The World in Multicolour

Dragons, rabbits and immigrant forebears: an interview with Joyce Chng

in: Children's books

Joyce Chng Singapore

This week I asked Joyce Chng some questions about her new picturebook, Dragon Dancer, and learnt about her home country of Singapore and her special love of dragons. I also found out what sends shivers down her spine…

Can you introduce yourself to our readers and tell them a little bit about where you live?

I am a Singaporean author. I write science fiction and fantasy, also a fair bit of Young Adult science fiction. I have recently completed a Young Adult/Middle Grade fantasy set in Qing China. Singapore is an island, at the tip of the Malay Peninsula. It is a multicultural country with many races and ethnic groups. We celebrate many festivals and traditions, due to the legacy of our immigrant forebears. I am Chinese, so I celebrate many festivals based on the Chinese lunar calendar.

Your picturebook, Dragon Dancer, is about to be published in the UK. What is it about?Dragon Dancer Joyce Chng Jeremy Pailler

Dragon Dancer is a story about a boy called Yao, who is a friend to a dragon who may or may not be real. Yao and Shen Long go dragon dancing. Shen Long chases the bad luck away, because it is Chinese New Year.

Why dragons? Why Chinese New Year?

I love dragons! And dragons are auspicious creatures, bringers of good luck and symbols of strength. Chinese New Year is one of the major lunar festivals on the calendar and one of my favourites. You get to wear new clothes and shoes, eat delicious delicacies and for children, get red packets filled with money. We also call Chinese New Year Chun Jie, which means Spring Festival.

Do you think your cultural and ethnic background influences your writing?

I think it does. When I write – say – a short story, I end up weaving the traditions into the tale. For example, in Rider, my YA science fiction novel, the main character is of Asian/Chinese descent, and throughout the story there are references to food, festivals and cultural practices. Some practices I remember from my childhood, like the use of fresh flowers to wash away bad or ill luck.

What do you think of Jérémy Pailler’s illustrations for Dragon Dancer?

I think they are gorgeous! They lift the story into another stratosphere! Do you know that I was born in the year of the Rabbit? There is an illustration where a rabbit watches Yao and Shen Long. That just sends shivers down my spine!

Dragon Dancer Joyce Chng Jeremy PaillerWhat messages do you hope readers will glean from the story?

I just hope that readers will enjoy the story as it is. Perhaps a message that it is alright to be afraid, to feel unsure. Perhaps a message that courage is also found on the inside. Yao doesn’t want to disappoint his grandfather, so perhaps a message about learning to respect our elders. And most of all, readers can learn how much Chinese New Year means to the Chinese.

Do you think children living in Singapore and children living in the UK will appreciate the story in different ways?

I would think so. The Chinese children living in Singapore live in a culture where they do get to celebrate Chinese New Year and other Chinese festivals. But I think it is a good way to encourage them to read about Chinese New Year from a different perspective. We have books on food, festivals, Chinese gods, lion dances – why not dragon dances? As for children in the UK, I think they would appreciate it because it tells them a story about Chinese culture and how a Chinese boy experiences it with his friend, a dragon. Furthermore, dragon dances are not just dragon dances. To me, a dragon becomes real when the music of the drums starts.

Dragon Dancer Joyce Chng Jeremy PaillerDo you think it’s important that children have access to books that represent cultures other than their own?

Definitely it is important! I think children can learn about cultures other than their own when they read books.

When you’re not writing picturebooks, what literary genres particularly appeal to you?

Science fiction and fantasy. Urban/contemporary fantasy. Steampunk.

Finally, can you give any aspiring authors any tips for their writing?

Write. Do not be afraid to fail. Write even more. Submit even more. Do not be afraid to ask for help. Write and write and write.

Thanks Joyce!


The Enigma of Invisibility – Four Reasons Why We Must Fight Against It

in: Children's books

Invisibility Flickr - attribution Loz Pycock‘Invisibility’ is an enigmatic word in children’s publishing. We use it when we note the lack of characters of mixed-race or culturally diverse backgrounds in mainstream children’s books. We use it when we ask: where are the black Harry Potters? Or the mixed-race Katniss Everdeens? Or the Asian Percy Jacksons? Or the Indigenous Charlies, Mathildas or Sophies? Despite many organisations campaigning for greater diversity in children’s books, non-white characters often remain essentially invisible.

On the other hand, the word ‘invisibility’ can also be applied to those on the exact opposite end of the spectrum. In books, no one thinks to mention that a character is white. Think how jarring it would be if we were to focus on a character’s whiteness when describing a classic novel. ‘This story is about a little white girl who chases a rabbit with a pocket watch down a rabbit hole.’ ‘This book is about an orphaned Caucasian boy who grows up with his muggle aunt and uncle.’ Whiteness, in books, is a given. It is a non-category. White characters are – in this respect – essentially invisible.

So how useful is a word that can mean its exact opposite with a simple switching of context? The answer, in fact, is very. It allows us to notice that books about diverse characters will always mention a character’s defining characteristics. If they don’t, we will assume that these characters are white. So somebody from somewhere has ‘ebony skin’ and ‘dark brown eyes’ and hair with ‘a thousand corkscrew curls’ while Mathilda or Sophie may or may not have dark brown eyes and curly hair but her ‘white skin’ is not worth a mention unless it is particularly pale.

Malorie Blackman Noughts & CrossesIn the defining Noughts and Crosses series, the clever trick Malorie Blackman plays on her readers is to reverse this usual dichotomy. For the first several chapters no mention is made of physical features, leading us to the false assumption that the family with wealth, power and influence is white, and the family that serves them is black. When Blackman inserts the innocuous little words ‘white skin’ several pages later, it hits us like a bombshell. Such a simple trick, but unbelievably effective.

Yet ‘invisibility’ as a term doesn’t end here. Invisibility in many traditional West African cultures, for instance, can take on quite different connotations. Véronique Tadjo, the celebrated children’s author from the Ivory Coast, argues that ‘invisibility’ is ‘the belief in vital forces animating all earthly creations, alive or dead’. Invisibility, in this West African sense, describes those aspects of the world that fall beyond the human, including the spirit world, the world of the dead, and the natural world. Invisibility here runs counter to the western rationalist assumption that the world is quantifiable, measurable, visible. To dismiss this West African world view as incompatible with our own understandings is to make other cultures’ belief systems essentially invisible.

Chicken in the Kitchen Cover Nnedi Okorafor Mehrdokht AminiNnedi Okorafor, author of our very own Chicken in the Kitchen, is an author who is acutely aware of invisibility – in all of its forms. Her strong identification with her Nigerian Igbo roots creates characters who are quintessentially hybrid figures, caught between the ‘vital forces’ that underpin their environments: characters with one foot in the spiritual world, and the other in the material world. Her books are suffused with what a western reader might term the magical or supernatural, investing them with certain traits common to the magical realist novels of Isabel Allende, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and others, or the shamanistic novels of Michelle Paver and Catherine Knutsson.

But Nnedi’s exploration of invisibility is distinctly West African, with a focus on objects with special significance to traditional West African cultures such as masquerades and spirit faces, the language of Nsibidi (a set of symbols indigenous to south-eastern Nigeria), and traditional juju or witchcraft, which she underpins with a rich lattice of African literary references.

Yet, as an African American, Nnedi is not unaware of the alternative understandings of invisibility mentioned above. Her characters struggle with their hybrid identities in the face of cultural and racial prejudice. Just take this brilliant paragraph from page 3 of Nnedi’s Akata Witch:

‘You see why I confuse people? I’m Nigerian by blood, American by birth, and Nigerian again because I live here. I have West African features, like my mother, but while the rest of my family is dark brown, I’ve got light yellow hair, skin the colour of “sour milk” (or so stupid people like to tell me), and hazel eyes that look like God ran out of the right colour. I’m albino.’

Akata Witch Nnedi OkoraforNigerian, American, Nigerian-American, West African, black, white, albino… The novel’s young protagonist, Sunny, is caught at a crossroads between her multiple identities, pigeonholed to such a degree that she literally disappears behind all the labels. And here we find a fourth understanding of invisibility – the pervasive attitude that ethnically diverse characters must look, act or think in a particular way. The grouping together of whole races into groups with stereotypical features does nothing to help young children dismantle the root causes of racism.

As a publishing house, Lantana aims to shine a light onto the insidiousness of invisibility – the kind that erases characters of diverse cultural backgrounds from mainstream children’s books while at the same time underlining a set of pre-inscribed racial features in glaring red pen. Our books feature characters of diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds as the (unique) heroes of their own stories – not pigeonholed, stereotyped, made to fit some kind of superimposed racial label, or given a secondary role. We fight against the kind of invisibility that allows only white children to go on adventures…


Image by Loz Pycock shared under Creative Commons License via Flickr