As an author who strongly believes in a more open and inclusive world, Eva Wong Nava has certainly opened our eyes through her book Open: A Boy’s Wayang Adventure.
But that’s not all this empathetic author has to offer. Buckle up and get your notebooks ready as you would not want to miss her parenting tips or pre-reading ritual!
1) You seem to travel a lot. Is there any particular book you’ll bring as the perfect travelling companion?
Itchy feet must always find somewhere new to tread on; I’m always excited about going away. One of the reasons for this is getting to choose the books I’d like to travel with. Today, these books are on my Kindle which has saved me quite a bit of luggage space. But I still pack a paper version of a book to thumb through on the plane or in the hotel room out of habit.
If I’m up to re-reading a book on holiday, I’ll be taking with me Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. This is a superb book, full of intrigue, suspense and simply heartwarming. It is a window into the world of Shaker Heights and a page turner at every juncture. But the world extends beyond Shaker Heights into our own world if we were to live insular and self-righteous lives.
2) Do you engage in any “pre-reading ritual”? (E.g. Finding the perfect time to read or fluffing up your favourite pillow)
My favourite time of the day is the hour before bedtime. When my children were little, it was cuddling up in bed, under their duvets, our heads propped on fluffy pillows, soft toys surrounding us, reading together, that formed part of our night-time reading routines. As they got older and became independent readers, they would read on their own. My routine consists of me snuggling in my own bed after a cool or hot shower, depending on where I am, lathering myself in lovely lavender cream—my favourite scent—taking out my Kindle or book and finding the last page I was on and continuing to read until my eyes start to droop. My dreamspace is filled by the bookworld of the book I was reading.
3) When was the last time you fell in love with any character from a book?
I’m not supposed to fall in love again, I’m happily married!!
There are too many and the last time I fell in love with a character was really the last time I read a book which was definitely last night at bedtime. I’m currently reading Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists. The characters are slowly emerging but I’m not in love with any yet. Love takes time to emerge and evolve. But I can feel a pang in my heart that’s starting to take root for someone in Tan’s misty world set in the highland of the Camerons.
4) Can you use a book to describe each of your daughters?
5) As a mother, has there been a time where you struggled to get your daughters to read? If so, would you mind sharing any parenting advice with others parents on how to get your children to read?
With my elder daughter, there was less of a struggle to get her reading. She loves the world of books and my struggle with her was in getting her to get her nose out of one. The challenge for me was to encourage her to read a variety of genres. She loves fantasy and sci-fi and would devour books from these genres. For my other daughter, the struggles are different. There is an eight year gap between the two, so reading choices and preferences reflect this gap. I’d say that personalities reflect this gap too. The younger loves books that are “real” (her own words) and by that she means any stories with a historical backdrop and stories which aren’t fantasy. So the opposite is true here for her: to get her to read fantasy, for example, and to have her understand that fantasy and “real” books are both fiction.
Living in different countries (we have been expatriates in France, now Singapore) also adds to the struggle. In France, English books were not easy to find; Paris has one English bookstore—WH Smith—and their titles on offer weren’t always enticing. We joined the American Library in Paris so that the girls could get access to English books. Thank goodness for online shopping, too.
My girls are independent readers now, given their ages. I feel that the best way to get your kids reading is to start them young: reading aloud to them at bedtime forms a good reading habit, taking them to storytelling sessions at the public library so they can hear stories being read and see them being performed, and, most importantly, being readers yourselves. Make books part of your modus vivendi, your lifestyle, make discussing books at the dinner table a topic, stop by a bookstore whenever you can, visit the public library at weekends, and have curfew times for technology (Kindle not included) to factor in reading time. These are the habits we have in my family.
6) It’s been mentioned on your Facebook’s About Page that you “read copiously”. What is your lull time between finishing a book and picking up the next, and the number of books you read each month?
I guess I read everything and anything. As long as there are words that I recognise, I’ll read them. It’s been this way since I was a child. However, this doesn’t mean that I’m not discerning about what I read, though.
My reading choices have changed with time and age but I would still read anything and everything I can feast my eyes on. These days I read in Italian, French and Spanish because I love the Romance languages and I read in these languages for the pleasure of experiencing how European writers play with their languages.
There are so many books out there now as more and more people are writing and being published, whether on the internet as self publishing authors (of short stories or novellas) or in print as published authors represented by a publishing house. This means that I have to be more conscious of what I choose as reading material.
I pick up my next book as soon as I’ve finished the one before. I haven’t counted how many books I go through a month because that’s not my raison d’être for reading. But I can say that I read up to three books at a time. It’s a little quirk of mine which my husband finds fascinating. Right now, I’m reading Ministry of Moral Panic by Amanda Koe Lee, a book of short stories, which I love since I am a Flash Fiction writer as well as a children’s book author, Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover as I’m exploring the differences between fiction and memoirs (are there differences?) and The Vegetarian (Italian version) by Han Kang which was translated from the English from its original language, Korean, because I’m interested in its three-way translation; I take my time with foreign editions because I’m reading to keep up with another language as well as learning new vocabulary. The Vegetarian is a dark and layered tale replete with melancholic horror, juxtaposing sanity and madness, pain and pleasure. All these are universal themes no matter the language they are expressed in.
7) You’ve done a couple of public readings so far. Is there a particular incident that happened that made you feel an immense pride in what you’re doing?
During an author visit at an international school, I got to meet a boy who shared his experience of being on the spectrum by talking about “my autism”, as he calls it, in front of a theatre full of students. He told me he wasn’t nervous at all when I shared with him how nervous I was. After my presentation, his home-room teacher bought a copy of the book for him and two weeks later, the boy’s mother texted me to say that her son can’t put down Open and keeps on going back to parts of the book that he felt was about him. This touched me tremendously and made me see the importance of the work I do: I write to raise awareness, be it through my Flash Fiction or children’s book. Additionally, to see that someone on the spectrum who is already aware of his condition relating to a fictional character in a book I’d written gave me immense encouragement and highlighted the importance of representation in children’s books.
8) Have you ugly-cried to any books? Would you mind sharing why or why not?
Ooh! This is a toughie. I really cannot remember if I’ve ever ugly-cried through a book. My memory is a sieve these days but I must’ve cried some while reading certain books. To answer this question honestly and contemporaneously, I would say that I did tear up while reading Little Fires Everywhere. There was a line about parenting that Ng penned so well which got me choking up. It was an astute sentence, so well-written, so honest and raw; the emotions that she wrote about can only come from a personal experience of being a parent. As a mother, I get it! As a writer, I’m jealous!
9) If we told you, to name 3 titles that you love, what would they be? Why did you choose these 3?
They would be:
1) The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov because it is simply fabulous: witty, set in a historical period (in Soviet Union during Stalin’s regime) with the plot traversing two geographical regions — Russia and Jerusalem— and is very, very cleverly crafted and written;
2) The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern because it is magical, other-wordly and hauntingly mesmerising;
3) Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman because this debut novel made me cry, laugh and reflect on the reality of leading lonely lives amidst the hussle and bussle of life around us; Honeyman’s unreliable narrator is eccentric, quirky and very relatable to me. (oh! so here’s another book that did make me ugly-cry!)
10) Has there been any books that gave you a major case of nostalgia?
Yes, I was born in Singapore and spent my childhood here. When I was reading Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain in England, I had a knot in my stomach from homesickness. Although I didn’t experience the war years personally nor lived in British Malaya, being born in independent Singapore, Tan’s debut novel brought me back to a familiar time and place, evoking a sense of nostalgia. Since living in Singapore again, I’ve been reading local writers like Catherine Lim and Josephine Chia and their stories have also brought back some memories of growing up in Singapore.
11) Just as all writers have experienced a writer’s block, have you ever experienced a reader’s block? What was the book?
This is first I’ve heard of a “reader’s block”. By that, I’m assuming that you mean what book have I found difficult to finish. Well, I’ve been trying to read War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy) forever! Another one is The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. I love Russian novels but I do find them quite challenging sometimes, especially when the bulk of my reading time is just before I start to snooze away.
12) Children often get asked what do they want to be when they grow up. Was being a writer part of your childhood ambition?
Actually, I wanted to be a Prawn Mee hawker! I grew up in Serangoon Gardens and we would eat often at Chomp Chomp Food Centre. There was a beautiful woman with an hourglass figure who was always elegantly dressed in her samfoo, make-up intact in the sweltering tropical heat, she exuded poise and calm. Her buffooned hair was kept in place by tons of hairspray; she was an apparition from the 1950s—a period that fascinates me—and she served us our delicious prawn mee soup in a zen-like manner that distinguished her from the rest of the hawkers. Later, I found out that she managed her food stall alone; she was the “ladyboss”. For the longest time, I thought that her soup must taste so good because she was the most beautiful woman in Serangoon Gardens and a cool, calm and collected boss. I wanted to be this beautiful, this powerfully independent and cook great prawn broth.
I’ve always written. I started out just journaling when I was in my tweens. I’ve always kept a diary or journal of sorts as a girl and this was my source of respite and solace. It was to the journal that I ranted my frustrations at, penned my love stories to and jotted my reflections in. I also wrote stories in my journals which I created in the liminal space between slumber and wakefulness. I never did stop writing even when I grew up.
When I grew up a little more and became a mother, I would invent stories to lull my toddlers to sleep. Many were quite nonsensical stories and always featured a character from Peru who was really a child in a man’s body (don’t ask me why) and he was very fussy about food. He has a pet parrot who talks to him and tells him what to do and a housekeeper from Scotland who made lovely pies and cut up fruit into animal shapes for better digestion. The children didn’t mind how silly the stories were and for the longest time, they thought that my character, Mr Chimichanga, was a real person.
Perhaps I did want to be a writer when I grew up, afterall.
13) Has any of your reading habits shaped the way you write?
My English teacher at college always said, “You write what you read.” and H P Lovecraft said, “All attempts at gaining literary polish must begin with judicious reading […].” So, yes, I write the way I read. I tend to read stories that reflect real lives, what my second daughter calls “real books”. The Flash pieces that I write reflect this. I’m interested in how art or craft mimics life and how stories draw the reader in because they are inventive yet authentic.