Asia for the World? Whose World? Reflections on the AFCC 2013

The AFCC (Asian Festival of Children's Content) was held in Singapore on 25 to 30 May 2013

At the moment, I'm reading The Language Inside by Holly Thompson, handed to me at the last minute in Singapore as I was about to get on a plane with an already overweight bag.

It's a splendid read. Congrats to Delacorte Press for daring to publish a novel told entirely in verse  and not just that, a story which is more about what is inside than outside.

The Language Inside is about a girl who has grown up in Japan, thinks Japanese, speaks Japanese, but is of American origin. And it asks the question so many young people want to know: where do I belong? Is what I am on the outside who I am on the inside?

Holly Thompson
Holly herself has lived in Japan for eighteen years, bringing up a family there, though she is originally from the United States.

Perhaps the novel resonates with me so much because I am close to a point in my life where I would have lived in England for the same number of years as I've lived in my native Philippines.

Where do I belong?

Attending the AFCC, it struck me that this was the question uppermost in the minds of the delegates who came from all over Asia - from up in Mongolia to way down south in Australia.

Here's the blurb on the AFCC website:

Asian Content for the World's Children
Picture by Malaysian illustrator Emila Yusof

The focus this year was on Malaysia - and I was struck by how many of the countries attending shared the same story - bookshops are stocked with the latest bestsellers from the West, while local titles languish in forgotten corners.

And even when cash-strapped publishers innovate - witness the low-cost, self-made pop-up books created by Filipino writer illustrator Jomike Tejido in my video - the consuming public continues to favour the product flow from the West.

Filipino writer illustrator Jomike Tejido - innovating instead of making do

If children had the choice, would they pick up a homegrown book or the latest Wimpy Kid? Someone asked at a rather exciting discussion about the Asianness of content (the panel featured author/reviewer Daphne Lee, Paper Tigers critic Marjorie Coughlan, and author Anushka Ravishankar (India's Dr Seuss according to an old article).

The exciting panel: Daphne, Anushka, Marjorie with moderator Lisa Yun.
Photo: Holly Thompson

'It's our responsibility as adults to go out there and put it into the hands of the children,' Marjorie said.
And yet Asian books 'are having to fight very hard to reach an audience'.

'Choice is important,' Daphne said. 'I grew up with no choice. There were no Asian books.' Later, writing in  Malaysia's Star Online, Daphne described publishing in parts of Asia as 'still learning the ropes'.

It seems that Asian content is something we discuss at every AFCC. It should be something that we all take for granted, but I suppose the industry is still too young for us to feel confident about what we put into our books. Can you imagine a panel at the Edinburgh Festival discussing the wisdom of publishing books with European themes? Suck it up, people, Daphne Lee, Star Online

At one point, we found ourselves wondering if Asian resistance to confrontation might be getting in the way of craft!

This year, I was one of the judges of the Sing Tel Asian Picture Book Award - seeking an 'outstanding picture book with a distinctly Asian theme'. 'Distinctly Asian' was inevitably interpreted by entries as folk tales, festivals and chopsticks.

Winner of the illustration category was Bolorma Baasansuren from Mongolia.
I just LOVED her work. This is a page from a picture book she had illustrated called A Wise Mother and a Bad Fox (A Mongolian Story) published in Japanese by Fukuinkan Shoten Publishers in Tokyo

Interestingly, the AFCC was also launching this book:

BEYOND Folktales, Legends and Myths, the title says - it calls itself a rediscovery of children's literature in Asia. Edited by Myra Garces and the delicious Tuting Hernandez, it attempts to describe the coat of many colours that is Asian literature.

Launching Beyond Folktales with Myra (who's pretty tasty herself) and Tuting (right)

I wrote the end chapter, the story of my own journey to publication and how I had to overcome my own disbelief.

How could I become an author, I used to ask myself, I have never seen myself in the characters and narratives that I have discovered between the pages of a book.

How could I ever become an author – I didn’t look like one, with my black hair, chinita eyes, brown skin, flat nose. How could I presume to write novels – Filipinos didn’t write novels.  From Seizing the Sword, A Writer's Journey in Beyond Folktales, Legends and Myths

It took me a long time to give myself permission to write - and I wonder if there are many out there (and not just in Asia) unable to give themselves permission to write their stories because they do not find themselves in the books they read.

At that rumbustious panel on Asianness, after discussing quality and market and what our children want, it was Anushka who declared the bottom line for all the writers present:

You just have to write the story you want to tell.

Which might seem a simple thing - except so many of us are not in the habit of thinking we are good enough.

The final paragraphs of my chapter (which is the final chapter of Beyond Folktales) begs to disagree with the classic Filipino poem The Jewels of the Pauper by Horacio de la Costa about the need for a Shakespeare or Cervantes to be born among us.

We are good enough.

Here's a SoundCloud I made of The Jewels of the Pauper for Poetry Month.