“When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society which they are part.”
~ Rudine Sims Bishop
OWNING OUR NARRATIVES
“It is probable that many people who would consider themselves extremely sophisticated and ‘advanced’ are actually carrying through life in an imaginative background which they acquired in childhood.”
I’ve been fascinated for years about memory. How do we remember what we remember? What are our memories made of? And how our reading diet forms memories of our childhood.
My childhood was a very Southeast Asian one. I was born in Singapore and lived there until I was almost twenty-two. So, when asked to recall childhood memories, I have visions of the merlion spurting water, visiting the Jurong Bird Park, an open-air aviary of exotic birdlife and the natural world. It was there I first saw a vulture, an eagle, and a peacock. And when I think about food, I taste garlic, coconut and sambal, and satay with peanut sauce. Of books, I remember Noddy, Famous Five, St Clare’s, and Malory Towers. And, Nancy Drew—who can forget her? For the longest time, I wanted to be a sleuth and fancied myself very good at solving mysteries. There was always a mystery to solve in the neighbourhood or in the house: a missing cat, someone’s dog disappearing; a missing pair of shoes or a pair of flip flops half chewed. I was never really into comics, but when I did read them, it was Archie or Beano. Animal stories weren’t my thing either, but Rupert the Bear burst into my life one day and as an adult I have fond and vivid memories of what Rupert looks like. The Rupert Bear Annuals weren’t really animal stories as such, but the anthropomorphised bear with his red jumper and checked yellow trousers filled me with adventurous imagination; the English life in the countryside was so appealing and I did wonder what life would be like to have picnics and to ramble about in the grassland. But of all these books and characters, Heidi still remains my favourite. I was there in the Swiss Alps with her and her friends, Peter and Clara. I could smell the fresh Alpine air, see what her little wooden log cabin, the one where she lived with her grandfather, looks like. The images in the book enhanced my imagination. I really did think I had an Alpine life. And then I grew up and soon forgot about Heidi as I met other characters in my reading journey.
Some eighteen years later on the slopes of the Italian Alps, I had an epiphany, while walking with my little daughter, who is now in her early twenties. I had one of those out-of-Eva experiences. By that, I mean that I took a step out of my body and let my subconscious lead me or take me to another place; I saw myself on the hills with an old friend. Some people call this imagination. Some say that it is a moment of epiphany. Many would suggest that it’s a slightly cray-cray thing for a person to do. Whatever you may think, I had a totally out-of-body experience that summer’s day in the Italian Alps.
That moment, that moment of epiphany is what I call my Heidi Moment (and I’ve had many since). There I was on the slopes of the Italian Alps eating a chunk of Fontina, a local hard cheese a little like a French Comtè, and a bread roll stuffed with prosciutto, when I suddenly thought of my friend Heidi. I became acquainted with Heidi when I was between eight and ten years old. I saw Heidi again on those slopes that day, heard her tinkling laugh as she and Peter chased each other barefoot. I had read about her adventures, her friendship with Peter the goatherd, about her relationship with her grandfather with gleeful voracity. It didn’t matter that I was living in tropical Singapore and had never been near a mountain. The tallest natural mount Singapore has is a hill in the westerly side of the island. It didn’t matter that I’ve also not seen a goat or met a goatherd when growing up, and that my childhood was nothing like Heidi’s, except maybe for the presence of a cantankerous and chauvinistic grandfather. And, even then, my grandfather didn’t turn out like Heidi’s either.
That was the moment when I realised what stories can do. It also made me understand that as a parent, I must pick with care and mindfulness what my children will read. Their childhoods depend on it.
As a child, born not long after Singapore’s independence, my diet of books consisted of what many British children were reading in the 70s and 80s in Britain. Apart from Heidi, I devoured fairytales and folktales…of the European sort. I read only in English. My world consisted of big bad wolves, hungry children left to die in the woods, wicked stepmothers, pigs who could talk, Greek gods and Roman goddesses. There were witches as well, stirring smoking cauldrons. I didn’t know about the Pontianak until I had left Singapore. That was in the early 90s. And, who was Badang? I had to ask when this Malay strongman’s name was mentioned. I was already in my early forties by then. Sang Kancil was an animal I knew only as the mouse-deer. I didn’t know its central position and symbolism in the mythology and fable of Singapore and Malaysia. Actually, I didn’t even know that Singapore had fables. I only knew of Aesop’s.
My childhood memory was built on stories that had nothing to do with my identity, my sense of belonging or my culture. However, it did me well when I went to an English University to read English Literature. It was at Uni that I realised I had no shared ethnic history of reading with other Singaporeans; there was only one other Singaporean in my year, and we bonded over DH Lawrence and TS Eliot. I didn’t know any Southeast Asian or Singapore folktales or folklore, apart from the Monkey King’s Journey West, which isn’t even Singaporean, that I could share with fellow literature enthusiasts and classmates. Also, I had scant knowledge of WWII other than from the perspective of the colonisers. I knew of British war heroes but not of Malayan or other Southeast Asian ones. And, the stories of Chinese culture written in English I’d read as an adult to my children were all from America, written by Asian Americans or appropriated by non-Asian Americans as retellings of Chinese heritage and culture. Although these were stories that I could relate to since many were about food that Asians eat, for example, dumplings and noodles, I did wonder what perspective did my daughters have on half of who they are. They definitely didn’t only eat dumplings and noodles (the American kind) and saw that as their heritage food. And, the sad thing is this: being part-British, my children also didn’t have any stories of their East Asian heritage written by British East Asians that they could refer to. The diversity gap in Great Britain is appallingly so bad that less than 4% of books produced in the UK are representative of the diverse population who call the United Kingdom home. I am one of two British East Asians and one of two Southeast Asians writing for children in England, as far as I know. That’s because I know who the British East Asian is and who the British Southeast Asian is. Small world, I know.
Why am I telling you this story? I learnt only in my late thirties that it’s so important for our children to own their own narratives. Our stories make us who we are; they form the memories of our childhood. Singaporean children need to read a diet of books consisting of stories that come out of Singapore and Southeast Asia. Singapore’s literary history is a melange of western and eastern literature and that is to every Singaporean’s advantage. By eastern, I also mean South Asian, because these are Singaporeans too, so it would behove the Singaporean child to learn about a culture and heritage that is part of the fabric of Singapore. But apart from this, Singapore has a rich cultural and social history that can be shared through stories with our children. I would love to hear more stories from the Eurasian community.
A diverse diet and a well balanced one is best as all nutritionists would counsel because it builds a healthy body. This is just as true of our psyches. Stories live in our subconscious and find their way into the surface, our conscience, when we least expect them to. A rich and balanced diet of stories from our own world and the world beyond our seas helps us construct a memory of childhood that we can identify with, be proud of, and own.
We have stories of World War II that we can share lest the children forget.
We have stories of courageous women who have made a difference and contributed to our society lest the children think we have none.
We have folktales and folklore that we can retell lest the children forget the magic and mythos that formed our oral storytelling history.
I am proud of my reading diet. I am who I am because of the many wonderful books I’ve read as a child. But I wish that I had a teacher or a caregiver who pointed the way to stories that made me see the rich fabric of tales and myths that blew in the monsoon breezes in a land called Singapura.
This post was written for an author talk for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content: Owning Our Narratives
READ: In conversation with Javie Huxley, Khadija Osman and Eva Wong Nava
Addressing the 1%: Three women working to diversify children’s literature
Eva Wong Nava
For more information about Reflecting Realities in Children’s Books.
Tell Me Another Story: Diversity in Children’s Literature
How storybooks have failed British Chinese children.
Publishers defend sensitivity readers as vital tool following author criticism.