San Rocco 
1515-20. 29.6 x 16.3
Academy Carrara (Accademia Carrara), Bergamo.

San Rocco is now the all important saint invoked in the Catholic world. His help is needed to get rid of the pestilant COVID-19 virus that is circumventing the globe today. 

Above San Rocco is Santa Caterina or Saint Catherine. She is the patron saint of literature. Known also as Catherine of Siena, Santa Caterina was an activist, mystic, author and was conferred Doctor of the Church for her contribution to theological studies. She was the second woman in the Catholic world to be given this recognition. Hence, this makes her the only female saint on the polyptych. 

Her attributes are a crown of thorns, a rose, a book, a crucifix, amongst others. She is invoked for her power to cure the sick, for miscarriages, and bodily afflictions in general, amongst other divine powers that she possesses. [It is good to note that saints are living divine beings as Orthodox Christians and Coptics believe them to be.]

Caterina di Jacopo di Benincasa was born in Rome in the year 1347. She had a twin sister, Giovanna, who unfortunately died in the arms of the wet nurse. Caterina’s mother, Lapa Piagenti, was the daughter of a poet, and she was what doctors today call a geriatric primigravida when she had the twin girls at the age of forty. Not only that, Lapa had given birth at least 22 times before Caterina and Giovanna were born. Half of her children had died by that time. Twenty-two times!! — that in itself is a miracle and Lapa Piagenti should’ve been canonised for the sacrifices she had made with her body. By the time Caterina was 2 years old, her mother had givnen birth yet again. Caterina finally had another sister named after her late twin. This would be Lapa’s 25th child. 

Caterina’s father had a cloth dying business which he managed and ran with his sons. (If I were Lapa, I’d have made sure he died in a bath of red dye for impregnating me this many times. But hey, I am no saint.) All in all, Caterina was born into a middle-income family. Her parents played a big part in Caterina’s life, as most parents do. With so many children to feed and protect, the Benincasas ran a tight ship. When Bonaventura, one of Caterina’s sisters died at childbirth, she was asked to marry her widower. Caterina flatly refused because she knew how Bonaventura had suffered as his wife: Bonaventura had to go on a hunger strike to force her husband to be better. It is not known if he was a wife-beater or a bully. But for Bonaventura to take such a drastic action, he must’ve been most undesireable. A jerkass in today’s lingo. Following in her late sister’s foot steps, Caterina fasted as well when she was told to marry her brother-in-law. I shall just say it as it is — she went on a hunger strike; to fast would be putting it mildly. She never married Bonaventura’s widower. In fact, the only marriage Caterina ever had was with God. 

It is a well known fact that women use their bodies to challenge the status quo. The suffragettes went on hunger strikes in the early 1900s to protest against not being imprisoned as political prisoners for they saw themselves as fighting a political cause — the right for women to vote. The authorities forced-fed the women as a means to keep them alive. This force-feeding became the most poignant docuementation of the suffragette’s fight for gender equality and a basic human right. You can read more about it here

Caterina di Jacopo di Benincasa had a love for God so strong that she became politically active in  fighting for clergical reforms. She travelled widely preaching and advocating her beliefs. She used her body to challenge the authorities, to show her love for the common people and for the Catholic Church. She cared for the sickly and dying. She walked miles to get to places and people that needed her. She wrote reams and reams of letters to the Pope asking for this and that reform. And, she starved herself: fasting was her means to get closer to God. This was ironically  frowned upon by the clerical authorities. Not the getting close to God part, but the starving of oneself to get near Holiness part. The authorities, it has been said, felt that fasting was unhealthy.

It was indeed unhealthy because in 1380, Caterina suffered a massive stroke after months of refraining food and water. She faded away because there is only so much an anorexic body can take, and let’s not forget a dehydrated one too. I think it is a miracle that she managed to last so many months before finally succumbing to the angel of death. She passed away at the age of thirty-three, commending her soul and spirit to God. By that time, she had written The Dialogue of Divine Providence, her most important and remembered work. There were also over 380 letters to the Pope (as well as many to women) and prayers that she’d penned that are still whispered today. Santa Caterina di Siena was indeed a woman of letters. She is my patron saint.

A Community of Writers

I was recently invited to join a community of authors who have come together to find ways to promote our books and work. We’re a hodgepodge of authors ranging from children’s to YA to adult fiction and nonfiction. 

Top left to right: Daryl Kho, Joyce Chua, Vicky Chong, Middle left to right: Audrey Chin, Nabeel Ismeer, Eva Wong Nava, Bottom left to right: Nidhi Upadhyay, Vivek Iyyani, Leslie W [photo credit: Joyce Chua]

And behold, we are also a nine-panelled polyptych:

  1. Daryl Kho — Mist-bound
  2. Joyce Chua — Land of Sand and Song
  3. Leslie W — The Night of Legends
  4. Audrey Chin — The Ash House 
  5. Vicky Chong — Racket and Other Stories 
  6. Vivek Iyyani — Engaging Millennials
  7. Nidhi Upadhyay — That Night 
  8. Nabeel Ismeer — The Hunter’s Walk 
  9. Eva Wong Nava — Mina’s Magic Malong and The House of Little Sisters (forthcoming)

I hear you asking what our emblems are.

These, my dear reader, are pen and paper, computer and wifi (for research), a vase of imagination, a feather of creativity, a walking stick of kudos, and a mettle of bravado. 

My colleagues and I will vouch that our sacrifices are many: time stolen from family, sleep deprivation from working in full-time day jobs and part-time grave yard shifts writing, anguish when the page is blank and fear that our ideas have run out, cardiac palpitations as the deadlines loom and we still have half a book to write, to name but a few. And let’s also not forget, the long TBR list that forms the basic ingredient to good writing. And for some of us, research — years of research for this is what historical fiction and nonfiction requires. Add to this, the brainwave and physical effort to promote our work because publishing budgets for underrepresented, debut, and back-listed authors are small (unless, of course, your debut novel was acquired through a nine-way auction).

I think every writer is a saint. The Church of Writing has canonised many and these have become household names, sanctified and revered, much like the various saints (santi (m) and sante (f) in Italian) whose names Catholics invoke. 

And like the many saints, these canonised authors are mostly Caucasian/White. Such is the way with publishing. But that is starting to change. And I am so excited to be part of this change. More on my forthcoming picturebooks with Walker Books and Scholastic UK soon.

This aside, the question always comes back to why writers do what they do? And since we’re talking about saints today, let’s flip this and ask, “Why are people canonised?” Well, I can put my hand on my heart and say that I don’t write for fame and fortune (if only), or to enter the canons of literature (that’d be lovely, though). No one who has ever picked up a pen to write or typed away on their computers would say that their motivation is to be canonised. We write because our lives depend on it. We have stories to tell that we would like you to read. And, I feel, most of all, we write because we really do enjoy writing, hard as it is, under the various circumstances and situations that afflict us, and the stiff competition that we face in the publishing world as underrepresented and marginalised writers of colour. (And you know how I dislike this term). Too many adjectives for this nine-member strong community, I feel. But hey, I didn’t invent those descriptors. 

What can you do to help? I pray thee, my dear reader — go buy our books. If not, our efforts would have all been wasted, and that would be a shame. 

For those who are interested in understanding and rethinking diversity in publishing, click here


The Sporting Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RACE TO RIO, David Seow

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

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

Jospeh Schooling being comforted by his coach,  Sergio Lopez Miro.

Synergy of Humanity and the Multiplicity of Conflict

I am mesmerised by this image of a red cliff face and a row of women, backs bent, ferrying baskets trudging up a fenced mountain path. I see steam billowing from below joining the plumes of clouds at the mountain top. The women are all dressed alike—forming a line of uniformed white and brown dots—and there seems to be a leader, a lone woman sans basket at the top; she stands apart from the line. The incription describing the photo says, “Teamwork, coordination, and cooperation are essential for efficiency otherwise it will be chaos. An impression of once upon a time in Yunnan.”

Once upon a time, I used to live on a tropical island. I grew up thinking that its people have always lived harmoniously. I am too young to know about the racial tension and riots that took place there in the mid-1960s. When I was growing up, nobody talked about these riots. When I was growing up, my friends were Malays, Indians, Eurasians. When I was growing up, we recited a pledge that goes like this: 

“We, the citizens of Singapore,

pledge ourselves as one united people,

regardless of race, language or religion,

to build a democratic society

based on justice and equality

so as to achieve happiness, prosperity

and progress for our nation.”

I was proud to recite this, proud that a little island-nation made up of a hotchpotch of diverse people are living together harmoniously. I was proud to be who I am, I’m still proud, and so were my multi-ethnic friends, who are still proud of their identities too. I was, above all, proud that my little nation home was peaceful. 

But a recent spate of events that occurred on this little island in the tropics have led to much conflict in this multi-ethnic nation-state. These events put this pledge, the National Pledge, into question. These events filled me with consternation and rage, forcing me to re-examine (once more) my sentiments towards my identity and its links to Singapore.

The events led to me feeling conflicted about my position as a former citizen: Chinese-Singaporean, privileged, educated and upper middle-class. I was conflicted because I heard a Chinese man on video telling an Indian-Filipino man that he is ‘disturbing’ the race because he is “preying on a Chinese girl”, the Chinese girl being the Indian man’s date. The video spanned over 5 minutes of air time and was watched over 3,000 times since it was uploaded on Sunday (June 6). Such in-your-face racism is the first I’ve witnessed coming out of Singapore, I’ll be honest. If you’ll bear with me: the last time I lived again in Singapore was between 2013 to 2020. And as a privileged, somewhat wealthy and educated woman, who speaks English well, I was not subject to such vitriol. It’s not to say that racism doesn’t exist in Singapore. Racism always has. Casual racism has always existed; it  is very prevalent there. Motherhood statements like ‘Malays are lazy’, ‘Indians are smelly’ and ‘Ang Mohs are dirty’ are very much part of the national narrative. I have heard all these growing up in Singapore. My husband is ‘Ang Moh’, a European or ‘red hair’, even though he is from one of the Med countries. And you know what? ‘Chinese are greedy’, ‘Chinese always talk about money’ are real statements too. Then, there are other casual statements such as ‘Mix-raced girls are pretty’, ‘Eurasian kids are good looking’, and by Eurasian, the average Singaporean almost always means half-Asian, half-European because the racial category of ‘Eurasian’ means something else—Anglo-Indian. These statements were usually kept within individual communities because there was an unspoken agreement amongst its multi-ethnic citizenry that if these statements were vocalised, they would foment the already existing racial divide in the country and highlight the racial hierarchy within the society. 

Why the conflict and the rage? I am shocked that this man can so blatantly disturb a young man and his date in public by calling the young man, Mr Dave Parkash, aged 23, a ‘racist’ because he and his half-Chinese/half-Thai girlfriend are from ‘different races’. 

It is absolutely gobsmacking that this Chinese expounder of such Nazi race relations theories could be a lecturer at one of Singapore’s higher education institutions. And that he could have been passing down his limited and yes, supremacist ideas of race to his students. And doing so for many years, before he exposed himself publicly by calling himself a racist too and saying these “quite unacceptable” and “very worrying” things. [quoting Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam.]

I am mad because this man is not all that much older than me. And that his generation of ethnic Chinese, someone of the diaspora, where China hasn’t been the ‘Motherland’ for centuries, could behave this way. I am outraged because as a Peranakan-Chinese, I was always made to identify Chinese, and in a convoluted but unassociated way, made to choose Chinese (like this racist man) over being anything else, and especially over simply being Singaporean. 

And, what I’m most angry about is that most Chinese Singaporeans would cry out ‘racism’ ASAP when they leave Singapore and are suddenly not the dominant race anymore, but would hesitate to recognise that they can be racist too…in their own country.

Race, as we know, is a social construct, next to gender. The taxonomy of race is a colonial construct. And, unfortunately, post-colonial nations bear this legacy, which has served its independent governments equally well—maintain the status quo, uphold the dominant race. The Chinese race is dominant in Singapore. The indigenous Malay race is dominant in Malaysia and Indonesia. And racial tensions have co-existed next to racial harmony in these nations and the region since time immemorial. 

In the UK, where I live and have lived since 1992, anyone other than White is ‘Other’. White supremacists are real here and more vocal because they often spout Nazi-like theories and expound racist comments on social media. One just has to google a man named Laurence Fox for some vitriolic entertainment. But entertainment NOT. Fox’s white supremacist ideology and comments are far from entertaining. They are hurtful, damaging, and absolutely abhorrent. 

Here in the UK, I am not privileged. And I am proud not to be. Since the Pandemic, hatred for and towards East Asians and Southeast Asians has increased. I have lived with this everyday since returning to England in 2020. But I don’t live in fear. I live to challenge this. 

My children are Eurasians: half-Asian/half-European. They identify strongly with their dual heritage. They are examples of the rapidly increasing diversity in this world. And their children will be more multi hyphenated than them. The UK 2001/2011 census shows that “the number of dual heritage children up to four years old rose from 116,000 in 2001, to 220,000 in 2011.” [Source] And these statistics are old. In London, over 45% of the demographics is mixed-race.

My husband is European. Today, he would be very unwelcome in Singapore, judging from what some White expat friends living there are saying regarding the treatment of expats (somehow mainly targeted at the white expat community). Apparently, expats are stealing jobs and getting preferential treatment, and they’re racist too. Likewise, he is also very much unwelcome in the UK because…Brexit. And seen through the same lens by Brexit-voting English — here to steal their jobs.

The topic of racism is an uncomfortable subject to raise and discuss. But we need to sit with that discomfort and talk about it to our children. Being an ostrich about it doesn’t help to change the status quo. Singaporeans need to tell their children that casual and blanket statements like ‘Indians are smelly’ or ‘Malays are lazy’, even ‘Chinese are greedy’ and ‘Ang Mohs are dirty’ must be questioned and critically discussed. Schools have to take up the challenge to do this too because what good is there if students only pass exams and pass them well, but live in denial that they could be racist because their elders – grandparents, parents, and teachers – continue to be casually racist without being confronted and challenged. 

Here’s a true story:

My husband was having lunch one day. He was just biting into his roti paratha dunked in mutton curry when a Singaporean-Chinese male colleague said, “You like Indian food?” [surprised that a Med European could]. After my husband had answered in the affirmative, the Chinese man continued, “I’ll let you finish first and then tell you why I don’t eat Indian food.” [like he was being considerate]. All eager to share why he doesn’t eat Indian food, the man watched as the hubs gulped down his last bite of roti and then proceeded immediately to tell him a story about how ‘dirty’ Indians are, how ‘they are not clean and wipe their hands on their sarongs’ and ‘how they use the same hands to [fill in the blanks here] and then serve food.’ According to the male Chinese colleague, when he was a young lad, his uncle had told him this and showed him the dirty hand prints made of curry, pointing out to him that this is why ‘Indian people are dirty’. 

The hubs was not only upset, he was aghast that this Chinese man is a colleague, someone who works in and for a multi-national corporation that is all about diversity and inclusion, and yes, a degree holder. 

And most of all, what disturbed the hubs was that this Chinese colleague felt he could disclose such blatantly racist remarks to him because being of the privileged race, he saw himself as “equal” to a White man and therefore conversely, the White man would agree with his sentiments and, you’ve got it—pat his back in approval. 

This, my friend, is racism at its most real and most high. Racism at its most dangerous–internalised and verbalised.

So, when Singaporeans say that racism doesn’t exist or that they are a multi-ethnic and a harmonious society and SO racism cannot exist, please think again. 

But most of all, let’s consider this: ”Love is love. Love has no race, love has no religion. You and I should be able to love whoever we wanna love. Let’s not become like this man in the video.” – Mr Dave Parkash.

And mull over this: “To this man who may end up watching this, I hope you learn to stop being a racist and let us all live in harmony.” – Mr Dave Parkash

Mr Parkash’s words echo photographer Eng Chung Tong’s: “Teamwork, coordination, and cooperation are essential for efficiency otherwise it will be chaos.” 

If there is anything important to learn from this spate of events, it is that the nation must come together to talk about this and to never let this happen again. Otherwise, chaos would follow suit. Lest the island-nation forgets, the 1964 and 1969 race riots weren’t all that far away behind us. 

‘Synergy of Humanity’ by Eng Chung Tong, Malaysia, Shortlist, Open, Culture (Open competition), 2019 Sony World Photography Awards, “A humanity view of one of the minorities tribes in Yunnan going about their daily working life. Teamwork, coordination, and cooperation are essential for efficiency otherwise it will be chaos. An impression of once upon a time in yunnan.”


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?