Engaging fact-based fiction close to home


Comic/Graphic novel review, from Tokyo, about Singapore – Sonny Liew’s “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye” (Epigram Books, 2015; Pantheon Books, 2016) created a stir with news of a S$8,000 grant being withdrawn on the day before the book’s Singapore launch in May 2015. Despite some reviews online suggesting some reasons, it was still quite a shocking turn of events.

Having earmarked it since then, I finally got my hands on a copy directly from the local publisher online almost two years on.

Sparingly bonded, each time I reread it, I flip each page with utmost care, each turn creaking on the spine, threatening to pull the book apart. The stories inked into the pages though come through vibrantly.

Charlie Chan is a comics artist who lived through the post-war history of this island nation, which was famously propelled from third world to first in half a century, maybe less. In the course of that time, the world saw the rise of Lee Kwan Yew, known widely as the nation’s founding father, and left behind some other people and forces that inevitably helped shape the path of its young history.

The author blends his visibly apparent illustrations among Charlie’s and other historical snippets, positioning Charlie and the facts closer to the past, while assuming a modern day tone himself to explain things to present day readers. Charlie’s repertoire across several comic genres in a single book is also refreshingly entertaining.

Well, this multi-layering is all the master storyteller’s work, a work of fact-based fiction that clinched six nominations and won three Eisner awards. Coupled with the withdrawn grant, the attention drew more reviews on the story and artwork, yet I felt many missed the bit that I enjoyed most – reading a work that touched very close to home.

I particularly liked how Malaysia or Malaya played a part almost throughout the book’s narrative, especially Sang Kancil, the clever mouse deer. That is simply due to cultural, geography and political ties – Singapore is just across the 1-km Causeway, and became independent in 1965 just two years after merging to form Malaysia. It is even more natural considering the fact that the author himself was born in Malaysia, and moved across the straits at 5.

As a child, I remember classmates who commuted daily across the Causeway. They were always at school before me, and would sometimes talk among themselves about who came in earliest that day. They had a much better command of the Chinese language than I did then, and probably do still.

This somehow ties in with the way Charlie attempts to highlight, at numerous points, the fluctuating fortunes of the Chinese-educated population, tying in historical movements and incidents like the student riots and the Communist threat. Having studied at a Chinese school left me wondering why that part of history, learned mostly by ear, was scarcely mentioned in class. Perhaps I simply wasn’t paying enough attention, perhaps blinded by all that glitter in the race for survival through affluence. (Rereading that last sentence revealed the many fallacies of my juvenile thoughts.)

Littered with factual episodes to present different takes on history, including an alternative reality where the late Lim Chin Siong becomes Singapore’s Prime Minister, this 320-page graphic novel weaves fact with fiction to create a series of engaging fact-based anecdotes.

Having etched its place in Singapore’s art history at a time when the nation is gradually opening up to artistic pursuit, the book will undoubtedly also have sown the seeds for a deeper look into the nation’s, and the region’s, historical narrative.

It has certainly reminded me of the possibilities fiction offers in shining a light on the many untold stories lying under the surface of historical fact.

 

Title: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye
Author: Sonny Liew
Publisher: Epigram Books, 2015Pantheon Books, 2016
(available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook)

Winner of 2017 Eisner Awards for Best Writer/Artist, Best US Edition of International Material—Asia, and Best Publication Design

Other accolades listed on publisher websites.

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Just different


Book review, from Tokyo – Four teens popped into the train the other day. One of them was visibly larger than the other three, and a tad bit more tanned. He seemed relaxed, laid back, as did the rest. The train crowd that day was just enough for everyone to see whatever happened across the length of the carriage.

The next moment began an episode I would not forget in a hurry. One of the boys starts picking on this bigger boy, making snide comments on his size, his stubby nose, the tiny curls in his hair, his brownish-blue eyes, anything that seemed obviously different.

Hums and haws deflected each attack, as his large frame sank deeper into the cushion. One of the other boys interrupts to ask the interrogator about his family, offering his friend a brief respite. The bigger boy musters a  response, asking some questions of his own. The exchange continues, mostly one-sided, with the obtrusive teen probing deeper.

Perhaps there wasn’t any ill intent, but it was still a disturbing exchange that happened right in front of everyone else.

This episode brought to mind the OECD PISA 2015 report on bullying released earlier this year, where 15-year-olds provided, for the first time, self-reports on their experience of frequent bullying. Compared to other forms of bullying, Japanese teens saw more verbal bullying but less overall than the OECD average. However, PISA acknowledges that cultural differences could have affected responses. Incidentally, the suicide rate among Japanese school children peaks when school resumes in September after about 6 weeks of summer vacation.

Fortunately, Jason Parker, the brave, level-headed sixth grader in Holly Thompson’s verse novel “Falling into the Dragon’s Mouth” (Henry Holt and Company, 2016), never contemplates suicide, but he does come within a whisker of joining them.

Jason’s story starts with him being thrown into a group notorious for bullying. He would have to navigate various tasks together with them for almost two months, until the next seat change. His friends advise him to keep a low profile, to never react, lest it got worse. The teacher is indifferent, even apathetic. Everyone just goes about minding their own business, keeping a safe distance.

Respite comes from his little sister, whether it is the mess in their shared room, their adventures storming through the streets, meeting new people in the neighbourhood, and ultimately when she saves him. He also finds some joy outside school and peace at Aikido class, where he trains his mind and body to be ready for his enemies, or so he thinks.

Two crimes are woven into the plot – a fire and a lost paperweight. The former was arson, a primer for the latter case that had a greater bearing on the story. For the class, it was theft. For Jason, it was betrayal and the worst possible scenario averted by his little sister.

The verse format forces the reader to stay close to Jason, as we follow him through a harrowing period of his life in a coastal town.

We join him in keeping alert for attacks at school, which leaves one exhausted but still looking to avoid contact in town. We are grateful for the pockets of refuge in Aikido and other parts of the town, the space to reach out to Jason’s interests elsewhere. We are blind-sided by his wayward focus, losing sight of obvious danger, before finally finding closure and a way forward with Aikido.

Jason’s story made me step back to reflect on my reactions toward differences, on the importance of learning to accept differences as they are, as a chance to connect, not abuse. It opened the door to delving deeper, to view outward aggression as a suggestion of other problems, to recall how difficult it is to handle peer pressure, and to look out for tell-tale signs of abuse and reach out, because it could make a whole world of difference for someone.

Title: Falling into the Dragon’s Mouth
Author: Holly Thompson
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, 2016 (available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook)

Sharing a moment


Book review, from Tokyo – Sometimes new, sometimes full. On the wax or on the wane. The silver celestial body that quietly shines through darkness is always way up there. Once upon a time, we raced to reached it, to plant a flag. Down here, we were treated to a view of our home planet from afar.

Scifi aside, many stories and practices abound about our moon. There is otsukimi, or moon-viewing, in Japan and the Mid-autumn Festival celebrations by the Chinese diaspora on the 15th day of the Eight lunar month. Both are accompanied with tales of beings on the moon – a rabbit pounding mochi in the former and Chang’e, who floated up to the moon after swallowing an immortal pill, in the latter. And then there is, of course, that man on the moon.

Our constant companion throughout countless nights. Calm, serene, just watching over us, quietly. Unlike its daytime counterpart, brilliant, brimming with energy and life. But what if it disappears one day? Will we notice? Will we remember that once a month, it vanishes and returns as a wafer-thin smile?

『わたし、お月さま』(Watashi, otsuki-sama, lit.”I’m the moon”) by Nanae Aoyama, illustrated by Satoe Tone, tells the story of the moon that is struck suddenly by a sense of loneliness and dives down to earth to find an old friend who shared a special moment. After descending, it is bounced about by kids like a ball, picked up by roaming creatures, and rolls across the ocean floor.

The moon finally comes by an old man sitting on a park bench with his granddaughter. By then the moon had been away for quite some time. “Has the moon forgotten all about us?” the girl asks, tears welling.

Granddad shares his secret – many years ago, he was the astronaut who shared a chocolate-glazed donut with the moon! The moon will return, he reassures.

Free from the shackles of loneliness, the moon flutters back up into the sky, joyous that the memory of that shared moment will continue with the now smiling child.

Gorgeously illustrated,『わたし、お月さま』brings us yet another story of the moon, somewhat like a parent, sibling, or friend who is always watching over us. A reminder to not take them for granted, and return the favour of watching over them while I can.

This year, mid autumn was on Oct. 4 (Wed.). The following day (16th day of the lunar calendar) is when the moon normally seems to be at its fullest.

Title: 『わたし、お月さま』
(Watashi, otsukisama, lit. I’m the moon)
Text by Nanae Aoyama, illustrated by Satoe Tone
Publisher: NHK Publishing, 2016

Told and retold, time and again


Book review, from Tokyo – My daughter came home from school one day and said, “We’re going to read 『いわたくんちのおばあちゃん』(Iwata-kun chi no obaachan, lit. Iwata-kun’s grandmother) soon in ‘kokugo‘ class,” adding that she had already read it in her textbook, and everyone that had said it was “totemo kanashii” (a really sad story).

Kokugo” (lit. national language) is a curriculum for teaching grammar and all those rules to set children off on the way to mastering Japanese. Incidentally, “kokugo” text is also used as daily read-aloud homework, sometimes for weeks on end.

Remember the days when we would just rush to finish homework, put it off till the due date, or end up forgetting about it? When this sombre tale is read at rocket speed by the most eager of beavers, the listener (me) is left puzzled, confused, and agitated. That is until, the fact hit home – it was homework.

After flipping through the textbook, I later found myself poring through this picture book that had to be brought over from another library.

『いわたくんちのおばあちゃん』 is based on the true story of a girl who survived the atomic bomb, told by her daughter to elementary school children, and then by a boy, who is her son’s school mate, to the reader. The boy calls her son Iwata-kun, and the girl in the story is Chizuko, Iwata-kun’s grandmother.

Written in Hiroshima-ben (dialect), the book starts with the school’s annual sports meet. In the usual red-versus-white matchup, Iwata-kun and the boy are on opposite sides, but when he runs his race, Iwata-kun roots for him all the same, because they are friends.

After the sports meet, they have lunch and take photos as usual, but Iwata-kun’s grandmother politely declines. The boy knows why.

He heard her story from Iwata-kun’s mother at school during “heiwa gakushuu” (lit. peace studies session). Iwata-kun’s grandmother’s home once stood near the Hiroshima Prefecture Products Exhibition Hall. The boy’s school is near today’s UNESCO World Heritage Atomic Bomb Dome.

During the war, Iwata-kun’s grandmother Chizuko was a high school student, the eldest of four siblings – one baby boy, one girl excited to soon be going to school, and Kayo-chan, Chizuko’s fourteen-year-old sister. They had prepared to leave Hiroshima for somewhere safer and had taken a family photo together in an empty house.

On August 6, 1945, Chizuko’s younger siblings stayed behind with her parents while she and Kayo-chan went out as usual to “help fight the war”. Chizuko to a canning factory a few kilometers away to the West in Nishikannon-cho, and Kayo-chan among 700 girls to clear space between houses along the main road nearby to stop fires from spreading. They left the house together that morning, smiling and waving goodbye.

As Chizuko chatted before starting work, at 8:15 am, the bomb fell. The factory was flattened. Her first thought was to run straight home, but when she saw people in pain fleeing toward her, she knew she could not go that way. She remembered the family rendezvous point and waited there, trembling. But they did not come. She did meet a relative.

The next day, Chizuko returned to the city to search for her family. She found here way to where she thought her home was, barely recognizable save the few kitchen tiles that remained. There she would find two shreds of cloth, one from her mother’s blouse, the other from her little sister’s dress, firmly pressed together between their charred bodies. There were another two. None of the 700 girls were ever found. On that day, Chizuko had become all alone.

Months after the war ended, the photographer found Chizuko and gave her the photo he had taken that day.

The book then gives us a two-page fold of the blue sky above a huge tree on the school grounds to prepare us for the boy’s closing promise — he will never start or fight in a war.

The adapted version does not mention Iwata-kun’s cheers or the boy’s ending pledge. Without the conversations during the sports meet or with the single relative that turned up at the rendezvous point, it keeps the essence of the thrice-told story to urge an outpouring of emotion.

With the conversations, the tree and the pledge, the picture book engages, offering depth, hope and purpose. Like the story, it should be told and retold, time and again.

 

Title: 『いわたくんちのおばあちゃん』
(Iwata-kun chi no obaachan, lit. Iwata-kun’s grandmother)
Text by Natsumi Amano, illustrated by Yuka Hamano
Publisher: Shufunotomo, 2006

A tale of a bear and a pot


Book review, from Tokyo – Retold by Shigeru Kayano and illustrated by Kaya Doi, Asunaro Shobo’s award-winning『アイヌのむかしばなし ひまなこなべ』(lit. An Ainu folktale  The pot that had nothing to do) brings readers into a picture book world of the Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan, now living in parts of Hokkaido and Russia.

Doi’s warm illustrations invite readers to a quick briefing by a bear kamui or god, which the Ainu believe reside in all things, living and inanimate, before he starts his story about a pot that had nothing else to do.

As a bear in the human world, the Ainu would hunt him, and he would be brought to the village to grace a joyous celebration. There the bear god would be mesmerized by a youth dancing with unbridled joy and glee, so much so that he would return to be hunted time and again just to see that young man dance once more.

The bear god soon became curious to find out who this mysterious dancer was. It was only after many celebrations that he finally realized that the youth was like himself a kamui, that of an unused pot that was spotlessly clean.

Thanks to the Ainu wife who had kept the pot so well, it had acquired a bright and effervescent mood. When the bigger pots were busy cooking, he would just get up and dance!

And so goes this simple story of a fundamental human wisdom – treating something well means it can and will someday become useful.

Title: 『アイヌのむかしばなし ひまなこなべ』
(Ainu no mukashi banashi   hima na konabe, lit. An Ainu folktale  The pot that had nothing to do)
Text by Shigeru Kayano, illustrated by Kaya Doi
Publisher: Asunaro Shobo, 2016
Winner of the 第64回産経自動出版文化省 産経新聞賞 (lit. the 64th Sankei Juvenile Literature Publishing Culture Award, Sankei Shimbun Award)
(as of date of post)

Learned something new


Book review, from Tokyo – Slightly over a month ago, I learned something new about Japan. Temples across Japan celebrate the Buddha’s birthday or hanamatsuri, literally the flower festival, on April 8 every year.

I learned about this from the afterword in 『花まつりにいきたい』(Hanamatsuri ni ikitai), a Hongwanji Publishing picture book by Kimiko Aman, illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri. Many Buddhists will soon celebrate this same occasion on the fifteenth day of the fourth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, which falls on May 10 in 2017.

Familiar with the festivities from my youth in Singapore (and the public holiday, of course), I’ve been puzzled at the lack of activity for this event in Buddhist Japan. According to Japanese sources, since Prince Siddhartha thought to have been born on the eight day of the fourth lunar month, the switch to the Gregorian system during the Meiji era brought the event to April 8. Meanwhile, in many South Asian countries, this date is the fifteenth day of the second month of the Indian lunisolar calendar, which somehow translates into the fourth month in the Chinese lunar calendar. So after some mathematical time travel, I finally managed to catch the celebrations in Asakusa this year.

Early April is also sakura season, if not in Tokyo then probably somewhere else in Japan. “Hanamatsuri ni ikitai” literally translates into “I want to go to the flower festival (too!)”, the yearning hope of a sakura tree in full bloom. After calling out to the many who come near to admire its flowers, a boy somehow hears the tree and tells it that the time will come for it to join the celebrations. The imagery across the pages captures the essence of sakura, something that I have failed to do in my digital snapshots over the years.

Aside from the occasion serving as the backdrop to a magical story, I particularly enjoyed the bits of fun incorporated in the illustrations (look closely!), and the care taken to bringing the flowers to life on each page.

Title: 『花まつりにいきたい
(Hanamatsuri ni ikitai, lit. I want to go to the flower festival (too!))
Text by Kimiko Aman, illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri (more of his works here)
Publisher: Kyoto, Hongwanji Publishing, 2017

(Ed. Added link to illustrator’s website)

Herding on something overheard


Book review, from Tokyo – 『あわてんぼうウサギ』(Awatenbou usagi, lit. the jumpy hare) retells a familiar story of tale #322 of the Jataka Tales. One among the colourful canon of 547 stories of past incarnations of the Buddha, sometimes human, other times animal, it contains a very pertinent message for us today.

Retold for Japanese children by Motoko Nakagawa and illustrated by Bolormaa Baasansuren, the book ends with a page introducing The Jataka Tales and the moral of the story. The tale is known by at least two English titles, “The Timid Hare and the Flight of the Beasts” and “The Sound the Hare Heard”.

Mongolian illustrator Baasansuren adorns the animals with delicate shapes reminiscent of henna tattoos and gives all of them an endearing demeanor, adding an air of wisdom for the lion. When the animals take flight, they take our eyes as far as we can see, right across the pages.

As the story goes, a jumpy hare lying under a palm tree hears a loud, terrifying sound, as if the ground was breaking up. Without thinking twice, the jumpy creatre dashes off to the other end of the earth, spreading word of the terrible sound as it ran.

Soon other animals gather to form an impressive herd of beasts that flies across the pages. Only a lion’s mighty roar manages to freeze them in their tracks. Yet the animals remain worried.

When the lion asks who started running, each one points to the next creature in front, and standing right at the fore is the jumpy hare. The hare eventually brings the lion to where it heard the sound, and they find a ripe fruit lying on the ground. Danger averted, truth unveiled, mystery solved.

Beyond simple hearsay, today, if you have a smart device, then you are part of today’s connected world, where we are constantly bombarded by information from our device feeds, friends and family.

We have some time to discern what is fact or fiction, or even fairytale, before being pressured to “react”, share, click, distribute immediately, an ill that comes from the speed of this most advanced form of “communication”.

A falsehood can easily start trending and create conflict and confusion, until some discerning soul distinguishes the truth. Of course, many things are not simply black or white, and gray areas can often be contentious and divisive.

There is obvious danger in following unknowingly, but the real danger is in not knowing whether the leader is also as clueless or perhaps even differently motivated. This picture book serves as a timely reminder of this truth – to see things as they are with our own eyes.

The editor’s note on the Shogakukan website seems to suggest more Jataka Tales coming our way. I personally enjoy the canon and can’t wait to see what they have in store.

Title: 『ジャータカ物語 あわてんぼうウサギ
(Jaataka monogatari  awatenbou usagi, lit. Jataka Tales  The Jumpy Hare)
Retold by Motoko Nakagawa, illustrated by Bolormaa Baasansuren
Publisher: Tokyo, Shogakukan, 2017

(Edited for brevity and added content on illustrations)