Eva Wong Nava lives between two worlds. She reads copiously and writes voraciously. She believes in connecting Asia to Europe and America, and finds immense pleasure in telling her English daughters stories of Singapore where she spent a big part of her childhood.
Eva’s children’s book, Open - A Boy’s Wayang Adventure is about an autistic boy who yearns to make friends and be accepted. He must finally find the courage within himself to step forward and perform on stage. The publisher, Ethos Books, has called Open “a gift calling to the largeness of our hearts.”
Eva holds a degree in English Literature and Language from the University of Hull where Philip Larkin was once the University Librarian (and the reason why she chose to go there!); a Post-Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) from University College London where the Institute of Education resides, and a certificate in Art Writing from Sotheby’s Institute which she undertook to better understand what the craft entails. She holds a M.A. in Art History from The Open University, and has taught children and adults how they can use writing for communication and play. She is the founder of CarpeArte Journal, an online space, which publishes works of flash fiction. Eva’s flash fiction have appeared in various places and her writing on art have been published in international art journals.
How I came to adapt a film into a book about a boy on the autism spectrum:
I’m often asked, “Why autism?” When I tell people about my children’s book, Open - A Boy’s Wayang Adventure. This question is usually followed by ‘What’s Wayang?’ from readers and friends who are not from Singapore or Malaysia.
My path as a writer has been a long and complicated one. I started a food blog some years back to cope with the loneliness of living in a new city; food triggers memories for most of us and I looked to writing about food to recover those lost memories of home. Moving again meant that the food memoir blog took a hiatus. Not long into moving to Singapore, I found catharsis in writing Flash Fiction and founded a journal where I publish my stories as well as giving others a space to publish theirs. I also started writing down the stories I told my daughters at bedtime when they couldn’t go to sleep. How I came to write a book about a boy on the autism spectrum is both a coincidence and an accident.
A Coincidence Leading to Learning about Autism
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a subject close to my heart. Many years ago, when I started out on reading psychology, I met a man at residential school who acted somewhat “weirdly”: for want of a better term, that was how I’d described his behavior to other people.
This man would garble on to nobody in particular or repeat the same question at least five times, not stopping for a response. Additionally, he would talk to me without eye contact so I never knew if he was addressing me or someone else. This man was one of the many psychology students at The Open University Psychology residential school. And he was smart! But nobody would sit with him at meal times which broke my heart. One day at dinner, I chose to sit next to him. After that day, William and I became friends and he would talk to me whilst looking at his fork; I learnt more about psychology from him than the recommended textbooks I’d to read. He liked custard, I remember, and would always ask for custard even at breakfast.
Many years later, I would come to meet a wonderful woman, Agnes, who taught me all I know about ASD. Her son, Christy, is an autistic but a very different one from William. Christy is non-verbal with a rare genetic condition that also causes other health issues. Christy presents many symptoms associated to autism like rocking and a sudden outburst of emotions when overstimulated.
By hanging out with Agnes, I began to understand how challenging it is to live with autism and to parent an autistic child. I learnt and lived vicariously through her journeys. I make no claims to know everything there is to know about ASD; even experts don’t have all the answers. How I respond to autism has been largely due to my own curiosity about people and life, and how we all cope in our own ways with what life throws at us.
A Happy Accident Leading to a Book
Open - A Boy’s Wayang Adventure is an adaptation of a film—The Wayang Kids—produced in Singapore. It is a collaboration with the creator of the film, Raymond Tan of Brainchild Pictures. When Raymond contacted me to write a story based on his film, I jumped at the opportunity because instinctively, I felt it is a book that I’ve been waiting to write. I’d met Raymond during the 2014 Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC), held annually in Singapore. He was there to present his first film—The Wayang Boy—which I’d watched on my trip expatriating to Singapore. I told him this and thus begun a friendship and partnership that has led to the book. This is the accidental part.
In writing the book, I had to be very careful about representation. Individuals on the Spectrum vary one from the other and they are all individuals like neurotypical people. But because the character and narrator of the book is a personality taken from a film, my job as a writer became slightly easier. I based the conversations in the book on what is not said or heard in the film. I also based the character, Open, on all the things I’ve heard and learnt from friends who live with autistic individuals or are parenting them. This is the coincidental part.
Why the book? I’ve come from the UK where there is a lot more awareness of autism. Likewise, in the United States where I have some friends who are parenting autistic children. Although there is some awareness in Singapore with a school, an association, and several support groups set up to support parents with autistic children, there is still a need for more outreach. This is because schools in Singapore are organised differently from those in the UK and America. Schools are either mainstream or “special” here. This is a way that the Ministry of Education in Singapore manage students’ access to the national curriculum which is considered very rigorous by international and local standards. Managing expectations is never a bad thing, I feel. However, it means that mainstream children would have very little contact with someone on the autistic spectrum, unless there is a sibling or relative in their lives that they can relate the condition to. Many young children in Singapore have yet to hear of autism.
Additionally, in a society like Singapore’s, any mental disorder is considered a taboo, and often not spoken about. Since autism is viewed under such a label, parents with autistic children are often left without adequate support, although the situation has improved across the board in recent years. This was what I’d gathered from speaking to some people who are parenting autistics.
Raymond and I discussed how we can use both literature and the moving image to increase the level of awareness in the communities here. The movie came first, then the book which is a unique collaboration because this has not been done before in Singapore, to our knowledge. The book is a bridge to help audiences relate better to Benjamin Oh, the protagonist in The Wayang Kids.
In researching this book, I’ve learnt more things about autism. Hence, I have increased my own awareness of the condition.
On Writing For Children
Have I ever considered being a children’s writer? In a way, yes but never in this way. I used to make up stories for my daughters who wouldn't go to sleep after their bedtime story. It was just easier to make stories up in the darkness as they are slowly lulled to sleep with my voice. In these stories, I would make sure to tell them something which they can relate to. A character from Peru has a pet parrot who would not eat the fruits his owner put out. This was during a phase when one of my girls started to fuss about food. This same character was also shy about making friends; I have a daughter who is terribly introverted and find it difficult to make friends. Through the years, these characters became my daughters’ friends. One in particular, Mr Chimichanga, is so beloved by my younger daughter that she thought he was a real person and would ask friends who’d been to Peru if they’ve met Mr Chimichanga.
In writing for children, the characters in the book have to be people that kids can relate to; like all book characters, they must be relevant. In the book, Open, also finds it hard to make friends; many children whether autistic or not can relate to this challenging aspect of socialization. Open is similar in many ways to the other kids in his class except for one little quirk—he loves to draw and does nothing else but sketch, and he sketches only monkeys.
In representing a boy on the spectrum, I hope that readers on the spectrum are able to recognize a little of themselves in Open. Nobody should ever feel left out or be left out because in life there are all sorts of people, like there are all different types of leaves and plants. In nature, every plant matters as each contributes to the ecosystem in their own way. Hence, the hashtag for the book is #OpenEveryChildMatters.
The book is also about the Wayang, a Malay word used in Singapore and Malaysia to refer to the Chinese opera. So, the story also raises awareness of a dying art form brought to Singapore’s shores by Chinese immigrants during the 19th century.
In representing a heritage unique to Singapore, I’m hoping that the book would also reach out to heritage enthusiasts who want to give their children and/or grandchildren something they remember with nostalgia in a Singapore long long ago. For many who have made Singapore their home, one knows that nostalgia is something many of us living here cling to in a nation where things move quickly and change irreversibly.
Researching the history of the Chinese opera has been a fun-filled journey for an art historian like me. Weaving historical elements into fiction satisfied the (historical) storyteller in me. Writing this book has been a joy. It was a book that called for me to write it—accidentally and coincidentally.
On Writer’s Block
Is it accidental or coincidental that writers may suffer from writer’s block every now and then. I don’t have the answers to that. I know, however, that it’s inevitable every writer comes face to face with a brick wall every now and then: we run of stories to tell or ways of telling the stories we have—it’s a dreadful feeling.
Some people have asked me how I cope with writer’s block. What works for me is reading. I’m always inspired by other people’s stories and how they tell them. As I write for children, I feed that inner child with illustrated books that give me a visual perspective into the story world. This is because I love art, next to books. So, it comes naturally that the second best thing I do when I’m out of creative juices is visit an art gallery or a museum. There I find stories in the paintings and artifacts I see. The cavernous museum space also allows me to wander and this often connects the meandering thoughts in my head.
Failing that, I go to the movies. There’s nothing as inspiring as watching a story told through moving images. My favorite movie so far is Coco.
About the Book:
Open is a 10-year-old boy with a curiosity for life and the things that happen around him. He is on the autism spectrum and loves to draw. He is especially good at drawing monkeys. When his class is picked to perform in a school play of a Chinese opera story based on the Monkey King’s Journey to the West, Open must find it in himself to overcome his obstacles and courageously step on stage.
The book is an adaptation of a film, The Wayang Kids, by Singapore based studios, Brainchild Pictures. In the movie, Open is a non-verbal autistic. The book gives voice to Open, allowing readers to enter his inner world, the world of his emotions.
In writing the book, the author hopes to cultivate a love for reading literature among middle-schoolers. By interweaving historical elements of the Chinese Opera, represented by the motif of the monkey, a heritage linked to Singapore can also be unpacked. Importantly, the author hopes to spread awareness of inclusivity in our community.
By writing about autism, the author hopes to spread awareness of inclusivity in our community. The book highlights the importance of tolerance and acceptance among young children for individuals on the autism spectrum. Although fictional, the story portrays some of the trials and tribulations that certain special needs individuals have to endure by debunking the misconceptions that such individuals lack intelligence and feelings.
Both movie and book hope to address issues such as the challenges of parenting a special needs child, how autistic children are viewed by their peers, the importance of peer friendships and acceptance, to name some themes running through the story. The publisher, Ethos Books, has called Open a "[...] gift calling to the largeness of our hearts."
Denise Phua, President of the Autism Resource Center and an advocate for Special Needs, has commended the writing and publishing of this book.
Where to buy the book: https://www.ethosbooks.com.sg/products/open-a-boy-s-wayang-adventure
Author website: https://evawongnava.com
Brainchild Pictures: http://www.brainchildpictures.com
On Coco: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coco_(2017_film)