When Korean-American author Ellen Oh was growing up, she struggled to feel as if she belonged.
“Once a boy from my school painted my arm yellow, because he said that was the colour that I was supposed to be,” she said, describing the racism she experienced at an early age. But far from letting that stifle her dreams, Oh only became more determined to make sure that others like her would be able to see themselves represented in literature.
We caught up with Oh at a recent literary workshop held at the South China Morning Post offices at Times Square, where she spoke about the power of representation in films, on TV and in books.
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“Racism is ignorance,” she explained. The more you know, the less afraid you are, she added.
The author is most famous for Prophecy, a fictional trilogy set in ancient Korea. It’s lead character is a fearless, yellow-eyed female warrior.
The books have resonated with audiences worldwide, but Oh still recalls being left speechless after meeting a potential publisher and being told “we already have an Asian book”.
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This prompted her to launch the non-profit campaign We Need Diverse Books (#WNDB), which advocates essential changes in the publishing industry. They hope to produce and promote literature that reflects and honours the lives of all young people.
Oh knows the influence books can have. During times when she felt isolated as a child, books were her only solace. Much of her childhood was spent at the library, because her family couldn’t afford to buy books.
“The library saved my life!” she said, likening herself to Roald Dahl’s book-loving Matilda. “I would go to the library every week and bring a cart to put books in.”
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Illustrator Cheah Sinnan, who also took part in the workshop and is a part of the 2018 Hong Kong International Young Readers Festival along with Oh, is just as obsessed with books. Believe it or not, reading is an important element of being an illustrator, because it teaches you how to tell a story.
“You need to read, with a voracious appetite,” said Sinnan.
Sinnan, who is from Malaysia, produced Singapore’s first daily comic strip, The House of Lim, which ran in The Straits Times newspaper from the late 80s to the mid-90s.
He also created the cartoon strip collection Billy & Salite: Cool Croc and the touching graphic novel The Bicycle.
Most of his short comics poke fun at the state of the economy or the current political climate. His goal is to entertain his readers, but admits that sometimes, he worries about offending people or cultures. “But everything must be taken with a pinch of salt,” he said. “I always steer clear of religion, as I feel that crosses the line.”
Sinnan’s latest work, The Bicycle, is his first graphic novel. It tells the story of an unlikely friendship between a young street urchin and a Japanese soldier during the Japanese occupation of Singapore from 1942 to 1945. Like Oh, he wants to tell stories that don’t typically get told.
His number one tip for anyone thinking of a career as an illustrator is to draw every day to build up a portfolio: “Send in one month’s work to a publisher or a company to show them your consistency in drawing.”
We left the workshop equipped with new ideas and skills, ready to test them in the real world. Hopefully some day we will inspire a new generation of writers just as Oh and Sinnan have inspired us.