[IRL Adventures] SWF19: The Kids are (More Than) Alright

Another SG Writers Festival post!! SORRY I STILL GOT MORE!!!!!!!!

Wanna read about this talk???????? It’s good I promise.

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ft. Ancco, Hanna Alkaf, Jollin Tan & Diana Rahim

Writing for and by young people increasingly deals with violence, trauma, and social issues. Three writers, whose works address issues such as body image, mental illness, and the cycles of abuse, examine why these honest discussions matter today.

🔹DR: Why do you choose to write about what you write?🔹

HA: I wanted to set a book in May 13 because we don’t like to talk about hard and uncomfortable things in Malaysia, especially with racism. You have to work through it and learn through it. I’m not sure if the young generation know how big of a deal it was because it was never presented as such. I felt it was important that the young generation started hearing these stories and ask these questions before the generation who lived through it die out. Then there’s also the mental health aspect because I’ve always been passionate about advocating and talking about mental health. We like to sweep the hard things away, but young people deserve to see someone with mental illness that’s their age, who is also the hero and not have it cured or as a device to find love. I try to write a good representation of it and it was important to me that it came out well. 

🔹DR: And it’s interesting as her OCD is very culturally specific as it manifests as a Djinn.🔹

JT: I always feel things that I don’t have words for. My writing comes from a place of needing to find the words for myself first. It’s nice to know that your words reach out to touch people who needed them.

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A: The Bad Friends comic is based on my own stories So I was just talking about my friends who were isolated from society. I just wanted to talk about their life. I didn’t want to talk about the violence but it was part of their life, so I couldn’t tell their stories without describing it.

🔹DR: So why do you write for kids or YA?🔹

HA: I realised in Malaysia that teens and YA fiction are in this weird space where they get pushed out of their spaces, especially in regards to YA fiction. So many adults are reading them now and the kids are getting pushed out! Some of the audiences for these books have gone up to 18+ or are especially for adults, and so publishers capitalise on that. It’s not fair! Kids deserve to have these stories for them whether they’re heavy or not.

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HA: And I never saw books about people like me. I wanted to give these kids a cultural touchstone.. There’s also this tendency to talk down to young people because they “can’t handle it”, or are “too young”, which is so condescending. We don’t give them enough credit. It’s gross 😠.. If I do it well or not it’s up to them, but I want to do it for them.

A: For me, it’s about kids but I wanted it to be read mostly by adults. When we go through our youth, we know what we need then. The way I see it is you go through your youth and once you’re an adult you forget what it was like to be young and what they really need, what happened before. It looks like a lot of adults don’t really know what they need anymore. It was the same when I grew up I started to forget about what I needed at that age. I wanted to not forget about being that age, so I wanted to remember it and keeping a record was the best way. I wanted to show what the youth really need for adults. So I put all I could remember on paper and now I have these comics so everyone can read them.

JT: The common thread here is that we perceive the gap from either side. Adults realise that we avoid talking to kids because it’s “too hard” and as a kid, you notice that there are certain things people aren’t talking to you about – hard things.

🔹DR: The child constructed in media is a very santised one, so clean and happy. Which speaks more about the fantasy adults have of youth and childhood.🔹

JT: Yeah like you grow up and meet certain challenges that you overcome, and you’re ok and things like trauma are ignored – like in Harry Potter.

🔹DR: What can the young remind adults of about these heavy topics that they think kids are not capable of understanding?🔹

A: When I speak about this from the viewpoint of kids, adults read the comic and feel like they are experiencing this through the point of view of a friend, so they empathise with them instead of punishing them.

JT: When I feel upset, my first thought is to dismiss it or pack it away so I can work towards a solution instead of feeling those emotions. Young people are freer in this regard. The younger you are, the more willing you are to react to your emotions in an impulsive way. Which is a valid way to react to what is happening to you, even if it’s not always healthy.. It’s a way of understanding.

HA: Someone at a talk once asked me, Why are you writing such heavy topics for kids? They’re so stressed already! I had some words with them.. But I was nice! I AM NICE!!

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HA: The more you look back at your youth with rose tinted glasses the less you remember the shit stuff. And it goes back to that comment that you just don’t want to see the tough stuff of being that age and so it reminds them of what they forgot. You tend to forget the difficulty of growing up.

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JT: Nobody really addresses or talks about kids going through trauma. Kids writing about it is a way of reminding adults that, Hey! You didn’t deal with it and now I’m dealing with it! Nobody can tell someone what is not worth talking about. If teens find themselves going through it, and it’s a group and they are actively resisting by writing about it, you should listen to it. You wouldn’t dismiss an adult. It’s not valid to do that to a group of people.

🔹DR: Has there been a different reaction from younger readers versus older readers?🔹

HA: With May 13, it’s like throwing a grenade into the room. With kids you may say May 13, and they will probably talk to their parents about it or look into it themselves. But with adults it goes either way. Some people think I’m being controlled by the government or stirring shit for no reason. With adults they think racism is a sensitive topic and you shouldn’t talk about it.


🔹Is there an age that is too young to talk about topics like trauma and abuse?🔹

HA: I don’t think there are taboo topics, just different ways to handle them. Middle grade kids experience the world differently. I would never be the one to say, you can’t write about this difficult thing for this audience. You just have to find a way. The kind of voice you use is so important for kids and teens. If you can figure that out and tap into how they process the world, then any story you put out can be processed.

A: I do sometimes worry because my method is visual art and it might look too violent or extreme. Also in (South) Korea, my book is not recommended for young kids, more for secondary school ages. My story is about having an intense experience and coming out of it without physically experiencing it, but indirectly learning about it and feeling it indirectly as well. In that way the young people could gain something by reading it and learning something.

JT: It is important to have conversations like that with kids, but the voice and medium you use is crucial. It works better situated in a way they can grasp.

🔹What’s better, realism or metaphors?🔹

HA: I left space for belief because it’s a rough story. The intersection of culture, religion and mental health is a lot. You have to respect all aspects. There needs to be space for belief in the text. So you can see the Djinn as real depending on where you come from, or as a manifestation of her illness. For some people that belief is as real as the real world. I don’t want to be that person who says that’s not real or valid. There’s room for it.

A: I enjoy talking in realism, and I use it when I need to show a specific scene or story. But sometimes I use an animal to talk about human mental illness. It really depends on the need.

JT: I am usually a visual person and I process a lot through images. I then put those down and try to figure it out through editing. Realism helps to break down specific emotions.

🔹Was there any early reader feedback to censor anything?🔹

HA: No. Ok. Well.. Only because when I started speaking to an agent and editors, I made it clear that I set out to tell Malaysian stories and do not want to apologise or explain myself, or include a white gaze, or have a white character where they don’t belong. That’s why I didn’t really get that push back. I wouldn’t have worked with those people if they weren’t on board. My beta readers were also not concerned with censorship otherwise they wouldn’t have been my beta readers.

JT: I’m in a similar position. Math Paper Press was very keen with my work as is. I also didn’t show it to my parents but that’s another story lol.

HA: That really is the most terrifying part of the Asian author journey – your parents picking up your work.

JT: Yeah, if you read it don’t tell me.

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A: If you are talking about yourself you have to be very careful. Because I’m a comic artist I have to be careful I don’t draw someone to look like the person I’m thinking of. So I tend to tell people, I’m gonna talk about you. Even though they know it and accept it, once they read it they might feel uneasy about it. But it’s difficult to change once it’s done. So I just say sorry and publish it anyway. 😎

And that’s it from this SG Writers Festival post! No I’m not done yet.


“Even now I'm not really sure which parts of myself are real and which parts are things I've gotten from books.” - [Beatrice Sparks] Go Ask Alice 🍃☕

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