On Autism Awareness Month and Author Visits

The Daily English Newspaper in Bhutan

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

I’ve been busy celebrating. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, news of the Notre Dame in flames. 

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

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

Then more news.

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

The lump in my throat grew bigger. 

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

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

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

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




Frida Kahlo and Owning Your Voice

©debasmita daspgupta

Her uni-brow is unmistakably her best feature. They are united in giving this Mexican artist a unique visual presence. In fact, I would go so far as to say that her uni-brow speaks the loudest of all her features.

As I meditate on this visual rendition of Frida Kahlo, I think of artistic styles. I think of what style means and how style permeates all works of art — visual and textual. I recall how styles are diverse, how they can be synthesized and how they reflect our different cultures and heritage. I remember just what it is about certain styles that capture our eye, fire our imaginations, squeeze our hearts. Looking at this rendition of Kahlo, I am reminded of why the artworks of Debasmita Dasgupta intrigue me: her use of colours is refreshingly sharp and balanced. (@debasmitadasgupta)

Debasmita or Smita Dasgupta is an advocate for change. Her mission is to change mindsets one artwork at a time. And this is mostly why I like her style. Smita started My Father’s Illustrations to encourage conversations about the roles of fathers in our lives, how fathers can bring change in their daughters’ lives. Smita says that “I started this series because there is an urgent need to engage fathers, who are mostly the decision-makers in our families, to engage in dialogue to protect girl child rights and to amplify the voices of those fathers who are fearlessly fighting for their daughters and inspiring them to be good and do better,” (source: Buzzfeed)

Smita and I met at a Nüwa Connect event for people and professionals working in the arts and culture sectors. This start-up company was founded by Elaine Friedlander and it has organised several meet-up events since its launch in 2017. I love being part of the Nüwa network and community because it is a platform that gives voice to people in the arts and culture sectors while ensuring essential support and sustenance for those who are free-lancing in the industry. I met Smita at my first Nüwa event and since then, it’s been new beginnings and happily-ever-after. We both found that our values are aligned in the way we use our creativity. She is a cause-based illustrator and I, a cause-based author. She is changing mindsets one picture at a time and I am changing mindsets one book at a time. After connecting, we met up to discuss a collaboration.

And that is how she became the illustrator for my forthcoming debut children’s picture book — The Boy Who Talks in Bits and Bobs. The book is published by an indie publishing house – Armour Publishing – under its Live to Inspire series.

Having the privilege to pick an illustrator to work on a children’s picture book is rare. As most traditionally published authors will tell you, it is often the publishing house that chooses the illustrator for your manuscript. Of course, the author is given some say in the illustrations and will be able to pick from a number (say three to four) styles which the publisher suggests. All picture book authors know that it is the illustrations in a children’s picture book that have the loudest voices. But, the illustrator must be able to translate visually the author’s words without the illustrations overtaking the author’s textual voice. This is often a challenging task.

When I first met Smita, I was immediately drawn to her quiet presence. There was something about this petite Indian national that captured my attention. Was it her beguiling kohl-rimmed eyes, made larger by black kohl? Was it her bright smile — heartfelt and sincere — that reaches her eyes, a smile that draws you in? This was all before I saw her artworks. We chatted, we exchanged contact details and she sent me a work portfolio. This was when I became bewitched. The colours, the hues, the characters — all with a quiet presence but big diverse voices.

Diversity in fiction and art are two very important topics in the children’s book industry. It is a hotly debated trend as publishers respond to the need for more diverse books. The need to offer diverse books where children can see and hear themselves represented has become all the more important as we globalise further and as political rhetoric divides people and nations. I hope that this trend becomes entrenched, embedded and is here to stay forever and not merely a reaction to the politics around us. Leaving politics aside, we need to ask ourselves what diversity really means because diversity means many things to different people. In terms of children’s literature, what exactly is diversity in fiction for kids? Why is it important for writers and illustrators and those in the creative arts to unite in giving voice to those with different needs, to those who are differently abled, to those who are marginalised and to those who come from different cultures from our own?

I’m so thrilled to be talking about Diversity in Fiction at a Nüwa Connect event, coming 21st February at Centre42, a venue that promotes the arts in Singapore. Come connect with me and the rest of the Nüwa members at Centre42, 10 to 11:30 am. Here is the link for more information.